Amateur radio can be a pass time like playing solitaire on a computer.
It can be a hobby like building a model airplane....or it can be a game
like any sport or activity that may involve more than one player. While
some may play games just for the fun of it or to get some exercise,
most people keep score and compare to others - golf, bowling,
volleyball, monopoly, football, basketball, baseball, bridge, etc. The
list goes on forever and in every case you are trying to beat someone or
Contests are similar to any other activity in which most people keep
score. You may try to beat your own previous performance, beat someone
in your area or compete for the top ten or overall win. You choose your
level of competition and make it just within reach on a good day.
Wanting to do your best, in addition to improving your operator skills,
you can also have fun doing what you can to make your station as
efficient as possible and see the results of your work. This is an area
where amateur radio is unlike many of the other sports. You can buy a
new bowling ball or a new deck of cards or a new set of clubs, but for
the most part there is little improvement that can come as a result of
better infrastructure. Better infrastructure coupled with improved
skills makes a huge difference in results and is quite rewarding in
sense of accomplishment.
If someone has any interest in counting countries, states, counties,
etc, they will want to operate contests to build those numbers. As for
the underlying purpose of amateur radio, observe the non contest
operator at FD passing traffic versus a top notch contester and evaluate
what the difference would be in case of an emergency.