Save the World and Lose Yourself

Save the World and Lose Yourself

Games have fostered a destructive culture of entitlement by making their main promise the delivery of repeated ego boosts and the indulging of the player in a power fantasy.

Recent events have caused me to think about the games industry and the effect it has on its consumers. While the current best knowledge among researchers seem to be that video games lead to an increase in aggression[a], it's not aggression caused by the violent content of the game, but rather frustration at losing.

1. Ego Boosts

Video games dispense small doses of ego boost; that's what they are about. In order to do this, the difficulty level of the game must be finely tuned. A game that is too easy is not good, because we recognize that we haven't really achieved anything. Making a game difficult is easy - remember, the computer knows everything and can arbitrarily kill the player for any reason or no reason as the computer gets to make up the rules - but a game that is too hard is also not good and causes players to give up; presumably due to lack of those ego-boosting moments. As AAA titles grew even bigger, it became an imperative that most players should be able to finish the game and get the big ego-boost payoff at the end[1], because, well, what's the point of making a game with a strong story and lots of content if the majority quit half way through?

The end result is, I fear, that we have a culture where people who are deep into it are used to always getting small ego boosts with a guaranteed big ego boost at the end. This is a culture that is quite different from the real world, where neither are "designed in". The consequence of this for the individual player is that they become unable to grasp the concept that some things just can't be won[2], no matter how much they grind, and that they have no right whatsoever to obtain what they see as their prize. It fosters a terrible sense of entitlement.

Devin Wilson remarked on this in an article about what the games industry needs to do:

  1. We make and play fewer linear games about one person saving the world. Take a look at the people terrorizing games culture lately: they're almost all tyrannical brats with messianic delusions. Where do you think they're learning this behavior from?

Devin Wilson, A Guide to Ending "Gamers"[b]

The rage of these people are then best understood as the tantrums thrown by little kids when they don't get their way - and it was the industry itself that cultivated the world-view in them. Video games are best seen as candy - not harmful in itself, but not something you'd base a healthy diet on; likewise, games is not what you would want to base your world-view on; or even turn into a significant part of that view.

2. Gamification

The obvious question is what we'll do with "gamification", which is when we actually do make the world more like a game by handing out little awards (ego boosts) when people complete real-world tasks. I think the question here is more about what those tasks are, and how much they are separated from what we'd term "reality". For example, if you get all answers right on your exam, you get a high grade - but nobody calls this "gamification", despite the reward and the ego boost.

If I were to point out one single difference between games and the real world, it would be that the real world doesn't come with success designed-in. The real world isn't the product of focus group testing in order to set the difficulty level such that overcoming it results in just the right dose of ego boost. As long as the tasks and the rewards are well anchored in the real world, and we take into consideration just what it is we reward - not just the task itself, but the general principle underlying our gamification system - I don't see this as a problem.