Panel Report: The Psychology of Game Overs

Editor’s note: this article is part of a series of posts that covers the discussion panels The Analytical Couch Potato hosted during Revoluticon 2012. For those who couldn’t make it, the staff decided to summarize some of the panels and provide pictures of the staff presenting. Thanks to everyone who made it out there to see us!

Justin and I led a panel regarding the use of loss in video games, which was more or less split into two min-panels. My part took a bit of a psychological approach, and asked the readers this fundamental question: “Why is it that, in a video game, you can lose a thousand times and still want to carry on, when real life losses make you feel discouraged?”

The first point I mentioned was that video games, in their inherent nature, are typically pattern-recognition-based in some way, leading most players to feel personally responsible for their loss. Contrary to popular belief, feeling responsible for loss typically can be more encouraging than otherwise. Using a study done by Jesper Juul as a reference, I explained how most players prefer games where their losses are their own fault, rather than because of some luck-based element. What seems to happen is that, when the brain feels responsible for loss, the loss becomes more in control — and therefore much more reassuring. The player will look back at the loss and say, “This time, I know when to jump,” or “This time, I know that Bubbleman’s gun is useless against this boss.” And both of these result in one other thought: “I know something I didn’t know before. This time, I will get it.”

But it’s more than just personal responsibility that encourages players; sometimes, the game makes something Jane McGonigal coined in Reality is Broken as “Fun Failure.” Sometimes games make funny noises or cut scenes when we lose. Games like Donkey Kong Country Returns make the characters reward our incompetence with primates screaming in agony, while games like Rock Band make the musician throw his instrument in a fit of rage while the crowd boos and heckles. Little rewards like this make failure a more active experience than passive failures of real life; we lose, and something happens — often things that please us through comic relief, like little rewards for trying. When this happens, it’s easy to make failure a little less serious and a little more lighthearted.

From there, I discussed how games have clear, tangible goals with constant verification. Tutorials, plot, character motivations, and instructions tell a gamer exactly how to win or lose. And beyond that, we have little bits of progress that make the most step-by-step instructions in real life seem like huge steps; achievements, trophies, level ups, save points, and bosses all give us ways to slowly check and gauge our progress. For example, you can fail a boss, but level up a few more times to guesstimate how close you are to beating it the next time.

All of this leads to answering the topical question in the first paragraph in one way: compared to reality, video games are all around more encouraging. Pattern recognition and personal responsibility convince us we can change what isn’t working. Lighthearted rewards ensure that failure is more than a passive, painful experience. And clear goals, combined with little notes of progress, give games both more direction and constant affirmation. If more of reality worked like this — like the job application process that is often all or nothing, passive after a certain point, and lacking any clear direction of what went wrong in many cases — the world would be just as ambitious, if not more so, in everyday scenarios.

One thought on “Panel Report: The Psychology of Game Overs

  1. It was my first time at your panel. Thanks for having it! I'm always interested in these types of discussion. I have a couple of points I'd like to add to your discussion…1) Since you helpfully defined "losing" as having to change your strategy to continue playing through the game's conditions, then I'd guess that "winning" conversely is a faculty to keep the same strategy through a series of obstacles… in other words winning equals the duration of competence.2) I would theorize that MMORPG's or interactive media can be considered "games," because they can create this sensation of competence, with or without a final obstacle (in the case of MMORG's) or a salient losing strategy (interactive media).3) For example, slot machines create the illusion of a winning strategy and excitement by offering random interval rewards and loud feedback. I'm not sure how that relates to the other two points, but I think it is interesting in relationship to videogames, especially RPGs.

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