Why Are We Addicted To Games We Don’t Enjoy?
Most of us, most of the time, play games. If we had to tally up everyone that visits us in terms of just how many hours they’ve played accumulatively over the entire period of their lives, we’d probably end up with a number large enough to make our president’s brain go all “splat” on the wall behind him. That’s not to say the number is extremely small, or that we don’t have enough viewers to even tally up a number over the hundreds, for anyone confused. So what would happen if you take a closer look at all the hours you’ve spent in front of a monitor or TV, hacking away at the A button or clicking furiously with your mouse? What if you had to segment those hours into two categories, namely “Games I enjoyed” and ‘Games I didn’t particularly enjoy for one reason or another”. Would you say they would be pretty even?
Even the most conscious buyer out there has made bad purchasing decisions once in a while, be it before you became privy to online or print reviews or simply didn’t care about a game past the shiny new cover it wore proudly on the shelf. We’ve all played games we didn’t enjoy before, but the interesting aspect of this entire thing is why we sometimes refuse to let those experiences go. Essentially, what makes a game so dreadful that we despise playing it, but so darn intriguing at the same time that we can’t stop thinking about it?
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I’ll give you a personal example of mine to help that rather obtuse and ambiguous idea swim around your head. Back when Dark Souls released as Demon’s Souls, I decided to take the plunge and attempt what was considered the most challenging modern game to date. I of course attempted this with the trusty step by step guide that came with the game, because it was just that darn intimidating. Suffice to say, I never completed Demon’s Souls, and I never imagined playing it again. Then came Dark Souls, and the first thing I did when the game hit shelves was buy it. Why did I rush to get the spiritual sequel to a game I never even dared return to? Well, we’ll get to that a bit later, when I try and explain why I’m so extremely excited for Dark Souls II. And, spoiler alert, I did not finish the first one either.
The same thing happened to me when Flappy Bird took over the world for a weekend. I absolutely despised playing the game. Even now, after more than a month, I haven’t even been able to crack that magical score of 20, while I see others (who must clearly have no life) easily breaking two, three hundred daily. Yet, I couldn’t bring myself to stop playing the obscenely simple yet infinitely frustrating little app, to the point where it is the only game I have on my iPhone. I simply refuse to delete it in the hopes of maybe, just maybe getting a score my parents would be proud of one day.
There’s a few more examples I could pull out of my hat and wave in your face, but that would just be more reading about me and less about the point I’m actually trying to make. I, like many others I am sure, am drawn to games I don’t particularly enjoy. But, there’s a reason for this. In fact, there’s at least two distinct reasons that could be applied to both my love/hate relationships with Flappy Bird and the Souls games.
Firstly, they’re both technically very good games. This is partly the reason why we cannot like a game, but enjoy or at least feel compelled to return from time to time. Games we generally hate are ones that are incomplete, broken or otherwise sub-par experiences. In other words, they are technically bad games. This makes the decision to despise them that much easier, because you’re no longer relying on your own personal opinion to establish whether or not the experience you are having is fun to you, but rather you allow the game to make the decision all by itself. The game is bad, so you blame it for your disposition towards it, effectively shifting the reason off your shoulders and transferring it to something that is out of your control.
Both Dark Souls and Flappy Bird are immune to this type of segregation, since they are both good games. The Souls games in particular feature deep, often engrossing RPG elements that keep you shuffling numbers in your head and swapping out equipment in the hopes that you find a winning combination to take on the relatively small enemy in front of you. The game, as you probably know, is brutally difficult, but at the same time it is completely fair. Can I blame my displeasure on a game that essentially plays by the rules? No, of course not. In the same vein, although it’s incredibly frustrating Flappy Bird follows this design as well. There’s one input required from you as a player, but every single time the action is the same. Timing is everything, and the game never really stacks the odds against you like every other infinite runner out there. It’s just you, Flappy, and your patience, and it’s not hard to point the finger at the one that fails first. Is that the game’s fault? Again, no.
Another aspect lies in the social underbelly of both games. It’s not hard to see how this applies to Flappy Bird, because the game essentially rocketed to stardom because of word of mouth, crazy reviews and some frustrated online opinions. At one point, everyone put down Candy Crush and started playing Flappy Bird, and not being in on that made me feel left out. It’s what probably drove thousands of others to download the free games as well, with everyone around them posting scores of this game that looked simple enough to best. Dark Souls suffers, or benefits, from the same symptoms. Being the most challenging modern game of this generation comes with the desire to beat it, and join the elite few around the world that are able to say they lasted the 100+ hour journey with 1000+ deaths to their name. It’s something I’ve always wanted to boast about, and something I have yet to accomplish. For this very reason I will buy Dark Souls II and try again. Not because I know things will change for certain this time around, or because this new iteration might be easier. But rather because I know I’ll be slogging it through with thousands of others at the same time, and hopefully having everyone talk about their troubles will spur me over the finish line this third time around. Maybe.
So back to the point I was trying to make; why are we so drawn to experiences that we ultimately don’t enjoy? It’s an interesting and strange psychological puzzle, because we are forced to do things we don’t want to every single day of our lives. Why then would we succumb to this during those precious hours we do have to ourselves every few days? Why not spend it playing something we absolutely enjoy? It’s something that is hard to explain in words, but something that I’m sure a lot of you have experienced. And in the end, it really comes down to what game it is, and how it was made. A bad game will always be a bad game, and trying to enjoy something that does its best to convince you of the very opposite is rare. But it’s the experiences that are well built, thought out and designed, that have the ability to draw us in, even if we particularly don’t like them. Is it because we maybe respect the game for what it is or accomplishes? Maybe it comes out of an inept desire to belong to the masses playing it as well. Or, in the two cases above, perhaps a combination of both?
There are probably a lot of other different factors that contribute to this state of mind as well, but I think that this rule holds true; If a game is well designed, it invites the opportunity for you to jump back in and have your perception of it changed. It never loses that ability, and even years down the line a game can shift your state of mind and maybe even draw some hidden enjoyment. Badly designed games never have this ability, and more often than not players will struggle to return to something that they hated because of the game itself.
Great games have the ability to hook us even when we’re not interested, and in that lies some gaming marvel that I have yet to fully understand.