Stockholm Syndrome In The Mushroom Kingdom

It’s two in the morning and your wrists are sore from being shackled to the Wii remote’s noose. You’ve been unconsciously tallying the totals displayed in the time played messages that are graciously sent to the Wii menu every time you exit the game, but you lost count at around the forty hour mark. Still you keep on, because directing the repellently cheery Italian acrobat as he pirouettes across a screen filled with star bits following you in a mock vapour trail ceased to be an expression of joy and more a test of will and character at around the thirty fifth hour. That was when your tenacity and grit and mental steel latched onto the inevitable feeling of satisfaction you know would grab hold as you acquired each of those elusive last ten stars. And, of course, you want to be able to play as Luigi; who wouldn’t? With his annoying inertia and awkward jump trajectory, it’s your just reward for persevering. Besides, you feel you’re more at one with the game now; you understand its truest expression. The levels stopped being those annoyingly imaginative and flirtatious exercises in game design long ago, and became the wire framed abstractions you see in your mind as no more than an obstacle course between you and paydirt. As it should be. Never mind work tomorrow, sick days were made for psychological trauma caused by entertainment software, and if being held hostage by a videogame seems a familiar narrative, there might well be good reason for that.

Super-Mario-Galaxy1

In behavioural psychology the term “Commitment Escalation” describes the tendency to, well, escalate the extent to which we’re determined to accomplish a task. The more time or resources we’ve spent trying to fulfil a goal, the more likely we are to want to see it to completion, irrespective of whether the costs have started to outweigh the advantages. Of course, the interesting thing about this ostensibly banal observation, is the ridiculous extent to which it subverts our better judgement, and the personality variables that escalation is affected by. The behavioural experiment as traditionally described, goes like this: A dollar is up for auction and the agreed upon proviso is that all bids, not just the winning one, will have to be coughed up. The way the experiment is set up means that the likely scenario will result in at least the first bidder incurring a loss, unless of course, she escalates while nobody else does. Still, this seemingly doesn’t deter anyone who isn’t familiar with the experiment being conducted, and no matter how puny the reward, there’s a grubby hand somewhere that’ll reach for that dirty penny on the floor. This often results in the “winner” paying greatly in excess of the value of the item being bid on; they’ll continue to “allocate resources” to a failing course of action long after the futility becomes apparent to them.

Reading about this, it’s impossible not to laugh at the bald lunacy of paying ten dollars for one, but it begs the question of why our behaviour is psychologically booby trapped in this way. The journal of Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes offers that “although a variety of economic, social, and psychological explanations have been posited to explain why escalation occurs, one particularly informative line of research focuses on people’s psychological desires for self-justification.” This seems to ring true. There’s something undoubtedly humiliating about having to admit halfway into the act that it was self-evidently idiotic to begin with – the only way to make it seem a winning cause is to keep going. Nobody wants to admit defeat, even – or rather, especially – to themselves. Which brings us back to our couch bound star gatherer and his spiralling woe. Replace monetary costs with time and effort expended – rewards reaped with satisfaction and enjoyment, and you have a ready framework with which to apply the insights of Commitment Escalation to the wonderful world of videogames. The difference perhaps is where the value of a dollar is obvious and discrete, the value or extent of the effort versus the satisfaction involved in playing a videogame is far more nebulous, and as a result, more likely to ensnare.

Adding to this is the fact that more and more publishers are incentivising the development houses under their fief to artificially elongate a gaming experience for the sake of maintaining engagement and reducing the chance of the buyer pawning the game for new shiny goodies. As a result you get meta games embedded into the experience in the form of achievements and trophies, although these have been thus far avoided by Nintendo for the most part. Of course, it speaks to the variety of player expression available in some games that might allow you to, for example, get through all enemy encounters without firing a weapon, or complete a scenario in a given time limit, or alas, collect all one hundred and twenty stars. But at worst these things can be arbitrary contrivances designed to tweak compulsive personalities into devolving their gaming experience to a farce. This imposition of a lack of clear end point often makes the more obsessive of us interpret “finishing” the game as fastidiously turning in every tiny little task that might be embedded in it. Added to this is the fact that escalation is an especially pernicious force depending on how you perceive yourself. The same article in the journal of Organizational Behaviour referenced earlier talks about how people are more likely to escalate in the absence of “affirming beliefs”; in other words, self-esteem. We see our commitment to tasks as an indicator of self-worth, even when it might be something as piddling as ten points tacked onto the end of our gamerscore.

Personally, I find that the more entertaining a game has been leading up the threshold of fathomless frustration, the more likely I am to believe that I haven’t extracted all of the fun out of it. I’ve completed Resident Evil 4 nine times, far beyond the point the encounters with the ganados started to bore and the boss battles stopped causing slack jawed trouser soiling, entirely because I imposed the meta-goal of not only finishing the game, but finishing it with maximum efficiency. Wanting to scoop up all the delicious scraps from your pudding pot is a relatable feeling, even if the force of your shovelling is bringing up parts of the the plastic packaging. Likewise, forgetting that games are collaborative is an easy mistake to make, in a sense, you have to create the experience rather than having it happen to you the way it does in more linear media, and perhaps it’s difficult to acknowledge that it’s fine to put the game down when you stop being entertained and engaged, especially when there’s no clear end point. It’s good to remember now and then, when both your composure and your controller are in danger of being shattered against a hard surface, that there are a thousand and one easily available, incredibly rewarding experiences awaiting.

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