Written by Matt Thrower
Fifteen years ago I thought myself the god of Unreal Tournament : an untouchable colossus of speed and firepower tearing through every difficulty level with consummate ease. So naturally, as soon as I got broadband I tried out for a high ranking clan. They wiped the floor with me, blowing my avatar asunder with the same insouciance I had playing against the bots and laughing as they fell before me.
It was the beginning of a long and illustrious career of being Very Bad Indeed at online games. Yet here I remain, regularly clocking hours on Left 4 Dead , Call of Duty , and DayZ and regularly left propping up the leaderboards.
I'm hardly alone. Public servers commonly have their fair share of deadbeats alongside the clan members and twitch kiddies who rule the maps. The gaming demographic increasingly includes middle-aged people with kids and mortgages who want to kick back in the evening and have some fun, but don't have the free time to practice. And, predictably, the more experienced players slaughter them, time and time again. Why do we keep coming back for more pain?
Lennart Nacke, who researches affective gaming and entertainment computing at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, suggests it might be connected to something he calls the feedback loop of self-regulation. “We need four things to regulate our behavior: standards, monitoring, strength and motivation,” he tells me. “People in online games form their standard by participating in matches and monitoring their own performance. Every time they engage in another match they get feedback on their prior performance and adjust their current efforts.”
But doesn't that mean that practice would eventually lower their motivation when they reached their desired standard? “The randomness of the players and the randomness in the twitch games themselves mean the standard is constantly adjusting,” he says. “It keeps the players in a monitoring loop of their own behavior and this leads them to come back.”
This desire to practice and improve is a colossal motivator, an effect more widely known as positive reinforcement. Mia Consalvo, Research Chair in Game Studies at Concordia University, agrees—and she has some data to back up her opinion.
“In my research on why people cheat, I found that most players went to great effort not to cheat—they wanted to earn their achievements in games fairly, via their own efforts,” she says. “This leads me to believe that often, players really want that sense of accomplishment that comes from their own efforts and skills via play. That suggests that such players are earnest in wanting to advance in the game. And here that takes the form of multiple plays, even without success.”
There's substantial research to back up the hypothesis that, counter-intuitively, failure actually encourages further participation. A 2011 study of internet chess by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Sami Abuhamdeh suggested that players actively chose more capable opponents, and had the most fun against people that they beat only 25 percent of the time, on average.
This seemingly contradictory enjoyment of failure has a parallel in philosophy known as the “tragedy paradox.” Why do people actively enjoy works of art that prompt unpleasant emotions such as sadness and fear? There's no straightforward answer, but we're all familiar with the experience of bellowing the rage and frustration engendered by failure at the screen, and then quite sincerely telling our friends how great the game was.
Lennart points out that video games offer a uniquely good environment to explore this effect. “They put us in an explicit rule context, where our boundaries are known and we can quickly observe the skills of other players,” he tells me. “This framing of a game allows us to set clear a goal for our behavior and it is much easier to monitor our progress than in real life, where the rules are not clear and the skills of our opponents would be unknown to us.”
Lennart's explanation doesn't entirely explain why gamers like me, who'll simply never have the time or the reflexes to beat the teenage experts that throng the servers, continue to play in the face of repeated maulings. I know I'm a hopeless case, so it can't just be the lure of potential improvement that keeps me going.
What's particularly interesting is how this attitude contrasts with that engendered by overly difficult solo games. We've all played games with excessive learning curves and uneven difficulty spikes, and often the response is annoyance and frustration followed by throwing in the towel. It seems to me there must be something qualitatively different in playing against other people, but what?
Consalvo thinks that it might just be me. “I've known players that have attempted particular moves or levels in single player games up to 100 times,” she relates, “so we can't say they would just give up against the computer. It seems to depend on the persistence of the player and their investment in a particular game. Players will vary widely at their 'frustration point' where they will give up.”
Equally, some of those effects that make failure actively pleasurable when playing online also apply to the offline world. Nick Yee, a research scientist who's been studying online games for over a decade, points out that “it used to be near impossible to beat games. Most people who played Pac-Man or Tetris never beat the game, but they kept playing because it provided a challenge and allowed them to sense their own improvement.”
It's the same psychological feedback loop that we've already encountered. “Winning in itself isn't necessary to create engagement,” Nick says. “In fact, one could argue that not winning at Pac-Man and Tetris were precisely what kept people playing.”
Lennart, however, suggests it might be related to the unpredictability of a human opponent when compared to a bot. “If the standard of the [single-player] game is too high, the frustration threshold will be hard to overcome for players,” he tells me. “But against humans, the randomness of the opponent influences how we build our standard and makes it harder to form comparisons, essentially keeping us engaged for longer because we haven't yet met the standard that we rebuild every time we engage in gameplay.”
This was starting to chime a little better with my personal experience. Maybe the attraction is as simple as the humanizing element; the huge pull we have toward sharing activities, even if it's with faceless strangers who might be thousands of miles away and want nothing more than to repeatedly blow us to pieces.
Mia thinks that could well be the case. “Being social is not always about communicating—it is also about engaging in a shared activity with others,” she says. “Sometimes that means simply being among other people; it could mean engaging in a group quest or even PvP or other competitions.”
The point that you don't have to talk or even text with other players online in order to feel a sense of companionship from them is also one that Lennart makes. “They are just enjoying the company of other people and even if they could not communicate with other players directly, they are still enjoying the shared language of playing the game.”
Lennart and some colleagues ran a study on this hypothesis, analyzing several months of log files from a large site that matches players for online board and card games. They found that while user's behavior mirrored many aspects of real-life socialization, they were forming only transient relationships and talking very little. What could explain their actions?
“The main point here is that games themselves are a form of communication,” he tells me. “They allow us to communicate with other humans by monitoring and comparing our behaviors in the game to others and witnessing personal growth in an easy to understand constrained environment. Games, even the competitive ones, are in my opinion one of the most social ways we can interact using technology today.”
And there's my answer. I play a lot of board and card games, and have long been aware that a big part of the draw for me is the enjoying the company of friends and family and gaming at the same time. I'm no good at those games either, but I do have a fantastic repertoire of funny stories about my spectacular failures.
So I'm happy to carry on being the bottom of the pile just to have the pleasure of knowing that behind all the nicknames on top of me are real people, and I've contributed to their game, their narrative, their own repertoire of anecdotes. Whatever my losses in the game, I've won a little victory in my real world life.