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A Question of Meaning

Is creating “meaning” through user unfriendliness just another form of psychological manipulation?

I feel this is going to be one of my more controversial posts, so please bear with me a bit and consider the following as a thought experiment.

For context, refer to these recent articles on Gamasutra: A Matter of Life & Death, Manipulative game monetization shows gamers no respect, says Super Meat Boy dev, and Diablo 3’s Ability System.

We all know to rail against abusive monetization because that stuff is just patently evil, right? You take what is actually a short game with shallow mechanics and artificially inflate gameplay by locking content behind mandatory time sinks. Then you give this time the illusion of having “value” and “meaning” by attaching a monetary equivalent to that time. If you can do the requisite mind-numbingly repetitive stuff without paying for it, it feels like you just created some “value” when none actually exists.

But I wonder if deliberate user unfriendliness in the forms of permadeath, no (or extremely onerous) respecing, obscure UI, or hiding “mission critical” information from the player and forcing trial and error (or wiki hunting), isn’t really just doing the same thing.

(I want to dissipate any perception of bias before going further with this, so I’m going to describe the kind of player that I am: I freaking love that stuff. I’ve taken Diablo 2 hardcore characters into the 90’s. I’ll happily track back and reload a save game 6 hours old if I discover I’ve passed up some quest nugget. I’ve slogged through 7+ Nightmare playthroughs of Dragon Age just to work on different builds and optimize them; the same can be said of countless other games. Heck, starting over is my favorite part of half the games I play. I'm just a sucker for punishment [stereotypically Korean?].)

At any rate, consider: it’s commonly accepted that the pace of a game determines the feel of its gameplay. But pacing is inherently about manipulation via the player’s sense of time. Pull the carrot just far enough away, and what is actually redundant button clicking begins to feel momentous (remember Cow Clicker?). When the base activity is so monotonous and repetitive, acquiring a sudden leap in agency feels like a huge triumph (Yay, I can do the same repetitive crap faster now! Or, Yay, I finally got something that shows for all the time I’ve sunk in this!). It’s probably not a coincidence, then, that manipulative monetization schemes use the same time delaying tactic that roguelikes and their various offspring do.

Perversely, it seems that, once activated, much of our masochistic, obligatory subjection to monotony is about proving to ourselves that it wasn’t all a waste of time—with the added benefit that it allows us to self-identify (and thus placate our sense of worth) as “hardcore” or "elite". It’s like a bad session of gambling in which you just keep anteing up in the hope that you’ll land that jackpot (in our case, a "perfect" build) and turn everything around. The more time you sink, the harder it is to walk away. And the more you suffer, the more “hardcore” you are. (This, by the way, is a description of how I almost got kicked out of college playing D2.)

Let’s be blunt. Time costs are real. So isn’t it just as manipulative to exploit the fact that the more time you spend, the more expensive and valuable the object necessarily becomes? Is a game that refrains from selling “I win” consumables any less dubious if it forces players to spend inflationary amounts of time? And what else can you call no respec, permadeath, etc. but devices that inflate time costs? More troublesomely, is that actually even a bad thing?

Indeed, what is meaningful gameplay anyway? Personally, I would say that anything that forces you to deal with failure, loss, and internal turmoil is meaningful. (This is indeed why I play games.) But this is only true if the player also accepts the responsibility of dealing with such. No matter how “white hat” a game’s design is, it’s only as meaningful as the effort the player puts into learning from his experiences—into making it meaningful. Similarly, a “black hat” game can cause the revelatory (although too frequently prohibitively expensive) realization that a player is defining himself through, and limiting his self-worth to, ultimately ephemeral, transient things.

I have a friend who despises games. This friend obviously enjoys playing them, but dismisses games out of hand as wastes of time, unworthy of investment. The end result is that he will only play games that don’t challenge him, which means he learns and gains nothing from the time he spends and ends up really wasting time. They are literally trivial pastimes and toys simply because he refuses to engage any further. The point being that games are very much what we make of, or put into, them.

And all too often, we make the mistake of attaching meaning only to in-game assets or accomplishments, because these are the things that are visible and obvious to us, can be shared and “externalized”—the extroverted manifestations of our time spent. This tendency leads both to the idea that a game that allows the player to buy such assets is meaningless, as well as to the inability to separate oneself from the achievements arduously obtained in-game—they are flips sides of the same psychological coin.

That is to say, it leads to the dismissal of all the introverted lessons in emotional control, intellectual flexibility, and self-understanding through assessment of held values that we might otherwise gain from our relationship with, and inevitable withdrawal from, such attachments—the actual takeaway stuff.

Obviously, truly exploitative design is a reality, it happens. (And clearly, not all games are meant to be, or need to be, so damn serious. Simply the sense of accomplishment games can provide is psychologically valuable, too.) But I would argue that the difference between exploitation and empowerment in games is finer than most of us would like to admit.

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