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Learned Helplessness and First Person Shooters

Why some games and some experiences make us feel more helpless than others --and what designers can do about it.

[Jamie Madigan writes and podcasts about the psychology of video games at There are hundreds of other articles and podcasts like this one to be found there. You can also follow him on Twitter or Facebook.]

I picked up Halo 5 around the time that it came out and had a good enough time with the single-player campaign. For many, though, the game’s real draw is its competitive multiplayer. I didn’t jump into that right away, though, because of experiences I had with Halo 4’s multiplayer. Specifically, I got stomped hard whenever I tried to join in on a game. Just utter, undeniable, and consistent failure –so much so that I felt helpless so I gave up. I bet some of you out there have had similar experiences with other shooters, like Call of Duty or other competitive games like DOTA2 or Starcraft.

Heck, we don’t even have to limit it to competitive games. Games that revel in their difficulty like Super Meat Boy, Trials Evolution, and Spelunky can create the same sense of helplessness in the face of failure. Yet some people persist. They continue to bang their heads against the games until they get good or beat a level or get an S-rank. It’s like something clicks in their head and they refuse to accept that they can’t succeed eventually. Or maybe it’s that something doesn’t click.

Psychologists have studied how we learn to feel helpless for decades. Early experiments by psychologist and animal rights non-activist Martin Seligman were pretty messed up. In Part 1 of the experiment, researchers put dogs in a box with a metallic floor that could be electrocuted. When the shocking of doggie paws started, Group A had a lever in their box that they could nudge to turn off the juice. They pretty quickly figured this out. Broup B, though, wasn’t presented with a reliable way to turn off the shocks. They just had to lie there and take it.

In Part 2 of the experiment, the researchers took the same groups of dogs and put them in a similar shock box, only this one was bisected by a low partition wall. Once the shocking started, the dogs in Group A –the ones who had learned they could turn off the shocks in the previous box– started seeking escape and learned that they could simply hop over the partition to safety. The dogs in Group B –the ones who couldn’t escape the shocks previously– didn’t even try to escape. They just curled up and suffered. In Seligman’s words, they had acquired "learned helplessness."

This is a concept that has since been applied to many parts of human life –school, the workplace, sports, and games. We can learn to feel helpless because of seemingly unavoidable failure in one situation, then carry that burden with us to new situations where we immediately or quickly give up. In many ways, this is what happened to me in the Halo games. Getting curb stomped in competitive play made me assume that all future experiences would be the same. They may have even made me doubt my ability to play action games in general.

It’s something I assume game developers want to avoid as much as players do. Fortunately, Seligman went on to refine his model of learned helplessness in a way that suggests how we can avoid falling into that trap. And some ways that game developers can help us make better attributions for our failures so that we enjoy their games more.

In a paper entitled "Learned Helplessness in Humans" Seligman argues that the attributions we make for our failures (that is, the things we blame for them) vary along three dimensions:

  • Internal vs. External
  • Stable vs. Unstable
  • Global vs. Specific

Internal vs. External deals with whether or not you think that the ability to succeed is absent in just you, or absent in everyone.3 "I studied but can’t pass this class even though everyone else in the class could." is an internal attribution. "I couldn’t save this child from lukemia because lukemia is incurable" is a external attribution.

Global vs. Specific deals with whether or not you feel helpless in all or most situations, or if you feel helpless in only this one situation. Consider a student who gets a bad grade on a paper. "I’m stupid" is a Global attribution. "The teacher who graded the paper hates me" is a Specific attribution.

Chronic vs. Transiet deals with whether we think the helplessness is long-lived (or frequently recurring) or whether we think it’s short-lived (and non-recurring). Consider a soccer player who misses a penalty shot at the goal. "The goalie is too good" is a chronic attribution. "The sun was in my eyes" is a transient attribution.

Like with anything else, the worst attributions when it comes to dealing with failure in video games are internal, global, and chronic ones. "Everybody but me is able to understand the combo system in this game" (internal), "My reflexes are so slow people shoot me before I can even react to seeing them" (global) and "My Internet service is too slow to play competitively" (chronic) are all attributions that are more likely to make you feel helpless. And when you feel helpless you’re more likely to just give up.

On the other hand, "The X button on this controller doesn’t work half the time" (specific) or "My little brother is downloading porn on his laptop again, which is causing lag in my game" (transient) are reasons for failure that we can deal with and we can hold out hope that we might be able to succeed in the future. Maybe even the near future. 4

So, players, when met with failure, should look for different things to blame. Blame hackers and find another servers. Decide that it’s your team that sucks, not you. Maybe you’re having trouble because it’s super late and you’re tired. I mean, maybe don’t SAY these things in game chat or out loud. That would make you kind of a jerk. But at least you won’t be a helpless jerk.

Game developers, on the hand, might take all this in and try to surface information about the game that nudges players towards specific and transient attributions for their failure. If you’re a developer who has tackled this issue, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, now that I’m well rested, have a working controller, and have killed all the downloads on my network, I’m going to try some Battlefield 1.


Seligman, M. E. P. (1972). “Learned helplessness.” Annual Review of Medicine 23 (1): 407–412. doi:10.1146/

[Jamie Madigan writes and podcasts about the psychology of video games at There are hundreds of other articles and podcasts like this one to be found there. You can also follow him on Twitter or Facebook.]

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