Armchair psychology: Why we keep playing bad games

My degree is dubious at best

Destiny is the worst game I can’t stop playing

I keep hearing this, or variations of it again and again from my friends, all of whom seem unable to escape the jaws of a game they all claim to hate.

And you know what? I get it. Because it’s 1:00 am, and I’m up playing MechWarrior Online again. Or if we go back a few years, Ragnarok Online. Or Gun Griffon Blaze, or Rainbow Six, or whatever other shitty game I either never liked to begin with, or learned to despise, but dumped a needless amount of hours into for reasons that I couldn’t articulate then and barely understand now.

I think we’ve all probably done a stint at the crappy-game-rodeo in our lives. Played something our heart wasn’t into but put up with long after it was time to call it quits. But why? Well, I won’t pretend to know all the answers, but I’ve been down this road a few times, and I think I can point out a few recurring patterns. More importantly, I think I might have a few ways to break the cycle.  

I hate this game, but I only need to collect eight more Orc Jawbones to get a new helm…

The MMO “carrot on a stick” loop has been lifted into almost every genre of game you could care to think of these days. Progression hooks, horrible, horrible progression hooks. Little dangling rewards that keep you sinking in the hours just to see a number inflate, or acquire a new shiny piece of gear (which of course will be immediately rendered obsolete when you get to the next area, or as soon as the next patch/DLC rolls around). Or worse yet, hear an achievement pop.

I’m a sucker for this, straight up. Even though I’ve managed to avoid being hoodwinked into a lot of MMOs and RPGs with that kind of hook, I fall for it every time in FPS and action games. Personalization is something I love, and I will go to STUPID lengths to unlock a cool looking doo-dad or bumper sticker for my favorite characters/toys. A few weeks ago I spent hours trying to pick players out of the sky in Titanfall with one of the worst weapons in the game for the job just so I could get a new decal for my robot that NOBODY WILL EVER NOTICE (not even me).

God help you if the trinket or costume piece you’re looking for is attached to some randomized scheme. Payday 2 has a ridiculous post-heist slot machine for unlocking gun parts and new masks that you could play forever and still not get what you’re looking for. I bet this is the kind of thing that drives Dota 2 players insane if they are really bound and determined to never pay for a costume piece (but then again, that game is fucking excellent so if you have to be addicted to something…).

It’s important to recognize when pursuing a goal drifts into addiction. If you’re sitting on bare hardwood floors, your family is too exhausted with your bullshit to hold another “carefrontation”, and you’ve burned down every personal relationship you had in the pursuit of collecting a shiny assault rifle of dubious practical value in a game you don’t even like, it may be time to take stock of what you’re doing with your time.

Kickin’ it!

I may not be the best guy for advice on this, because I’ll go to some crazy lengths to unlock dumb stuff in a game I like (or at least pretend to like), but let’s try to look at this like we were normal, fully functioning, adult, human beings.

Gear and stats and achievements can be cool, but only if you enjoy the journey to get them. If you’re wincing as you spoon down another hour of game-time with title that has worn out its welcome, you should seriously reconsider how much you want that goddamn hat. Put that passion into something you enjoy, break the freaking cycle.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to jump back into Titanfall to tidy up the last few daily challenges so I can get a new computer voice for my robot in a language I don’t even speak. Fully functioning, adult, human being. Yeah.

I spent $60 on this!?

Ah, the old sunk cost fallacy. It’s a doozy. It happens to us all. You scrimp and save and do unsavory things in a parking lot behind a Wendy’s restaurant to afford the latest game, and it’s a lemon. A hot steamy pile of lemon. Depending on what your income (and how nosy the night-manager of the Wendy’s is), it might be the only game you buy this season. So you’re stuck right?

Well, yes and no. While bemoaning your lost $60, you need to consider the other costs of playing a shitty game. If you’re at risk of chucking your $40 controller through your $500 TV in a fit of Battlefield 4 glitch inspired rage, you’re probably better off just setting it aside (or trading it in). Plus, let’s not forget the mental and spiritual costs involved. I know my MechWarrior addiction has reduced my soul to a frothy septic pool of fanboy bitterness and aimless frustration. Don’t let it happen to you.

How to avoid falling down the money pit in the future?

Shop smart, shop S-Mart. By which I mean you should shop using Steam. And you should wait. Seriously, it’s time we all stop buying shit at launch.

Look at how many games are utterly broken at release these days. Does it really do you any good to be the first one to not be able to connect to a match? Maybe you could save yourself some heartache by waiting a few days or weeks after a game ships, read some reviews, some comments, and find out if the servers are stable and reliable, or run by EA (zing! look at that choice topical humor!)

But while we’re at it, let’s wait a little longer. Let’s wait a couple of months and watch that price fall faster than Grandpa during New Year’s celebrations. I know I really want to play Far Cry 4, right now, but I’m waiting till January when I can practically guarantee I’ll be able to pick it up somewhere for $30.

If you’re part of the PC crowd, another Steam sale is always just a few months away and you can stuff a pile of games into your backlog for the price of a single, broken-at-launch, big-name title. If you’re on consoles the deals aren’t quite as sweet, but they’re getting there. PS+ offers, Games with Gold, and you can always wait for the inevitable GOTY or re-mastered version that includes the best version of a game plus all the possible DLC. You can’t really lose. 

The cold comfort of the devil you know

I often think back to a line in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed

…you have to be the one to end it, because I’m not capable. I’m Irish, I’ll live with something being wrong the rest of my life.”

When I heard that, it was like a shot of electricity went up my spine. One line succinctly summed up most of the problems in my life. You’d think a moment of insight like that would help you guard against future occurrences of the same problem. But nope. I still live with an inordinate, damaging tolerance to things in my life that I know I should fix.

Of course I’m talking about MechWarrior Online.

Sometimes you keep playing something out of sheer habit. Not because you’re grinding for loot or achievements, or because all your friends are playing it. But because it is as easy and familiar to play as slipping on an old sock. A stinking, crusty, threadbare sock.

Sometimes it’s the nature of the game that makes it appealing. As much as I adore Fallout and XCOM and know that my time would be spent SO MUCH better in those worlds, it can be hard to muster up the ambition to play them. Anything with a lot of set-up or necessary busy work can be intimidating when you only have a limited amount of time to devote to gaming. At the end of a long day, I just want something I can jump into, play a bit, and not have to worry about spending twenty minutes in a shop haggling over bottle-caps and bullets. That’s when I find myself booting up MechWarrior for some quick, unfulfilling action.

I’m hesitant to use what little time I have trying to get the feel of a new game. As much as I feel like I would enjoy Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, I don’t think I have it in me right now to suffer the necessary knocks it takes to become competent at another fighting game. It’s so much easier, lazier, and slothful to stick with the games I already have.

Familiarity breeds contempt, so try new things

This has to be one of the most poisonous attitudes to fall into. I mean, isn’t there SOMETHING out there that could give you the endorphin rush chemical payout of playing a videogame without pounding metaphorical nails into your dick?

You need some gaming methadone. Try weening off a game you’re not loving any more to something else in the genre. Tired of Destiny but enjoy grinding loot with your friends? Bonus points if you can find an older game that you missed when it was new, save some money and have a good time.

Or maybe you just need a new way to play. Next time you boot up Fallout or Skyrim or whatever flavor of giant open-world RPG you like, don’t get so hung up on the details. You don’t need to sell every pair of fur boots you loot off a raider/orc, or min/max the most desirable stats. Pick a random direction, walk towards it, follow whatever wacky adventure comes your way.

I give much better advice than I live.

My friends are jerks, but I can’t quit them

This is the big snare that I keep seeing people walk into. They waltz into a game with a few of their friends, next thing you know they’re swinging upside down below a tree while the indigenous people aim blowguns at their scrotum. And it all started so innocently.

Playing games with friends is rad. One of the best uses of your time IMO. But sometimes, you all end up in the same crummy game together, and instead of helping each other climb out of the quicksand of shit you’ve found yourselves in, you’re all grabbing each other by the ankle and dragging each other further down into the depths. “Come play with usssss….

This is the story I keep hearing with Destiny. That people don’t really like the game, or enjoy the combat, or give two mouse-farts what Peter Dinklage thinks of the last computer bank he’s scanned; they just enjoy having a game they can play with their friends and Destiny is supporting that need.

This isn’t even a major slam against Destiny, I’ve seen any number of mediocre games become little more than glorified chat rooms to ass around in. It can happen by virtue of the game being popular enough that everybody seems to have it, or a more niche title that all of your similarly minded friends are into (even if it’s not so great). This is the doom of a lot of MMO players who get snookered into a game they don’t really like because they’ve made a bunch of pals on one server or another and now they’re all stuck there.

Once your friends have taken up residence in a game, it’s hard to leave. Even if they all agree that the game isn’t so hot, how do you go about organizing the move to another one? Not everybody is made of money to go hopping between titles, and not everything that appeals to you is going to appeal to your friends.

We need support agencies that help groups of disenfranchised gamers relocate from barren and dilapidated games. A benefit fund, or arm of the UN that could help deport them en mass and settle them into titles that are actually fun to play. But until I’m elected Dance-Prince-Ayatollah of the world, let’s focus on some more practical solutions.

Fuck those dudes

Sometimes you need to know when to hit it and quit it. When your buddy sends you an IM asking you to hop on for some sweet, sweet Ragnarok Online so you can help him grind out enough Rare Jelly or whatever to make a pair of fucking bunny ears for his Mage, it is definitely time to quit it. Yes, I know I’m being harsh, but isn’t your time and life worth more than that? Are we all so desperate for human contact that we’ll put up with a miserable experience just to talk to someone? (Don’t answer that.)

Be the trailblazer you want to see in this world. Leave whatever seedy, broken-down, ghetto of a game they’re all stuck in, and send them tempting missives from the sweet-ass, heavenly bliss you want to play with them. They’ll join you eventually. This is a lot like a bad break up. Don’t fall for their pleas, don’t give them one more chance. Don’t just come around for some Rare Jelly on the weekend because you’re lonely and drunk.

Toss the sand in their eyes.


Nic Rowen