Welcome to Your Virtual Stockholm Syndrome

I’ve been thinking about the whole thing of “progress” in video games lately, the way that they so often are designed to produce a concrete sense that you are getting shit done in your virtual life. This cropped up strongly as I was replaying some of GTA IV and noting down the instructions for a particular mission. They were so detailed it almost blew my mind. Things like “go to the garbage truck”, “get in the garbage truck”, and “drive to location X”. Well, you know how it is, games want their pound of obedient flesh.

And we’re glad to give it, that’s the thing. You get told what to do, and you do as your told, and you enjoy following those instructions, right? There are probably lots of psychological factors going into that experience, but I know that for myself at least part of it is the constructed scenario of competence that the instructions provide. The instructions aren’t part of the world, they’re part of the game, and so in terms of what the virtual world “sees”, it’s you being a super competent, knows-what-to-do thug mastermind.

When this controlling nature is taken away, it can become easy to be unmoored, in fact. I remember this happening while I was playing Far Cry 2 for the first time. That’s a game that gives you the broad strokes of where to go, but doesn’t give you the step by step on how you should carry out your missions. And it’s often pretty non-obvious what you should do. I found myself pining for some meta-help from the Game God just to help me look a bit better from the perspective of the world. When I eventually started using bits and pieces of a walkthrough, I felt like the tough and hardened mercenary I felt I ought to in that setting, rather than the incompetent, malaria-riddled fool I really was.

So we might chafe at the constraints of mission-based play and other forms of overt “go there, do that” instruction in games, but a lot of the time it’s actually what we want. We want someone to help us, step-by-step, to be all that we can be. The game whispers in our ear like the villains in those thriller movies like Speed or In the Line of Fire – our secret tormentor, telling us where to go and how fast to go there. We’re held in thrall by that voice.

It’s a lot like Stockholm Syndrome. You know: fun.

30 November 2010
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