Talking about Games: Self-Deception

Words: 2589 Approximate Reading Time: 20-25 minutes

So there’s a topic that has bugged me for a long time, and in some ways I’ve mentioned it before. But I wanted to dig down into the topic in more detail. I don’t think this essay can so much “solve” the problem, but I think it is a useful starting point.

We all like different things. When it comes to games, for example, some of us enjoy solving puzzles. Some of us prefer running around and grabbing loot. Some of us prefer to be told stories. And so on and so on.

And within those preferences are “sub-preferences.” For example, we might like solving puzzles, but we don’t all like to solve the same kind of puzzles. Or we might enjoy stories, but not the same kind of stories.

So let’s take that as our starting point.

However, it’s also the case that sometimes we prefer something because we think we ought to prefer it. Or more appropriately, we claim to prefer a particular kind of game. I want to place the emphasis on “claiming” here, because the consequence is that we wind up hating a particular format or function or trope of a genre when we actually encounter it, even when we say we like it.

I want to refer to this concept as “self-deception.” Basically, we are lying to ourselves (and obviously to others as well, but let’s focus on ourselves for this) about what we like and want to play.

Now this seems inconsequential in one sense. There’s nothing “wrong” if I claim to like shooters but then complain whenever I actually play one. No one is hurt. But I am effectively making my own life worse. I am wasting time on an experience that I dislike, and putting in extra effort to pretend that I actually enjoy it – it’s a double loss, because I’m not just not having fun, but expending mental work to not have that fun. Hence why I want to focus on the impact of self-deception on us.

So how do we identify self-deception? When do we know that someone is only claiming to enjoy something? And what do we do once we’ve identified it?

Here’s where we run up into a problem. There’s not really a good way to engage in this identification. These questions don’t have clear answers.

But my hope is that by exploring this topic a bit, we can at least work on developing some kind of understanding and sense of when we (and perhaps others, but again, let’s focus on ourselves for this) are engaging in self-deception.

“I love these kinds of games, except whenever I play them.”

So talking about self-deception is going to require some distinction. But let’s start with the basics.

To deceive ourselves, we need a discrepancy between our thoughts and our actions. We need to say one thing, and do another.

So to provide a broad example, let us imagine I say that I enjoy reading mystery novels. But then you hand me a mystery novel, and I continually complain about it: I don’t care for how unclear it is who committed the story’s crime, I dislike all the sections about collecting evidence and using deduction, and I get annoyed about how the culprit just gets revealed at the end.

Now if you know anything about mysteries, you know that the things I described are the basics of a mystery. There’s not really a mystery if the culprit is already known, and the whole process of collecting evidence and using logic to deduce things is pretty important to solving mysteries.

Okay, maybe that was just a fluke. Perhaps what you handed me was actually a particularly bad mystery novel. So you give me several more to read. Let’s say that you try to control all of these experiments by making sure you pick some of the best mystery novels ever written.

And I come up with the same complaints.

Well at that point, the problem isn’t really the books. It’s me. I am claiming to like mystery novels, but actually I don’t like them one bit, and I don’t realize that.

Now let’s get to a bit of distinction. Does the idea of self-deception mean I need to absolutely love every instance of a particular genre or medium? Certainly not. For example, I could like mystery novels, but then say that a particular mystery novel is poorly written. Or maybe you like puzzle games, but a particular puzzle game is too simple or too complex, such that it’s not fun to play. A dislike merely for a specific example does not undermine the love for everything else.

Instead, it’s better to think of the dislike as stemming from core components of the genre or medium. As in my example, disliking aspects of those mystery novels which are what make the novel a mystery in the first place is what establishes my self-deception. Likewise, imagine someone who claimed to like puzzle games, and yet continually disliked having to actually solve puzzles, or who did not get any satisfaction from solving puzzles. That kind of dislike would be what we’d look for to determine if we are engaging in self-deception.

What about frustration? If a particular game is frustrating, does that mean I don’t like it, and am I simply lying to myself if I claim to like it despite the frustration? The answer is “maybe.” It would depend on the degree and type of frustration. But what’s key is that it’s not the mere existence of frustration that establishes self-deception.

I think challenging games such as Dark Souls (though by no means limited to the Souls games) are good examples. Facing a difficult boss generally results in death, multiple times over. And that failure can be frustrating. But what is key is that the player feels a sense of satisfaction from winning that trumps the frustration: the highs exceed the lows. Comparatively, if a player considered that success empty and was just playing to get to the end or prove to others that they could do it, and then turned around and said they enjoyed challenging games, then they would be engaging in self-deception.

So hopefully these distinctions help to give a little more specificity to our concept. Self-deception is quite literally “you are not enjoying yourself and your use of time, and yet you keep playing anyway because you think you’re supposed to be having fun.” This may all sound strange: surely we know when we like and don’t like stuff, and thus wouldn’t really fool ourselves in this way, right? But I want to investigate the causes of this self-deception and show that it’s much more common than we think.

The Causes of Self-Deception

We fundamentally live in a social world, and part of that social world is that we attach values to things. For example, we generally think being “skilled” is a quality that is “good.” And obviously, we all want to be “good.” So if we are skilled, we get to possess some level of “goodness.”

Why does this matter? Because sometimes we place a lot of emphasis on appearing to be something. If being a skilled game player is something valued by other gamers, then surely I need to make sure that I too am a skilled gamer. Which means playing the games that are widely regarded as the kind of games that skilled gamers play. And since I need to prove myself, I will struggle and push through all the frustrations that I feel not because I feel some kind of satisfaction from the process, but because I must show that I possess the qualities that are “good.”

This is a broad depiction of the psychological process, but it should help put some things into place.

The specific starting point for what we regard as “good” is complex, and not always going to be universal. There will certainly be some games that hold a kind of wide appeal, and consequently are approached and played through because of that appeal.

As a hypothetical example, Dark Souls has been highly appraised. Hell, it was voted to be the “Ultimate Game of All Time.” Set aside whether you personally agree, whether you think the Golden Joystick Awards should be recognized as an authority for this subject, or whether we can ultimately trust the voting process. That award is both an indicator of the game’s strong appeal among gamers, and an indicator about the game’s quality. It is – according to “the gamer community” – a really good game.

So you as a gamer surely think of yourself as having good taste, right? You like “good” games. You’d never play “bad” games, except maybe ironically. But when you think of yourself, you think of yourself as enjoying “good” games.

So surely this particular good game – not just any good game, but the “Ultimate Game of All Time” – must be one you’ll like too, right? Because if you didn’t, it would say something about you. If you were to play it and not like it, that must mean you don’t like good games. You have bad taste.

Now in reading this example, you as the reader may well say “That reasoning isn’t true. Even if Dark Souls really is the ‘Ultimate Game of All Time,’ no one has to like it. And not liking Dark Souls doesn’t mean you have bad taste, no matter how good the game is.” If this thought, or something like it, flitted through your mind, you’re right. But you’re also missing two things.

The first thing you’ve missed is that the social pressure still exists. You and I can intellectually understand that we don’t have to like a particular “good” game. We don’t have bad taste or aren’t “real gamers” because of that fact. But the logic – bad as it may be – still exists, and that fear is still going to hang over us. Because being accepted in some way is important to us as human beings. And one way to know we are “accepted” is to be able to look around and see some aspect of ourselves reflected in others. One way for us to know we have “good taste” is to check the taste of others and make sure we match.

The second thing is that even when you and I intellectually understand that we don’t have to play and enjoy the same games, our minds don’t always match up to that understanding. That is, even though the reasoning in this hypothetical example is “wrong,” it is the kind of reasoning we are prone to all the time. Because sometimes our own emotions and thought processes aren’t clear, even to us. So even though we see the flaws in the reasoning, we will still at some point or another fall victim to that same reasoning.

I’d also like to note how this process can play out in reverse. That is, we can use this same reasoning and turn it into a sort of “rebellion” against the norm. Basically, take the same Dark Souls example, but now change the conclusion we draw. Let’s say that instead of merely thinking of ourselves as people who have “good taste,” we also think of ourselves as people who go against the grain. We pride ourselves on not being like others. So when we see Dark Souls praised as the “Ultimate Game of All Time,” we see that and want to look for a way to distinguish ourselves.

So the reasoning would go something like this: “Dark Souls was hailed as the ‘Ultimate Game of All Time,’ but actually everyone else is wrong. Dark Souls is a bad (or maybe merely mediocre) game, and by identifying these particular problems I had with it, I will show that by not liking it I have good taste. In fact, better taste than everyone else.”

Now you as the reader may look at this reasoning and see it as equally bad. And again, you’re right. But hopefully you also see how the same two factors from before creep in. Because of the social pressure – let us call it in this case the pressure to feel “special” or “unique” – we believe something that isn’t true. And since we aren’t always fully aware of what we’re doing and thinking, this kind of reasoning is something we can easily fall victim to.

Now an important question to ask: why do I bring up this latter concept of “rebellion” in this essay?

I raise this because our hypothetical rebel is engaging in self-deception, just like our hypothetical bandwagoner. They dislike something not because the game does not match their preferences, but because their dislike communicates something to other people. We can deceive ourselves into hating some game or genre or media just because we think that we “should” hate it.[1]

Concluding Remarks

I don’t make this argument to say you and I have everything backwards. It is not the case that everything you like you actually hate, and everything you hate you actually like. We are not so fundamentally out of tune with ourselves that we don’t know anything.

But I raise this all because these pressures all do exist. And we don’t always know what’s going on in our minds. Self-deception may not be common. But self-deception happens. And we should be on the lookout for it.

So I suggest that what we do is try to step back. When we find ourselves engaging in strong criticisms, we stop and think carefully for a moment about what the source of our criticisms are, and especially what we’re saying. Are we trying to make critiques that are merely rooted in our subjective feelings and which draw conclusions based on those feelings? Or are we trying to make broader claims about what is objectively “good” and “bad”?

Not all “objective” criticism is bad or self-deception. But it is the potential space where self-deception reveals itself. And it is in those moments that we should take a deep breath. I have written before about the importance for us to be thoughtful in how we approach games. Hell, one of the things I constantly do is examine how we use language to talk about games. This is all related to being thoughtful about this medium that we consume. And part of being thoughtful is taking this time to engage in some self-reflection about whether we really believe the things we claim to believe.

[1] Related to this is the way in which we draw out criticisms of specific content. Sometimes we find particular systems that we don’t like, and we try to find some cause for that dislike that is “rational,” as opposed to purely emotional. I’ve written before on the topic of “combinations” that began with a particular game designer arguing that “puzzles and horror don’t go together.” Said designer’s argument is based on the idea that there is an issue of compatibility, when perhaps a much simpler explanation exists: maybe said designer just doesn’t like puzzles in the first place. Which is certainly fine – not everyone has to like puzzles. But that “criticism” lands radically differently. “I don’t like puzzles, and thus wish there were less of them in horror games” is valid, but raises the idea that maybe people don’t have to cater to your interests. “Puzzles and horror don’t mix” suggests that when people do mix the two, they are designing a game wrong. It too is self-deception: we are lying to ourselves about why we dislike something.

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