the video game habit

We are familiar with the topic of video game addiction, but Bogost takes up the topic of habituation in a different and perhaps less extreme sense.  He begins with the familiar saying of games that take “a minute to learn and a lifetime to master.” He explores how the accessibility of games draws in part upon external contexts. For example, a game like Pong! (or really any sports-themed game) rests upon the existing cultural context for such games to make them familiar and easy-to-learn. Over time that context has grown so that gamers become familiar with the mechanics of video games themselves. The physical game controllers for console games are fairly standard and used in standard ways; PC games use the mouse and keyboard in predictable ways as well. Games also have standard kinds of interfaces and informational displays: missions, skill trees, experience points, achievements, levels, bosses, etc. These things have become as familiar as the table tennis table on which Pong! was based.

But what about the “lifetime to master” aspect? This takes us back toward McGonigal and our discussion of the psychological aspects of gameplay. The ability to set goals and encounter challenges that are difficult but achievable (not too hard and not too easy) is important. Games become “catchy,” or so Bogost suggests, by relying on “small atoms of interaction,” as when the Tetris pieces come together in satisfying ways. It’s the same as stringing together a series of intricate passes in FIFA or pulling off an acrobatic kill in Assassins Creed.

I am interested in how narrative intersects with this experience. Some familiar games like Poker or Chess can be replayed 1000s of times. A complex video game like Halo or Skyrim has less replayability because once you’ve played all the missions, the story becomes less interesting. Yes, you can play more than once, maybe even a dozen times, but that’s nothing compared to the replayabilty of a card game. So then we see a game like Titanfall, which has a very thin narrative and focuses mostly on multiplayer interaction. Call of Duty would be another example of this.

I wonder if we can consider this issue without falling into a discussion of addiction. (I think we can and should discuss addiction, but this is a slightly different issue.) What makes a game appealing? Catchy? What keeps us playing too late into the night? What creates that itch we feel that brings us back the next day?


This image is based on the work of Csikszentmihalyi, who we encountered in McGonigal’s book where she focused specifically on the “flow” that we enter when skill and challenge come together at a high level. I would guess that habituation has more to do with arousal or relaxation than it does with flow. While flow is rewarding, it is also exhausting. In games we move back and forth between these states as the challenge levels rise and fall and we are called upon to learn new skills.


4 thoughts on “the video game habit”

  1. For me, I’ve always found Call of Duty’s multiplayer to be a lot like this, and I think a lot of that comes from the fact that one never plays any set difficulty, but rather all the various players. The adage that there is always someone out there who is better than you stands pretty firm, as I have seen some of the better players get smoked by elite teams, and some really solid players play horribly due to teammates lacking in skill, dragging the team down. Skills can vary, and often times class setups- perks, grenades/equipment, and of course, the actual guns and attachments are the real difference makers. You have to tinker around and find the ones you like… and there are so many different possible setups, sometimes I just find myself tangled between them and unable to decide.

    Sometimes, when playing a little later than planned, the goal is to play just a bit better, a bit more like somebody who really knows what they’re doing. Other times its much more simple. I got spawn killed umpteen times by those no-real-lifers on the other team, hold on, let me get into a -real- game.

    I’ve also found plenty of other people I’ve talked to saying “one more game” a lot of the time when playing this game, and sometimes for several consecutive games, for several reasons, like I said. Sometimes it’s a level up, which comes with the unlock of a new weapon or perk, sometimes its that “lifetime to master” sort of idea– one more game, just a little better than the last one (my usual excuse). Or maybe you did poorly in the last one, so you want a redeemer game, so to speak. I think many times its the more XP> unlock> more XP> unlock sort of chain that gets players always feeling like they are almost at the next level already, even though they just leveled up and the next level is at least 10 or so games away.

  2. A measurable percentage of my life has been spent waiting for friends to finish playing Super Smash Bros. (the N64 version), while half politely suggesting we pursue other activities. I remember thinking in the seventh grade that this was the sort of game that they’ll grow out of, so there’s no point in learning it. Ten years later, I’m still waiting for this growth process to come to fruition. Each time a round of Smash is finished, there is inevitably, and much to my irritation, one person who uses the “one more game” line. This person usually gets their way.

    I’ve noticed in these situations that victor of the last game is far more likely to put down the controller for the night. The recently defeated is almost always begging for just one more game; one more chance to exit the session with a sense of redemption after watching victory slip from their grasp. This makes good sense to me. For who wants to leave a contest as the vanquished? Not only have you failed to accomplish your goal, but your failure has brought about another’s success, which nearly intolerable. A bouncer friend once told me that to break up a fight, you should restrain the person getting the worst of it, because the winner will let the fight end, but the loser will want to keep at it. As much as people love victory, they seem to have an equal distaste for defeat.

    I think acknowledging this distinction we can see a key distinction between play in multiplayer and narrative games. There seem to be different types of victory when it comes to video games. McGonigal pointed out that video games offer a sense of victory that is rarely, if ever, found in the real world. One is not regularly the last creature standing in an epic fight to the death on top of a castle or spaceship. But the feeling of victory in a multiplayer game is enhanced by the avoidance of defeat. Not only have you bested your opponent, you have avoided being bested by them. Defeat in a narrative game, isn’t marked by such a sting; losing marks a personal failure to advance, but does not mark some other individual’s victory. The goal is to progress through the narrative, and dying in a level, fails to move this progression, but it doesn’t mean the villain is victorious, it means you must try again in order to move the story to a place where the villain is hopefully defeated. Consider other narrative forms, like literature or film; one cannot lose at reading a book, or watching a movie. They can fail to finish the narrative presented, but usually the blame for this falls on the narrative for not being able to hold the person’s interest.

    I think this is a key advantage for multiplayer games with respect to replayability. We can say games more centered on multiplayer play emulate gambling more than games focused on narrative progression. For by playing an adversarial multiplayer game, you are not only giving yourself an opportunity for victory, you are risking the shame of defeat to another, which makes every game, and every action in the game that much more significant. This adds a level of excitement to the game, even if the game has been played endlessly. Narrative games lack this significance, and so after a while, become boring.

  3. I am intrigued by the chart in this post because it seems to lay out all of the reasons that I play my favorite videogames in a way that I never pictured before.
    After thinking about the diagram and reading the suggestions in the post, I have come to believe that we keep going back to certain videogames because of the experiences we associate with them. For example, if my skill is high in a game such as Streetfighter: Alpha 3, and the challenge is at a medium level, I do feel in control, and there is nothing more satisfying by proving to myself that I do have some level of control after a frustrating day of school or work. However, if I am feeling on top of the world as a result of some recent, real-life achievement, I am much more likely to tackle a newer game where the challenge is high and my skill is just a little lower, causing arousal.
    I think that the most addicting games are the ones that we can count on having the same experience over and over again, and so we turn to those games when we are most in need of those experiences.

  4. I also find this chart to be very intriguing. I often find myself playing games that leave me in a state of “Arousal” or “Anxiety” as the chart would say. Even when my skill level is high, I often find myself anxious. Maybe its not anxiety but its the fear of not being able to beat myself. I was laying in bed the other night playing “Piano Keys” and I had reached a high score of 334 points. I was so proud of myself. I didn’t want to put the game down. After three hours of trying, I could not beat my high score. This is where I became even more anxious. I think I can connect with McGonigal’s theory of treating life like a a game when I find myself in situations like these. I often ask myself, “What if this is as good as it’s going to get?” I feel that I have to constantly prove myself…to myself! I am shocked as I’m writing this because I never thought to thank video games for that. I think playing video games, especially when its an intense one, creates a space of anxiety that has to be tamed by control. I think that video games have taught me that I should continuously challenge myself and go beyond what boundaries I think I have set for myself. The level of anxiety that I had was now tamed by self control; something that has to be learned overtime. Moving back and forth in between these different states allows me to try new adventures and makes me more comfortable with intimidating situations.

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