5 Behaviors Video Games Reward and Reality Calls Crazy
There's a long-running debate about whether video games make gamers more violent. The evidence in support of that theory is inconclusive at best, but I've noticed other, subtler ways that playing games can mess with your brain. I don't have any science to back up the following theories because when I proposed studies, I was told to get out of the dean's office and put some damn pants on. But, I do have a degree in squandering my youth, and that's the greatest teacher of all.
They Make You Hoard Supplies
There's an ongoing joke among gamers that no one uses the expendable supplies they accumulate -- healing potions, poison antidotes, new racial slurs to bust out on Xbox Live, etc. -- because no matter how badly it looks like you might need them, you worry that you might need them even more in a future battle. So, you handicap yourself just a little bit for fight after fight, and, by the time you take on the final boss, you have like a thousand X-Potions, Turbo Ethers, and nonsensical complaints about Spanish people. That's more supplies than you could use in a dozen fights, and, now, you'll never get the chance to use them at all because the game is over. You're so concerned about wasting items that you end up ... wasting items.
"Whoa, whoa, if we bring him back to life, we'll only have 33 left!
What happens if we die 34 times later?"
Now, obviously, if I get poisoned in my fight with an evil cactus in real life, I'm going to pound back an antidote without a second thought. I fight four, maybe five or six, evil cacti a year, which leaves me plenty of time to restock. But, this ultra-conservative attitude toward resource management pop up in dumb little thoughts such as, "Eating this box of crackers would fill me up now, but what if I'm even hungrier later?" and "I should save this fancy shampoo I stole from a hotel for when I need my hair to look really nice!" and "If I have this entire bottle of tequila for breakfast on Monday, what am I going to have for breakfast the rest of the week?"
You hoard your resources for a future "battle" in your life, even though acquiring a new box of crackers is, as a general rule, easier than finding a treasure chest that houses a rare and valuable medical supply. But, despite that, you still treat your last sliver of toothpaste like it's the fragile orc-repelling axe you found buried in the ruins of an ancient Dwarven city, which is ironic because refusing to use it up will definitely cause some repulsion in your life.
"Whoa, whoa, if you eat a piece, I'll only have 33 left! What happens if I want to eat 34 pieces later?"
It's good to be thriftier, but only to a point. Much like hanging onto those potions for so long that you never get the chance to use them, you can only hang on to some Popsicles for a day that's really hot -- like, you think it's hot now, but man, you'll be sorry when it's even hotter and you'll wish you could cool down with a Popsicle, but oh shit, you ate them all, and you can't go buy more because it's too goddamn hot -- for so long before they turn to icky mush. And, if there's one thing worse than seeing a single Popsicle left and wondering if eating it will come back to haunt you when you're battling a weather report that's weak against icy treats, it's seeing an untouched box and realizing you bought it in the spring of 2011. That precise scenario may have less to do with video games and more to do with me being dumb, but I'm going to blame Final Fantasy, anyway.
They Turn You Into an Obsessive Explorer
If a video game tells you to turn right, you know the first thing you need to do is to head left. As Robert Frost taught us, the path less traveled is full of sweet loot, whether it's a treasure chest, an important collectible, or a valuable life-defining experience. The last one is admittedly unlikely to come up in a Zelda dungeon, unless it's a really cool one, but the point is that it's ingrained in a gamer's mind to always go in the opposite direction of where they're told. And, if there's a map screen to fill out, you're damn well going to want to uncover 100 percent of it. Because if you settle for 95 percent, you're going to spend the rest of the game wondering if a +5 Platinum Codpiece of Enhanced Prowess was squirreled away in that one little section you missed.
Look at all those unentered rooms. It makes me sick.
In real life, I tend to go where I'm told because I've found that doing otherwise leads to people yelling at you to get out of the employees-only section, yelling at you to get out of the women's washroom, and yelling at you lie down on the White House lawn and surrender. But, if you have the opportunity to explore every last nook and cranny of the place you're visiting, you're going to do it. Who knows if the one path of Disneyland you didn't go down is the one with the coolest ride? What if that dark, dusty corner of IKEA is hiding treasure in the form of the perfect chair for your budget and style? And maybe that quiet alcove in the art gallery is displaying the one painting that isn't boring!
You know, something cultural like these.
The vast majority of the time, that quiet nook just has some boring Rembrandt, that dusty corner has a haphazard display of incorrectly assembled Knutstorps, and that Disneyland path leads to the magical experience of witnessing Mickey Mouse on his smoke break. But, every now and then, your exploration pays off and reinforces your belief that you should always do it, just like how countless virtual dungeons taught you. It will drive your tired traveling companions crazy, but to hell with them. They'll appreciate it when you discover a chest full of cash or, like, a really good lemonade stand.
They Make You Plan Escape Routes
Raise your hand if you have ever walked into a building and immediately started planning your escape. Now, keep your hand raised if it was a bank and you were working out a heist. Well, nice job, suckers, because the Cracked interns who monitor all of our readers through their webcams have already alerted the police.
For those of you who haven't run off to barricade the door or stuff wads of bills into a duffel bag, this is a habit that's been instilled by stealth, survival, and free-running games. For weeks after I played Mirror's Edge, I walked around my university campus, plotting ways to climb up the buildings and run and jump between them. I guess I could have just actually taken up parkour, but, if I had the energy to do that, I wouldn't be writing an article about how video games have changed my thought process.
I could totally do this if I wanted to, though.
Take the Assassin's Creed games and Batman: Arkham Whatever the Latest One Is. You never know when you'll have to escape from the Joker's goons or a glitchy Frenchman, and that means you need to be aware of your surroundings and ready to book it at a moment's notice. Do that often enough, and you'll start to idly plot out how you could, say, scale the heights of your office tower's lobby. "Okay, if I climb up that decorative waterfall, I could reach over to that ledge there. Then, I could shimmy over to that support beam, climb up to that hanging plant, swing on the plant to the far window, and then chill out there until my boss stops looking for me."
"Once she walks under me, that suitcase is mine."
Visiting a new restaurant? You'll take note of all the exits, in case Templar soldiers burst in (and if your preferred exit doesn't involve running into the kitchen and having an elaborate knife duel, you're doing it wrong). Need to get from one side of a crowded concert to the other? Better casually blend in with the crowd while you're moving, so the guards won't get suspicious of you (and by "guards," I mean "concert security," and by "suspicious of you," I mean "confiscate your weed"). Worst case scenario, there has got to be a quiet corner where you can lure in a security guy, knock him unconscious, and then switch clothes so you can score yourself a backstage pass. Everyone thinks about that, right? That one's not just me?
And you all go to concerts dressed like this too, right?
Or, maybe you're more of a survival horror buff, in which case, you'll have your eye out for every inexplicably convenient wardrobe and cabinet to shove in front of a door or hide in. You all know someone who jokes about having a zombie survival plan -- well, a lot of gamers have a Pyramid Head survival plan, and it better not involve hiding under the damn bed like a chump. Rampaging madmen never check the cabinets, even when the linen is clearly panting.
They Screw With Your Understanding of Effort
There are few things more satisfying in gaming than watching an experience bar tick up to a new level. This is often accompanied by an explosion of light, and, all of a sudden, you have a new skill or the strength to take on tougher opponents. It's a concrete and tangible celebration of all your pretend hard work.
What's great about it is that it's predictable -- the amount of effort you put into a video game generally corresponds with the reward you get. If you spend 10 hours fighting enemies, you will be 10 hours' worth of experience tougher. If you throw 500 fireballs in the faces of goblins or fleeing civilians, you will become markedly better at casting spells and tearing apart innocent families. There's even a website that tracks how long it takes an average player to finish a game. If you're told that it takes about 11 hours to rescue the princess, you'll damn well expect to save her in that time frame.
Wait, 40 hours? Forget it, lady. Hope you can crack some skulls with that harp.
But, the correlation between effort and results is a lot more fluid in reality, and that's one hell of a shock for someone who was raised by rigid, number-driven game worlds. In The Sims, if you lock a Sim in the bathroom and force him or her to practice the violin for 100 pretend hours, the Sim will get good at it. In the real world, if you put 100 hours into learning the violin, you might discover that you really suck at the violin. Maybe you'll eventually get better through sheer force of effort, but it will take you far longer than the average person. Or, maybe you just won't ever get any good, and the real challenge will be in accepting that.
Oh hey there, used guitar I asked my parents to buy me in high school!
Maybe you and your friend both put 20 hours of work into a college assignment, but he got a better grade simply because his assignment was stronger (unless he cheated, Chad). If that was 20 hours of Diablo III, you would both have more or less equally proficient witch doctors. But, even though you both took the same amount of time, and it was the amount of time you had anticipated, you needed to put in more hours because just completing the assignment wasn't enough to make it good. There's a nuance to your efforts -- it's no longer just "you beat the boss," or "the boss beat you." And that's legitimately shocking to some people once they enter the adult world.
By "some people," I mean "this stock photo model representing
me as I flee from an adult responsibility."
There's also the question of how you're putting your effort in. You can spend 50 hours knocking out innocent Pokemon in the same patch of bushes and end up owning some pretty tough pocket monsters. But, if you spend 50 hours at the gym lifting tiny dumbbells, you're not going to get any stronger. You have got to move onto the bigger ones and keep progressing -- there's no safe way to grind for experience in the real world. Unless you're a stripper.
They Give You Weird Ideas About Romance
If there's one thing I know more about than video games, it's romance (within video games -- God, I'm lonely). Most game romances fall into one of two categories. You either woo a character by giving them gifts and doing them favors, which slowly but surely changes their attitude toward you from "indifferent" to "totes in love" (Skyrim, Fable, Harvest Moon), or you have to pick the correct flirtatious dialogue options to make it clear that you're interested in putting someone's sword in the other's sheath (Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Pigeon Fucker 2011).
"I'm so lucky you kept following me to my place of work
to have the exact same one-sided conversation every day!"
These obviously aren't great representations of romance, but they're shorthand for all the other stuff that takes place in a relationship -- when you jump from "Hi, my name is Admiral Assblaster" to "I love you, Assblaster! Let's get married and make time-traveling babies!" in the span of four scenes, there are a lot of implied off-screen conversations that they didn't have the time and the space to program. But, it's easy to forget that and read into these scenes too literally.
The "romance through extreme favoritism" angle is your classic "Nice Guy" tactic -- the idea that, instead of expressing your feelings, lavishing enough attention on someone will make them express feelings for you. This works in games because a character's boner or lady boner is just another statistic you can increase in-between how many chickens you own or how many chickens you can kill with your magical shout. So, you grind out a romance by giving a character a homemade pizza at 6:30 in the morning, every day, for a virtual year and a half, and then wonder why a similar tactic doesn't work in real life.
"I don't get it. She told me she loves pizza."
And the "unlock sex through conversation options" style of game romance is the exact approach espoused by pick-up artists, except most of them will charge you more than the cost of a new video game to "learn" it. It's easy to see someone play a game where your partner is determined by dialogue trees -- and come away thinking that employing the correct sequence of lines at the club will make a girl want to bone him or her. We praise these games for having well-developed characters, so they must be realistic, right?
"I can't believe that bitch wasn't impressed that I saved the entire galaxy
from a rampaging army of giant genocidal computers."
In both cases, the point is going so far over people's heads that it's technically a satellite, but it's missed by so many people that I can't help but wonder if gaming played into it a bit for some. I definitely fell into the trap of thinking you can make a real person change their fundamental opinion of you through constant badgering -- because that's a strategy that was constantly drilled into me by all forms of pop culture since I was old enough to understand it. On the plus side, if you ever get turned down for a date because of this, you'll be ready to make a quick exit into the rafters. I don't know about you, but I've hidden a year's worth of supplies up there.
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For more from Mark on Cracked, check out 4 Reasons Self-Pity is One of the Most Dangerous Emotions and 5 Things People Don't Understand About Only Children.
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