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How Computer Games Destroy Your Self Esteem

January 6, 2015

It was subtle. I didn’t really see it at first. But once I figured out what was happening I decided to put a stop to it right there.

You play computer games. Of course you do. You are reading an online blog about technology and leadership. You have a smartphone and a computer and probably a tablet. And all of them came with some games.

Some of you are hard core. You play World of Warcraft. You build custom gaming machines. You have killed more enemies in Call of Duty than actually fought in WWII.

So, what’s the problem? How are computer games destroying self esteem? They are mindless entertainment right?

First, I also have a smartphone a bunch of computers and a tablet. I’ve stripped the games off everything except the iPad. And even then, I just have a couple simple games. I don’t play World of Warcraft for the same reason I don’t try crack cocaine: I’m afraid I might like it too much.

And I have a long history of computer games. I’m old enough to have bummed a ride down to the arcade and pumped quarters into Pacman, Galaga, Pole Position and a number of other first generation arcade games.

So, don’t think I’m anti-games. I’m really not. But, I came to a worrisome realization the other day. My iPad gets a copy of every game my kids download. I force them to use my AppleID as a way to keep track of what they are playing. I will generally try a game for a day or two and then clear it off. I’ve kept two, and they both illustrate the dangers to self esteem.

First is Rope’n’Fly. You are a spiderman like character swinging through a two dimensional city. The challenges are that you can attempt maximum distance in a set amount of time. Or you can attempt maximum distance with a limited number of ropes. There are a couple other variations. The UI is actually kind of soothing as your avatar goes swinging through the city, effortlessly switching ropes from one building to the next until the number of ropes or the time runs out at which point you die. Every.single.time. You die. That’s how the game ends.

There’s an option where you can turn on blood and then you don’t just die, you splat. Every.single.time. There is no escape.

2048 is a tile game. You have a 4×4 grid and numbers appear, either a 2 or a 4. You combine like numbers to create bigger numbers. Two “2’s” will become a 4. You can combine two 4’s to get an 8 and so on. The object is to get two 1024 tiles and combine them into a 2048 tile.

It’s a nice computer geek game. It’s mindless enough that I can do it while on a really boring conference call, or while waiting for a bus. Simple. But, still it’s complex enough to be engaging. And it has the benefit of using the numbers dear to a geek’s heart. Who wants 1000 when you can have 1024? I eventually got to the point where I beat it. And that’s when I noticed the problem.


So, what’s the problem?

Look carefully at that screen. I just “won” the game. I got the 2048 tile.

Yes, it says, “Your next goal is to get to the 4096 tile.” And what do you want to bet that if I managed to get the 4096 tile it would challenge me to get the 8192 tile? Eventually, I’d get to the point where I couldn’t go any further. In other words, the only possible outcome is that I’m going to fail. If not at 4096, then at the next level.

I started thinking about the games I’ve played. How do you “win?” Many of them don’t ever let you win. And from a designers standpoint, I get that. But, from a personal feeling of accomplishment, I don’t like it.

When I was a kid in those video arcades one day a new game showed up. It was called “Dragon’s Lair.” You were Dirk the Daring trying to rescue Princess Daphne. What made the game exciting was that depending on what you chose to do the “story” would change. It had awesome graphics (for 1983.) Of course, it was $0.50 instead of a quarter and you could keep pumping in quarters to continue the adventure. I was never rich enough to beat the game but I remember the first time I watched someone else win. Several of us gathered around as the kid faced the dragon. He was doing really well. In fact, it only took a couple bucks more and finally, he did something none of us had been able to do. He beat the dragon and rescued the princess! And then it ended.

Now what’s it do?

I don’t know. I think that’s the end.

How can it be the end? You just put more quarters in?

Yeah, I think when you win it’s over

It made no sense to us. The idea of scenario games is a stable of the console games today. You can “win” Halo if you play long enough, but at that point we felt just a little cheated.

But, most arcade style games don’t have that satisfying finality. Flappy birds? Candy Crush? They keep turning up the difficulty until you reach the limits of what’s even possible. And then you die. Or you fail. But, either way, you lose.

I still play 2048. But, I decided that I don’t want to end on a loss. The game is called 2048. I try to get the 2048 tile. Sometimes I don’t. But sometimes I do. When I finally get the 2048 tile, I win. I simply stop playing. Just because the game designers set it up for me to fail, doesn’t mean I have to play along.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday at 7:00 AM Mountain Time. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and one grandchild.

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  1. Michael Kohne permalink

    Fascinating. Interestingly, I generally find myself playing games that have an end condition, and now I’m wondering if this is why. Also, if you want a massive time-sink with end conditions, I can recommend FTL – it’s got a very definite win condition, but man is it easy to do ‘just one more turn’.

  2. I don’t play games without an actual victory or win state, it feels like an exercise in futility to me.

    • You are obviously smarter than I was. I think I’m better now.

      • Well when you think about it objectively, it becomes really hard to find a reason to play it. If somebody came over and asked “so how do you win?” and you said “you don’t”…..wouldn’t that raise an eyebrow?

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