Locus of Controller

Or: Meaningful Player Agency Makes You Happy

Control. It’s not something most of us have over our lives, and a lack of control is undoubtedly one of, if not the biggest contributing factors to feeling stressed. Feeling out of control can be a nightmarish sensation.

In fact, a feeling of control is one of the main reason I play and love games so much. They’re an opportunity and an invitation to impose my will on a world — proving my skills in a constructed, rigid space and play-state. This is frequently more appealing than the real world, which actually in many ways is like a crap videogame….bosses don’t have glowing weak spots and permadeath by default for example.

I’m sure if you’re reading this you know what I mean. If you’re a gamer of roughly my generation (I’m 27) then you’ve grown up with sophisticated controllers — and control. We say jump, Mario says ‘how high?’ I think we can all probably agree that control is serious business, in everyday life and in gaming. Unless you’re using motion controls in which case it’s a hilarious farce.

And so I want to discuss what control really means, why it’s sometimes taken away from us, why it’s important to game design — and finally, how an understanding of where feelings of control come from can drastically improve your life and gamerscore.

The Locus of Control

I first came into contact with the concept whilst I was working at the Apple Store a few years ago, back when Infinity Blade was still impressive. Say what you will about Apple, they offer surprisingly robust psychological training to a bunch of frustrated creatives who mostly just end up peeling stickers off peoples iPhones and showing people how to soft reset.

The training was presumably meant to help you keep calm in a busy retail environment and be able to sympathise with customers who were frustrated with their shiny new malfunctions. In fact, it gave the earnest study a chance to make sense of an aspect of personality that colours an awful lot of our daily interactions.

Wikipedia summarises it all thus:

In personality psychology, locus of control refers to the extent to which individuals believe they can control events affecting them. Understanding of the concept was developed by Julian B. Rotter in 1954, and has since become an aspect of personality studies. A person’s “locus” (Latin for “place” or “location”) is conceptualized as either internal (the person believes they can control their life) or external (meaning they believe their decisions and life are controlled by environmental factors which they cannot influence, or by chance or fate).[1]
Individuals with a strong internal locus of control believe events in their life derive primarily from their own actions: for example, when receiving test results, people with an internal locus of control tend to praise or blame themselves and their abilities.People with a strong external locus of control tend to praise or blame external factors such as the teacher or the test.[2]

By the way — I’m not a control freak, I like to think of myself as more of a control geek, and whilst I can’t share all my findings here, I’ve realised that nowhere is the nuanced complexity of our relationship with and need for control better exemplified than in videogames.

Let’s just take a moment to let that quote sink in. To illustrate, let’s imagine we’re playing a quick game of Hearthsone — probably on our tablets whilst watching BattleStar Galactica on Netflix in the background, maybe with a second game of Hearthstone playing on the laptop. You get a bad draw against a stupid Murlock rush deck and you can’t play anything — you lose.

Fuck these guys, seriously.

In this example, If you have a strongly internal locus, you might blame your deck-building skills, your own judgement, and you’ll probably be a little annoyed but feel compelled to re-balance, maybe craft a few new cards and have another go etc.

If you have a strongly external locus in this instance, you’ll probably feel a lot more frustrated — uttering things like ‘stupid imba murlocks’ or feeling pissed at the luck of the draw, Hearthstone’s mechanics in general or the ‘cheap tactics’ of the other player. Essentially the game was out of your hands — there was nothing you could do other than sit back and wallow in the ignominy of being crushed by a gang of angry fish-frog things.

Let’s compare that to the ‘Souls’ series; Demons, Dark and its spiritual successor Bloodborne. Again these games are widely celebrated but won’t be for everyone — if you don’t truly believe the power to overcome it lies within you, and you enjoy the slow but steady imposing of your will and skill onto the game as opposed to feeling upset and powerless the tenth time the Pursuer impales you, then you simply will not enjoy the game. And even with its punishing difficulty, I think Hearthstone is actually more unfair and less forgiving.

Happily, unlike most of psychology and personality theory, there is a concrete ideal to aspire to.

It’s called ‘bi-local’. Simply put, bi-localism is a way of fostering the self confidence and belief in agency — that is, your ability to affect change — to allow you to feel that you can impose your will on external stimuli, and the sagacity to understand that there is also a limit — that some things simply are outside of your locus of control and that you have to accept and get on with — much like a bad DOTA 2 draft.


Is this achievable? How can this help you life your life effectively and happily?

It’s definitely achievable. It can be learned through practice, re-adjustment of attitude and happily, games can be a great help. First however you need to accurately determine your own locus. You should start by either taking one of the online tests or just asking yourself a few hard, honest questions — what is your reaction when you are not in control of a situation? Do you believe life is what you make of it or that things just happen to you?

Then it’s a question of tailoring your life to both strengthen and balance your sense of control. Seek out games that put you in harsh environments but with control over the mechanics and variables (Roguelikes are often great for this, strategy games/RTS etc) and make sure you’re sensitive to the feedback loops and tricks game devs often play on you to create an endowed progress effect and control you through your own instinctive/compulsive actions. Read around the subject — if you’re really serious I cannot recommend the Tao Te Ching enough, and if it looks a little oblique and impenetrable, The Tao of Pooh is a fantastic introduction to Taoist philosophy with real world applications. It would not be an exaggeration to say that in conjunction, Tao of Pooh, Tao Te Ching and a cluster of indie games changed my life.

Game changers.

Let me give another book recommendation — Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken. The book itself is very much about practical application of game-theory to addressing often stigmatised mental health and societal issues, but the following abstract succinctly illustrates how the psychology of games and gamers can have such definite impact. The back of the book:

Drawing on positive psychology, cognitive science, and sociology, Reality Is Broken uncovers how game designers have hit on core truths about what makes us happy and utilized these discoveries to astonishing effect in virtual environments.
But why, McGonigal asks, should we use the power of games for escapist entertainment alone?
In Reality Is Broken, she reveals how these new alternate reality games are already improving the quality of our daily lives, fighting social problems such as depression and obesity, and addressing vital twenty-first-century challenges-and she forecasts the thrilling possibilities that lie ahead.

At the risk of being melodramatic, I would say that our society, and often our particular gaming communities — has an endemic struggle with control — we want control over the content in our games, control over the press, control over everything. Pair that idea that most of us are pulled all over the place by capitalist/consumerist institutions most of our lives — at our day-jobs, by our paltry excuse for a government, the patriarchal mainstream media and advertising industries etc — and you can begin to see that whilst games prove a productive diversion from it all, we’re as much in need of recognising and deciphering paradigms of control in our every-day lives.

Of course, taking control is a choice — control and choice are close cousins, but not always friends.

The difference between choice and control is another complex issue — but I want to make a quick comment about how they can be interlinked.

Indeed, this is really what’s at the heart of feedback loops or systems such as levelling up that arbitrarily awards you a few extra, usually automatic assigned stat points and an extra peg for your sparkly skill tree, the choice you make then having little or no impact on either gameplay, game-state or progression (here’s looking at you Fable series and Kingdoms of Amalur — you wonky, wonderful games).

Wait..which one is the evil one?

In this way, games that deny us choice are also denying us control of that game’s defining system — or giving us the illusion of control. If I wanted to pay for the illusion of control I’d try and get somewhere in London on public transport.

Let’s briefly discuss the philosophy of controllers too — specifically our relationship with them. I’m not suggesting of course that any of you have very intimate relationships with your controllers beyond maybe having a favourite — like a child, they’re all useful and do much the same thing but there’s always one you want to show to your friends first — and maybe some of us have considered marrying one after a particularly close win in free-for-all Halo if it was an option — anyway, rather, a discussion of control and of player agency.

We can’t very well ignore our primary means of interaction and what is realistically the frontline of a game-dev’s communication with a player — and primary means of controlling us.

We respond to overly long tutorials and frequent gameplay prompts, to dialogue and to level design, as much as to cynically tweaked and tested feedback loops by depressing coloured plastic and tenderly manipulating a nub of rubber — make no mistake, the game controls us as much as we control it — and as much as we will ourselves into believing that we have a locus of control that extends into virtual reality. This is often at the root of what the sensationalist and of course myopic mainstream press use to justify how games make people more inclined to violence etc.

I make no claims to this being a comprehensive study, but hopefully if you’ve made it this far it’s piqued your interest and will encourage you to investigate, interrogate, your own locus, play better games, and become happier.

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