Learned helplessness — and the dark allure of video games

Adam Meadows
Sep 5 · 6 min read

Be what you want, be who you want, do what you want — that’d be the tagline of Video Game: The Movie.

It’s why Grand Theft Auto is so popular: it smashes this sandbox and reality together, giving us the broad ability to be and do in a vague simulacrum of the real-world. It’s a power and freedom fantasy — but not in some fantastical universe of dungeons, dragons and cyborgs. It’s a fantasy steeped in concrete highways, flash cars, and sunstroked cityscapes.

Our beloved past-time is itself a sandbox that arms us — often literally — to run wild with our imaginations. When we do that, though, there’s undoubtedly the chance that our imaginations run wild with us instead.

And when that happens, it becomes far too easy to choose video games above all else.

If you’ve played game for decades, like I have, there’s a small chance you’ve circled that drain. You’ve chosen — like I have — to invest your real-life time into digital oblivion. It’s not necessarily an addiction — but a release that comes all to easily. It’s something that tricks you into believing that digital agency can be banked in the real-world. For most of us, though, that simply isn’t the case — and never will be.

As to why we choose that excessive escapism, the reasons are far too many to count: bordemon, loneliness, isolation, abuse. My experience can be described like this: imagine a balance. One side is real-world agency. The other, digital agency. The former feels empty, the latter feels weighted.

It’s about power. Or more specifically, the balance of. But it’s less about the allure of simulated power that feels real in the digital world, and more about a lack of power in the real one. It’s only enforced by something inherent to video games, where trying is almost always rewarded. To play is to be rewarded — not like life. Failure can be instantly erased, with that cycle of failure and success spanning minutes or hours — not days, years, months or decades. Failure invites no real risk, but almost always rewards a simulated sense of accomplishment.

Removing games from the equation, from that balance, won’t suddenly cause real-world agency to materialise. It won’t magically tip the balance in reality’s favour. It’s this, then, that I would define as being the pseudo-addictive nature of video games — the dark underbelly of something many of us love to do for hours on end. Video games have a unique ability to pull you away from your problems, and make you want to stay there.

This isn’t to demonise video games — it’s to say that they have a unique ability to consume us at vulnerable times in our lives. They also have the unique ability to inspire, distract, and connect us to others, too. It’s those strengths that make them so powerful, and gives them that pull. This is made all the worse by microtransaction business models that seek to ensure we stay stuck in those worlds — because time spent is money spent, too.

As we grow, I’d argue that the fundamental meaning of video games changes — which is why cosmetics in Fortnite mean more to younger generations than we could ever hope to understand. To hazard a guess, though: young people are, in effect, low-resolution humans. They lack definition. No job, no meaningful skills, relationships or hobbies. Enter Fornite — or just about anything else, really. It enables youngsters to add definition where relatively little existed before. Skins, rankings, friends lists — all there to boost those fledging egos, giving young players the chance to define themselves in a way little else does at that time in their lives. For all the world to see, too.

It’s why an online match in Modern Warfare could have me sweating buckets and shouting at the screen as a teenager. Back then, my kill-death ratio was a larger proportion of my identity — with little real-world definition to offset that. No job, no real achievements, and no partner. But my in-game ratio, a number on a screen, was far more real and immediate than anything else at the time. Hence, it mattered.

Being raised on video games might cast reality in an inherently negative light — as it’s seemingly almost impossible for reality to compete with the instant-noodle convenience of video-game worlds. Online games only reinforce this, too, as adding other people to the mix only enhances that sense of what’s real.

Other people are involved, so it must be true.

If I were to talk to a friend in this position — as I was — I’d look to build their confidence and sense of agency in the real-world. To show them they can action the world around them with positive results. Making a friend in a coffee shop isn’t exactly the same as swinging through a metropolis or raiding a mythical dungeon, but it can produce a similar emotional response: pleasure, engagement, and a sense of connectedness to others.

Most of us have likely known someone that only seems to play video games — something that, on the outside, can seem like a choice. It can feel like a choice, too. But most of us never likely had that conversation to ask why they choose to make that choice.

What I’ve described so far — agency, identity, power — are my personal manifestations of learned helplessness, which is defined as:

Learned helplessness is a state that occurs after a person has experienced a stressful situation repeatedly. They come to believe that they are unable to control or change the situation, so they do not try — even when opportunities for change become available.

That definition alone highlights where video games might present an immediate out, because they offer a situation that’s as malleable as you want it to be. Learned helplessness eventually becomes intolerable, as you can only suffer a lack of agency in your own story for so long. Instead, you move that story to the digital realm — where it can become near impossible to revert back without an outside nudge.

It’s terrifying. As designers become ever more proficient at driving up those engagement hours — all in the hopes you’ll spend more dosh on that live service — the easier it is to be convinced that reality is in the wrong. Games, broadly speaking, don’t succumb to the failings of random chance. Not all that much bad can happen to you without your explicit consent.

And if you don’t like the way one digital reality is turning out, you can swap to another in mere seconds. Change your story to match your mood.

It’s why loot boxes are so appalling, as a commercialised form of learned helplessness. You pull and pull and pull the lever hoping things turn in your favour, with no direct effort or agency required in your part — you’re literally helpless in influencing the outcome.

Grand Theft Auto is an absolute masterclass in portraying progress and agency. Their central stories often going from rags to riches, from down-and-outs to upcomers as a result of your actions. That flashier car, that bigger gun, that fancier house — all relatively immediate rewards entirely thanks to you. You did that, all with little risk or loss or failure. Death and jail obviously don’t carry the devastating occurrences of their real-world counterparts.

Video games let us simulate a rise very few will ever have: learned helpfulness, if you will. This will only worsen, as we graduate to new levels of fidelity — the trap of that simulated power fantasy will become ever more alluring. And even though reality can never quite compete with the fantasy video games provide, they can offer rewards as emotionally stimulating — and provide an appreciation of those digital worlds as we step away from them, to later return and see just how special they truly are.

Gamerly

All about games

Adam Meadows

Written by

Gamerly

Gamerly

All about games

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