There I was, blasting through corridors full of mercenaries and rampaging mutants, almost to the exit of the complex, when I hit a tricky spot in Far Cry. After repeated failures, I resorted to cheating in order to press on, only to soon realize that the gameplay I had liked was long over, and the game was no longer interesting – I was bored. I have found myself getting bored in the middle of many games and finishing few. Am I alone in my plight? What does it all mean? Is this a sign of mild attention deficit disorder on my part, or is it something in the games, in their respective designs? Could you even say games are (inadvertently) inherently boring in parts of their design?

It seems counter-intuitive to say an entertainment form can be boring, yet it obviously happens, because everyone’s tastes are different. But do we have an epidemic on our hands? This is obviously a difficult thing to quantify, but an economics-influenced approach should point us in the right direction. First, games are an investment of time, effort and money, and people want a return on their investments. Thus, it’s safe to assume that people will seek to change the situation when they stop having fun with their investment. Obviously, people can return or sell games they don’t enjoy, but there are a variety of other methods, like purchasing products to make the game experience more fun. One option is to use strategy guides and walkthroughs to solve difficult challenges or find the most efficient way through a game. While players use strategy guides to make a game less difficult rather than less boring, boredom enters into strategy guides’ appeal; getting stuck in a game for hours isn’t fun. And with sales figures of $90 million in 2004 and $67 million in 2005, it’s hard to deny that strategy guides are an industry serving a real demand.

Cheat codes are a time-honored component of single-player games, but the demand goes beyond that. Witness the long-running success of products that modify console games’ memory – in effect, hardware-based cheating. The Action Replay was the first of such devices, first on the Commodore 64 and then on most subsequent game consoles. Similar products include Game Genie, now defunct, and GameShark. While these devices can help a player deal with a boring game, this is just one of their uses, according to Action Replay’s maker, Datel.

Ian Osborne, a Datel PR representative, said they view their product as one that allows users to unlock content (such as new characters or racetracks), in addition to something that lets people cheat. If hardcore players tend to find games less challenging, the fact that most of Datel’s customers are hardcore gamers would imply that exploration and re-playability are the main reasons for purchasing the Action Replay, not boredom. As Osborne put it, “Consequently, demand is spread across genres, but focused on the games hardcore gamers buy. For example, there’s more demand for cheats for a GTA or Tomb Raider game than a Disney title.”

So, perhaps people are cheating and unlocking features, not because they’re bored but because they’re enjoying the game and want to extend the experience. But if players are not content to play through a racing game to gradually unlock racetracks, isn’t that a sign that there is something boring or frustrating in the basic game design? One would think unlocking tracks would give players enjoyable objectives that represent progress in the game. However, there is a significant group of people who disagree.

How could this be addressed by game designers? One idea would be to alter opponents’ difficulty levels (a much-touted feature of the recently released SiN Episodes game). Additionally, changing the prerequisites to advance such that the goals don’t become unattainable and the process isn’t frustrating would keep people interested in playing the unmolested game longer. But this doesn’t help players who dislike the unlocking pretense at its core. Many games alleviate this problem by offering two modes of play, one that lets people bypass stated progression goals to play the bulk
of the game immediately and one that gives them the opportunity to advance more traditionally.

But what about the massively online space? The unique situation of MMOGs makes it difficult to address player boredom in the same way, as developers must balance player achievement in the name of fairness and technical limitations, thus limiting the number of play-styles that can be reasonably supported. For instance, time spent playing is often the primary determinant of player level. The most striking example of player boredom in gaming must surely be the secondary markets in MMOGs, in which in-game characters, items and currencies are bought and sold for cold, hard cash. IGE, one of the main players in the field, valued the marketplace at $880 million in 2004. With the explosive growth of World of Warcraft, it’s surely much larger than that, now.

The system of goals and rewards holds little interest for a large group of players. While a significant portion of this can be attributed to players buying rare in-game items, the fact that players are spending money on in-game currency suggests that there is a meta-commodity here: the time players are willing to spend in order to advance. It’s fair to say that many players using these services find the time commitments required of them to be distasteful – in a word, these games are boring.

MMOGs tend to provide players with repetitive tasks – killing rats, whacking moles, etc. The nature of the genre itself is partially to blame: With limited resources (both time and money), developers are unable to provide a limitless supply of objectives for the player, despite the fact the games are marketed as infinite. It is for this reason (and to make more money) that every successful MMOG will eventually have expansion packs, often providing new content in the form of new locations and new items to acquire and an increase in level caps, keeping players occupied with more carrots to chase. All this can be seen as to prevent players from getting bored from lack of anything to do and moving on to the next game. One logical way to deal with this “late game” challenge is enable players to create their own goals. PvP and guild feuds are obvious ways, as is the object creation seen in Second Life. The latter has much potential, as this enables players to create the objects to acquire and places to explore, though obviously it runs into huge issues of balance and (in)appropriate content.

But what is the psychology behind boredom? I put this very question to Steven Kass, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of West Florida. He explained boredom as an emotional state that arises from either internal or external sources. It is a state characterized by low arousal – that is, of low activity or excitement – but also of negative mood. This combination of factors is what distinguishes boredom from relaxation (low arousal but positive mood) or anger (negative mood but high arousal). Boredom is also characterized by an inability to pay attention at the present moment. The psychoanalyst Otto Fenichel saw boredom to be the result of a situation where “we must not do what we want to do, or must do what we do not want to do.” Perhaps most common in a gaming context is being asked to devote significant playing time to tasks that players don’t feel are important or otherwise fun. While boredom has different causes for each person, Kass notes that “monotony will certainly lead to boredom in a majority of people.”

The game designer Chris Crawford explains in his 1983 book, The Art of Computer Game Design, “The game designer simplifies deliberately in order to focus the player’s attention on those factors the designer judges to be important.” The classic problem, of course, is when the game designer is trying to force you to pay attention to something and you would rather pay attention to something in the game that they care less about. At this point, frustration often sets in. But how is frustration different from boredom? Often, frustration is understood to lead to aggression, but it can also lead to boredom. Presumably, this comes about when the player decides that the game is not worth becoming angry over, and thus chooses to lose interest and bypasses the high arousal associated with anger – the comment “It’s just a game” in response to frustration illustrates this line of reasoning well. While constraint, or lack of desirable actions, can lead to frustration and eventually boredom, the opposite may also be true.

Goal-setting theory holds that people seek to attain goals, and Kass notes that “the best goals are those that are specific, provide feedback and are challenging, but attainable and accepted.” Is it no surprise that quests, checkpoints and score counters are common in games? All these things serve as easily understood and achievable goals. In fact, Kass uses videogames as his example of goal-setting theory in his industrial psychology course.

Returning to the idea of attention, if the game demands attention to an undesirable goal, particularly one that is incomprehensible or almost impossible to achieve, frustration is bound to set in. So, it appears that goals are important for players, but they must be the right ones. What about games that have (practically) limitless possibilities? By not focusing the player’s attention, as Crawford stresses, the player is left with a seemingly contradictory situation: having no goals, yet at the same time, having the potential to pursue any possible goal. Kass suggests that while boredom would not occur, players could easily become overwhelmed and lack motivation to play. This may be one reason why sandbox games such as The Sims and Second Life are deeply disliked by some people, yet are loved by many others. The latter group has essentially resolved the goal problem by creating their own objectives, such as creating the richest Sim possible or designing the coolest hair style. Other players may decide to jump off the tops of mountains, which I spent my time doing while participating in the Asheron’s Call 2 beta. (There was even a skydiving animation!)

So, is boredom a plague running through the videogames? Surely not, as games remain both popular and financially successful. However, some elements that encourage boredom are present and can be prevented. Just as most first-person shooters no longer require you to run through endless hallways and collect hidden keys to open doors, other improvements to gameplay can be made. Ultimately, I believe the future lies in giving the player the freedom to experiment so that she may discover what interests her and what she finds boring. After all, why should you bored when you’re playing a game? You’re supposed to be having fun!

A life-long gamer, Peter Robinett still manages to find time for the occasional videogame despite working on finishing a Masters degree in London.

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