How Your Video Games Are Manipulating You

Grand Theft Auto V Trevor

Video games are a psychologically manipulative medium. I’m fine with that for the most part, but I’m aware of the fact that I spend a huge chunk of my game time being manipulated.

There are all these short-term and long-term goals that are constantly being accomplished and feeding your brain positive signals. Oh sweet, I leveled up! Awesome, I just beat a really hard boss and got a new shiny! Ding, I just scored a new PSN Trophy! All the while, the game is reassuring your brain that you’re accomplishing something and that you should feel good about this.

If you want to be overly reductive, you could argue that just about every video game is merely a series of carrots dangled in front of you with some obstacle or series of obstacles in your way. In Super Mario Bros., for example, rescuing the princess was a big fat carrot that led you through a series of deadly obstacles, only to have you keep finding out you were in the wrong damn castle.

Mario Princess in Another Castle

With the RPG-ification (I just made that word up, but you’re welcome to use it) of several video game genres, the level-up system serves as a stimulant to give you short-term milestones along the path as you work toward a long-term goal. In Borderlands, you might not open the vault within your first few hours, but you’ll have leveled up several times. A 3-hour play session is rewarded with a constant series of level-ups, so you’re consciously reminded that you’re making progress. And that feels good.

Personally, I find a game more likely to hold my attention if it has Achievements or Trophies. Oftentimes, I’ll play a game long after it’s worn out it’s welcome due to the fact that I’m super close to dinging another shiny Trophy.

There’s a part of my brain that is stimulated by achieving tiny little goals. It doesn’t matter that clearing the next stage in Aliens: Colonial Marines isn’t a tangible accomplishment with a real-world reward; there’s a “ding” sound and my brain is reassured that I’ve done something worthwhile.

Gears of War 3

It doesn’t have to be a Trophy, though. There are far subtler ways our games urge us forward. Audio cues are something that we hardly ever think about. The meaty thump of your bullet hitting its target in Call of Duty or that sound it makes when your XP is tallied in Gears of War — those things simply convince your brain that you’re a good human being and that you’ve done something good.

Ironically, Portal does the opposite. GLaDOS is constantly berating you, which makes you want to get to the end so you can see her burn. Sure, you’re laughing all the way, but it’s hard to fight the push to show that A.I. what’s what after she’s been putting you down for several hours. Essentially, GLaDOS is manipulating you to get through Portal just as much as she’s manipulating Chell to murder innocent Companion Cubes.

Portal 2

You think that’s a stretch? You know that Valve has an experimental psychologist working for them, right?

And I don’t think I even need to bring up the famous “Would you kindly?” scene from BioShock. We all know the manipulative implications of that rendezvous with mind control.

There are a lot of forms of storytelling that are extremely emotionally manipulative (movies that make you cry, books that make you think sparkly vampires are sexy, etc.), but I’m tempted to argue that video games might be the most manipulative medium there is.

I’m not saying it’s a bad thing; I’m just saying it’s a thing.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x