Learned Helplessness

I don’t like games where randomness dominates. Some can be fun, if we take them completely unseriously, but the less your actions ultimately matter, the less interesting the whole thing is. As the non-controlled element becomes larger, the virtue of winning goes to zero and the frustration of losing goes to infinity (or also zero, as you stop caring). “A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”

Slot machines give you the same zero input as Candyland, but people like them. One thing they know is to present only wins, not losses. If you lose, nothing happens. There is no penalty. Yes, you paid to play, but the machine is going to keep that fact as far from the outcome as possible. When you win, you get a big celebration with flashing lights and sirens and coins pumping out. You are completely helpless, but you never get a negative, so it’s just free money, right?

Uncontrollable negatives have strong effects. I have read about studies [citation needed] of test animals given electric shocks. They didn’t get an “off” lever or any reason, it just happened. They pretty quickly just cowered and waited for it to happen again. No point in doing anything, it won’t help, just lie there and take it. Games are quite big on pointing out when you lose. There will be a big GAME OVER screen, death animations, an NPC mocking you, some number on the screen going down, etc. When loss in a game is uncontrollable, there will be a variety of negatives to encourage your learned helplessness. Unlike the monkey in the cage, you have the option of turning off the game and not waiting for the next round.

At Ravious’s suggestion, I have tried out Desktop Dungeons. I didn’t enjoy it. It is too random, particularly as you start challenges: difficulty is supposed to be extremely high, so very small differences in starting conditions will lead to impossible situations. Worse, because the map starts hidden and exploring is how you recover health, you will not find out that you have an unbeatable map until a ways in, and the very act of exploring may be what makes it unbeatable. And knowing that, how satisfying can victory be, when you know the game flipped a coin to decide whether it was possible?

Some map configurations are entirely impossible because of enemy layout. Others are just so for your race/class combination. Then there are times when you turn left in the dark and something theoretically possible becomes impossible when you do not randomly pick the right path to victory. Bleeding edge difficulty plus randomness yields uncontrollable failure. If you can play mathematically perfectly with no mistakes and still lose, you may have a problem with game balance or design. I have this same feeling in Elements occasionally, like the games when you get no quanta (mana) or when the cards you need are on the bottom of your deck. At least the rounds are very quick, you have deck-building control over probability, and you expect randomness in card games rather than pretending you can out-think it. (And it is unsatisfying to beat a False God that drew three towers the entire game, and frustrating when you draw only two.)

The Enchanted Cave is an example of a roguelike that shows the map so you can see if you have a winnable situation, although the difficulty is much lower so you might have a different kind of “unsatisfying.”

: Zubon

10 thoughts on “Learned Helplessness”

  1. Was going to make my own post about this and link back, but then Tasos threw up DF info and well, yea.

    I grew up loving Candy Land-style games, until I realized you don’t really ‘play’ them, and hence to this day can’t stand stuff like that (slot machines etc).

    On the other hand, something like Chess is also somewhat limited, in that if you are playing someone who is just 1% better, they should beat you 100% of the time. That seems… unfun?

    Getting the right mix of luck/skill is the eternal design challenge, which is why a game like Battle of Wesnoth or Civilization feels just so right.

  2. I enjoy randomness in games provided that you can overcome it. In other words, good design in my mind is one where the better player will consistently end up near the top even with the randomness.

    Poker is a great example. You could argue that the cards are entirely random, but that doesn’t really determine the outcome. So a good player will consistently win over the bad players in spite of the randomness. And yet, it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility that the bad player could win.

  3. I’ve touched on this when complaining about punishments in game design, and how risk and challenge are two wholly different things. When players have control over their experience, it tends to be far more satisfying. It allows for skill to be relevant and player choice to be important. To me, that’s the point of playing a game.

    Random feedback is pointless. Bounded chaos and randomness within predictable possibilities can be the spice that makes a game work, but those bounds are critical.

  4. I enjoyed and would agree with the majority of the post referencing learned helplessness and the potential for randomness to inhibit fun gameplay, but I think you’re missing the point somewhat with what kind of a game desktop dungeons is designed to be. Bite-sized dungeons that require hardcore strategy, but casual investments of time such that the occaisonal unwinnable map doesn’t become a killswitch for your interest in the game.

    Sure, the game can and will generate unwinnable maps, and it does suck when you don’t discover that fact until you’ve completed the majority of the map, but is that your average experience with the game? Most maps are perfectly winnable, and why shouldn’t the challenge mods present, well, a challenge?

    The problem here is that you’re thinking of the mechanics in DD like you would in a “real game” – IE, one that you’re playing online/offline with friends, or one that you have purchased at retail. In a multiplayer experience, or in a paid game, I would expect unwinnable maps to be discarded. I don’t want to waste mine or others time/money by investing it into an unwinnable game. DD however, is a 4.2mb free game made by 3 dudes with the skills required to make sprite graphics.

    Imagine if you will, that DD 2.0 is released and QFCdesign team read your post and implements all your suggestions. What are we left with? A game that takes about 90 minutes to 100% complete, where every map is an almost guaranteed win?

    Zubon notes:
    Comments are closed, and I am not going to extend them, but I would like to note that this is an example of why discussion on the internet is typically horrible. If I object to having something literally impossible, I must want “an almost guaranteed win.” There is no possibility of a reasonable disagreement because everyone who disagrees with you must be not only wrong but stupid and wicked.

    Gamasutra called DD “A perfect balance between casual and hardcore”, and I feel like you’re only seeing this game through the lens of a hardcore gamer.

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