The Illusion of Progress

After the first night of playing Heroes of the Storm, I texted a close friend and told him that the game is dangerous. He understood immediately, as he responded that it’s a game designed to ruin your life. It is designed to keep you coming back, day after day, hitting all those sweet reward centers of your brain, constantly showing you progress, if not on a character, then on your overall level. There are musical cues, dialogue from NPCS, and visual cues that all tell you you’re doing a great job, keep it up, and you’ll get more rewards, more stimulus. Heroes isn’t the first game to do it, but Blizzard has done an excellent job at implementing what has been a continuing trend in gaming.

Almost all games now have RPG elements somewhere in there design, simply because it is a simple way to incentivize players to keep coming back, to keep unlocking new abilities, new skins, new weapons, new something. Dying Light, Shadow of Mordor, Far Cry 4, Call of Duty multiplayer, none RPGs, yet all of them have leveling systems. It’s gotten to the point where I can clearly see the carrot, know that it’s been put there only to get me to come back, and yet I still continue. It’s not as insidious in paid games, but in free to play games likes Heroes (with Marvel Puzzle Quest being the other freemium game that has lured me in) it can be downright destructive, because you’re basically paying to play the game by playing the game. It’s almost like a system of labor built into playing the game. It’s bizarre cognitive dissonance, when I’m really enjoying playing the game, and at the same time are completely aware of the systems in place. “I need to keep playing so that I can play it more!”

How do you react to games like this? I try and temper my enthusiasm for a game by limiting my time with it, knowing that I shouldn’t put too much time towards it, but it’s hard for me to resist that siren’s call completely. I find myself constantly asking myself if I’m really enjoying my time with the game, or if the game’s just tricking me. The strangest is when it’s hard to tell the difference. “Am I having fun?” shouldn’t be a hard question to answer, but at times I’m not sure. I find it interesting because it really delves down into what is fun about playing videogames. Is it that sense of progression, of growth and experience that usually isn’t easy to come by in real life but comes so quickly in a game? If a game is rewarding you with that, is that enough?