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Why do we spend time playing games we don't like?

Looking at the data behind bad games

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We spend a lot of time playing games we don’t like. Remember The War Z, renamed to Infestation: Survivor Stories after receiving overwhelmingly negative reviews all around? On Steam, it has nearly 14,000 negative reviews which total 507,837 played hours of absolute garbage. Or what about Duke Nukem Forever, which is somehow sitting at ‘Mostly Positive’ at the moment? The 1500-odd Steam reviews that rightly acknowledge it as a flaming trash pile account for 10,013 hours those poor souls will never get back.

I’m fascinated by the lifetimes we cumulatively waste on games we end up hating, and so I decided to dig a little deeper. How long do we typically spend with a game before we decide it’s no good? Do we have to finish it, or do we make up our minds before the credits roll? Does it take us longer to nail down our feelings on a popular game versus an unpopular one? Why on earth don’t we just do something else?

To answer these questions, I took a look at the Steam reviews for a number of big games with ‘mixed’ reception – the kinds of games that defy a simple and immediate classification as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. By averaging out the hour counts of both positive and negative reviews, we can see a consistent trend between the two, with players spending on average two to three times as long with a game they enjoy than a game that leaves them disappointed. Not too surprising, but things get more interesting when we compare the average hour counts with the time it takes to beat these games, as estimated by howlongtobeat.com. Contrasting these values reveals that we often spend enough time with games we don’t recommend to see their credits roll – though whether we actually do reach the end or not is significantly harder to quantify. Judging from sampled review text, though, we push through as far as we can, even when crashes, bugs, and low framerates conspire against us.

This is not strictly scientific but it’s fascinating for a number of reasons. First of all, it potentially says something about our expectations of getting our money’s worth out of a game; even when we’re not having a great time, we keep playing in order to justify our purchase with a defensible dollars-to-hours ratio. It could be a case of the sunk-cost fallacy, with the idea of abandoning a $60 purchase after just a couple of hours tasting unpleasant in the back of your mouth. None of us want to feel like we made a bad buying decision, and hey, maybe the fun will kick in in just a couple more hours?

That naïve optimism speaks to another curious foible: the disproportionate influence of a game’s ending. Because of the way our minds work, we remember most vividly the first and last elements in a series, whether that be names in a list, episodes of a TV show, or our experiences with a game. When a game ends on a high, we tend to forgive and forget the iffy patches in the middle, but when the final boss is an overlong mess of difficulty spikes and inadequate closure, all the hours of fun leading up to it fly out the window. For me, it’s the disappointing endings of Mirror’s Edge, vanilla Fallout 3, and Borderlands that tar what are otherwise great games. Even now, years on, I can’t help but remember how much of a letdown their conclusions were. It’s not surprising, then, that we might review poorly a game that we spent a dozen or more hours with. If our parting memories are of an anticlimactic button press to decide the fate of the world, it’s hard to not feel a little jaded.

Similarly, a contentious patch in a multiplayer game can have a drastic effect on popular opinion. If a game suddenly nerfs your favourite character, all the hours you spent learning them can feel like a waste, and hitting back with a negative review seems justified. The same goes for the gradual decline of a game’s player base. If you can no longer find an online match for the game you bought, that’s going to leave a bitter taste in your mouth, and a thumbs down is often the only retribution you have available no matter how much you enjoyed the game previously.

In contrast, we tend to turn a more optimistic eye to games in Early Access. The possibility of new features and massive improvements down the line fosters optimism and encourages us to give a game the benefit of the doubt. That positivity only goes so far, though. If an Early Access game transitions to a 1.0 release without implementing all the features it originally promised, as in the case of Spacebase DF-9, opinion can turn swiftly and severely, with optimistic reviews morphing into dire warnings of false advertising.

Our expectations change from game to game, too. It’s not uncommon to see negative reviews with dozens of hours played for games like The Division or Civilization, since these games can take a while to hit their stride but potentially offer hundreds of hours of enjoyment. On average, we’ll stick with these games longer than smaller-scope titles like Ori and the Blind Forest or Thief before throwing in the towel.

By comparing the average hour counts for ‘mixed’ games to those with a greater consensus of opinion, we see another trend emerge. The more popular a game is, the longer a negative reviewer will spend with it. Conversely, if the game is widely panned, condemnation is as swift as it is harsh. The hunger for closure and the hope that the fun will kick in in the fourth, fifth, or sixth hour are no longer enough to push through to the end, with most unhappy players investing less than half the average completion time before putting down the controller. This remains true even for games that are only a couple of hours long.

These discrepancies in play-time speak to more than just the quality of a game; sampling again the text of the reviews, there is little difference between the anger and disappointment levelled at popular games versus unpopular ones. Complaints of bad writing, repetitive mission design, and unbalanced systems are common across the board, yet we suffer through them for hours longer when a game has that precious ‘Positive’ label. Why do we punish ourselves so?

In the realm of psychology, there is a phenomenon known as social proof, which essentially says that, when we’re in uncertain and ambiguous situations, we look to other people for guidance on how to behave. The prime example is a study by John Darley and Bibb Latane, where they gathered students into a room, gave them questionnaires to fill out, then left. They then began pumping smoke into the room, faking a nearby fire. When a student was by themselves, they noticed the smoke and left the room to report it within a couple of minutes. When they were in a group, however, they took much longer to respond, and when Darley and Latane populated the group with confederates who ignored the smoke completely, many students followed suit, filling out their questionnaires even as smoke teared up their eyes. Simply put, the smoke represented uncertainty, and the more people not running out of the room screaming “Fire!”, the more likely you are to do the same.

Applying this principle to our average hour counts, the trend starts to make a lot more sense. When the first hints of doubt about a game’s quality start setting in, we seek out evidence in our environment to squash our uncertainty. Often that means reading reviews. If everyone else seems to be having a blast, we’re more likely to set aside our reservations and truck on, assuming that we’re simply missing something everyone else has already seen. The less enthusiastic other people are, though, the less likely we’ll push through a game before calling it quits. Like the students in the smoke-filled room, sometimes this approach doesn’t work out so great.

Of course, regardless of what we might infer from these statistics, it’s important to remember that there’s nothing wrong with coming away disappointed with a game you poured hundreds of hours into. Sometimes it simply takes that long to fully understand why a game doesn’t click for you, especially if it’s one that, on paper, seems right up your alley. Exploring the reasons why you don’t like something can be satisfying in its own right, even if the game isn’t. Giving a negative review to a game you’ve played for ten, twenty or even hundreds of hours doesn’t make the review invalid.

Regardless, we can start to see why we sometimes spend hours playing, and investigating, before finally giving a game the big red thumbs down. Between a desire for closure, the drive to get our money’s worth, and the power of the zeitgeist, we don’t need to be having fun with a game to keep plugging away at it. There’s only one thing I still don’t understand: who leaves one game running for 392 days straight?

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Matt Sayer

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