[Note: This article first appeared in my column on Gamasutra.com.]
My wife and I have a Father’s Day tradition where I get to celebrate the joy of parenthood by kicking everyone out of the house and playing video games for 12 hours straight. ((And ladies, before you cry foul, she gets to do something similar on Mother’s Day involving scrapbooking and a nice bottle of Chardonnay)) This year I decided to take a chunk out of my backlog by unwrapping Bioshock 2 and popping it in. Normally it would take me weeks of playing a game like this in one or two hour chunks when I could find the time, and I’d often look forward to these bite-sized gaming sessions. But this time I wanted to use my annual alone time to burn straight through as much as I could without stopping.
I loved the game at first and I envisioned myself playing until biology forced me to stop. A few hours later I was slinging plasmids and stomping splicers, but I was enjoying the game less and less. This made me think of something called “hedonic adaptation” that Dan Ariely had written about in his new book, The Upside of Irrationality. Had my playing Bioshock 2 for hours and hours straight diminished my enjoyment of the game?
Probably so, according to the research Ariely reports on. The theory is that people become less sensitive to pains or pleasures over time ((Don’t confuse this with diminishing sensitivity to gains/losses a la prospect theory; hedonic adaptation refers to changes in sensitivity to the same thing over time)). Ever notice that a bad smell fades the longer you’re exposed to it? Or how people who move from the Midwest to Southern California ((Sorry for the USA-centric reference, Rest of the World; just think bad weather to nice weather)) appreciate the weather a lot when they first get there but take it for granted a couple of years later? Same concept. It’s a good thing for unpleasant stimuli, but somewhat unfortunate when it diminishes our enjoyment of nice things like playing a good game.
The thing is, though, that researchers have found that this kind of adaptation can be short circuited simply by taking a little break. In one 2008 study by Leif Nelson and Tom Meyvis ((Nelson, L. and Meyvis, T. (2008). Interrupted Consumption: Adaptation and the Disruption of Hedonic Experience,” Journal of Marketing Research, 45 654-664.)) the subjects were all lucky enough to get a nice massage as part of the experiment. One group got a three-minute massage. A second group got a 80 second massage, took a twenty second break, then got another 80 seconds for a total of two minutes 40 seconds –less time with the magic fingers than the first group. So, given hedonic adaptation, which group do you think reported higher satisfaction with the massage and said they would be willing to pay more for it? Yep, the one that took a 20-second break. Because that short break stymied their adaptation to the pleasurable event and kind of “reset” their appreciation for it. Nelson and Meyvis also did the same trick with an unpleasant experience –listening to an annoying vacuum cleaner sound at high volume. ((To recreate this effect, turn on your vacuum cleaner, lie down on the floor next to it, and stick your face right up in there. Go on, I’ll wait. Done? Okay.)) Same thing: those who took a break listening to the sound found it sucked more. ((Pun intended.))
So think about the implications this has for video game reviewers. When a popular AAA game comes out, it’s not uncommon at all for reviewers to sit down and burn through it as fast as they can in order to satisfy readers’ expectations of a timely review. Sometimes game publishers even invite reviewers on-site to sequester themselves with the game just ahead of release and do literally nothing but sit in a room and play the game until they’re either done or start recreating the last third of “The Shining.”
Given hedonic adaptation, does a reviewer risk becoming numb to a game’s good points if he/she plays it for long stretches without a break? Do they amplify their perceptions of a game’s negative traits in the same way? Given that most of us, rare exceptions like my Bioshock 2 marathon aside, play games in smaller chunks and take long breaks between sessions, does this mean that we’re experiencing the game is a significantly different way than reviewers?
The science seems to suggest so. But I also wanted the opinion of a veteran game reviewer on whether or not it was a legitimate concern or so much poppycock so I asked Tom Chick, who has written bajillions of game reviews for a wide variety of outlets, including 1Up, GameSpy, Yahoo! Games, Gamespot, and others. He also currently serves as editor-in-chief for Fidgit.com and runs the Quarter To Three website. “I do think it’s a legitimate concern in the reviewing process.” Chick said. “I’ve only once done one of those review events where you go somewhere to play through a game before it’s released. It was for Half-Life 2. I was in a room at Valve over the course of two days and one night. I felt it negatively impacted my opinion of the game. I had to be careful to be analytical about the game rather than responding to the fact that I couldn’t take breaks to do other things.”
When asked about reviewers could counteract such demands on those occasions when Gabe Newell isn’t standing over them and poking them with a stick so that they keep playing, Chick said “When I’m charging through something for a review on a deadline, I’ll routine take breaks to either play another game, watch a movie, do some writing, or somehow break up the experience. Whereas I had previously put this down to having a short attention span, I’m now going to say that it’s to avoid acclimation.”
Indeed. Apparently those who say video games and YouTube are stunting our attention spans just aren’t seeing the upside.