Hedonic Adaptation and Game Reviews

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. 1 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 2. 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 3 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 4 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. 5 Same thing: those who took a break listening to the sound found it sucked more. 6

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.


1. And ladies, before you cry foul, she gets to do something similar on Mother’s Day involving scrapbooking and my leaving her the hell alone.
2. 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
3. Sorry for the USA-centric reference, Rest of the World; just think bad weather to nice weather
4. Nelson, L. and Meyvis, T. (2008). Interrupted Consumption: Adaptation and the Disruption of Hedonic Experience,” Journal of Marketing Research, 45 654-664.
5. 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.
6. Pun intended.

15 thoughts on “Hedonic Adaptation and Game Reviews

  1. Seeing how this was a Gamasutra article, I’m surprised that you didn’t talk about the implications this topic has for game developers, which I think are: you should alternate between several gameplay types in your game so that the player doesn’t get fatigued by constantly doing the same thing (even if it’s highly enjoyable at first).

    Many developers do just that: they “force” players to take breaks from the game’s main activity by including some other mini-activities. For instance, while the Half-Life series focuses on combat, Valve also includes exploration and puzzle-solving (and loves talking about it in the developer commentaries).

  2. #Tomasz

    I have to disagree,at lease i don’t fell that way.For example even when im playing a game like RDR which has lots of variety of different things to do i start enjoying it less and less when play for more then 3 hours straight.I figure most are like that when playing games.

    Although the article stands true about single player games it doesn’t seem to apply to multilayer games(specially MMO ones).I wonder why?

  3. How long does the effect last? Can it have an enduring impact on someone?

    I ask, because there seems to be some parallels with the experiments you discussed and my experiences with music as a college DJ. I was part of a subculture at our radio station that got *really* into experimental music and noise for a while (and by noise, I mean *noise* — literally, guys hitting metal sheets with belt sanders and running the sounds through layers of modulation). At first, it was, as you’d suspect, incredibly off-putting. But we found, after prolonged exposure, it became less and less abrasive and, eventually, almost relaxing (like ambient noise).

    I always figured that the end result was a higher tolerance overall for really edgy and adventurous music. I can more quickly access stuff that most listeners would find tough to wrap their ears around. Hedonic adaptation, or just pretentiousness? 😉 And, how does this play into the frequent argument about video games desensitizing us to acts of violence?

  4. Also, when taking longer breaks you risk forgetting elements of the story. As an example I almost had a one-year break playing Okami (the game demands that you sit down and devote a lot of time to it), and when I finally returned to it, I had forgot a lot about what I was doing. Same thing happened for me in Mass Effect (because I reached a certain point where I just kept dying, and the checkpoints were not very kind, either), so what happens is that I have to make a completely new save file to start the game from scratch.

    Some games try to prevent this, like Professor Layton series that nicely recaps the story so far each time you turn it on.

  5. @Tomasz
    Yeah, that’s a good point and a reason to include that kind of thing in game design. Someone on Twitter noted that this explains the existence of elevators in Mass Effect 1, which I thought was funny.

  6. @ Sean
    Yee, that sounds awful. Unfortunately I’m so well versed in the topic that I could say for sure, but I’d guess your penchant for weird music has more to do with your tastes.

    The violence angle is an interesting one, and I’m not surprised to hear someone bring it up. I think it’s really a different concept, though. Desensitization seems to involve a whole list of other factors and effects. Maybe in another article…

  7. Wow Jamie, great article. One of your best in my opinion. I definitely notice this with my playing. I get three nights a week (Monday, Thursday and Friday) to play games. When I “mad dog” a session by playing about five hours straight, I’m ready to stop! I feel like it’s not as good as when I first popped it in. Oddly enough, the next morning or afternoon I’m wishing I was playing again.

    Maybe you could do a related article to find out what happens when we force ourselves to game? With only the aforementioned nights to play, I often feel like “if I don’t play now I’m wasting a game night.” Would satisfaction decline when we force ourselves to do things we like? I know there are numerous studies about enjoyment relating to pay (the famous one of paying kids to color pictures comes to mind), but what about forcing ourselves to do hobbies?

  8. This is interesting, but as far as reviewing goes, isn’t it much the same as how music critics can’t always drive around for a week with a disc in the stereo before reviewing it, or how Academy members have to vote based on a crappy little timecoded screener disc instead of seeing every movie in the theatre, or book reviewers can’t lope leisurely through a long tome before delivering their review?

    It’s an interesting problem, is what I’m saying, and in a medium that prides itself on interactivity, there are bound to be some clever solutions mooted by people that give the matter some thought. But as far as its implications for criticism, I’m inclined to reply, “that’s why critics are paid to be good at their jobs.”

  9. >”those who took a break listening to the sound
    > found it sucked more”

    >”Do they amplify their perceptions of a game’s
    > negative traits in the same way?”

    Isn’t this a bit contradictory? I thought your implication would be that death-march reviewers would think the negative bits weren’t as sucky, as they had become inured to them.

    Of course, this would be offset by the reviewer being less wow-ed by the good bits. So if you played any game for long enough you’d give it 5 out of 10 🙂

    • I will often play for 4-5 hours a night, and have been known to play essentially all weekend when I can find clever ways to clear my calender of distractions and I’m well rested. I can honestly say that this adaptation does not effect me whilst gaming. I have a greater proclivity than most for role-playing in games (‘immersion’ in games and films happens very easily and naturally to me), so perhaps the added levels of immersion are the difference.
      It does explain why most people find the stop-start of a nearby chainsaw to be such a surefire way to ruin a Sunday morning.

  10. Pingback: Of fanboism, unnecessary change, and self-induced failure » Systemic Babble

  11. I think the issue with reviewers can be circumvented by making sure you play ever game in the same way. That way no game gets an advantage over another, and your internalized scoring system essentially gets ‘reset’ to take into account the points knocked off by a marathon session.

    Then again, if you’re a reviewer that consciously takes breaks, then being forced into reviewing something like Half Life 2 in a single sitting is going to really mess with you.

  12. Very interesting. I don’t often have time to play a game for more than a couple of hours because of my schedule, so this is probably why games always seem fresh to me.

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.