Learned Helplessness and Halo 5

I picked up Halo 5 around the time that it came out and had a good enough time with the single-player campaign. For many, though, the game’s real draw is its competitive multiplayer. I didn’t jump into that right away, though, because of experiences I had with Halo 4’s multiplayer. Specifically, I got stomped hard whenever I tried to join in on a game. Just utter, undeniable, and consistent failure –so much so that I felt helpless so I gave up. I bet some of you out there have had similar experiences with other shooters, like Call of Duty or other competitive games like DOTA2 or Starcraft.

Heck, we don’t even have to limit it to competitive games. Games that revel in their difficulty like Super Meat Boy, Trials Evolution, and Spelunky can create the same sense of helplessness in the face of failure. Yet some people persist. They continue to bang their heads against the games until they get good or beat a level or get an S-rank. It’s like something clicks in their head and they refuse to accept that they can’t succeed eventually. Or maybe it’s that something doesn’t click.

Psychologists have studied how we learn to feel helpless for decades. Early experiments by psychologist and animal rights non-activist Martin Seligman 1 were pretty messed up. In Part 1 of the experiment, researchers put dogs in a box with a metallic floor that could be electrocuted. When the shocking of doggie paws started, Group A had a lever in their box that they could nudge to turn off the juice. They pretty quickly figured this out. Broup B, though, wasn’t presented with a reliable way to turn off the shocks. They just had to lie there and take it. 2

An example of a dog NOT included in Seligman's experiment.

An example of a dog NOT included in Seligman’s experiment.

In Part 2 of the experiment, the researchers took the same groups of dogs and put them in a similar shock box, only this one was bisected by a low partition wall. Once the shocking started, the dogs in Group A –the ones who had learned they could turn off the shocks in the previous box– started seeking escape and learned that they could simply hop over the partition to safety. The dogs in Group B –the ones who couldn’t escape the shocks previously– didn’t even try to escape. They just curled up and suffered. In Seligman’s words, they had acquired “learned helplessness.”

This is a concept that has since been applied to many parts of human life –school, the workplace, sports, and games. We can learn to feel helpless because of seemingly unavoidable failure in one situation, then carry that burden with us to new situations where we immediately or quickly give up. In many ways, this is what happened to me in the Halo games. Getting curb stomped in competitive play made me assume that all future experiences would be the same. They may have even made me doubt my ability to play action games in general.


It’s something I assume game developers want to avoid as much as players do. Fortunately, Seligman went on to refine his model of learned helplessness in a way that suggests how we can avoid falling into that trap. And some ways that game developers can help us make better attributions for our failures so that we enjoy their games more.

In a paper entitled “Learned Helplessness in Humans” Seligman argues that the attributions we make for our failures (that is, the things we blame for them) vary along three dimensions:

  1. Internal vs. External
  2. Stable vs. Unstable
  3. Global vs. Specific

Internal vs. External deals with whether or not you think that the ability to succeed is absent in just you, or absent in everyone.3 “I studied but can’t pass this class even though everyone else in the class could.” is an internal attribution. “I couldn’t save this child from lukemia because lukemia is incurable” is a external attribution.

Global vs. Specific deals with whether or not you feel helpless in all or most situations, or if you feel helpless in only this one situation. Consider a student who gets a bad grade on a paper. “I’m stupid” is a Global attribution. “The teacher who graded the paper hates me” is a Specific attribution.

Chronic vs. Transiet deals with whether we think the helplessness is long-lived (or frequently recurring) or whether we think it’s short-lived (and non-recurring). Consider a soccer player who misses a penalty shot at the goal. “The goalie is too good” is a chronic attribution. “The sun was in my eyes” is a transient attribution.


Like with anything else, the worst attributions when it comes to dealing with failure in video games are internal, global, and chronic ones. “Everybody but me is able to understand the combo system in this game” (internal), “My reflexes are so slow people shoot me before I can even react to seeing them” (global) and “My Internet service is too slow to play competitively” (chronic) are all attributions that are more likely to make you feel helpless. And when you feel helpless you’re more likely to just give up.

On the other hand, “The X button on this controller doesn’t work half the time” (specific) or “My little brother is downloading porn on his laptop again, which is causing lag in my game” (transient) are reasons for failure that we can deal with and we can hold out hope that we might be able to succeed in the future. Maybe even the near future. 4

So, players, when met with failure, should look for different things to blame. Blame hackers and find another servers. Decide that it’s your team that sucks, not you. Maybe you’re having trouble because it’s super late and you’re tired. I mean, maybe don’t SAY these things in game chat or out loud. That would make you kind of a jerk. But at least you won’t be a helpless jerk.

Game developers, on the hand, might take all this in and try to surface information about the game that nudges players towards specific and transient attributions for their failure. If you’re a developer who has tackled this issue, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, now that I’m well rested, have a working controller, and have killed all the downloads on my network, I’m going to try some Halo 5 multiplayer.


1. Seligman, M. E. P. (1972). “Learned helplessness.” Annual Review of Medicine 23 (1): 407–412. doi:10.1146/annurev.me.23.020172.002203.
2. Yeah, I know. Sorry to make you sad like that. But rest assured that if this experiment were proposed today, it would never be allowed. They would have to make due with undergraduate college students instead.
3. Well, not technically “everyone” but “everyone that relevant to me.” More on that in a bit.
4. External attributions –for example, “this game is so janky and broken that winning is essentially random”– don’t really create learned helplessness since we have an external source to blame for failure, but they do kill our hopes that we will be able to succeed.

9 thoughts on “Learned Helplessness and Halo 5

  1. It’s really fascinating to think about this. It’s basically the opposite forces of my kind of attitude to gaming in general at work here – yet I can think of other areas of life where this has been more applicable to me, such as physical sports.

    It also makes me think about the generally toxic nature in random pick-up team games – from your teammates – blaming anyone but themselves for the failure of the team to win.

  2. Jamie, you ought to share what Seligman had to do to eliminate the learned helplessness in his dogs. His dimensions of pessimism/optimism is very helpful for recovering addicts identifying and preventing new self-defeating thoughts… BUT the level of involvement needed to extinguish learned helplessness is above and beyond…

    What did you do to get over your Halo helplessness?

    Myself, I never stepped back into CoD after MW. I am stepping into ring with The Division however.

    • Yeah, there’s a lot of material there. Too much for just one blog post. I may revisit in the future.

      Never did get into Halo multiplayer. Guess I’m just at peace with it. 🙂

  3. “So, players, when met with failure, should look for different things to blame. Blame hackers and find another servers. Decide that it’s your team that sucks, not you. Maybe you’re having trouble because it’s super late and you’re tired. I mean, maybe don’t SAY these things in game chat or out loud. That would make you kind of a jerk. But at least you won’t be a helpless jerk.”

    Blaming others may make people feel better but it does not address the issue of not doing well in the game. I personally prefer to the idea of blaming myself because it nudges me to figure out what I could have done to improve the game. It thinks from a designer perspective, the game should encourage and perhaps, show and teach player how to improve the game (especially after losing).

    So, i think it is emotionally good to blame others to feel better after losing a game but it is logically good to also blame yourself for not doing better if you actually want to win more games. The main thing again is not to stop at blaming, but look at concrete steps to improve the game.

    I have played World of Tanks for years, the game actually did little to teach you how to be a good player. Going to forum, youtube to read up on guides and watch good players replay are the best ways forward.

    In summary, i think it is all about the attitude, if you stops at blaming, you will not improve and it will be a vicious cycle. Be positive, be willingly to learn and practice (Yes, it takes time and effort, 🙂 you filthy scrublord).

    • There was a website to help you improve in League of Legends. It would look at your stats in your previous games (kills, deaths, assists, creep score…), identify what you could improve in your gameplay and give you some pieces of advice or guides.
      For example :
      -Your CS is bellow average. Possible solution : play a custom game everyday with one of your champions you struggle the most CSing with (karthus, swain…) and try to make as much killing blows as you can on the minions during 10 minutes without using any spell.

      -You often die in ganks during lane phase : try playing that video that rings every 10 seconds and learn to take a glance at the minimap everytime it does. Don’t forget to ward !

      ==> That’s the kind of advice that doesn’t take you much time and can improve greatly your skills in just one week.

      The idea is to help the player identify how he can improve and give him really easy and immediate ways to do so.

  4. I haven’t played it myself since it’s currently in beta, but I heard from TotalBiscuit (well known gamer on Youtube) that Blizzard’s Overwatch is very good and providing players of all skill levels a meaningful way to contribute to their team. So even if a player is bad, the game’s design helps to guide them. That doesn’t mean that skill doesn’t matter — it does matter — but everyone can be “good enough” to play.

    So I’m looking forward to Overwatch’s release and see how that plays out. I’m not as good as I used to be in Halo, even though I’m still decent, but the high competitiveness of it has put me off as I’ve got older (and busier).

  5. I assume that helplessness can also be used as a tool in pushing people towards microtransactions, make someone feel helpless enough and then offer them a power up or such like to buy to give them more of a chance to win.
    It’s like playing Hearthstone, getting trounced by someone with a handful of legendary cards can make anyone feel helpless enough to chuck some real money at a few card packs to try and level the playing field.
    How does RNG factor into the helplessness issue? It’s something that no one has any control over and you are at the will of a dice roll, hard to put a positive spin on continually losing when RNG is involved.
    I sometimes think that games these days are more of a psychological test first and foremost, with just enough game to make people think they are playing a game, rather than playing a series of psychological hooks, games like Destiny and The Division do this well.

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