Masochistic Gamers: Why We Like Games that Torture Us

So I finished The Walking Dead Season One yesterday. I know, I’m like six years too late, but I got around to it. There’s been other installments since then, so I’d noticed the conspicuous lack of Lee, the player character in Season One, in other promotional materials. I’m smart. I could guess from the beginning where the story was probably going to end up. I figured knowing would prepare me for it.

Nope. Nope. Nope nope nope.

Not pictured: Lee. Uh-oh

I could hardly play through the last half-hour of Episode 5 because I was crying too much. And I don’t cry at games or movies or TV much. It takes a lot, and usually I’m under control in about a minute. NOT THIS TIME. I was just glad my mom wasn’t in the room with me to ask why I was staring at my computer and sobbing.

I won’t spoil, beyond what you should be able to work out for yourself. But after that scene was over, as the final credits were rolling, I told myself firmly, “No way, not again.”

And then I bought Season Two the next day.

It doesn’t really make sense right? It seems logically that we should like games that are “fun” or whatever. Mario Bros. or Sonic the Hedgehog. And we do (well, not Sonic much any more), but there’s also a startling tendency among gamers to like games that torture us.

Please Sonic, just give it a rest

In the case of The Walking Dead, that’s emotional trauma. You are asked to make impossible decisions that sit in the pit of your stomach throughout the whole rest of the game. And the whole time, you’ve got a little girl staring at you, learning from you, and you agonize and agonize about whether you’re teaching her what’s right. But the games that torture us don’t always take that approach. Look at the Dark Souls series. The difficulty of those games is merciless. You can die a hundred times over doing the same thing. And yet people love them. Check out Resident Evil or Silent Hill or Five Nights at Freddy’s. Gamers like to be scared. And horror games are worse than horror movies. Because you’re more connected to the character. When creepy crawlies pop out, they’re popping out at you rather than somebody else.

It’s not limited to just video games either. I used to read Jodi Picoult books all the time, those swirling messes of downers. The TV show of The Walking Dead is probably nearly as grim as the game, and people love it. So why the heck do we do this to ourselves?

The mistake in thinking about this is the idea that we only consume media to “have fun.” I think that’s certainly one reason, but the other is that we want to be challenged. We want to have our beliefs, our abilities, and our persistence put to the test. We want media to help us learn something or grow in some way. Sometimes we consume media to turn our minds off and sometimes we consume to turn our minds to hyperdrive.  There’s an incredible sense of satisfaction to be found when we succeed at something so hard. We feel incredible when we focus and tackle an obstacle that seemed impassable.

Nightmares build character…?

Take Season 2 of The Walking Dead. Lee’s absence is palpable to me. I spent ten or more hours in his shoes, and now I’ve slipped into the smaller ones of Clementine, the little girl I helped shape into a survivor. The decisions I made, the words I said to her, she held on to. She remembers the lessons I tried to teach her: “squeeze the trigger,” “keep your hair short,” “you’re smarter than all of them.”

In our normal lives, there’s hardly even a situation so desperate as The Walking Dead, a challenge so impossible as Dark Souls, or a world so terrifying as Silent Hill. But having those experiences help us face smaller ones in life, I think. The virtual world lets us practice our understanding and ingenuity with no permanent consequence to our lives.

So I think that we put ourselves through pain to make ourselves better people, in a way. Or it could be simply because we all hate ourselves.

Photos courtesy of Telltale Games, Sega, & Konami

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