Science says your gaming experiences may be shams

In case you weren’t already convinced that games are total bullshit, here’s a study in the New Scientist that claims the placebo effect—that noted scourge of hypochondriacs and homeopaths—also works in videogames

Ok, not everything is bullshit, but at least some of it is. The study at hand, which was conducted by the University of York’s Paul Cairns, found that perceptions of games could be influenced by erroneous information about their specs. Cairns and his collaborators told participants that they were playing a two-level game: the first used a map selected at random and the second used a map that adapted to their skill level using artificial intelligence. This was not true: Both levels were randomly generated. But the New Scientist’s Aviva Hope Rutkin notes:

When players thought that they were playing with AI, they rated the game as more immersive and more entertaining. Some thought the game was harder with AI, others found it easier – but no one found it equally challenging. 


Does this mean that everything we know about gaming is a lie? Probably not. Powers of suggestion are, well, powerful but they’re not all-powerful. Your entire life is not a lie, unless it is wholly predicated on the existence of Santa Claus or the effectiveness of trickle-down economics. But little moments of joy that you associated with game mechanics may have been caused by something other than the game’s mechanics.   

That isn’t the worst of outcomes. At a certain level, it doesn’t really matter where your happiness comes from so long as you are indeed happy. But if you can be convinced that a game is better just by being told that it has some fancy feature, there is a non-negligible risk of your being bilked on a regular basis. The features-for-features-sake debate is bad enough already, but this finding is only likely to make it worse. Still, some people were made happy by a game—a game sold on a lie, but a game nonetheless. Unlike homeopathy, that’s not bullshit.