Bad Affect as Game Design, Or It Feels Good For Overwatch To Feel Bad

This was originally written as a monthly essay for my Patreon. If you like it, consider chipping in $3 a month.

There’s a lot of talk in game design about how to make people feel things.

For the Skinner Box people, the ones who are trying to psychologically dial in exactly how good it should feel to win a match of a competitive card game you play on your phone, you do it through stimulus. You click the button, and it lights up just right. When you open your box of loot that you got from winning way too many games, it shakes in just the right way. But if you hold off on that shake-y click, you might be able to upgrade that bronze box into a silver box when you collect enough doodads. It’s all about the design of making things click in your lizard brain.

While most, if not all, massively popular games are trying to go down that route for various (cough, financial) reasons, I think that lots of game designers would still say that they are going for “classic” methods of getting you to feel good about a game. They’re designing levels, skill trees, and open-world environments with those tried-and-true ideas of flow or game feel in mind.

Those theories aren’t the same, but they’re attached to each other in the belief that games are at their best when their mechanics and expectations are clearly communicated to players. Each desires an end-state of consistency, and the optimal gameplay experience is one in which the player seamlessly melds into the experience of playing a game. With that established, you can play with the model, but that initial smooth space of play is critical.

I’ve done some research at my day job on player toxicity in games, and I’ve even written about my experience of toxicity in a game that many claimed had “fixed” the problem of players being rude as hell to each other. The general belief about toxicity is that it interrupts the smooth space of play–that it generates a bad feeling in players, and that bad feelings tend to spread out into everything. Riot, the developers behind League of Legends, promotes a lot of statistics that suggest that toxic players make for a bad time in a quantifiable and repeatable way, and that if you want to have a good time in a game then you should avoid being toxic.

I’ve now put an embarrassing amount of time into Overwatch for the PS4, and I’ve come to a weird conclusion about how I think bad affects, or bad feelings, might impact a seamless state of play. I think that they help generate one. I think negative feelings might be fully incorporated into my seamless and fun experience of play. And that’s weird.

In other words, I think becoming consistently angry about particular things in Overwatch might have a calming effect that generates a smooth space of play. I’m meditative in my being angry.

To be clear, this is probably an edge case. I play a lot of Overwatch, but I never play with a headset unless I’m in a party with friends. I would say that the total percentage of games that I have played in a party with those friends is probably less than 10% of my total games played.

So when I get angry in Overwatch, it’s with that weird little radial communication system. There are no tanks and we’re dying over and over again to Hanzo headshots from across the map? I’m spamming the “Thank You” command. No healer and I’m dying over and over? Spamming the “Need Healing” command. I’ve finally bit the bullet and I’m playing Mercy, but my team is fighting way off the point and is letting every McCree who has ever played the game jump right up into my face with utmost glee? It’s me, on the couch, hitting the “Thanks!” button until I’m locked out of using it.

I’m not proud of any of that, and I’ve tried to cut it down because it helps no one, but at this point it’s automatic. I’m on autopilot when I sarcastically use these commands to signal my unhappiness, and from a personal perspective it’s an entirely neutral thing. While I’m sure that deep in my brain I am feeling some kind of anger, on the top level I am just hitting that button to signal my unhappiness.

My ability to signal that I am having a bad time allows me to process that out within the game itself. It’s rare that I put Overwatch down and have any lingering feelings of anger or frustration, even if I lose several times in a row. That radial dial of bad feelings allows me to put it all out there, and importantly, to leave it there.

It’s probably crucial that it’s (mostly) impossible to target another player with sarcasm using the communication wheel. Short of walking up to a teammate and spamming the emotion right in their face (which I guess I could do), there’s no way for me to say “THANKS!” to a particular Reinhardt after he fails to use his shield for the 50th time in a row. I can only denote that I am unhappy, and that lack of targeting means that I don’t have people messaging me on PSN asking me what my problem is (or why I am so bad at the game).

It feels weird to admit to a kind of passive haterism, but this particular anonymizing and untargetable generation of bad affects sorta works. I get to immediately divest myself of unhappiness, and other players are able to do the same. It’s a way of expressing anger in the game without anyone knowing that they’re to blame or that you’re angry at them. You’re just someone spamming a button, and you can be ignored.

My weird play experience suggests to me that toxicity (and this is, I’m sure, considered toxic play) can be the baseline of that consistent and full game state that generates the “best” or “elegant” gameplay experiences.

[Addendum a little while after original publication:]

I don’t think this is intended behavior in that it is put there by the design team, but I do think this very limited form of button-based communication that can be spammed generates something different from being able to write text with your keyboard or yell with your mouth in voice chat. I also don’t think any of this “working” (in the sense that I’m able to leave these emotions in the game) is really a positive development. After all, for other players, it just looks like I’m being a huge jerk. And I am, to be clear, being a huge jerk. But I think all of this points to some interesting spillover effects from solutions that, at least on a theoretical level, should limit toxic play.

From my experience that I’m trying to lay out here, though, I think it might just morph into a different form that’s qualitatively different for the end user although maybe not different in kind.

I wrote this little addendum after rereading the piece and not thinking that there was a clear conclusion.

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