Videogames and the Illusion of Control (or Why Getting Me Onto Skyrim May Take a While)

I come from a household that does videogames; my boyfriend and I have practically made a sport of watching each other play. We’ve gone through a number of titles, from which I’ve drawn loads of interesting conclusions, and while we don’t necessarily play the same things, in the end our tastes are pretty similar—except for one thing. While we’ve based some plans around my eventually playing it, I am nowhere near as interested in Skyrim as he is, to the point where I didn’t even care what I missed when he played on his own. (Mostly. There were a few storylines I refused to miss.) I don’t think it was the blood; the first-person perspective might have influenced it, but I doubt it; while I know that the time commitment is a factor, on its own it can’t be enough to explain this level of resistance to playing. Instead, I think it has to do with the illusion of control.

It seems odd when you consider that I like my tabletop games sandboxy, but I don’t think I could fit myself well into a wide-open-sandbox video game. I’ve asked myself why a lot, particularly as the time comes closer and closer when it’s my turn to actually play one rather than just watching while working on one of my other projects. It might be a time issue; it’s hard to tell when you’re done with a wide-open-sandbox. It could be a matter of needing a plot to guide to in order to feel like what I’m getting done means something. But I think the most important reason has to do with the illusion of control.

As I was playing through my various tabletop games, I learned to measure the amount of control I had not from how many options for methods I had to do something, but what kinds of outcomes I could create. I liked doing things that resonated, things that people remembered. As a result, I don’t tend to care near so much about whether I’m winning as about whether my opponent is just that slightest bit scared of my character. The same applies, even moreso, to my video games; if I’ve done something that should reasonably be shaking the foundations of the world, I expect to see those foundations shaking.

The greatest disappointment, I think, comes from when you’re offered the illusion of control, and then you recognize it for the illusion it is. I saw it while watching through Skyrim, the way you could be the most important person in four or five organizations (all right, granted, you don’t want to admit to half of them), the chosen of various pseudodivine beings, and the destined Only One Who Can Solve This One Problem, and you’d still get shooed off as one of the common rabble when you go to talk to the truly major political players. The entire brouhaha around the Mass Effect 3 ending was pretty much built off of the difference between the level of control expected by/promised to the players and the amount they actually had.

On the other hand, with a linear game and very little control of anything beyond how many battles I fight and how often I get a game over, it’s almost easier. I treat it, as I have almost always treated my video games, as a book that requires skills other than reading alone to get through. Since the game knows exactly what the characters will do, I may not have much choice as to what they’re doing, but I still at least see the effects of their actions—and even if not, there’s a lot more room to just sit back and enjoy the plot elements. My standards aren’t as high, so I don’t need to worry about being disappointed. Besides, if I want to play something where my choices and playstyle make that big an impact, I can just go tabletop, right?

For me, then, I think the ability to maintain the illusion of control is more important than having the illusion of control to a high degree; it upsets me far more to have high expectations and to be disappointed than to not expect much room to affect the plot or events at all. How about you?

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