The myth of the spoiled gamer

WoW's Children's WeekOccasionally, my realities collide, and I find gaming inspiration in strange places.

My daughter, Coraline, was born earlier this summer (which should partly explain why I’ve been quiet here lately), and consequently I’ve been consumed by the joy of consulting parenting blogs when I’m awake at 4 in the morning. This is how I bumped into Alfie Kohn’s new book, The Myth of the Spoiled Child, in which he challenges widely held but scientifically unsound beliefs about child rearing. The myth that seemed relevant to gamers can be paraphrased as follows:

Kids these days are spoiled, lazy, overentitled, and narcissistic. Everything is handed to them on a silver platter: good grades, trophies, and gold stars. Back in the old days, kids weren’t coddled and praised; they were disciplined. They learned self-reliance and grit and everyone did NOT win.

If you’re an MMO gamer, you’ve no doubt heard a similar tale of woe from veterans of the old days.

MMO gamers these days are spoiled, lazy, overentitled, and narcissistic. Everything is handed to them on a silver platter: gear, achievements, and levels. Back in the old days, gamers weren’t coddled and praised; they were disciplined. They learned self-reliance and grit and everyone did NOT win.

Kohn’s core argument against this myth is two-fold, and as I hope to prove, relevant to the MMO industry.

First, there’s no actual evidence that “kids these days” are more spoiled or lazy or what have you than kids in any other generation. It’s merely conventional wisdom that feels good and sounds credible but isn’t actually true. In fact, it appears to be something that every generation believes about those who come after it (just ask the “Greatest Generation” about those hippie slackers known as the Baby Boomers). Therefore, we probably shouldn’t embrace this or any other such self-serving generational platitudes. Similarly, unproven but comfortable myths about “lazy gamers” abound in internet comment sections and should likewise be dismissed.

Second, the idea that “spoiling” children makes them unfit adults (and that self-esteem can be built only through hardship) is a conservative belief (Kohn likens it to an unquestioned “Protestant work ethic“) deeply rooted in many cultures and espoused by both right- and left-wing parents. It’s also a belief unsupported by scientific studies. In fact, “tough love” can have a negative effect. As Kohn explains it,

“What best prepares kids to deal with failure is not earlier failure, but earlier success. A great deal of psychological research shows that when kids are left to fail, first of all, the main message they take away is that their parent could have helped them but didn’t. And, second, that he or she is incapable of dealing with challenges, so kids come often to see themselves as failures and then they avoid more challenging situations as a result. So, the idea that if kids stumble and screw up, they’re gonna pick themselves up and dust themselves off and say, ‘By golly, now I have the skills and determination to try even harder next time!’ could charitably be described as a conservative fairy tale.”

In other words, practicing failure isn’t a sure-fire way to build self-esteem. In fact, it apparently does just the opposite. It also appears to condition children to believe that their victories are sweet only when they are accompanied by someone else’s failure. Of course, Kohn is talking about children, whose brains and emotions and relationships are still developing, not the average gamer, who is (let’s assume for the sake of argument) already a well-adjusted adult. I don’t think there’s any danger that a normal adult is going to freak out that the devs don’t love him anymore when he loses a MOBA match! But even as I say that, I think of Roguelikes, whose goal is to kill a character randomly and without mercy, to condition you to expect repeated and dehumanizing failure regardless of your efforts, as if to crush your morale and dare you to give up so that it can mock you, creating a strangely sadistic relationship between player and developer.

What about giving the “losers” of a game a trophy? Isn’t “everybody wins” ruining society (and in my argument, MMOs)? Nope. Kohn says that kids who get a runners-up trinket will turn out just fine, but the people obsessed with ensuring someone always loses are a concern:

“Why does this drive people to fits of rage when obviously the kids know who won the game? It is critically important [to some adults] to reward success and to make sure that lack of success goes conspicuously unrewarded. We can’t even give them something that looks like a reward! […] The idea among some people is that no one, even a child, should ever get anything desirable without it’s being conditioned on the child having done something to deserve it.”

In other words, the problem isn’t that “losers” — the 8-year-olds who lose a soccer match, the PvPers who lose a battleground — receive a token for having participated. They know they lost. No token reward will fully erase the sting. The problem is that hyper-competitive individuals aren’t satisfied until the losers are beaten into the dirt and forced to eat it, to better elevate the winners. And this is evident not just in sports-ragey parents but in gamers whose personal self-esteem is motivated by and predicated on an equivalent crash in a rival’s morale. (Just think about the sort of people who believe a “loser” buying epic gear with money instead of with grind or luck or time “cheapens” their experience. They are happy only when no one else can have the shiny they have.)

That’s not a generational war or bad parenting; that’s just poor sportsmanship, period, and it certainly explains at least part of our genre’s fixation on MOBAs and level ladders and gear systems, as well as classic MMO gamers’ desire to return to (what are perceived to be) the harsh and brutal character-building games of yesteryear. For that matter, it explains developer and player infatuation with combat-oriented murder simulators to the near-exclusion of cooperative gameplay that is not framed competitively (example: WildStar turning innocuous co-op PvE dungeon-running into competitive races against other teams).

I won’t go so far as to suggest, as Kohn does, that encouraging kids to participate in competitions with winners and losers might actually be a bad idea; it’s not the games that are the problem but the cultural baggage we bind to them and the disturbing lessons we encourage them to convey. And I also won’t argue that MMOs haven’t changed at all in the past two decades. They have, but not because gamers new to the market are lazy or entitled or accustomed to having their every stumble rewarded with a trophy; after all, the developers making today’s MMOs are old-school gamers themselves, and most will gladly proclaim that they are making the games they want to play.

I do submit that perception of what MMOs are has shifted such that many of the older and poorly developed mechanics that incidentally served the playstyles of old-core gamers have been discarded as simply undesirable or even insulting to the playerbase (and here I speak of mechanics I’ve criticized at length like waiting on boats and traversing the world by foot for corpse retrieval). The rejection of gameplay elements that were frustratingly punitive or gratuitously time-wastey rather than genuinely challenging is a black mark on neither the genre nor the generation.

I also submit that perception of what MMOs should be has shifted such that they can no longer be what they once were, “mere” virtual worlds and virtual non-games where people could roleplay and live and explore and experience an environment. The genre is now structured to support a hierarchy of winners and losers, poised to paste the label “spoiled gamer” on anyone who prefers to leisurely enjoy a world or activity rather than be subjected to grueling tests of willpower, as if those represented praiseworthy skill or even, skies forbid, “fun.” From my vantage point, the only thing that’s spoiled is the genre itself.

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  1. j3w3l says:

    the psychology on a secure self reliance and behaviour based on competitiveness and it’s effect mostly holds that it is the conversation around these activities that matter. Things like whether you are reflective, critical and dismissive but also where the focus is on such as on or away from self.

    This holds for both winners and losers, those with a critical mindset away tend to believe others need to fail for them to win whereas on self and they might be the boasting type.

    Also, having been in early childcare for over 8 years now it does seem like children are far more spoilt now and there behaviour reflects this. A lot more challenging behaviour problems because of it. I have no idea how it effects their adulthood though.

  2. Kojra says:

    I think you’re absolutely spot on here. (As usual, *grump*) An extreme focus on competition and ‘winning’ in MMOs is fundamentally at odds with some of their most unique and intriguing features, and I’d say it’s the underlying cause of a number of other, more symptomatic problems.

    I suspect that games designed to be more competitive (and to pander to competitive players by constantly affirming how much of a winner they are) will be more broadly appealing to traditional gamer demographics – the same players who enjoy a range of fighting, arcade or shooting games. This broadened appeal is deceptive though, because it ignores the potentially huge segment of people who aren’t thrilled to bits by how swiftly and gruesomely they can shoot their friend in the face.

    I also think that those so-called ‘losers’ and ‘casuals’ are possibly more vital to a virtual world game than the egotists – a society of exclusively Herculean heroes would be boring without the contrast that comes from having both the strong and the weak, the smart and the foolish, the brave and the cowardly. I know you aren’t a fan of the term, but I think you have to have that complexity in a player population before you start to see any really interesting emergent behaviour, and if the only way of differentiating yourself is by being successful, then it seems far more likely to feel like work instead of play.

    Finally, I do think there is something to be said for how this type of competition-oriented game design is going to repel more female than male gamers, a trend I desperately want to see reversed particularly in our genre. Sure, maybe it’s just cultural and historical factors at play, but virtual worlds should be by definition the most inclusive of all games simply because they try to model a whole community. The more game designers and ego-driven gamers try to penalise those who don’t meet their exacting standards and values, the less rich and interesting those worlds ultimately become. And that’s a loss for everyone.

  3. scaramanga says:

    I know its not completely on topic but somewhat related i feel.

    The other day i read a comment about the tarren mill vs south shore battles and how fun they were.
    Developers try to recreate that kind of pvp, which is kind of ironic, because one of the reasons those battle took place was there wasnt much else to do at level 60.
    If a developer would release a vanilla wow nowadays it will get a lot of negative comments.

    Still comments about those battles kinda of make you a core gamer and are generally received well by other commenters.
    But commenters are a minority, if they werent those battles still took place.

    Same goes for monetization, people associate subscription models with quality and everything else not so much.
    Again this kind of remarks is well received by the forum tigers who fail to realise a lot of stuff.

    They assume that subsription games make more money than other models, so they can put out better quality games.
    Reality has proven already that this isnt true at all, f2p and b2p make the same if not more money than subscription games,except one they have quality;output not so much:).

    Same goes for the group and raid finders, they are very succesfull in games not so much in comments.
    Casuals make the game tick.
    Ask the devs of the kardasian game which is clearly pay to win (and they even say so:)) and is expected to make more money then EVE this year.
    Just goes to show that we have choice nowadays which is a good thing.

    Also there is a difference between being hardcore and saying so.
    I was in a guild who cleared sunwell top20 in world and hardcore wasnt a topic or issue in the members of our guild.
    In other guilds later on, however it was a topic while they were more gear then skill dependent to put it mildly.

    MMO were once revolutionary ,now its only evolution.
    People have expectations which they had not at the time of ultima,everquest or vanilla wow.
    If we want the same atmosphere which we had in the beginnings of the MMO genre we need something new.

    Oculus will open up a whole new gaming landscape,uh i hope at least.

    ps:not native speaker and im more of a talker then speaker so a bit incoherent,but i do enjoy your opinions here and on podcasts:)

  4. Wolfyseyes says:

    …damn, and I was gonna say pretty much a similar thing. You’ve done this significantly better than I have, Bree. Well put.

    It’s probably why I enjoy roleplaying so much in the standard themepark MMO–I have a reason to eschew a game’s ferocious whirlwind of a bunch of yapping mongrels trying to pile atop each other to become top dog in order to walk through a hub city in their poorly-designed BiS gear. I can be a character living in a world instead of some slave to an ever-sliding upwards progression path.

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