On Self-Concept Dissonance
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Last week, Mr. Kuba Stokalski posted an important analysis of the experience of motivational conflict in gameplay. (As this will be a direct response using quotes, for context and continuity, please refer to that post.) While I found myself very much agreeing with many of his points, it seemed to me that he was carrying forward several ingrained assumptions which must be scrutinized if we are to build upon the understanding presented in that analysis.
To begin, let’s examine the structural presupposition upon which his analysis is founded.
An ideal self can be expressed in Mass Effect as well as in Team Fortress - through playstyles and characterisation afforded by game mechanics. This is an internal motivation, stemming from our own self-concept, not an external structure such as a reward system.
This exclusive segregation strikes me as rather arbitrary. Actually both of these collections of systems serve the same purpose of self-conceptualizing. Whether it’s an outward facing record of player progress or inward facing confirmative player action, either way the end goal is to give permanence to one’s self-concept by manifesting it in the game.
More specifically, there's a bit of a logical fallacy here. We might label
structure[s] for player motivation: levels to ascend, maps to explore, collectibles to collect, puzzles to solve, high score to beat, story to see through
as “external” because they exist first in the game and not the player, but it doesn’t follow that the motivation to interact with those structures is also somehow “external”. This is tantamount to claiming that they provide intrinsic motivation simply by existing. But in the absence of a personal (that is, “internal”) drive to complete, achieve, demonstrate, or discover, these structures would have no motive power.
Consider: a player seeking a perfect paragon path through the Mass Effect games is doing nothing less “gamist” than a player seeking a 6 to 1 kill death ratio in CS:GO. And the latter, too, is just as much an attempt to express an idealized self as the former.
These claims require a bit more clarification, so let’s return to Mr. Stokalski’s text for a moment.
The goals from the external structure are achieved by making optimal choices as far as game mechanics go... Coherence of the game narrative however is not about optimal choice. People stay true to fiction by sacrificing efficiency. For example, they walk around hub cities in MMO’s even though it’s clearly a waste of time from a game progression perspective. But it’s exactly the thing you have to do if your motivation calls for narrative coherence.
The two implicit assumptions here are that “sacrificing efficiency” is equivalent to being anti-”gamist” in orientation, and that, conversely, systems manipulation has no narrative coherence (on this second point, cf. Crusader Kings II).
And yet, it is difficult to call a player pursuing, for instance, a zero detection, zero kill playthrough of Dishonored—or, for a more extreme example, a zero block, zero dodge playthrough of Dark Souls on a music game controller—anything other than a dyed-in-the-wool gamist. In this self-conceptualization, voluntary inefficiency is the manner through which the idealized self is expressed—it is an integral part of it. Which is to say that there is as much (self) narrative building in numbers as there is in letters. There’s really no need for a nebulous “internal” and “external” demarcating of motivation; the drive here can be pure self-improvement or exhibitionist record-claiming, or both, simultaneously and in alternation. In either case, the player is attempting to realize the same self-concept of “master gamer”.
Similarly, in the perfect paragon Mass Effect example, it seems doubtful that even players attempting paragon only playthroughs of Mass Effect will honestly agree with every choice labeled “paragon”. In other words, the mechanical status of having 100% paragon choices is an entirely “gamist” goal that derives directly from self-concept, despite being “inefficient” at fully capturing the player’s ideals.
The point, to put it plainly, is that “gamism” is in fact an expression of “self-conceptualization” as well. This allows us to make the logical leap that gameplay is actually any act of systems manipulation taken to manifest a self-concept in which the manipulator is invested.
Of course, a game can encourage investment in a self-concept that deliberately can’t be achieved in the game, which I believe is the design “flaw” Mr. Clint Hocking was originally describing, albeit perhaps inaccurately as one arising primarily (as opposed to incidentally) from differences in narrative and ludic contracts. (The conflict of layers is something else entirely, as noted by Mr. Stokalski.)
Strictly speaking, the famed ludonarrative dissonance is, in this writer’s opinion, really non-existent. To establish this, we need to further break down the conflation of, and critically assess the validity of, the aforementioned ideas in ludonarrative dissonance: conflict of motivation and ludonarrative violation of aesthetic distance.
To address the latter, ludonarrative violation of aesthetic distance itself is a problematic concept as there is no violation of aesthetic distance if there is never an expectation that the rules of a game world must be logically cohesive (which, being abstractions, they rarely are). When we make the decision to invest time in a game, we have already surrendered to the logic of the game. It is not the competing layers that produces distance so much as it is a disbelief in the rules themselves.
As to the former, the true conflict is not between motivations, but between the player’s self-concept and the inherent and inevitable limitations of any system to completely reproduce the idealized self. The player only feels dissonance if they have invested in a self-concept at substantial odds with what can be achieved in the game. The actual idealized self of This War of Mine, for instance, is probably one that can save everyone as well as gather all the resources possible in the game—at least, initially. This, of course, is impossible. (And, if there is no invested self-concept, the player doesn’t even experience dissonance to begin with.)
Moreover, there is no goal-self dissonance as described by Mr. Stokalski per se, only dissonance between the self as expressed in the present system versus the abstract, unrealized yet idealized self that exists only in the player’s mind. The goal is actually always the same, and that goal is always self-concept realization.
To put it another way, the reality is that there is no single idealized self, and the conflict is, in fact, in the choosing of which idealized self (or perhaps more accurately, which self-schema) the player wishes to prioritize and pursue. Do we want a perfect score or a perfect moral standing? Both are “idealized selves”. The conflict of motivations is, therefore, a surface phenomenon that results from the actual and singular conflict of self-definition.
In the original example of BioShock, clearly self-concept dissonance exists when the player feels that both self-concepts presented are idealized versions of themselves, and that the player must choose between them. Crucially, however, the discomfiting disconnect that Mr. Hocking describes essentially has nothing to do with conflict between the two self-concepts at all, but is a result of his inability to fully achieve either through the game. This in turn leads to his rationalization that competing layers force him to reinstate his disbelief. But in the end, whether or not these self-concepts are presented through narrative or systems layers is immaterial.
For instance, a player who has emotionally invested in a particular character build that is eventually proven to be too flawed for game completion will experience the exact same dissonance as that described by Mr. Hocking (because it is indeed the exact same cognitive dissonance pertaining to self-concept).
To wax Jungian a bit, the “idealized self” we’ve been discussing, then, is a dialectical product with little meaning outside of a systemic context. It does not emerge until there is a system with which to interact, and the system determines the pathways through which the emergence can occur, which again makes perfect idealized expression inherently impossible.
(Mr. Stokalski touches upon this by mentioning the magic circle, and that the persona we adopt changes depending on the context, but this in fact is true of any human interaction. “Play” provides us with contexts we would otherwise have no access to, but the underlying psychology is the same.)
And as much as we tend to believe otherwise, no self-concept (idealized or not) is unfailingly accurate and immutable. It is at best fluid, at worst reactionary. A clear example of this is that none of us can say how we will react in a moment of hypothetical crisis with complete accuracy. (Hence the popularity of the post-apocalyptic, zombie, and survival genres—the game of fantasizing about how oneself would act similarly / differently than a given character is a perennial favorite.)
In other words, the ideal self is always an illusory goal, never truly attainable, and constantly subject to change. (As the reader may have noticed, this post has consistently used “idealized self” as opposed to Mr. Stokalski’s “ideal self” specifically because the latter simply does not exist, at least from a Jungian perspective. There is no ideal, only idealizing. 1960 man-hours per week to produce a world first in the World of Warcraft raid progress race might result in the attainment of an idealized self, but even those raiders themselves will hesitate to call that their ideal.)
This doesn’t mean that people have no convictions, merely that many of our convictions are often in conflict. The less conflict, the less dissonance an individual will experience, regardless of the rigidity of the system the individual interacts with. But perfect individuation (that is, perfectly comprehensive self-definition) is a state which few of us will ever achieve, if only due to the fact that the environment in which the self is defined will always influence how it is defined.
From the above, I would accordingly argue that Mr. Stokalski rather underestimates (or at least downplays) just how essential the setting of This War is to the self-conflict he identifies. Almost everyone has some sort of self-concept relating to selfishness vs. altruism in the face of death. And by choosing “civilians in wartime” as its context, the game taps into self-definitions that most players already have considerable investment in before they even approach the game. Ultimately, critical resource scarcity is the primary aspect of that setting, and the player’s main mechanic is resource gathering. Without the setting, there would be no conviction of self-definition, no conflict in resource distribution.
Returning to game design, the point of this is that self-concept tension does not have to rely purely on a difference between narrative and mechanical fulfillment. Indeed, mechanical fulfillment itself is often the very narrative in which the player invests. Again, I would like to re-emphasize that there is no “conflict between self-concept and the gamist agenda” exactly, but only between which aspects of the self the player wishes to emphasize in a particular conceptualization of themselves.
This means that we can extend this understanding to “purely” mechanical choices as well (and, conversely, to “purely” narrative choices, too). Anyone who has played pretty much any sort of MMORPG has experienced the pleasurable pain of selecting which role they will main. And players crave opportunities or signifiers to display their mastery of their chosen role, be it high DPS, HPS, or threat generation/HP—they crave signifiers of the self-concept they have chosen to idealize. Finally, who can say they haven’t felt the impossible siren call of attempting to perfect all three roles in a single character? The underlying conflict, as can be seen, is essentially the same as selecting between “perfect altruist” and “perfect survivalist”, regardless of being in a different emotional tone.
What makes a choice meaningful, then, is the paring away of the aspects of the player’s self-concept in potentia to carve out a self-concept in actus. It’s fun to think we’ll be able to solo group dungeons through an array of potentialities, but ultimately, specialization becomes the paradigm through which players self-define.
We can put this in a simpler way: any time the player must genuinely self-define, that is probably going to be a meaningful choice. Conversely, when a player is genuinely invested in a singular self-definition, any choice touching upon that definition will necessarily be meaningful.
This is important in that it gives us an actionable definition of “meaningful”. What is meaningful is that which defines the player to the system and imagined audience in the player’s mind.
To conclude this post, I believe that the tendency to view gameplay as a purely mechanical result, as opposed to understanding it as a primarily psychological process for the construction of personal narratives, causes us to design in a highly circuitous way. We design and then look to see if it is engaging.
But if we can conceive a game’s systems as collections of non-overlapping and competing self-concepts, the path to generating engaging tension becomes clearer. This is why the rock, paper, scissors paradigm in RTSs and the heals, tank, dps paradigm in RPGs are so long lived and foundational, and why those same paradigms remain compelling in other genres (as seen in, for instance, Overwatch).
The trick is to understand that the experience of pursuing a self-concept in a game has nothing to do with “wish fulfillment” and “fantasy” at all (acknowledgment to Mr. Stieg Hedlund), and everything to do with insistently articulating something the player already believes she is in relation to something else. It is an act of distinguishment. Heals vs DPS, self-interest vs. self-effacement, willpower vs. persuasion, etc. etc. Which is to say that for one self-concept to have meaning, there must exist another possible self-concept that at least appears just as robust, against which the player can define herself.
All of this sounds exceedingly abstract, and part of the difficulty is that “self-concept” arises through so many different avenues. But this, in fact, is a boon to us as designers; it means we have that many avenues of creating meaning. The important thing is to challenge the player to invest in a singular avenue, and then continue to challenge the validity of that investment in an elenctic way.
A final, closing thought: we don’t often discuss the psychological purpose of gameplay because we assume there is no function beyond “fun”. But, in this writer’s understanding, the purpose of gameplay is the refinement and tempering of the player’s sense of identity. By repeatedly encountering self-concept dissonance through gameplay, players are able to soften the brittleness of their senses of self, ultimately forging resilient identities that are better able to absorb or abide contradiction and stress. And there is nothing more “fun” than realizing the maturation of the self.