Whenever I sit down to play a competitive or challenging video game, something changes. I am not the person I usually am. I’ve shouted and cursed at the screen. I’ve thrown controllers across the room. I’ve paced around. That calm, thoughtful, laid-back demeanor everyone knows me by? It can quickly melt into pure anger. It’s the only time I ever express that much anger about anything. It’s been that way for years. The craziest thing? I only recently stopped to ask myself this most simple question: “Why?”
The easy answer to this question is that it’s an outlet. There’s definitely truth to this. For whatever reason, it has become somewhat acceptable to become indefensibly angry when some 14-year-old shoots you in the face for the 10th time. Healthy expression of anger has become a tricky puzzle for many in our society, and this can be a way to get it out. Friends and partners seem to put up with it, so we use it.
I’m unsatisfied with this answer. Yes, video games can certainly serve as an outlet for emotion… But, why? Why video games? The answer to this question is also very simple, but it’s also a bit heavier to process.
When we play video games, we are forcibly confronted with personal failure. Over and over again.
I played a lot of tennis in high school, and one memory has stuck with me through the years (psychoanalysts, time to pay attention). During my junior year, my doubles partner and I were seeded top-4 in the district tournament; we won our first few matches and ended up one match-win away from qualifying for the state tournament. We were expected (and expecting) to win against a lower-seeded opponent. We were pumped.
It’s hard to describe the sinking feeling of that moment. Watching the opposing team celebrate, looking at my partner in pain and disbelief… it felt unbearable. We weren’t supposed to lose, and I couldn’t handle it. I wanted to smash my racket. I wanted to break my hand punching a wall. Instead, I hid behind a building for at least 30min before finally leaving.
There were a lot of difficult lessons learned that day. When I look back, the hardest part was accepting failure. I had expectations for how I would perform, and I didn’t meet them. This same process occurs when we play video games. We get most upset when we expect to win that Overwatch match, when we believe we should be able to defeat that Dark Souls boss... yet fail to do so. Even the way we talk about our video-game experiences is protective. We say “they made that boss way too hard,” not “I’m not skilled enough yet to beat him.” We yell “that player must be cheating or hacking!” instead of admitting “dang, I’m just not as good at Counter Strike as them.”
In short, we are unable to accept our own limitations and failures. For whatever reason, we expect success when we play, but are often confronted with defeat. So we get angry, yell at the screen, make excuses, even send hurtful messages to other online players. Anything to protect us from an indigestible truth.
Freud is a 20-something psychology nerd who’s interests are way too varied. Video games have been a life-long constant, though.
You can follow him at @aFreudianTrip