Why You Get Stuck In Games, And What You Can Do About It

About This Event

Anyone who plays video games has at least one “duh” moment to their name. We beat our heads against bosses for half an hour before realizing we’re supposed to lose the fight. We search every nook and cranny of a dungeon for a key to an unlocked door. Because of their interactive nature, even the most linear games are prone to grinding halts whenever a player misses a crucial cue, a developer sends conflicting signals about what to do, or both.

This common problem highlights how closely game design intersects with psychology. Psychologists have been studying games, problem-solving, and cognition for years to more firmly grasp what’s going on in our brains when we get stuck.

 

Overlooking The Obvious

When we can’t get through a puzzle, it often seems like we've exhausted every path and occasionally invent a “solution” that will ultimately prove fruitless (such as trying to make a difficult jump that looks possible but actually requires us to activate a moving platform). When this happens, it can feel like a game has completely fallen off of the rails.

 

Though these mistakes may sound like aberrations, they’re actually common psychological concepts, according to president of media consulting firm Immersyve, Scott Rigby. At Immersyve, Rigby helps developers find points of frustration and smooth them out, and has found that getting stuck tends to come from one of two psychological concepts: functional fixedness and schema.

 

Functional fixedness is a way of thinking that prevents us from imagining new uses for certain objects. It’s used to describe how, as we get older, we don’t “play pretend” with everyday objects as often. “A young kid, you can hand them a pen and they’ll pretend it’s a magic wand, a spear, a sword, a gun, and a few other things,” Rigby says. “They’re not locked into functional fixedness.” Adults, on the other hand, tend to think of a pen only as a tool for writing, which can impair creative thinking. If, for example, we’ve only been using the fire spell we acquire in the early levels of a game to melt ice blocks, it might not occur to us to use it to light a candle later on.

Schema, on the other hand, are how we map plans and ideas into workable solutions, and they’re how game developers guide players through their worlds. As we become familiar with a game and its controls, players often attempt to push the game’s boundaries. “You’ll see them hit the wall, try to click on things, move them up and down, throw chairs,” Rigby says. “They’re trying to build a schema for what they can interact with, what the rules of the game are.”

 

Developers help players create schemas to let them know what their options are. They might block the door out of the room in which you find the fire spell with an ice block, for example, to force you to figure out the fire spell before proceeding. But if a schema becomes too rigid, it can be hard to add concepts outside of it effectively. “If you haven’t taught me you can pick up rocks and throw them to distract a monster in order to get past something, the fact that there are rocks lying around isn’t really going to help me very much,” Rigby says. “I haven’t learned that rocks are meaningful in the schema in the game.”

 

Because functional fixedness is a natural human trait and schema is largely a product of conditioning, it can be easy for players who can’t figure out how to progress to pin the blame on the game. However, one aspect of getting stuck that has more to do with players than anything else is perhaps our greatest enemy when it comes to problem-solving: frustration.

 

Fighting With Frustration

While many games aim to immerse us in their worlds, most still consist of using a set of skills (whether that’s reading comprehension or double-jump timing) to overcome challenges. When we accomplish the task before us, we feel good about ourselves. “We all have that need for competency, for mastery,” Rigby says. “We want to feel successful. We also want to feel growth. That’s a basic need.” Those feelings of learning and mastery are why many people play games.

 

The difference between a challenge that tests all our skills to their fullest and one that’s simply too much can be razor-thin, and it can determine whether players press on in the face of adversity or give up. As we fumble around with a puzzle searching for the solution that might be right in front of us or fight a boss whose attacks are proving too difficult to dodge, we get irritated, whether it’s at the developers or ourselves (usually the former).

 

When we get annoyed, our ability to think outside the box plummets, according to Dr. Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center and professor at Fielding Graduate University. “The ability to think in new ways is largely driven by a level of psychological comfort, or positive emotion,” Rutledge says. Frustration activates our natural fight-or-flight response, which inhibits our ability to solve puzzles.

 

One of the best ways to deal with aggravation in the moment isn’t to try to play around it, but rather to examine why we’re feeling that way, according to Dr. Andrew Przybylski, an experimental psychologist and senior research fellow at the Oxford University department of experimental psychology.

 

Whether we feel like we’re not competent or simply think the controls aren’t letting us do what we want, figuring out how to better approach the obstacle can help calm us down. Games aren’t perfect, but Przybylski notes that blaming them won’t help you progress. “For me it’s like when you’re walking around at night and you stub your toe on the refrigerator,” he says. “You get angry at the refrigerator, but it can’t possibly be the refrigerator’s fault.”

 

Waiting For A Breakthrough

One of the most common remedies for hitting a wall in a game is taking a break. For every story we have of getting stuck, we also have tales of times when we couldn’t progress through a game, only to come back days (or hours) later and solve it immediately. All of the people I spoke to for this story confirmed that taking a break indeed helps you solve problems, but the reasons for it vary and intersect.

 

The first, as we’ve covered, is that the longer you sit and stare at a problem, the worse you get at solving it. Not only do you get frustrated, but your brain gets tired, too, according to Rutledge. “The point of a break isn’t just that you need a cookie. It’s because your brain is exhausted, the same way it is any time your brain does hard mental work,” he says. “And when you’re in a problem-solving game rather than a manual skill game, it tires your brain.”

 

Second, functional fixedness can lead to a cognitive rut, where we ruminate on a single path or solution. “[Say] I’m in a boss battle and I’m able to knock the thing down to 25 percent health, so I’m almost there, but I’ve died eight times,” Rigby says. “The problem at that point is that I’m probably not questioning the approach because it got me 75 percent of the way there. So the first eight or so steps are locked in.” But those steps may never lead to victory, whether it’s because there’s a simpler solution or because the strategy itself isn’t feasible. Walking away can help our brains reset and climb out of those ruts to figure out new approaches.

 

Sleeping on a problem can also further help us work through it. Dr. Jayne Gackenbach, a professor of psychology at MacEwan University who has studied the ways video games can help people psychologically, says dreaming can help players figure out solutions more easily. “One of the primary functions of dreaming is memory consolidation and problem solving,” she says. “You don’t even have to remember the dream. If you get a whole night’s sleep, if you get R.E.M. sleep, just that process will help you solve problems.”

 

Smoothing Out The Edges

While an individual player’s skill, patience, or even mood can result in roadblocks, issues can arise from a developer's familiarity with their own game. By being blind to how new players interact with games, developers may create obtuse or unclear challenges. To help see their games from a different perspective, publishers and developers have started using “user experience” (UX) groups, which provide them with feedback about how players see their games. UX has become a major part of the games industry in recent years, with companies like Riot, Microsoft, Epic, and more all employing in-house departments.

 

As a UX researcher at Epic Games with a PhD in psychology, Ben Lewis-Evans sees players make all kinds of mistakes, and many of them are due to developer oversight. “It’s often small things that you thought would be obvious,” Lewis-Evans says. For example, an early version of Paragon had towers players deactivated by destroying the nearby crystal that powered them. But since they were taking damage from the shots the tower itself fired at them, players would shoot the tower instead. Epic fixed the issue by making the tower the weak point. “These things sort of slip by because [developers] know how it all works,” he says.

 

Lewis-Evans also has to contend with how different games approach difficulty and player feedback. Games that want to draw a player in as quickly as possible (like mobile or free-to-play games) tend to keep their systems simple, but still need to provide the player with everything they need to know. “Players who are used to that kind of game, in my experience, get very uncomfortable and upset and lost if you don’t provide them with a lot of advice,” Lewis-Evans says.

 

Many popular games are difficult or obtuse on purpose, however. Games like Dark Souls often provide little direction upfront, and leave the players to discover much of the game on their own. Still, what little information those games do provide is still important, and deciding how much to reveal to the player requires a deft hand. In these cases, players need to know enough so they can explore the game and figure out its intricacies, but not so much that it ruins the fun of discovery. “What’s important is whether the player feels like they’re in control of whether they’re lost or not,” Lewis-Evans says.

 

Not everyone can afford a UX department, however. Smaller developers are increasingly turning to early access programs like those on Steam or Xbox One to iron out rough spots, solicit player feedback, and fix areas or puzzles that might be too frustrating or not clearly communicated.

 

No Final Solution

Despite the abundance of psychogical research developers have at their disposal, it’s impossible for a game to provide each player with an experience where every puzzle feels challenging but not frustrating. Everyone I spoke to for this article says they still fall prey to the same thoughts, ruts, and frustrations they study. “I’m just as much of a victim to these things, except I’m probably a little bit faster to recognize them and pull away,” Rigby says.

 

No matter the scenario, some players will find the solution to a challenge immediately, while others will bang their head against it for much longer. That doesn’t mean we’re helpless in the face of a daunting obstacle, however. Knowing how the brain works when it gets stuck is valuable in itself. It may not always lead you to the answer, but it will hopefully provide the best way to find it without ripping too much of your hair out.

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