I’ve been ruminating lately on how “social capital” applies on a micro-scale in a couple games I played recently, and my approach to video games in general. It could be that I’m misusing the term “social capital”, and there’s a better term for what I’m talking about; if there is, please let me know!
The “social capital” I’m talking about is a rough comparison of good experiences vs bad experiences with a person, where capital is accrued by good experiences, but spent by bad experiences. For example, if you’ve had a lot of fun times with a friend, but the friend does something mean to you, then you’d probably stay friends with them, but the mean thing would diminish your friendship. If they continued to be mean to you, it might eventually get to the point where they’ve “used up” all the good times you’ve had together and you stopped being their friend.
So I’ve realized I also apply this sort of approach to video games, where games build social capital by giving the player good and fun things, and spend that capital with badly-designed things, and the accrued capital helps them get away with the bad things for a while, proportional to how much they’ve accrued (which probably differs from player to player).
Here are a few recent examples.
I played The Outer Wilds recently, and loved the setting and the core mechanics and design, which built up a lot of social capital for it from the start. But there are a few bad design decisions in it, including some really garbage platforming, which spent that capital. Fortunately, there were other fun things I could do in the game while deferring a lot of the garbage platforming, so I could control the capital to a degree by doing fun things when I was feeling too frustrated by the platforming, and then coming back to the platforming after I felt better about the game overall from fun stuff. Eventually I got through the platforming and the other problems, and ended up enjoying the game, albeit “with a lot of caveats” because of the bad parts rather than shouting its praises from the mountaintops as I would be without those problems.
Similarly, I played Ashen this weekend, and it also started out strong with a beautiful setting and epic moments and some cool mechanics, and a good variety of side quests that I could do, so if I wasn’t enjoying one aspect (and thus losing capital on it), I could do something else that was fun to regain capital. Unfortunately, at about the 8 hour mark, the main quest and ALL of the side quests get bottlenecked by an incredibly frustrating and boring dungeon, that is a huge design failure on its own, but serves to highlight all of the game’s shortcomings. I came to that dungeon with very high capital from the rest of the game, but after hours of grinding on it with no progress, my “social capital” for the game went into the red and I gave up on it.
I also played Assemble with Care and Bloodstained: RotN this weekend; both are examples of games that started with positive capital before I even started playing them because of their creators’ prior work, but both got off to a bad start and stayed there, and quickly burned through that capital (I kept at Bloodstained longer because there were a few fun elements like the first boss fight that raised the needle, but unfortunately that wasn’t enough to sustain it and I called it quits at the cheap second boss fight).
A final example that’s kept fluctuating for me for YEARS is Dead By Daylight; I love the mechanics and design, and overall the community is really good, so it generally has positive capital for me. However, their matchmaking system is broken, so beyond a certain rank you mostly get matched against players FAR above your skill level and get steamrolled game after game, which feels awful and burns through that capital really fast. So typically I’ll play it for a while, get to that point, get frustrated and stop playing, and then come back a few months later after a few rank resets when I’m out of the range of this matchmaking bug, and have fun again.
How about YOU?? Do you do this with games? What are some examples from your experience? And is there a better term for this?