a "social capital" approach to playing video games

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?

interesting idea! I do think social capital is not the right term because there's no social element, though you could argue the game is a conversation between you and the developers - it might be simpler to just call it goodwill. The game builds up goodwill and then loses it with things that turn you away.

That said, I do see a social capital angle in the idea of - for example - say a friend recommends something and says you'll really like it, knowing your game playing background etc. Other people you respect echo similar statements. that game now has a lot of social capital built up for when you start it, that can be lost through finding things you don't like, or gained and spread if you do and wind up hyping it yourself or sharing a positive feedback loop with your friends.

Anyway, with what you're talking about, yeah, there's definitely a bank of pros and cons for me when I play stuff, and with too many "cons" I'll just bow out of the game. These days I've found myself particularly impatient in terms of what I'm willing to stick with, which makes a lot of sense in a world with SO MANY VIDEO GAMES.

I've recently been having sticking with games that just keep adding positive marks to my goodwill tally, like Xeno Crisis, which I talk about sometimes on the podcast but probably not enough. I expected it to just be another "new game on an old console" nostalgia fest, but the little design elements keep standing out to me and making me like the game, despite the fact it's incredibly difficult to beat correctly, and I may never be able to, and the controls take a little getting used to (on genesis). But there's so much good in there that I keep coming back to it.

Then there's Extermination, Swery's first 3D game. It has a lot of smart stuff about it and is pretty fun to play - but I'm right now at a point where you basically have to run this difficult (and long) gauntlet of tough beasts (during which it's guaranteed you'll run out of ammo) and then fight a boss right after, without any save point in between. That might drain the whole goodwill tank for me because I don't have that many chunks of 20+ minutes that I want to (potentially) waste in my life.

I think there's also some sort of completionist or obligation-oriented elements in here too. sometimes you feel like you've stuck with something so long that you'd just better finish it. or you've invested so much that it'd be a waste not to keep going. I'm trying to get that kind of stuff out of my brain if at all possible :P

I had a lot of goodwill ups and downs recently with Hollow Knight. Each new biome and any every tiny nook of the map or NPC encounter was a joy in its often silent mysterious way. So every time I found something new I loved the game. But man oh man do you ever have to backtrack through a lot of areas over and over again until you really get sick of seeing them. I feel like every time I was going to put the game down some new area of the map would finally open up and I was sucked right back in.


@exodus#2554 That said, I do see a social capital angle in the idea of - for example - say a friend recommends something and says you’ll really like it, knowing your game playing background etc.

The social capital is I keep recommending my friends games, but they hate all of them. Now no one plays anything I recommend because my taste is so bad.

Well that has got me real curious!


@luvcraft#2544 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

This is fascinating to me, because I think I come at it quite differently. I compare it to how I started drinking coffee: I used to hate it. But then I had really good coffee, and now I feel like I can appreciate most coffee because of its comparison to and echo of the really good thing I first enjoyed. (I had this experience with sushi, too.)

I'll often bounce off of a game because of things I don't like in it, only to later have someone explain the value of it and then I can enjoy it. (This absolutely happened to me with Final Fantasy VIII; I played that game with a terrible first-order-optimal strategy when I was young.) But a best case scenario is when a game uses more approachable mechanics to keep me around long enough that I develop an appreciation for other things in the game I might have disliked at first. I might still not like them, but I enjoy when I see the purpose in a design, and that's usually enough to keep me in the game.

I agree with Brandon that “goodwill” is a better term for it, but this is an interesting concept to lay out and I realise this does play a huge part into what games I stick with.

I used this example in another thread but I was in a bad mood once and played a highly recommended game to chill out a bit, and the SECOND line of dialogue is a cheeky chappy "LOL I'm a videogame right??? xP" joke and I turned it off. Again I was in a bad mood so this falls on me, but you gotta ease me in and build up some goodwill before you start busting those gags out, as someone who doesn't enjoy that kind of humour I'm now thinking about why you chose that to be my first impression of the game and have decided I'm too busy and sad to commit to this past the 10 seconds I've played.

Also in the anti-goodwill category; David Cage has lost all benefit of the doubt at this point so even though some of what gets dismissed might be unfair it's not like he hasn't earned the unfair dismissal (DISCLAIMER: I think all his games suck aggressively, I'm only pretending to be reasonable about it)

I am a proud (?) owner of a Deadly Premonition: Director's Cut Platinum trophy and let me tell you in a vacuum a lot of that side content you have to do for that 100% save file is straight garbage, but the game does such a good job pulling you into its nonsense world and presenting the town and its characters to you as something you are supposed to care about that I wanted to see everything the game had to offer (there's fun character side stories in there as well). Not many lines stick with me but "Zach, it's over, all finished. It's time for you to leave town. Are you ready to go?" still swirls around in my brain.

Yeah, I think about that 100% kind of stuff sometimes - I didn‘t finish Bloodstained because I realized what I “wanted” to do was farm shards for my familiars, and explore - but I wasn’t really having that much fun doing either thing because the barriers put in the way of these actions weren‘t that enjoyable for me. when I reached the final boss I realized - this is just going to be a tough boss fight, my least favorite part of the game. Why should I keep going? I realized I had convinced myself of goodwill that wasn’t really there, and the bubble burst. Perhaps much too late!