Study conducted for my “Account Planning,” or market research, class in 2016
I wanted to know why people played video games at all. Every once in a while, I’ll get what my mother would call a “wild hair” and play Spiro or Banjo Kazooie, or something else blocky and colorful for maybe thirty minutes before I get too anxious or bored.
I wanted to determine, specifically, what it is about Fallout 4, the newest and hottest video game, that was so appealing. My fiancée, Courtney, and our roommate, Minh, constantly play this game—No, they are constantly getting lost in the game. I asked Minh to tell me what the game was “about,” only to realize about halfway through his enthusiastic introduction that I didn’t actually care. I asked Courtney recently, “Why do you like this game so much?” She felt the animosity behind my tone, and needless to say, we didn’t really have a fruitful conversation about it.
I wanted to know why people chose to spend their time playing Fallout 4 as opposed to one of the million other games that are currently in existence. What’s so special about it? How does it make them feel?
First, I decided to look to the experts: The “Let’s Play” YouTube stars. “Let’s Play” is a genre of YouTube videos in which gamers will record themselves playing a game and commenting on it. (I only know what this is because I stalked my ex-boyfriend on Facebook a few years ago to discover that this was one of his new hobbies.)
I watched “Let’s Play – Fallout 4 – Part 1” for three different YouTubers: SplatterCatGaming, Tetra Ninja and TmarTn2 (pronounced T-Martin-2). This actually proved to be really insightful. Not only were the players’ comments indicative of their hobbies, beliefs and past-times, but also, how they chose to play the first 20 minutes of the game was extremely telling.
This experience helped me devise a series of questions for my interviewees.
All three Let’s Players stayed quiet, for the most part, during the introduction of the game: The prologue told the story of how a nuclear explosion wiped out the human race, with the exception of a small few. Now, [your] character awakens 200 years later to discover that the world is in shambles. [Your] main objective has to survive.
Once the prologue faded out, the avatar stood in front of the bathroom sink, his wife standing over his shoulder warning him not to “hog the mirror.” This was where players could select the features of their avatar.
My first subject, Let’s Player SplatterCatGaming, chose the features of his avatar in a way that I expected: He made it look like him—adding a scar on its right cheek like the one he had—but with a series of “improvements.” This made me think that Splatter wanted his avatar to look enough like him that he could relate to him, but he also created a character who he could idolize and aspire to become. He created someone he would become during the hours he played the game. I noticed, after watching the other two Let’s Players, that there is some interesting ritualism surrounding the creation of the avatar, so I knew that was something I wanted to explore further in my interviews.
Splatter took a rather aloof approach to playing Fallout. He mostly made quips about the setting and the dialogue. “This family is too ideal. It worries me,” Splatter said.
At one point, Splatter’s “wife,” Nora, asked him to go play with their son, Sean. While Splatter hovered over the crib, Nora appeared in the doorway and said, “There are the two most important men in my life,” to which Splatter replied, without missing a beat, “But who’s the best important man in your life?”
Later, when the bomb detonated, Splatter ran from the house, chuckling a little to himself, and said to passersby in a sing-song voice, “I’m boutta live—you boutta burn up like bad bacon.” It was really interesting to see that, even though the story created an ambiance of sheer terror, Splatter continued to make jokes about the tragedy. Sure, it was fake, but the experience was immersive and first-person; it seemed odd to me that he wasn’t able to empathize with the people around him.
The next Let’s Player, Tetra Ninja, had a different approach than his predecessor: His voice was calmer; he made fewer jokes; he played around with the features much longer. It wasn’t until I watched Tetra play that I realized a player could choose a female avatar. He didn’t end up selecting her in the end though because he “always plays as a man.” This portion made me really interested in what motivated people to play as different sexes; I made a note to add this to my line of questioning later.
Like Splatter, Tetra spoke frequently to his “wife,” for the benefit of his male viewers. “You’re giving me the sexy afternoon look,” he said to her when she asked him to check on the baby. He begrudgingly went to the baby’s room, spouting, “You’re crampin’ up my game, Sean.”
When the bomb detonated, Tetra ran out the front door and approached the vehicle in front of it, only to find his wife running in the opposite direction with their son, he shouted, “Why are we not taking the car?! It’s right here!” This made me laugh out loud because it had been my “instinct” to run with the people; I don’t think I ever would have considered taking the car although that was their best bet of out-running catastrophe.
Later, a select few characters were herded into an underground sanctuary, and a doctor led Tetra into a vault, one that would put him to sleep until the war ended. Tetra could see through the glass of his vault that his wife was in a vault of her own with their son. A guard was trying to take Sean away from Nora. Nora fought, but the guard killed her and took Sean away. During the struggle, Tetra shouted, “Don’t touch my wife!” Then when the gun fired, he yelled, “You ugly son of a bitch! I spent 15 minutes making my wife—I loved her!” Tetra did not once forget himself while playing the game, similar to Splatter.
This was completely unlike the third Let’s Player I watched, TmarTn2. I thought I was going to hate MarTn at first: His voice sounded fake, like a radio announcer high on caffeine—who was also going through puberty. Also unlike the other Let’s Players, MarTn allowed a small window at the top right-hand corner of the screen to show his face while he played the game.
As MarTn chose the features for his avatar, Nora looked him up and down and said, “So handsome!” To this, MarTn gave a shrill kind of nervous laugh and said, “This girl. You’re kind of cute yourself.” This latter part was slurred together, so I had to watch it a few times to catch exactly what he said.
MarTn also took time to appreciate the game in a way the other Lets Players didn’t: He explored the house; he looked out the windows; he took note of his wife’s high-waisted pants and blue blouse. “She’s kinda hot,” he said. “I like the ‘50s, dude.”
MarTn was also the first player to deeply consider the seven perks: a skillset in the game that a player could pre-determine by ranking seven characteristics with 21 points (the higher the number, the greater the strength of that characteristic). Of these characteristics were strength, agility, luck, charisma, intelligence, perception and endurance. Rather than evenly distributing his points across all characteristics, like the other players, MarTn said, “Strength is obviously really important,” and gave himself more points for strength.
When the bomb detonated, MarTn seemed genuinely concerned. “Oh, no, dude,” he whispered into his headset. As his wife made a mad dash for the door, MarTn shouted, “Get the baby, get the baby, get the baby!” He seemed sincerely relieved to find that Sean was already cradled in Nora’s arms.
The most engaging part of this Let’s Play episode was when MarTn had to watch, helplessly, as his wife struggled with the guard to keep her son with her in the vault. “They’re taking my son?!” MarTn said incredulously. When the guard shot Nora, MarTn was physically taken aback; his hand covered his mouth to block his shock. When he could finally speak, he said, “Why?! They just shot my wife for no reason—this is supposed to be our safe haven!” MarTn’s strong reaction to this scene made me interested to learn more about how other people felt during this part: Did they experience a similar shock or were they emotionally invested enough to mourn Nora’s loss?
In addition to the questions I drafted about the beginning of Fallout 4, I also wanted to ask some basic questions about gaming: What made people interested in gaming in the first place? Why play video games over other types of games? What made them want to start playing Fallout 4 over all the other games that are currently in existence? Had they played any of the previous games?
My first subject was my fiancée, Courtney, who had actually been sitting across the dining table from me playing the PC version of Fallout 4 on her laptop as I watched these YouTube videos. After hearing other people talk about the game, she seemed excited to share her own insights with me: She had never played any of the previous versions of the game; she was never really interested in playing it until our roommate, Minh, became obsessed with it recently.
Without coming around to view her screen, I asked Courtney to describe her avatar to me. I was surprised, but not that much, to discover that her avatar was male. (Courtney is a masculine-presenting woman.) She told me that she would rather have chosen a masculine woman to play with but there simply weren’t any options like that—not enough to her liking. She also noted that the storylines for female characters were always “really feminized.” Courtney described her avatar as “not too buff, but not fat either.” I told her that I had noticed this trend in body type among the Let’s Players and asked her to tell me why she chose it. “He looked all weird buffed up,” she said. She also gave him a shaved head and facial scars. Scars were another trend I noticed—a feature people used to make their character seem tougher. The more I asked her about her character, the more impatient with me she seemed to grow: “I didn’t put a lot of thought into [designing him]—I just designed him for aesthetic.” During the story mode of the game, players can see a third-person view of their avatar, so this was the time she was able to appreciate him.
When I asked her how she rated her seven perks, she told me that she gave each characteristic an equal rating, much like the first two Let’s Players, but that she altered them as the game progressed. She said at first that she didn’t know which characteristics were going to be important, so she wanted to give herself an even chance of developing the right skills. Eventually, she emphasized charisma (the ability to persuade others—which is so like her), perception (to help her shoot more precisely) and endurance (“Which is exactly what it sounds like,” she said).
I segued into my Fallout 4-specific questions: Courtney told me she was surprised when Nora died. “I thought I could save her—I was really beating on the glass. I was just really confused.” This was the first time it had occurred to me that someone might actively try to save the wife because none of the other players did. She said that she didn’t mourn Nora’s loss, like MarTn seemed to; her emotional connection was more with the baby, which seemed to be the case for most people.
Before ending the interview, I asked Courtney if there was another question she wished I had asked her. She suggested, “How do you feel when a game that’s this immersive ends?” She answered by saying, “It’s kind of like graduating from high school: You just spent hours—maybe years of your life doing this thing—building relationships, learning things, finding out who you are—then one day it’s over. It’s over. None of it mattered.”
My next interviewee, Trey, was a stranger, and we conducted our interview over the phone. He told me he had played Fallout 3 but none of Fallout 4’s other predecessors before plunging into the new game. (He noted that he wasn’t old enough to play them when the first two came out.) He liked Fallout 4 much better overall because of the graphics (1080p on Xbox One compared to 720p on Xbox 360—don’t worry; I have no idea what this means either).
Trey told me his avatar was a male. When I asked him if he ever played with a female avatar, he emphatically assured me that he had. “It just depends on the game,” he said. I asked him in which game had he played as a female avatar, and his first (and only) response was Tomb Raider, a game in which the player does not get to choose the sex of his avatar. “Female characters have more attitude,” he said. “They’re sassier. Men are more aggressive, so sometimes you need to play with a male character.” Trey believed that stereotypically masculine attributes would benefit him more in Fallout 4.
Like the other players, Trey gave his avatar a scar. I asked him why he did that—did he have a scar? “No. I wanted him to look like he had been in combat before.” I pointed out that the beginning of the game is set in the 1950s before the bomb goes off. Where did his avatar get the scar? “I don’t know. Maybe World War II. Or the Korean War.” Trey also gave his character an even spread of skill sets.
Trey agreed that his connection was more with his son, Sean, than with his wife. When she was killed, he had mixed emotions: “There was some remorse,” he said, “but not a lot” because he had “just met her.” He didn’t have time to form an emotional connection with her.
I asked Trey why he played video games over other types of games: “Board games are fun, but you have to wait for the whole family to be able to play. With video games, you can play by yourself.” I asked Trey how it felt to end an immersive experience like this, only to discover that he had not ever finished a long-term, first-person game. He stopped playing Fallout 3 because he got busy; he started playing Fallout 4 rather than continuing the game he had started because of the hype surrounding the new game; he couldn’t wait to play it. “You can’t let the game control your life,” he said.
My last interviewee, Ian, actually plays video games for a living. He said, “This isn’t a forever job,” but it’s a stepping stone on his way to becoming a game developer. “If I can understand the game better as a tester [enough to break it—or find the glitches in the game], then maybe one day I can understand how to make one, too.”
My conversation with Ian was really fluid; I’ve known him for a little while, but this was our first time having a long-term, one-on-one conversation. He told me that he got into playing video games because his parents were drug addicts (he didn’t specify which drug, and I didn’t press him), and then they became born-again Christians. “Basically, they just replaced drugs with God,” he said. Ian could achieve this distance from reality by playing female avatars in his video games. “I don’t want to be a woman,” he added nervously. “It’s just the farthest thing from my life I can think of.” He said that he doesn’t buy into creating male avatars after his own likeness—an elevated version of himself, like we’ve seen the other players do. Ian stressed that he didn’t want his character to look like a “pussy bitch”; he wanted them to be cool, like women.
Ian also noted that he liked his female avatar for Fallout 4, specifically, that a “hot chick” was far more persuasive than a man—especially if he increased her charisma rating.
I told Ian about the version of the game that I had seen with the wife and the baby, and he assured me that the scenario was similar for him, just that the gender roles were switched. Ian said that he didn’t feel a connection at all with his husband (although, that didn’t really surprise me) because he hadn’t spent much time with him. He was really interested in finding his son because the game gave him time to bond with him.
Thanks to Ian’s connections with the gaming industry, he was also able to offer some interesting insights about marketing a game: He thought that there was too much hype surrounding Fallout 4 (it was unanimously voted the number-one game of the year before it was even released) so that when it came out, people were really disappointed with it (read: he was disappointed). He said that he gets questions from gamers all the time about the new games that are coming out, but rarely about games that they are already playing. Gamers are being driven more by the anticipation of playing a game than actually playing it, Ian said.
When I asked him what it felt like for him to finish an immersive game as a professional gamer, he said, “It’s like when you’re watching a whole series on Netflix, and it just ends. It feels like that.” After some probing, Ian was able to specify that it felt like a kind of empty mourning. “That’s why I like games that come out with [expansions],” he said, so that there is always something new coming out for a game he already loves.
One interesting thing that I was able to note was that American gender ideals play a large role in how a person plays a game. Even if a player did not choose to create their avatar in their likeness, they still adhered to rigid gender roles. While I was watching the first 20 minutes of the game, one thing that really stood out to me was that there was no option to create a same-sex relationship—if a player wanted to choose a female avatar, they were assigned a non-playable husband.
For game developers, I would suggest that they create more gender-neutral or gender-queer options to choose from, and that they also allow players to change the sex of both characters at the start of the game. I found that most players (with the exception of Ian) did want to play with an avatar that represented their ideal self. If people who do not fall on polarized ends of the gender spectrum can find versions of themselves in the game, then it would be far more likely for them to feel the same emotional connections to the game as these cisgender men, which would create a higher chance of satisfaction.
To the marketing team, I would suggest, based on Ian’s insights, that they lower the hype (just a tad) for upcoming games. They should release most of the game at first, but then allow people to access new things (better abilities, new quests, etc.) as players level up. This will keep the players engaged enough to want to keep playing, even when a new game is coming out.
Suggestions for Future Research
For people who have more time on their hands, I would suggest that they watch a group of guys, 18 to 24, play a specific video game (the latest one that everyone has been talking about) and just observe at first how they talk to each other. One thing I lacked when I was watching the Let’s Play videos was feedback from one player to another. Then, once the players reach a stopping point (which, get comfortable, ‘cause who knows how long that could be), ask them questions about what they liked about the game, how it made them feel, why they chose to play the way they did, etc.
I would repeat this process with a group of female gamers, same age group, then try one with mixed-gender representation—just to see how that changes things.