Games are about social achievements, right? About goals, fulfillment, and making us feel powerful and happy? And yet video game lies are a part of the culture.
I've done it; you've done it, and even game designers have done it. Today, it's time to come clean.
So I'm on this replay of Final Fantasy VII, and I figure part of the experience is getting all the sidequests. I mean, that's why we play mid-to-late 1990s RPGs, right? To conquer every corner, no matter how absurd, of their universes? To defeat every minor challenge, no matter how purposeless nor how steep.
Thus I reached the endgame and it became time to conquer the W.E.A.P.O.N.s, extra bosses reputed for the insane amount of power, grinding and cleverness it took to defeat them. I knew what I was in for, because of course I'd done it before back then. I mean, of course I had.
I mean… well… I remembered telling people I had. I told everyone. Beating Emerald Weapon was sooo tough, but it's easier if you have the "Underwater" materia. Ruby Weapon has fewer HP, but is more difficult. I know this, because I've… wait a second.
Yeah. While I was playing FFVII I realize that I've been telling people I beat those extra bosses, when in fact I never actually have. I lied about it until I believed it, and not until I revisited the game did I realize this thing I've been saying isn't actually true at all.
It was so tempting to bluff about video games and their associated lore, because the culture of gaming was and continues to be so strongly rooted in bravado, much of it false. I'm not going to feel bad about it. You do it, too.
Quick, what's the Konami Code? Where did it first appear? Are you even old enough to have been around when it was widely implemented? Are you sure? Check Wikipedia. Because I think you're probably making fun of people who don't know it – they're not hardcore, they're not oldschool – but you're not either, are you? Haven't you lied and said you've beaten a game you haven't? A friend shows you a secret in Super Mario 3 and you keep silent, pretend you'd known it all along. You didn't. Come on.
On one hand, it's kind of a childish pleasure: You want to be the badass on the playground at recess, being the one to spread the never-before-heard lore. In fact, "back in the day", that was a major part of video game culture: The weird rumors of secrets and supposed tricks you could use to get infinite lives, to be invincible in Contra, to see Samus Aran naked, whatever – how many of those fake rumors have you heard as a kid? And then it's not too unusual to assume that, upon hearing those rumors, some kids might want to say, "oh, yeah, totally. Been there ages ago." Just so as not to get beat to the punch.
My friend – let's call him Pete – has a story of not one, but two video game lies – his own and his friend's. "When I was 10, I was talking on the phone with my best friend when he said he beat Super Mario Bros. 2," says Pete. "I felt like I had to keep up so I also said I'd beaten it, even though I didn't own the game like he did and only played it for a weekend when I'd rented it from Circle K."
"He asked me how the fight with the end boss went and I gave him a vague response about fighting Bowser," Pete continues. "I could tell that he knew I was wobbling, and he went into an explanation of tossing vegetables at an end boss named Wart. It sounded so ludicrous to me that I called him out on what I thought was a lie, figuring he was doing the same thing I was. He fought back by having his older sister pick up the other phone so she could back him up, and they could ridicule me together and force me to admit my lie."
It's not just kids "back in the day", either. Another individual – let's call him "Bob" — told me that when his office coworker, an older lady, learned he had started doing some writing about video games, she started talking Fallout: New Vegas – he assumed she was just asking on behalf of her grandkids or something, and he told her that although he'd just started playing, he was having a good time.
"He went into an explanation of tossing vegetables at an end boss named Wart. It sounded so ludicrous to me."
Says Bob: "About a week later in the break room, she came up to me and said –‘oh, that New Vegas, it's brilliant, isn't it? But you know what's annoying me at the moment? Those bloody Nightkin – aren't they a pain in the arse to kill?" Bob felt surprised his coworker had actually bought the game herself, and had outdone him at it, too: "As immature of me as it was, I couldn't bring myself to admit I'd not even got much further than the Vikki and Vance machine gun mission yet ,and just politely agreed that they were hard to kill, despite not knowing at all what these Nightkin were," he said.
Even game developers lie; I heard from a member of Dungeons and Dragons Online's live team who was asked on camera what it was like to face the game's first raid boss in the live environment. He quickly spun a story –his coworker's story that he'd once overheard, not his own — making him the subject of much(good-natured) ridicule in his office once the video hit and he got called out.
Indie developer Zach Gage has seen plenty of liars firsthand: He's the developer of art game Lose/Lose, a top-down shooter that deletes files on your hard drive as you play. Part of the idea is to test the player's comfort zone, to shift their idea of stakes to something more tangible. But with his exclusive access to player usage data, Gage has seen firsthand that people lie – following the reception of his game among players talking on message boards or in public settings, he's learned that people commonly misrepresent their experiences with Lose/Lose, even claiming that the game has done things that it simply can't, on platforms for which it isn't even available, as he tells us.
In his view, Lose/Lose is "more of a situation than a video game… Although it takes the form of a video game, it's no less or more real than any other true to life lose/lose situation," Gage suggests. "It isn't on the scale of doing drugs, stealing, or cheating on your spouse, but mechanically it's the same: sounds good at the time, has a bit of a thrill to it, and impacts your life in negative ways."
Which means people play it — and lie about it — for the same reasons: "For the thrill, to seem cool with contemporaries, or just plain old curiosity," he suggests.
People commonly misrepresent their experiences with Lose/Lose, even claiming that the game has done things that it simply can't, on platforms for which it isn't even available.
Does it devalue achievement-driven gaming, if people can take a shortcut: Skip the achievement itself, cut right to the bragging? Of course, our online age makes this a little difficult. You can't tell one of your Xbox Live friends that you've beaten a game that you haven't, or earned a rare unlockable when you haven't, because they'll see that the achievement is missing from your profile.
But the urge is there. And perhaps more importantly than simple ego, the tendency of gamers to lie holds interesting implications for future examinations of real-world applications for game design principle. For example, in her new book, "Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World", writer, lecturer and designer Jane McGonigal argues that when applied to the real world, the principles of game design have the ability to motivate us, to help us derive enjoyment out of repetitive, frustrating tasks, to help us work better as "multiplayer" teams in problem-solving scenarios, and to help us feel happy and fulfilled, the way that even simple achievements in games do.
But the readiness with which so many of us tell video game lies suggests that maybe gaming isn't all about satisfying achievement, about risk-reward, or about the dynamics of motive and objective. We've got egos. We're insecure. Definitely, definitely, some of us just play games to feel powerful and cool, and when the game frustrates that objective – by being too difficult, too challenging or too inaccessible to us – we'll lie. We'll circumvent the achievement system, even.
"I've been trying to break into games journalism for a long time," a friend confides. "I wrote an essay that was partly my own thoughts and experiences with Shepherd in Mass Effect, and partly those I had heard from other friends on my message board." The friend had passed those experiences all off as her own. The story made it big and spread it cross Twitter. There was a problem. She didn't have the Xbox Achievement for one of the decisions she described herself making."I'd never actually done it," she confesses to me.
"When my friends began to start inquiring," she tells me carefully, "I lied and said I'd been using the Xbox at my friend's house and that was why I didn't have the badge." My friend says she's struggled with writer's block as she tries to continue video game blogging ever since. She suggests her desire to speak to me for this article is "some kind of subconscious desire to confess" – even as I promised her in several different formats that nothing personal about her situation would be included in this piece and that I'd protect her anonymity completely.
Do games, their culture and achievement-oriented tasks and goals really make us feel "powerful?" Do we really feel a sense of achievement, or do they make us as anxious and insecure as real life obligations do?
Games may make us happy and fulfilled, but it seems like they make us dishonest, self-doubting and competitive, too. How about you? What's your biggest video game lie, and are you ready to come clean?
[ Leigh Alexander is news director for Gamasutra, author of the Sexy Videogameland blog, and freelances reviews and criticism to a variety of outlets. Her monthly column at Kotaku deals with cultural issues surrounding games and gamers. She can be reached at leighalexander1 AT gmail DOT com.]