Don't Believe the Hype

Photo: Anthony Kolber

What we believe and how we behave aren’t always in sync. In an ideal world people would act in ways supporting their beliefs and ideas, but the reality of it is that we live in a world of tangled webs composed of cultural and societal implications. Couple that with behavioral implications and you have yourself one hell of a recipe for cognitive dissonance – the discrepancy between beliefs and/or behavior.

When we think of hype it’s difficult to imagine anything other than the mahogany smell of a boardroom crammed full of expensive suits spit-balling marketing ploys. But hype is a powerful social influence – an unstoppable force. As Kris Ligman noted in her article, the larger social world’s ability to inform the limited game space in a manner that enriches the player’s experience is immeasurable. Going a step further, I’d like to open a discussion on how such social influences not only enrich but also shape the experience and trick players into polarities of extreme enjoyment or hatred. This also occurs with movies and music as well, but the interactivity of games makes it all the more intriguing.

Let’s begin with anticipation – the bitter sweet sensation marked by unattainable desires but also unbridled imagination. Anticipation may be makes us believe “this will be the best game ever.” And since most of us hold self-concepts regarding ourselves as reasonably intelligent we tangle like stray cats in heat to defend this belief, whether we actually enjoyed the experience notwithstanding. This is because our self-concept suffers whenever one belief is in discord with the other so we have to find a balance. This isn’t to say everyone will enjoy everything they anticipate, but Leon Festinger’s When Prophecy Fails exemplifies the lengths some people will go to correct the dissonance between their beliefs. In it, Festinger describes a cult with a strong belief in the end of the world, but when the world does not end the cult dives deeper into their beliefs rather than admitting they were wrong.

An enthusiast hobby and a religious belief, however, do not factor on the same scale. With that said, I can safely say my constant tweeting, set-visiting, and gossiping of The Dark Knight Rises to friends, relatives and scared strangers will not go unjustified. I already know I’m going to love it, and I doubt my self-concept will allow otherwise, unless the entire flick is a two hour and forty-five minute shot of Nolan’s feces. To which I’d still probably try to convince others that his pile of shit was a remarkable psychological insight into the state of humanity.

Social influence creates pressure. As people, we generally want to be liked; to fit in. As critics, there is a responsibility to uphold integrity. Knowing this, we can safely say most critics see themselves as having journalistic integrity. They also, however, want to succeed – to be right in the eyes of those who hold their succession hostage. Who wants to be that guy who gave the best game ever a mediocre score? Grand Theft Auto IV released to perfect review after review. A glance at Metacritic shows more than half of its 86 reviews are perfect scores. Debate raged as to whether GTA IV deserved the overwhelming amount of acclaim, prompting the reviewers in question to defend their score. The general consensus among these reviewers was that even though GTA IV was packed with flaws it deserved its score because it was “revolutionary.” If GTA IV hadn’t amassed so much hype and so much lauded preview coverage, would reviewers have felt as much pressure to give a perfect review?

Curiously, some reviewers may have truly enjoyed the game perfectly because of the immense pressure. Without the social influence of hype, many critics may never have bought into the lure of the game, and subsequently never would have been duped into altering their experience to satisfy the self-concept. Most of the time conformity is harmless (such as clapping because everyone else is clapping even though the performance wasn’t to our liking), but when it means relinquishing integrity it creates a physiological dissonance that feels like yellow jackets crawling under the skin, hence the necessity to alter the experience.

It’s only natural to label ourselves so as to give our lives an actionable direction. For this reason we align with groups and act accordingly to those beliefs. Side effects of identifying strongly with a group include the obligation to promote group ideals and denounce non-group ideals. What we then see are ideas similar in theory to the ideas of the individual face rejection because they disagree with the individual’s self-concept and larger group identity. Because of this, an experience a person may have with a game with hype would differ from that same person’s experience with the exact same game minus the hype. This occurs when there is not enough justification for a particular belief, so the person alters their thinking.

This phenomenon of low justification was demonstrated in a study by Festinger and Merril Carlsmith where a group of people were asked to perform a dull task. Afterwards, some of the people were told to convince others still waiting for their turn that the task was actually very fun. Some were paid $1 and others $20. The ones paid only a dollar ended up liking the dull task more than those paid $20 to lie, effectively believing their own lies. Why? Because the amount of money was too low a justification for the person to lie, so they changed their belief in order to restore their positive self-concept. This is especially true if a person prides himself an indie gamer with a contention of the mainstream. There is not enough justification in, say, “this game sucks because it is a mainstream game and I only like indies,” so he will convince himself that the game is not good in a more justifiable manner. Such as by exaggerating flaws in the game to the point he can safely brush it aside.

The effect of hype on our experience is a paradox – the product of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object – but something has to snap under that pressure. I’ve been told my entire life not to “believe the hype,” but nobody ever said why. Perhaps they were just repeating a catchy phrase people told them throughout their own lives. If I’ve learned one thing, though, it’s that you can’t tell anybody anything – they have to experience it themselves.