Stealth games are rather common in today’s video game culture. Popular titles such as Metal Gear Solid, Thief, Assassins Creed, The Last of Us, Hitman, Sly Cooper, and Splinter Cell often come to mind when discussing challenging yet exhilarating games. These games provide an overwhelming sense of immersion as difficult tasks draw the player in, demanding concentration and purposeful decision making throughout the majority of the gameplay.
Our own Dr. Lennart Nacke was interviewed to look at his observations of the effects that stealth games have on the player. Nick Hagan authored the article ‘The Dark Ways Stealth Games Work on Your Mind’, focusing on the game Thief and has caught the attention of many readers. Hagan draws in research from the American Psychological Association to explain an experience termed the ‘cheaters high’ where by ‘successfully breaking the rules’ one gets a rush of adrenaline and surprisingly an improved mood. The cleverness one feels upon their ‘accomplishment’ seems to be the root of this. Dr. Nacke elaborated on this concept by comparing the feeling to bargain-hunting and the thrill of finding something for less money or effort than someone else. He followed up by suggesting that the cunning or trickster nature that the player must adopt makes them feel accomplished for deceiving the game as they successfully move from level to level.
On a psychological level, Hagan reviews how often a player will complete a level only to play it again more in character as a result of the victory feeling wrong. Often the player will take the ‘easy’ option to fight their way through a level, using minimal stealth at times. Dr. Nacke suggests that the player unconsciously sets personal standards for when they play and if the standard (of stealth) is not met, it’s not worthy of the game. Despite being under the influence of being autonomous, the games seem to turn their players into ‘psychological puppets’. This creates a ‘tug-of-war over the player’s free will’ Hagan proposes. The all too real fear plays to this even more as the gameplay continues. “One begins to feel more like a venomous spider than a hero” Hagan articulates. This accurately depicts the need for stealth, the constant fear, the need for the environment, the consequences of a mistake and the incredible damage to another if successful.
As a result, a question must be answered. Do we, the players, take the reins of stealth games and do as we please in the game’s world, or do we succumb to the ambitions of the game itself?