Cognitive Dissonance

 PREFACE: sorry for missing 3 weeks of releases. The scheduled post thing on WordPress decided it didn’t want to work anymore and Carson just let me know that I haven’t released an essay in 3 weeks despite having set the bloody thing up to do so

So, it’s been 3 weeks of silence, which I apologize for. I was considering making this week’s episode about DRM but the essay that was turning into really wasn’t part of my style. yes, SWGBlog is my personal soap box but I really don’t like to just step up here and complain about a thing. Maybe when I spot a particularly brilliant application of DRM Ill return to the marketing discussion but for now I have nothing positive to say (besides what they did with Mother 2) and Carson already does a pretty good job at ragging on things that just offend us all.

So what will I be covering this week? Well, I was going to make it ludonarrative dissonance but then I realized that there was a whole other talk we had to have before we could even start to wrap our heads around such a subject. So what is the big subject I plan on covering before that big word that I’m willing to bet a penny you needed to sound out phonetically? Cognitive dissonance.

Okay, I know that word is almost as big, so what is it? Pop on over to and give that game a swing, it will only take you about a minute before you start to experience what I’m talking about. For those of you who want a more verbose explanation, cognitive dissonance is that sensation you get as your subconscious mind attempts to connect two concepts that your conscious mind knows are irreconcilable or visa versa. An easy example would be the game I linked above. Notice that feeling you get when the word blue is printed in black, your conscious mind reads the color blue but your subconscious reads black. You will instinctively listen to one of these 2 choices, then realize that the information is inconsistent. Over the next 10 pages I would like to discuss how this concept applies to video games as well as different ways in which cognitive dissonance has been applied, intentionally or not, to various video games.

So, you guys know the drill, first we start with examples. First I would like to start with one that was probably accidental. Keep in mind, the fact that it was accidental does not preclude it from being an excellent use of the technique. In Mass Effect 3 there is a terminal that you can go to in the SpecTRe (okay mom, just realized that one might be a problem. SpecTRe stands for Special Tactics and Reconnaissance, they’re the guys the citadel calls when bureaucracy and politics would get in the way of necessary action. Think James Bond in space except there’s no M and Bond takes only the missions he feels like doing) office to authorize certain amenities to help with the war effort against the Reapers. Most of these things are common sense issues, authorizing the expansion of refugee housing, adjusting allotments of wartime rations. Stuff that would otherwise get tied up in Citadel bureaucracy. There is one entry on this list however that caused me a significant hangup. Here’s the setup.

The Reapers are a universe-spanning galactic empire of sentient machines. They’ve been around since before time was time. When the Protheans (the race that seeded intelligent life on Earth as well as various other planets) were just crawling from the primordial ooze the Reapers had already been around for millions of years. They aren’t evil per se, but there is an interesting quirk to their reproductive cycle. They can make all of the Reapers they want whenever they want, but in order to imbue their offspring with the spark of life they need vast amounts of genetic material (Mass Effect terminology for souls). So they set up a farm using the Mass Relay system. They would use carefully placed artefacts and treasures across the galaxy to encourage burgeoning civilizations to adapt Reaper tech to their own use, as soon as a civilization reaches a certain population level and adequate level of technological advancement, the Reapers swoop in, shut down the tech that they set up for the cattle (you) and take everyone away for processing, leaving only basic life forms (like dogs) and high functioning animals (like chimps or dolphins) to repopulate the worlds that had been claimed.

Their primary form of harvesting is a process known as Indoctrination. They lure important individuals (like diplomats) into places where they can be brainwashed through sub-dermal cybernetic implants and brain-wave manipulation (sorry for grossly oversimplifying but, on the other hand, the story line went all Daffy Duck at the beginning of ME3, so get over it) and re-released into the general populace to lead their people into the slaughterhouse. This is where the rough bit comes up. You get a request at the SpecTRe terminal. Citadel Security wants to covertly hook all personal monitoring devices (cameras, cell phones, etc.) into the security grid so that they can watch people for signs of indoctrination. ‘Okay, easy!’ was my first thought, but right before I hit authorize I had a horrific thought. What about the real world? What about the illegal wire taps and invasive searches at the airport? Mass Effect worded it so logically, of course we should monitor people in their homes, its for their own well-being. All it takes is 1 indoctrinated individual to wipe out an entire colony. We were on the citadel, that same 1 indoctrinated individual could (and a few scenes earlier, in the case of Councilor Udina, almost did) wipe out the last line of defense for intelligent organic life across the galaxy. It would be absolutely suicidal not to spy on the citizens of the Citadel Plus, the gameplay acknowledged that assessment, making it such that you needed to authorize the wire tapping in order to get a high readiness score and thus get the perfect endings. I spent 20 minutes warring over whether to authorize. I knew I had to in order to complete the game, and I ultimately hit “authorize” but I still feel guilty over authorizing such a violation of personal liberty.

I can’t decide whether this case is a good example of cognitive dissonance. I want to say yes because it was effective. I just can’t help but feel like we should have been given a second option. Maybe Shepard could authorize an opt-in only version, only hooking in devices owned by people who agreed to give a little freedom for a little safety instead of a unilateral decision that the people didn’t deserve their privacy. As a second option, you could have anyone who hits “authorize” on that memo get renegade points (okay, mom, Mass Effect uses a mechanic called the Paragon/Renegade bar, filling it requires you complete alturistic actions, and you empty it or go into negative values by choosing selfish or evil actions, filling the bar in either the Paragon (good guy) or renegade (bad guy) direction gets you discounts or markups at certain shops, earns you loyalty from the cops or the criminals, etc. depending on whether you go Paragon or Renegade). The way Bioware implemented this quest was flawed, but we will get to the best expression of this choice with time. Eventually developers will stop thinking of setting and mechanics as completely divorced concepts and stuff like this will get better (setting as mechanics vs setting as world, essay seed). As it is, if anyone realizes they are being spied on they are just going to turn off their devices and all C-sec would have accomplished was the alienation of the people they are supposed to protect. How many people have lost all respect for Obama because he hasn’t put an end to the Bush-era wire taps? I’ve known plenty of people who, instead of just laying down and taking it, started running all their private information through disposable cell phones and proxies out of fear of a growing fascist regime. What if the wire taps were voluntary only. Say when the census came around there was an opt in saying “Would you like to allow the FBI to use some of your personal information to improve state security”. I mean, the people at the census bureau are smarter than I and could probably word it more attractively, but it would be a hell of a lot better than every tech savvy person out there switching over to proxy sites and private browsers just to confound their ISPs.

Now, as you guys know by now, I hate giving only 1 example, so lets move on to another series. Metal Gear Solid. Okay, this is going to chafe some people, but my favourite entry in the entire series so far is MGS2. Why is that? Simple, MGS2 is probably the most ingeniously written and deviously subversive narratives in all of video game history. Now, I know many people in the Games-as-art camp have revisited MGS2 in recent years but I would like to recap. At the beginning of Act 2 you are introduced to Raidan. Ostensibly, Raidan is being dropped onto this oil tanker to kill off some terrorists or some other McGuffin plot. At this point I thought “oh, its just an update on MGS1, great” I shut down my higher brain processes and started slogging through another masturbatory macho fantasy. I had just finished borrowing MGS1 from my friend so I knew the drill. Classic stealth action with some really weird bosses.

Now, I am not going to regale you with the plotline of MGS2. Seriously, Google Metal Gear Plotline and you will see just how confusing this beast is. All of the good guys are clones of the bad guys, there are lush jungles in geographically impossible places. There’s a series of automated metal gears that exist solely in the “stomach” of an even bigger metal gear that is made using Time Lord technology (it’s bigger on the inside). You even get allusions to Jonah and the whale. I’m going to skip over all of that and just stick with Raidan. Lets cut to the chase, Raidan is a wimp. He whines and complains and there’s even a scene where he is so scared of guards seeing his genitals that he would rather cover his shame than arm himself (he had just broken free of a torture chamber). At the beginning you are lead to believe that Raidan is some sort of elite soldier, trained in the harshest of no safety VR scenarios that are “indistinguishable from the real thing [sic]” as you go on it is revealed that Raidan served as a child soldier aligned with an unnamed army (seriously, I don’t even think they give the country that he fought in or a faction name) in a series of wars before being recruited to FOXHOUND. However, even as early as in the scene where it was revealed that he was a child soldier, he reveals something else that makes no sense. First off, he has a girlfriend in the USA (as revealed earlier in the game). Secondly, part of his training regimen involved watching movies that glorified war. Upon elaboration, it was revealed that this wasn’t just standard propaganda stuff. He was watching movies like Rambo. What terrorist regime uses Rambo as a training video?

As we move on into Arsenal (which is what I like to call the Deconstruction act) it is revealed all at once that the “VR regimen” he undertook in his training as a child soldier was a lot closer to Call of Duty than Xavier’s Danger Room. It was revealed that most of his missions were mere recreations of Solid Snake, improved to make the violence more engaging. It is revealed that the S3 program, which Raidan was trained under, stood for Solid Snake Simulation, and that Raidan had never actually been on a real mission, he was being trained to become Solid Snake. Almost 10 minutes later it was revealed that even that was a lie, and that S3 was actually intended to brainwash masses and stood for “Selection for Societal Sanity”. Raidan never took place in any real mission, in fact, it was more than likely he was in a simulation from the moment the player picked up the controller. His job was to assassinate the president of the United States so that his replacement could release a thought-control… thing… they never really said how it would work.

So, what does this have to do with cognitive dissonance? Well, think about it. The first act is basically a super-powered remake of MGS1. In act 2 Kojima pulls the rug and lets you know you will be playing someone “bigger and better” than Snake. It is then revealed that this badass is some snively video game addict who just wanted to be a hero. In the end you are given a job to kill the president. You complete this job, not because the president is a bad guy, but because Raidan needs to be a hero, and this is the only way he has to live out the macho fantasy he’s been spoon fed since childhood. This unspeakable act, the contract killing of someone who’s only crime was aiming to stop The Patriots from completing their doomsday plan, was the only way Raidan could keep his fantasy of being a badass super spy on par with Solid Snake. You know Raidan is a good guy at heart, and yet you work for the bad guys. While most games frame this kind of action as “evil for the sake of good”, this is not done for Raidan. He simply needs to be a hero. At the end of the game I was struck with a horrible dissonance. I had just killed the president of the United States, not because he was a bad guy, but because I wanted to bring the macho fantasy that Raidan had lived in to a satisfying, testosterone fueled, ‘victorious’ conclusion.

Okay, so, after 4 or 5 months I think you know me well enough. You know I like to do things in 3s, so here’s a third example. It’s probably one of the most famous lines, if not in all of gaming history, then at least in the last 10 years. “The Cake is a Lie”. Now we all know the story but as you know, this blog is intended to be accessible to the novice as it is to the master, so lets go over it. GLaDOS is a rogue AI and the central antagonist of the Portal series (by the way, Valve, you already set up the Potter/Voldemort aesthetic for Chell and GLaDOS, lets see them kill eachother already). I could go into detail about how evil she is but she is perfectly summed up in 1 quote. “you will be baked/then there will be cake”. Now, throughout the entire game, a shadowy, mysterious denizen of GLaDOS’s cyber-hell known only as The Ratmann hides messages for Chell, the most famous being “the cake is a lie”. Now, most people who played Portal adopted that as the game’s slogan, completely forgetting a defining moment for Chell and GLaDOS. Right before Chell completes the final test GLaDOS says “you will be baked/then there will be cake”. That one line, “you will be baked/then there will be cake” is used to hint to GLaDOS’s true nature. For all of the hate and rage she shows to organics, she is unflinchingly honest. She does not and will not lie to anyone. Nobody at this point could have seen that this was because she was once a human, a caretaker for her eccentric boss who rewarded her by cramming her brain in a jar and feeding it into the central computer, but the allusion to her previous kindness was most certainly there. Now, I plan on coming back to that line when I write about characters with character, but lets look at the community response.

In reality, GLaDOS, who went down as one of the most deceitful characters in gaming history never actually lied. Think about it. Think about every quote across both games. Can you really hate GlaDOS? I couldn’t bring myself to hate GLaDOS because of how hard she tries to be honest and, as a result, had trouble killing her despite the fact that it was the objective of the entire game.

So, why do I want to talk about cognitive dissonance. It’s not a particular gamey subject. You can experience it in any event. You experience it when your job description and the needs of your customers come into conflict. You experience it when you find yourself falling in love with the villain of a book or movie. Hell, Ill bet everyone who reads this experiences some form of cognitive dissonance in their daily lives at least 4 times a week. Why talk about it when it’s such a common thing?

Simple. Re-read the examples. Developers have already figured out that this quirk of psychology can be wielded like a sword when it comes to telling a story. Daniel Floyd hit it on the head when he said that our medium is probably the most compressed when it comes to storytelling. Face it, a good book has about 15 hours of content, a good movie has maybe 1.5 hours, occasionally 3 if it’s a long one. Video games, on the other hand, have 8-12 hours on average, stretching as high as 40, but there is so much more content that gets crammed in there. You have to have your diologue, just like in books and movies, but the difference is that a video game also has to cram in every single pixel of the setting. A game designer, on top of telling a good story, has to cram in every single element of the setting, the sky, the physics of the world, the layout of the city, all this has to be crammed into that 2-40 hour window, and to kick it up, a AAA game designer has the same approximate amount of time to shove all that content out the door as the average movie producer on a summer blockbuster. In short, devs need to be pulling every single trick and shortcut they can to get the same quality that is expected from the other 2 mass mediums (that is to say, books and movies. Nothing against live theatre, I love Little Shop as much as the next guy, you just don’t have the same audience in mind as books and movies).

Long story short, cognitive dissonance has been a staple of drama for a very, very long time. It has proven, time and time again, that the best way to let someone know they need to be paying attention is to create this sensation. The only reason we get the feeling in the first place is so that our subconscious can tell us that there’s more to a subject than what is being taken in. intentionally creating a sense of cognitive dissonance is an excellent way to tell your players that they need to be paying attention to every single detail of the coming moments. Everyone else has figured out that you can tell just as much plot by directing people to what you didn’t say.

So, upon re-reading, I realized that what I just said didn’t make any sense. Lets take a moment to think. Not too long ago there was a time without internet (I know, crazy right?). There were 2 ways to get information. You either figured it out the hard way or you researched. Now, I’m all for the school of hard knocks, but in the real world, just like video games, not knowing something can and will get you killed, and those that are killed by ignorance never go softly into the night, they die dirty. The sensation of cognitive dissonance exists solely to let you know that there is something not quite right. It exists to inform you that the information your eyes are taking in doesn’t match the information that your dozens of other senses (like equilibrium, hearing, smell, blood pressure, touch, etc) are taking in.

So, how to use it. Well, to paint with the broadest of strokes, you should aim to use this as a tool to let your players know they need to be paying attention. How do you do that? Well it’s easy, take a few weeks to strike out into the world and take in your surroundings, bring a notepad and jot down everything you see and hear when you get that feeling. Let me give you an example. Last April when I visited my mother in Florida I saw this plant that I had never seen before, the leaves fanned out wide with serrated edges. I know now that the plant is fairly common in the south but at the time the alien shape of the thing contrasted sharply with what my northern sensitivities knew to be a normal shape for a plant, which in turn told me that I probably shouldn’t be touching it. You could easily adapt that to your game.

The key is subtlety. You don’t need to have complete human torsos sticking out of the wall to let your players know that people who die here typically don’t rest peacefully. You could just as easily tell that story by having your sound guy pitch shift the sound of a little girl weeping down a few hertz. Throw that into a grassy field with shining sun and beautiful clear sky and like magic your players know that this idyllic plane is about to suck horribly. It would leave a far more lasting impression then the standard flaming corpses lamenting their godlessness and probably be cheaper than animating those thousand wailing torsos anyway.

So, now for a third possible expression. My favourite video game commercial of all time was for Gears of War. I’m not so much a fan of the games themselves (the thick coat of slime on everything coupled with the fact that you basically played a stationary turret got old around the end of the first entry, to be honest, I still have no idea how to beat Raam. I’ve killed him over 6 times but I never figured out the exact mechanic behind dissipating the kryll shield) but the commercials were amazing. High action cinematics coupled with Mad World just pulled at my curiosity. According to the cinematic, Fenix was kicking ass, so why was this synced up to the National Anthem of dead souls? I wanted, nay, needed to play. Probably wouldn’t have gotten a Xbox until Lost Odyssey came out if it weren’t for that amazing commercial.

So, there’s my bit on cognitive dissonance, I know, this essay was mostly a love letter to a narrative device, but I had to start there before I really dived (dove?) into the really meaty subject. Thanks for sticking with me, we will be back to a purely video game subject next week. Also, make sure to pop over to the Youtube channel and congratulate Carson. Seriously, I’ve never even -seen- 100,000 gold in one place, and he and Jesse put it together in 2 weeks. Way to go, guys. Also, I appologize for posting this on Friday instead of Wednesday. I will be back to the regular release schedule next week.


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