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A Theory of Game Attachment

March 30, 2012

Dear Reader,

Most of you are probably already familiar with attachment theory, but since it’s pretty heavily featured in today’s correspondence, I figure I’ll go over some of the basics just to be safe.  Most of this comes from A General Theory of Love, an excellent book on love from a cognitive neuroscience point of view.

There’s multiple layers to attachment theory.  At its simplest form, the theory discusses the tendency for young mammals and birds (and a few other creatures, but mostly mammals and birds) to “attach” themselves to parental figures.  I’m sure we’re all familiar with baby ducks following behind their mother.  That’s attachment theory at its most basic.

It gets more complicated, though, as you delve in.  Attachment theory also discusses the likelihood of parental figures to greatly shape the lives of their young.  Baby ducks who never meet a duck tend to behave more like whatever creature has brought them up, as much as is possible with their physical limitations, of course.  The same is true of very young mammals.  Cats not raised by other cats often show abnormal instinctual traits; they might not cover up their waste, for example, even though to do so is “instinctual” to cats.  Or those instincts can become confused, as cats who attempt (or do) cover up their food instead of their waste.  I have a cat that does both; she was found as a teeny tiny kitten whose mother had been killed by the property owner where she was found.  My wife rescued her, vastly underweight and very dirty (she had grooming issues, too, though those have mostly vanished since we got a second cat).  Without a feline mother figure, our cat’s feline instincts have been depreciated.

It gets even more complicated with more intelligent life forms.  About three decades ago, Mary Ainsworth conducted an experiment whose results revealed a lot about human parent-child interactions.  Her research found a direct correlation between mothering styles and their children’s personality.  She categorized these outcomes as “secure” children, who were confident to explore the world but also comfortable to return to their mother when they needed help, “insecure-ambivalent” children who were nervous and fearful without their mother around and overly-attached when they were, and “insecure-avoidant” children who rejected their mothers.  Each type of child correlated to a type of mother, the secure having responsive mothers, the ambivalent having mothers who were erratic in their behavior towards the child, and the avoidant having mothers who were cold or resentful.  As the research elongated and become longitudinal, the secure children grew up to be healthy, normal kids who did well in school; the ambivalent children were anxious, had low self-esteem, and were socially inept, and the avoidant children grew up to resent authority and engage in more risky behaviors.  Ainsworth’s research pretty clearly proved that attachment theory mattered, and the way you were brought up had major influence in your life.

None of this is to suggest that the sum of who we are is only based on our mothers, though.  Obviously time and experience can change who we are, and does, or we’d simply be productions of our mother’s attention.  Attachment theory only proposes that where we start, our basic characteristics, are vastly shaped by our mother’s attention (and more and more fathers, as well, but Ainsworth’s research focused only on mother-child relationships).

What’s all this have to do with video games?  I suspect that our formative games have had as dramatic an effect on our game-playing personalities as our mothers did on the rest of our personalities.  I suspect that our earliest games, and perhaps even our earliest games per genre, have greatly influenced what we’ve come to enjoy and expect from games for our whole life.  As with our personality, our game self can be changed by time and experience, but I still suspect that our most basic gaming attributes, our likes and dislikes, our expectations, our approach to games themselves, are formed by our earliest experiences.

I have no research as yet to back this up, of course, and probably won’t ever since it’s not really my field, but I wonder.  From my own experiences, I can tell you that a lot of things get compared back to my early video games.  I don’t remember some of my earliest, of course; they’ve faded into the annals of time, but I do remember some that stand out to me, some that have marked me, I think, as a gamer.

My earliest games were on the Commodore 64.  It had a cartridge slot, and we had games like Cleopatra’s Needle, Balloon Kick, Galaxxon, and Frogger.  It also had a separate 5 1/4″ floppy drive, and from there I played my earliest role playing games.  I don’t remember the names of any of them any more, as I was really too young to understand all the mechanics involved, but I do remember a game I think  was called Castle of Doom, which was an ASCII rogue-like game (though much simpler).  To be honest, that may have been on the Tandy, too, but I don’t recall.

My earliest real game memories are of my Nintendo.  It had, of course, Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt, as well as Hudson’s Adventure Island, a very early platformer that I remember being particularly frustrating.  My first role-playing memories are of Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior.  I really came into my gaming life with the Super Nintendo and a computer I won  in a writing contest, a IBM 380 (if memory serves).  Here I played the next Final Fantasies and games like Darkside of Xeen, Legacy: Realm of Terror, X-Com: Enemy Unknown, and Syndicate.

I wonder what mark those games left on me.  I know I prefer exploring a lot of character options in RPGs, so much so that I dislike solo RPGs and prefer party-based ones, so I can level a lot of characters.  I know I like squad-based tactics games, which largely disappeared until Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War 2 came out.  I like platformers, too, but think I played myself out of the blander ones, though I still enjoyed Braid, a platformer + puzzler.

How about you, dear reader?  Do you think early games left a mark on you?  Have you been affected by game attachment?  Does every game you play get measured up to your first MMO now?


Stubborn (and attached)

I remember many role playing games that got my attention as a youth.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 30, 2012 1:48 pm

    Every computer RPG game I play gets compared to AD&D 1st and 2nd editions. I can’t help it.

    Isn’t this why Oldies stations are a thing, too? You never really move past your teenage music?

  2. March 30, 2012 3:30 pm

    Interestingly enough AD&D was my first exposure to social cooporative play with a genre I enjoyed. I remember prior to getting into that game I LOVED to read. My first books were the Taran series, Tolkein, RE Howard etc. Then the P&P RPGs came out in the late 70s-early 80s. This was almost like a video game but with a sense of story. For nearly 3 decades P&P games of all genres occupied my time amongst my friends. Then in the 2000’s when I could afford half decent computers Neverwinternights stole my heart for the longest time. It was AD&D on steroids when done in constant servers etc. Finally the MMO scene hit hard in the early 2000’s. I was hooked. EQ, SWG, WOW and now of course my niche game AOC.

    Yes there is a huge influence from my early tabletop RPG days. It influenced my playstyle and my perpetual need to conceptualize my characters in a meaningful way. Even though AOC is riddled with coding issues, it came closest to my tabletop days of gameplay. It felt as visceral as the blood soaked stories my friends and I would tell around the table rolling 3 million dice and acting out our scenarios. So my early days did infact influence almost every aspect of my gameplay today.

  3. March 30, 2012 7:20 pm

    Hm, let’s see: my earliest gaming experiences were on a Commodore 64 as well, though it initially belonged to my brother. He also owned literally hundreds of pirated games (gasp), most of which I must have at least tried at one point or another but quickly discarded again. I was very “action-averse” from the beginning and found it difficult to understand what many games were about in terms of story, seeing how they were all in English. The only ones I really remember playing with any regularity were Boulder Dash, where I spent ages on the level builder creating aesthetically pleasing level designs, Sim City and Tetris. Now that I’m thinking about it I remember a whole lot of others though that I played at least occasionally. Nostalgia overwhelming! I think the common thread among these was mostly that they were relatively non-violent and simple.

    When we got our first PC, I naturally graduated towards Sim City 2000 and the golden age LucasArts adventure games. I also began to dabble in real time strategy, though one of my earliest experiences with these was basically my brother planting me in front of a second PC to play Command & Conquer with him, without me even having the foggiest clue what to do. He just enjoyed stomping me into the ground I guess. (Brothers…)

    In the 2000s I spent a couple of years playing Neopets online, then The Sims 2, and then WoW.

    I do think the common theme here is that I like games that don’t focus on violence (WoW is about the worst I’ve enjoyed) and aren’t twitchy. I’m not sure how much of that was early games affecting my tastes though and how much was simply me picking the games that naturally appealed to me from the start, considering that I was very much spoiled for choice.

    PS: I’ve never owned a console in my life.

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