Why You Get Stuck In Games, And What You Can Do About It

This article originally appeared in issue 294 of Game Informer magazine.

Anyone who plays video games has at least one “duh” moment to their name. We beat our heads against bosses for half an hour before realizing we’re supposed to lose the fight. We search every nook and cranny of a dungeon for a key to an unlocked door. Because of their interactive nature, even the most linear games are prone to grinding halts whenever a player misses a crucial cue, a developer sends conflicting signals about what to do, or both.

This common problem highlights how closely game design intersects with psychology. Psychologists have been studying games, problem-solving, and cognition for years to more firmly grasp what’s going on in our brains when we get stuck.

Overlooking The Obvious
When we can’t get through a puzzle, it often seems like we’ve exhausted every path and occasionally invent a “solution” that will ultimately prove fruitless (such as trying to make a difficult jump that looks possible but actually requires us to activate a moving platform). When this happens, it can feel like a game has completely fallen off of the rails.

Though these mistakes may sound like aberrations, they’re actually common psychological concepts, according to president of media consulting firm Immersyve, Scott Rigby. At Immersyve, Rigby helps developers find points of frustration and smooth them out, and has found that getting stuck tends to come from one of two psychological concepts: functional fixedness and schema.

Functional fixedness is a way of thinking that prevents us from imagining new uses for certain objects. It’s used to describe how, as we get older, we don’t “play pretend” with everyday objects as often. “A young kid, you can hand them a pen and they’ll pretend it’s a magic wand, a spear, a sword, a gun, and a few other things,” Rigby says. “They’re not locked into functional fixedness.” Adults, on the other hand, tend to think of a pen only as a tool for writing, which can impair creative thinking. If, for example, we’ve only been using the fire spell we acquire in the early levels of a game to melt ice blocks, it might not occur to us to use it to light a candle later on. 

Schema, on the other hand, are how we map plans and ideas into workable solutions, and they’re how game developers guide players through their worlds. As we become familiar with a game and its controls, players often attempt to push the game’s boundaries. “You’ll see them hit the wall, try to click on things, move them up and down, throw chairs,” Rigby says. “They’re trying to build a schema for what they can interact with, what the rules of the game are.”

Developers help players create schemas to let them know what their options are. They might block the door out of the room in which you find the fire spell with an ice block, for example, to force you to figure out the fire spell before proceeding. But if a schema becomes too rigid, it can be hard to add concepts outside of it effectively. “If you haven’t taught me you can pick up rocks and throw them to distract a monster in order to get past something, the fact that there are rocks lying around isn’t really going to help me very much,” Rigby says. “I haven’t learned that rocks are meaningful in the schema in the game.”

Because functional fixedness is a natural human trait and schema is largely a product of conditioning, it can be easy for players who can’t figure out how to progress to pin the blame on the game. However, one aspect of getting stuck that has more to do with players than anything else is perhaps our greatest enemy when it comes to problem-solving: frustration.

Fighting With Frustration
While many games aim to immerse us in their worlds, most still consist of using a set of skills (whether that’s reading comprehension or double-jump timing) to overcome challenges. When we accomplish the task before us, we feel good about ourselves. “We all have that need for competency, for mastery,” Rigby says. “We want to feel successful. We also want to feel growth. That’s a basic need.” Those feelings of learning and mastery are why many people play games.

The difference between a challenge that tests all our skills to their fullest and one that’s simply too much can be razor-thin, and it can determine whether players press on in the face of adversity or give up. As we fumble around with a puzzle searching for the solution that might be right in front of us or fight a boss whose attacks are proving too difficult to dodge, we get irritated, whether it’s at the developers or ourselves (usually the former).

When we get annoyed, our ability to think outside the box plummets, according to Dr. Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center and professor at Fielding Graduate University. “The ability to think in new ways is largely driven by a level of psychological comfort, or positive emotion,” Rutledge says. Frustration activates our natural fight-or-flight response, which inhibits our ability to solve puzzles.

One of the best ways to deal with aggravation in the moment isn’t to try to play around it, but rather to examine why we’re feeling that way, according to Dr. Andrew Przybylski, an experimental psychologist and senior research fellow at the Oxford University department of experimental psychology. 

Whether we feel like we’re not competent or simply think the controls aren’t letting us do what we want, figuring out how to better approach the obstacle can help calm us down. Games aren’t perfect, but Przybylski notes that blaming them won’t help you progress. “For me it’s like when you’re walking around at night and you stub your toe on the refrigerator,” he says. “You get angry at the refrigerator, but it can’t possibly be the refrigerator’s fault.”