Why You Love Being a Jerk in ‘Untitled Goose Game’
Even — and maybe especially — if you’re a really good person IRL
In the rapidly bestselling Untitled Goose Game, players embody a horrible goose whose only purpose is to bother, annoy, and harass members of a pleasant small town. Goose Game’s primary game mechanic is sadism. As the titular goose, you can chase a small child into a phone booth, lock a groundskeeper out of his own garden, or have a picnic of food pilfered from around town. There’s no combat or complicated narrative, and your only reward is the smug satisfaction of being a jerk.
Yet despite the deplorable behavior of your anti-social anatidae avatar, Goose Game and games like it, which encourage mean-spirited behavior, may highlight how empathetic players can be.
Most of us are familiar with the narrative that video games desensitize players to violence or anti-social behavior. On the surface, the idea feels intuitive. Games like Grand Theft Auto are notorious for allowing players to casually commit criminal and destructive acts — from stealing cars to killing people — which in turn can lead to the (thoroughly debunked) belief that players might try to act out those behaviors in real life. By removing the controversial content — the sex, the drugs, the crime — but retaining the anti-social aspect, Untitled Goose Game serves as a control group to help explain what we really get out of breaking rules and causing mayhem.
According to Rachel Kowert, PhD, research director at Take This, a nonprofit aimed at increasing support for mental health issues in the gaming community, part of the appeal is simply in doing something you’re not normally supposed to do. “We get a sense of joy from pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable, especially when we know there will be no real-world consequences.”
Despite this, when given the choice, players don’t often deviate too far from the morals they have in real life. “At the end of the day, people tend to play characters that are idealized versions of themselves. As such, we choose to behave in the virtual world as we would in the real world,” Kowert says. Gameplay stats for Bioware’s popular Mass Effect series bear this out. The game series allows players to either role play as a good guy, or “Paragon,” or solve problems with your fists as a “Renegade.” Two-thirds of players ended up choosing the Paragon route in the third game in the series.
Generally, the moral conundrums in Untitled Goose Game are pretty low stakes. The world will keep turning if you throw the gardener’s rake into the water. In contrast, Mass Effect asks players whether they want to cure a genetically-engineered disease called the genophage. This disease makes an aggressive race called the Krogan infertile, preventing them from multiplying rapidly and overrunning the galaxy. It’s also tantamount to genocide. In comparison, stealing an old man’s harmonica is relatively tame.
According to Jamie Madigan, a psychology PhD and author of Getting Gamers: The Psychology of Video Games and Their Impact on the People who Play Them, it may be more complicated than a player simply projecting their own morality onto the character they’re playing. In games that give you a blank character, that may be the case. But for games that have pre-existing characters, with established personalities, traits, and a detailed backstory, players might be more willing to set aside their own moral compass in favor of adopting that of the character.
“People will tend to do what they think that character would do,” Madigan says. “They’ll make choices that are consistent with what they think that character is.” In the case of the goose game, players are quicker to be a jerk to pleasant townsfolk because… well, that’s what a goose does. They’re jerks. And the game establishes early on that the goose you’re playing is particularly mischievous, helping players get into character.
Some research even suggests that players can get so wrapped up in a game that they’ll feel guilty for the immoral choices their character makes. The story or gameplay may drive a player to steal, kill, or lie and while the protagonist may not feel any guilt over it, the player might. Further research even suggests this can lead to players becoming more morally sensitive. In this experiment, players who played a first-person shooter as a terrorist felt more guilty about their actions, and thus were more sensitive to certain immoral actions later on.
This study, in particular, contradicts the commonly-held idea that playing video games “desensitizes” players to violence or immoral acts. To the contrary, when a game shows you the consequences of making evil decisions, it can heighten the guilt you feel when thinking about (or taking) such an action. The study stops short of proving that this increased sensitivity directly translates to real-life changed behavior, but it doesn’t preclude the possibility either. Regardless, the idea makes sense. If you feel guilty about how you play a game, you might be more aware of the consequences of your real-life actions.
Of course, there’s an even simpler reason why players might make malicious choices. “A lot of time, it’s the demands of the game,” Madigan says. “They want to unlock stuff, they want a certain character in their party or they want to get an achievement… They might make ‘evil’ choices in games because they want to experience the content.”
One game where this was especially apparent is the 2007 dystopian game BioShock. In this game, players are routinely forced to choose whether to save little girls infected with a valuable resource called ADAM, granting them a small reward, or to “harvest” them, which would kill the little girls but grant a larger reward of ADAM. On the other hand, saving the little girls will result in gifts from the grateful children later on which almost (but not quite) balances the rewards out. The game spells out pretty quickly that there are pros and cons to each path in terms of gameplay rewards. This means some players will immediately head to Google to find out the “optimal” path.
Players eventually figured out that, mathematically, you technically get the highest reward if you kill the girls. This isn’t a choice made based on the story or on any sense of morals — either the player’s or the protagonist’s — but rather based on game mechanics. If you want to unlock more powers and weapons earlier in the game, this is the button you have to press. And since no one in real life really gets hurt, the choice becomes less of a moral one and more of a practical one. Which series of buttons can the player press to get the highest numbers?
Fortunately, Untitled Goose Game doesn’t force players into such difficult choices, but it does allow players to step outside their normal moral comfort zone. As Kowert puts it, “There is intrinsic fun in pushing convention to the wayside with small acts of anti-social behavior and ‘getting away with it.’”