Avoiding the Sunk Cost Fallacy

The Sunk Cost fallacy is an insidious little beastie. It’s one of the main ways a lot of games keep you coming back to them. The quick and dirty explanation of what it is, is that niggling little thought in your head that chirps whenever you’ve sunk a lot of [insert resource here] (time, money, effort, emotional investment, etc.) into something you’re no longer enjoying or think is a good idea to keep doing and tells you that all of your [resource] will be wasted if you stop now…therefore you must keep going. It’s one of the most common fallacies humans commit in every aspect of their lives, in part because at a cursory glance it kind of makes sense (like all good fallacies).

While this pops up in all sorts of things from high level business deals to how you engage with a long running TV series to romantic relationships, we’re talking today about how it pertains to video games. In the least insidious sense, consider a long game you’re simply not enjoying. For example, you’re playing an epic 100+ hour JRPG, like Final Fantasy X. You get 40 hours into the game and realize you’re just not having any fun. It’s an experience you don’t enjoy. But that niggling little thought in your brain says “But I spent $60 on this! And I’m not even halfway done! If I stop now I’ve just wasted $60 and 40 hours of my life. I can’t just stop.”. And on the surface this makes sense, you paid for a product and aren’t making full use of it, like if you’d bought a loaf of bread and thrown half of it away fro no reason. It’s a waste. So you push through, being apathetic or actively disliking the next 60 hours of gameplay until you finally trudge to a conclusion you’re thoroughly dissatisfied with.

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For the record, I actually like Final Fantasy X. It was just the first “really long JRPG” example that came to mind.

Was it worth it? Not at all. And therein lies the fallacy. It would not have been a waste to stop playing the game. The fact that time and money had been spent already did not justify continued investment. Look at it this way: The point of entertainment is to entertain. If you’re not getting something out of a game that you need or enjoy, why continue? Yes, you’ve already spent $60 and 40 hours on something, and that time and (usually) money is gone. Irreplaceable. What sense does it then make to not cut your losses there, and instead essentially DOUBLE your losses? You went from wasting $60 and 40 hours to wasting $60 and 100+ hours…and for what? So your previous investment, that you already feel was wasted simply spending the time, felt justified. And it never is.

And you might say “Well, duh, of course. That makes sense.” And it might. That’s a fairly easy example to see, you’re not having fun so you stop. To many that is a simple concept to grasp and so they ignore that part of their brain, and even when they succumb they’ll eventually realize they made a mistake. However, there are more insidious games out there that are specifically designed to prey on that part of you, really make the Sunk Cost fallacy take root and flourish, and these are much harder to break away from. The primary offenders here are mobile games (or any games with Gacha systems and lootboxes to an extent) and MMOs. Let me go back to Digimon Links for a moment, which I mentioned in my last article.  I almost immediately knew I disliked that game, but I stuck with it for about three weeks in part because of one thing: My very first pull from that game was an enhanced Omegamon (Omnimon for those of us Digimon fans in the English speaking world). He’s one of my favorite Digimon of all time, and very powerful in-game, and I got one! I was happy, and stuck with the game longer than I should have because I had that one rare creature I wanted. And that too is a form of Sunk Cost fallacy: I stuck with a game I hated, because no longer playing meant I would lose my Omegamon. This is insane, looking back, but there’s the hook. I had become invested in the game because of a lucky fluke draw and become attached to a pile of in-game polygons to the point I was willing to waste space on my phone and time from my day doing daily log-in busywork all for fear of losing something attached to a game I got not enjoyment from.


But he’s so cool though!

These types of Gacha games are designed to prey on that specific variant. Get you attached to characters or simply having powerful things in the game to the point you won’t let go. What does it matter that you have a powerful monster in a game you hate? It makes sense when you put it that way. But when your brain is telling you “But you’ll lose this great prize if you uninstall…”, it’s much harder to resist in those terms. The same goes for MMOs. Does it really matter that letting your subscription lapse will mean the loss of your level 80 super character when you’re no longer having fun? No. But you’ve sunk so many hours, farmed so many monsters…doesn’t it feel like all that time will be invalidated if you quit now?

If this loop appeals to you, good. When it stops being fun though, please stop.

Mind you I’m not advocating you not play these games. As previously stated, I like the idea of Gacha games and am heavily invested (in a good way) in one right now, and while MMOs have never been my favorite cup of tea, they scratch an itch every now and then (thanks to Humble Bundle, Guild Wars 2 is my current time-killer). What I AM saying though is to keep a strong, watchful eye on your subconscious. When you play a game pay attention to what you’re feeling. Are you really having fun? Or are you continuing just because you feel something will be wasted if you quit now? If the latter…do yourself a favor. Cut the cord while the damage is minimal.

What do you guys think about it? Let us know down below

#Avoiding the Sunk Cost Fallacy