The Dunning-Kruger effect, and how it’s ruining gaming for you

angry gamer

The Dunning-Kruger effect might be a concept you’ve never heard, but if you play any games online it’s certainly one you’ve experienced.

Worse still, you’re guilty of it yourself. We all are – although some far more than others.

It will severely inhibit any attempt you make to improve at whatever game you might play competitively (DotA, Hearthstone, Call of Duty, Halo, Counter-Strike, Diablo, etc.), but more importantly, it’s preventing you from enjoying those games too.

With this intro business settled, let’s move on to the part where I tell you what the hell I’m talking about.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias, which is essentially your brain tricking you into thinking in a way that isn’t actually grounded in reality.

One of your brain’s cognitive dick-moves that you have probably experienced in daily life is “confirmation bias”, the tendency to focus on things we agree with, and disregard things we don’t. So when that annoying Facebook hippie whose friend request you accepted three years ago after a friend dragged you to a drum circle starts posting annoying image macros about the wonders of a Vegan lifestyle, you tend to Google things like “why meat is awesome” rather than “health benefits of a meat-free diet”.

Another one is the cheerleader effect – the idea that people appear more attractive to us when part of a group, rather than alone. It’s why trying to act aloof at the bar while your friends hit the dance floor has a very low success rate.

Of course, you may tell yourself that the reason your wallflower approach isn’t working isn’t because the strategy is a stupid one or that you insist on wearing your MC Hammer pants, no – it’s because the room is too dark, your friends are cramping your style or even, bless, the women find your rugged handsomeness too intimidating.

And THAT, dear readers, is the Dunning-Kruger effect.

It’s the tendency for people who are unskilled or incompetent in a particular area to think their ability is much greater than it is. So in order to explain poor performance, an external factor is blamed rather than the self.

So when you play DotA and the 0-14 Pudge is typing in all chat how useless his team is? Dunning-Kruger. When that person you just soundly beat in Hearthstone adds you as a friend just to flame you and tell you how lucky you were? Dunning-Kruger. When a friend of yours complains that he can’t kill Diablo because “Monk is so underpowered”? Yep, just our old friend Dunning-Kruger.

"Lucky, unskilled bastards."
“Lucky, unskilled bastards.”

Those of you who haven’t heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect before will still recognise that it’s something you’ve seen an infinite number of times – now you just have name for it.

The consequences for this particular bias are three-fold:

You’re a dick

First, it turns you into an asshole. If you happen to think you’re really good at a particular game, a horrible performance doesn’t fit with your own self-perception. Psychologically, we hate that, and will do anything we can to minimise that feeling (this is known as cognitive dissonance).

This means lashing out at other players and putting the blame wherever we can. Lag, shitty teammates, bad luck, whatever works. The “healthy” response of course is admitting that we’re “having a bad game”. Again, this is coming from the same place – you’re trying to assure yourself, or others, that this isn’t a reflection of your REAL skill level, it’s just a bad game; an anomaly.

It’s holding you back

Secondly (and more importantly, ‘cause everyone is an asshole on the internet anyway), it’s preventing you from being a better player.

If you blame every bad performance on factors outside of your control, there’s literally zero room for improvement.

I’ve played quite a lot of Magic: The Gathering, on and off, throughout my life. I’ve also played a fair bit of Hearthstone. These card games are a great breeding ground for Krugers (my affectionate name for them), as there’s a significant element of luck in every game.

One thing I’ve noticed consistently amongst professional players is that the best of them hardly ever lament their bad luck. They know it’s not something they can do anything about, so they focus instead on the things they could have changed – the mistakes they made.

This is a pretty unfortunate board state, but that's not important. What's important is how you got here, and what you could have done differently.
This is a pretty unfortunate board state, but that’s not important. What’s important is how you got here, and what you could have done differently.

Maybe it’s not all about winning or getting better though, right? Maybe you just want to have fun. Which brings us to my final point:

You won’t actually be having fun

Here’s the thing – if you’re a big old Dunning Kruger, you’re not really just about “having fun”. You’re trying to prove something – to yourself, to other people, whoever.

Remember that this isn’t just a cognitive bias – it’s a defense mechanism. It’s your mind’s way of protecting yourself from the anxiety you experience when you’re sucking at something you thought you were good at.

What this means for you is that every time you’re losing, or performing badly, you’re getting mad. You’re lamenting your bad luck, you’re flaming your teammates, you’re looking for any outlet to relieve those intense negative feelings.

But therein lies the rub – playing a game shouldn’t come with “intense negative feelings”. If you find that every time you lose a game of DotA or Hearthstone you’re getting angry or upset, it’s time to take a break.

Not long ago I realised that although I was playing a ton of League of Legends, if I didn’t win I wasn’t enjoying it. If I played a whole day and lost almost all the games I played, I’d feel a deep feeling of regret at having wasted a Saturday. There was simply no value in it for me unless I was winning – I’d feel angry, upset or just really down.

To enjoy yourself, you need to be able to sit with that anxiety. You need to be aware of your own shortcomings, your ability to make stupid mistakes and comfortable with your own skill level. Accept that the losses come with the wins, and try focus on enjoying yourself rather than chasing those victories.

If you take away anything from this column, it should be self-awareness. Be honest with yourself next time you’re having a bad game – are you REALLY that unlucky? Are your teammates REALLY the problem? Chances are, you’re just not doing very well. After that, ask yourself if you’re really, actually having fun – even when you’re losing. It helps to have friends you game with, and keep each other in check. In my circle of gaming friends we frequently make joking remarks about “Mr. Kruger” to each other; it helps when things are getting too intense to break the tension and laugh at your own expense a bit.

Don’t let gaming become a negative force in your life; make sure you’re doing it because you enjoy it.