I am convinced that sunk cost is one of the most painful experiences one can have. All the hope that motivated investment comes crashing down in an instant with the realization that it was all for naught. Worse yet is when the resource invested is unrecoverable; to lose money is one thing, but to lose time — the fundamental and exceptionally scarce currency of our lives — is catastrophic. Our minds have developed a certain mechanism to shield us from these harsh truths. Freud called it rationalization, or the process by which we attempt to make something undesirable less so through reasoning. But this mechanism is only so effective, and after some time or meditation the creeping dread of sunk cost makes itself known once again.
Nowhere is this kind of discussion more pertinent than in the entertainment industry. I’m sure I am not the only one who, after a full day of passive and uninterested media consumption, feels terrible. Nothing of value was accomplished, no obligations fulfilled. Rather, a full 24 hours passed and there is nothing to show for it. Part of the reason why this very passive consumption is harrowing to some is because of our relationship with both productivity and entertainment; we expect, as members of an audience, to be influenced in some way, shape or form.
We liken ourselves to a wax tablet on which impressions are made — so if that tablet is not visibly impacted after a full day’s engagement, that same dread of wasted time comes rushing back. Perhaps another facet still is something very American. The American mythos is predicated on the notion that the individual need only achieve some finite, very specific number of goals to be successful and happy. Time spent not working on achieving these crucial goals is time wasted, and all of American values come to reprimand us. Of course, the stench of sunk cost is experienced by non-Americans, but Americans specifically have an interesting strain of that stench.
The self-image of the League of Legends community is very revealing of this dynamic. One would think the experiences of playing a video game and watching, for example, a TV show would be significantly different. This is not so. They both yield themselves similarly to both genuinely engaged consumption and a much more mechanical, passive form of consumption.
One can spend hours doing a detailed analysis of a TV show, just as they can spend hours seriously involved in the minutia of gameplay; likewise, one can spend hours slumped over mindlessly watching a TV show or playing a video game. It is for this reason that video games can be, and often are, excellent paradigms for understanding both the entertainment industry and the culture surrounding it. A very revealing phenomenon within this paradigm is the concept of tilt, which is defined as the gradual increase of a player’s frustration over a generally long period of time. Tilt, in conjunction with the way League players view themselves, gives great insight into sunk cost and American entertainment.
One reason why League of Legends is so useful in this pursuit is because, very interestingly, many players see what they do as a complete waste of time. They mention how much productive work could have been done in the time spent playing the game instead, and when asked why they don’t quit, the answer usually concerns addiction and sunk cost. Already the parallels between League of Legends culture and the culture surrounding the entertainment industry are apparent — but it goes even deeper. This concept that what they do is a waste of time, combined with the constant attempt of their minds to rationalize continued play, creates a negative feedback loop.
Every event disrupting that rationalization — whether it is a series of consecutive losses that undo days of work, or even spending two hours playing when only half an hour was intended — is frustrating, which makes it so that all following rationalization is more fragile as a result of a declining mental state. For the players that see their play as mechanical and wasteful, tilt is an inevitability and increases exponentially in every session. Micro-aggressive events exist everywhere in League of Legends, and it is their unavoidability that both precipitates and exacerbates the negative feedback loop mentioned above.
These behaviors are not limited in scope to the individual. In fact, yet another parallel between League of Legends and the entertainment industry at large is the ways in which the members of the community interact with each other. The League of Legends community is known to be toxic — people sometimes go out of their way to make others’ experiences worse. The sadism inherent to this behavior ought not to be overlooked. Players are driven to a point where they are no longer able to redeem the value of their time spent — but still they continue. They decide that, if their time will be wasted, they will bring other players’ time down with it. There is something oddly enjoyable in ruining the experience of others; this serves as the last frontier for their ability to rationalize the value of their time spent playing.
The very same sadism that can be observed in the League of Legends community too can be observed in the warring factions of entertainment consumers. It seems as though some people, rather than simply taking pride in the media they enjoy, derive their joy from the supposed superiority afforded to them by engaging with certain kinds of entertainment. If it weren’t for the ability to condemn the time of others to worthlessness, they themselves would be faced with the proposition that their own time spent is worthless, as they’d be deprived of what little cannibalistic pleasure that condemnation brings. Such behavior is also contextualized by American culture, where those who dissent from your set of ultimate goals and values warrant destruction. All of these factors swarm and compound together in much the same way as they do in the microcosm that is League of Legends.
There is little that can be said about the entertainment industry that cannot be said about League of Legends, and inversely the same is true. The ways in which we as Americans internalize American values and the ways in which those values come to interact with the ways we engage in media are universally observable in every particular of the entertainment industry. The great difficulty, though, is distilling these factors into a set that serves as representational and gives itself easily to analysis. League of Legends, and its community, are great candidates for this kind of pursuit. The self-image of many of its players, in combination with its culture surrounding sunk cost and tilt, is paradigmatic of the industry at large and is exceedingly revealing.