James Wilson Jr. was rushing across a minefield of disappearing tiles alongside 17 other game show contestants, hoping to step on the right spots and cross the finish line before getting eliminated. The streamer – better known as UberHaxorNova – had nearly made it; the final few tiles were revealed and a pathway opened up in front of him. He turned to make one last jump, but the slightest of nudges from another player sent him spiralling over the edge. He screamed in frustration. “No! Who pushed me at the end!?”
This is Fall Guys, a sixty player battle royale where players compete in a series of five mini-games like the one above. It has become an overnight sensation, and is exhilarating as it is frustrating to play. Twitch and YouTube are full of clips similar to Wilson Jr.’s, with streamers failing on screen and then breaking down on camera right after.
Fall Guys launched on August 4 and more than two million players have already jumped into play on PC. At launch, it had more players logged on than Grand Theft Auto 5, one of the most popular games of all time on Steam, and it is getting hundreds of thousands of viewers on Twitch. People love to flop and fail in tremendous ways and then watch others do the same. The game’s success taps into the way our brains are wired, and the psychology of epic fails.
“Watching someone rage after getting eliminated, especially a streamer, is so relatable,” says Fall Guys game designer Joe Walsh. “Fall Guys hits that sweet spot of being incredibly watchable even after you lose.”
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London-based studio Mediatonic took inspiration from the classic Japanese game show Takeshi’s Castle in order to create mini games where dozens of players have to balance on giant seesaws or dodge spinning windmills in order to get to the next stage. Seeing someone get eliminated in Fall Guys is just like a moment from a game show—except more over-the-top.
“Game shows and things like [Fall Guys] give viewers a feeling of schadenfreude,” says Phillippe Rochat, a psychology professor at Emory University in Atlanta, referencing the German word for feeling joy from seeing someone else suffer. “There is an element of comfort in comparing ourselves and seeing people in these crazy situations.”
Whether it be a propellor slapping a player across a level or someone falling off a ledge right before the finish line, Fall Guys scratches the same spot as dozens of game shows in the past. Shows like Takeshi’s Castle, Wipeout and even America’s Funniest Home Videos or YouTube compilations of epic fail videos all put failure front and center. Researchers like Rochat have tried to come up with answers as to why we love watching people wipe out in absurd ways.
“Schadenfreude is a really complex emotion, it captures a lot about our relationship with others,” he says. One of the key conclusions of Rochat and the other authors of a 2018 study is that schadenfreude in a game show environment can be equated to watching a rival sports team fail to score a game-winning goal. It’s part of what they call the intergroup-conflict theory.
The feeling of schadenfreude doesn’t hit when we watch just anyone fail dramatically. A big part of feeling joy in someone else’s pain is dehumanisation — seeing others as an enemy or “less than” you.
“No matter how you approach schadenfreude, all theories have this element of dehumanization in order to change the misfortune of someone else into a reward for yourself,” Rochat says. Fall Guys – like Fortnite, Call of Duty: Warzone, and other more weapon-based battle royale games – turns everyone else into a foe. Some team games force you to cooperate with others, but only for a short time before it comes down to who survives: you or them. The game’s cutesy blobs of blue and orange aren’t fellow game show contestants, they’re the competition that needs to get snuffed out.
“People are more into this game than we realised,” says Walsh. “They are taking it seriously and viewing everyone else as an enemy. When you line up it’s a little less buddy-buddy than we had hoped.”
One interesting factor from Rochat’s study was that schadenfreude overlaps with other personality traits such as sadism, narcissism and psychopathy. People with those traits may find it harder to empathise with others. This, of course, doesn’t mean that enjoying Fall Guys makes you a psychopath.
“Fall Guys creates a situation where this kind of emotion can be felt in a safe environment though,” Rochat says. “It could even be an outlet of feelings that might be better so that people can try to avoid feeling the same thing in real life.”
The success of Fall Guys is partially built on schadenfreude, and the developers hope they can stoke the misery just enough to keep the game running long after the honeymoon period by adding new mini games. Takeshi’s Castle ran for four years. America’s Funniest Home Videos had 30 seasons. It’s possible that Fall Guys chugs along on nothing but the joy of watching others fail.
“We have so much to take inspiration from,” Walsh says. “We can do a series of Winter Olympics games or follow the lead of one of the many shows we’ve seen in the past. The hope is to run this thing for years.”
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