I have a problem. I’m 31 years old and I no longer have enough time to play games. In recent years gaming has eclipsed cinema, literature and music as my favoured medium, so I’m a little perturbed by this situation. Its not unusual though – I think we all expect it to happen, sooner or later. The interesting thing is the effect my lack of time has had on my gaming habits. Quite unexpectedly, I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to games that are incredibly difficult. I’m still figuring this one out, but here are my thoughts so far.
My relationship with games follows a traditional path. I started out goggling in abject wonder at games modelled with ASCII characters in the early 80s. Rogue was as real to me back then as Elder Scrolls is now; an incredible window into a horrifying and exciting world. Other staples of the period such as Snake and Sopwith Camel were incredibly exciting, and unlike Rogue provided novel real-time control of our avatar. What all games of this period had in common was that they were unbeatable (or seemingly so). This experience may have been formative, in much the same way that older adults maintain that walking 10 miles to school barefoot is formative!
I’ve followed the medium in a budget-dependent way since that time, moving onto consoles in the early 90s. This introduced me to games that could be finished, and so began the gradual watering down of my appetite for challenge. I began to passively enjoy games just for the experiences offered – my experiences of them were more reminiscent of a rollercoaster ride than of mountaineering. My appreciation of the form really took off in the early 00s, when I took a part-time job in a video game store. Ready access to free games, a group of like-minded peers, a surfeit of free time, and no significant other meant my engagement with gaming was basically unlimited.
During this period my appetite for challenge continued to wane. Extraordinary narrative-based games became widely available (such as Metal Gear Solid, the aforementioned Elder Scrolls, Grand Theft Auto, Ico, etc). The effect of narrative games on me was to drive home my interest in completing games. In order to experience (and complete) more games I continued to dial down the difficulty level (and thus the time invested). The last 15 years have been an extraordinary time for games – there is so much quality out there that you should never be left wanting for something new.
Anyway, things began to change a little when I got married. A part of my time now belongs to someone else, in a good way. Since I’ve never needed much sleep, I started playing games late at night, when my wife had gone to bed, which suited us both well. I really enjoyed those times – me, a quiet house, and the latest immersive game to wander through as a tourist.
Things changed a lot when I had my first child this year. I’ve never needed much sleep, but I definitely need more than 4 hours per night! So my window for playing has vanished, and I’ve gone from playing 15-20 hours per week to about 2 hours per week. We all know that this will happen to us eventually, and in years past I had assumed that when it did I would resort to easier games, stress-free games, or even (finally) make use of my DS. After all, with little time to play, I would want to extract the most unique experiences possible out of each gaming session. That is to say, I was still thinking of gaming in terms of an accumulation of experiences scripted by their developers. To my mind, snatching a half hour of Demon’s Souls, only to lose all progress upon experiencing a double-death, would be a waste of my time.
This is when I totally surprised myself – the complete opposite happened. Every game now has to be played on the hardest difficulty setting. If I come across something difficult I absolutely will not give up until I beat it. I replayed parts of Mario Galaxy recently, mopping up some of the challenge levels. One of them, a horrifying level where you have to collect 100 purple coins on a stage that consists entirely of trapdoors into the abyss, took 108 attempts to beat. Whole weeks have gone past where I’ve been stuck on bosses in other games (For example, in Dark Souls: Smough and Ornstein, or the Four Kings), making zero progress. I play Metal Gear games on the European Extreme difficulty level (where being spotted is a fail state), instead of the Easy level I formerly enjoyed. Despite my slow progress in all of these games, my hobby is now more fulfilling than it has ever been. Crucially, I find myself enjoying every single failed attempt.
The motivation is challenge, perhaps. Earlier I compared easy games to a rollercoaster. I’ve always hated rollercoasters. Passive enjoyment, of anything, has always seemed dull to me. I enjoy challenge in almost every avenue of my life. Perhaps this is because I’ve only rarely suffered setbacks in my life, and any I experienced were quickly followed by successes. I’ve been extremely lucky.
So the experience of defeat is something that’s intrinsically interesting to me. It manifests most notably in one other domain of my life – fighting. I’m a mediocre martial artist and boxer. Probably worse than mediocre. A friend of mine is very, very good. We spar every week, and (by our estimation) I’ve only ‘won’ a match once. We’ve sparred more than 200 times. Still, I find this incredibly compelling. Each defeat is different, and I learn something new each time. It doesn’t matter if I never win – I improve each time.
Difficult video games are similar to sparring, but sufficiently different to be interesting. The difference is that its clearly possible to beat them – they’re designed that way. The gulf in talent between my friend and I is so large that victory is only likely in the event of a freak occurrence, because his skills grow just as mine do. The challenge of a video game is static, so given enough practice its inevitable that you will win.
This, then, is where I find myself. I play games that are essentially too difficult for me, because its the only way that I can get any satisfaction from my hobby. Even after all I’ve said, I don’t really know why I do it. I like the knowledge that I improve every time, even if I don’t win. I like the feeling of resistance – of pushing against something terribly difficult and seeing if I can keep going or if I’ll finally hit something that makes me give up. But really, these are post-hoc rationalisations. I just don’t know.
Further Reading: Self Determination Theory: Part 1 (Medium Difficulty)