Words: 1842 Approximate Word Count: 15-20 minutes
Last week’s essay covered the idea of difficulty in video games and how to assess a game by whether or not its challenges were fair. Rather than thinking about difficulty in terms of whether we personally are able to get through, we should be looking at how the challenge is set up in the first place.
One issue that comes with talking about difficulty in video games is the fact that the ability to overcome challenges is often seen as a rite of passage. This tendency is a problem for two reasons.
Firstly, it is occasionally used as a way of excluding players. A “true” player is one that is able to overcome these challenges and play difficult games. A “true” player enjoys difficult games. And if you’re unable or unwilling, you can’t participate in “real” conversations about video games.
Secondly, it creates unhelpful discussions about challenges in games. When Dark Souls was originally released, the meme of “git gud” began to spread. In its original incarnation, it was a veiled criticism of people asking for help. A particular boss was tough and players wanted tips, for example. And the response was “git gud”: don’t ask for help, just figure it out on your own. Eventually, this transformed into a meme about the phrase itself, so that occasionally it can be encountered more in a sarcastic sense. But nevertheless, the basic mentality still exists among many players: asking for help is a sign of “weakness,” and if you can’t win on your own, then the victory isn’t “real.”
Both of these ideas are harmful. They end up prioritizing and propping up games that are difficult for the sake of being difficult, which as we discussed last week is actually not a good thing, since it promotes unfairness. It also creates a toxic discourse, since certain players try to present themselves as superior because of their preferences (“I like and play difficult games, and so that makes me better than you”) or their skill (“I’m able to complete this challenge that you can’t, and so that makes me better than you”).
So in this essay I want to explore how we should instead be talking about difficulty in video games. Why, in particular, we should be more cognizant of the subjective and personal differences of individual players, and how that in turn will affect the ways we interact with each other when discussing tough games.
Hard Games and Skill
Often how we think about challenges as a society – and this is an idea that has existed for thousands of years – is that being able to complete that challenge is proof of some kind of excellence that is worthy of praise. My ability to overcome this hurdle shows that I possess an important skill which others do not.
But this logic doesn’t quite hold. Being able to complete a challenge proves something, but not necessarily the thing we wish to prove.
For example, a game could be ridiculously difficult. Its difficulty could be thoroughly unfair. And yet, there will be people both willing and able to complete the challenges the game throws at them. Those players may simply enjoy the challenge itself, regardless of how difficult and unfair it is.
But what is proven by completing the challenge? Ultimately, not much. It proves that the player has the perseverance to keep trying until they succeed, but in part it also proves that they have the time to devote to persevering in the first place. You can only spend hours upon hours banging your head against the wall and retrying a challenge if you have hours upon hours of free time. Eventually enough practice will help build up a skill, but the only thing that really comes out of it is the fact that you spent enough time to practice to build up the skill.
This doesn’t all mean that playing such games is worthless. If you enjoy such games, that enjoyment is worthwhile. There is nothing wrong with liking difficult games, or even liking ridiculously difficult games. There’s nothing wrong with being good at those games. There’s nothing wrong with devoting hundreds of hours learning how to beat them.
In fact, other people may even find the fact that you can beat them impressive.
But that you are able to beat such a game and that other people may find them impressive is not an indication that people should find your accomplishment impressive.
And that is where the problem comes in. Because we commonly associate the ability to overcome a challenge with the idea that the accomplishment is praiseworthy and ought to be cheered by others. We can end up feeling that we too are entitled to this praise, when we are not.
This entitlement can manifest in many ways, usually in the form of gatekeeping. A player, for example, might overcome a challenge, but have looked up a guide or gotten some other form of help. And a reaction to that might be that the player’s achievement isn’t “real.” Or a game might offer multiple methods for a player to earn an item, but one option requires significantly more playtime than the other, and so the more time-intensive option is perceived as really “earning,” while the alternative is in some way cheap.
The idea is that being able to overcome a challenge entirely on your own makes your achievement worthwhile, and using or needing help shows a weakness on your part. Though there is some validity to the idea that we should at least try things on our own first and learn how to approach problems by applying our own powers, the idea that any help at all is a proof of weakness is false. Even learning techniques still requires the execution of those techniques. You can be told how to fight a boss, but knowing what to do and actually doing it are not synonymous. Which means that winning still requires skill. The player is simply acquiring the knowledge behind that skill in a different way.
Hard for Me, but Not for Thee
We also need to address the issue of subjectivity. This issue exists in two forms. Firstly, subjectivity can operate on its own by how we view the value of challenges on their own: I can like or dislike difficult challenges as a matter of personal taste. Secondly, subjectivity can operate in tandem with our individual skills: a game can be too hard for me specifically, because I am not as skilled.
In looking at difficulty as a matter of taste, we occasionally see the idea that “real” players enjoy tough games. This mentality is relatively rare, admittedly. But insofar as it exists, it serves again as a gatekeeping method. The use of terms such as “casual player” in a negative sense, or referring to changes as “dumbing down,” serve as examples of this mentality that only properly skilled players should get to enjoy particular games, or perhaps even games in general. But this mentality accomplishes nothing, and just as importantly, misses the point of many games and the process of figuring out how difficult games should be. The implicit claim is that any level of toughness is fine, and if people can’t put up with it, then that’s entirely their problem. But as we discussed last week, that’s not right: not just any level of toughness is excusable.
Which brings us to the second aspect, difficulty as a matter of skill. Sometimes players will struggle with challenges, and will not enjoy a game because of that struggle. Occasionally we will find players who argue that a tough game isn’t very good, only for the response to be “you just don’t like it because you’re bad at it.” The response, though, is generally disingenuous. There is no attempt being made to explain why the challenge being posed to the player is fair. There is no attempt to tell the critical player that it’s fine for them to not like the game. They are weak, and it is their own weakness that prevents them from seeing the world as it truly is.
Which is why it’s important for us to rethink the language of difficulty itself. Because while it is possible for a player to dislike a game because they aren’t good at it, that claim on its own doesn’t tell us anything. Firstly, because a player not having the skill to play a game effectively is not the only reason why a player may not enjoy the game, even when it is a contributing factor. Secondly, because a player can lack the skill because the game is genuinely demanding too much of the player. Thirdly, because a player not being good at a game can as much be a problem of design as it is a problem of the player. The claim introduces all sorts of assumptions and additional claims that have little to no real bearing on the topic at hand.
Instead, it’s a way of dismissing criticism without having to engage with it.
And in the end, the problem of talking about difficult games comes down to the inability to properly deal with criticism. This returns to the problem of subjectivity more broadly when talking about “good games.” When we like a game, we are inclined to think it is good, and therefore any attempt to criticize the game is an attempt to criticize us: if the game is bad, that means our tastes are bad. So when we enjoy tough games, the same psychological mechanisms get employed: I am a skilled player who is good at tough games; other players who don’t like these games must be unskilled; their lack of skill means they cannot properly assess the game, thus meaning I don’t need to listen to their criticisms.
Difficult video games are here to stay. They appeal to a lot of people for a variety of reasons. There will also be plenty of video games that aren’t difficult, or will allow players the option to choose what difficulty settings they want. There will be guides to help players out. There will be mods – if players can and want to use them – to help make the game easier. And all of these things are good.
A game being difficult is fine, and people can and should be able to enjoy that. But we should not fool ourselves into thinking that our ability to complete difficult games makes us special in any regard. We should be the lookout for people using their skill as a cudgel to attack others, whether directly or indirectly. And we should be on the lookout for when we might fall into that same trap. Because it is not a case where only a few bad apples ruin things for everyone else. The processes of dismissing and gatekeeping and projecting are all errors we can fall into at just about any time. It is by asking ourselves these tough questions about how we respond to others that we truly learn these lessons.