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Every now and then it’s worth reflecting on the different ways that people enjoy video games, including different habits they develop and the particular games they enjoy. The wide variety of video games available is designed to appeal to different sensibilities among players, and exploring those sensibilities in more detail can help us to understand why particular games exist.
So for a brief excursion, I wanted to explore power in video games. When I say “power” here, I refer to the player’s ability to overcome opposition. Usually this comes in the form of physical power: how much damage the player can inflict upon an enemy, and how much damage from an enemy’s attack can be resisted. Feeling powerful is not an absolute requirement for games. Plenty of games are specifically about being powerless and trying to survive.
In particular, I want to look at “extreme” power. The ability to not just deal a lot of damage to an enemy, but to thoroughly annihilate that enemy with little effort. Or the ability to quickly destroy multiple enemies with a single attack.
There are a few ways in which such extreme power is possible. In a sense, this extreme power is the premise of what are called Musou games, otherwise known as the Warriors franchise and similar games. These games put the player in control of a single character that can essentially destroy an army on their own, and so the player simply cuts down opponent after opponent in rapid succession, often racking up hundreds or even thousands of kills over the course of a single battle. This genre is not the sole way in which extreme power can be experienced, but it is a readily available example.
Insofar as we often think about video games as being about challenge, we might wonder why it is even appealing. And it is to address that supposed discrepancy that I wanted to investigate the role of power in playing games.
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Power in video games can be found in many places. It can be attained through experience and leveling, or the equipment a character uses, or the player’s own skill. Extreme power, though, generally relies on the first two components. It is not impossible for player skill to reach a point where obstacles are trivialized, but it is expected to be a rare phenomenon, since either A) the game’s mechanics would have to offer this extreme power in such a way that it is easily accessible or where failure is of little consequence, removing the “skill” from the equation, or B) the game’s mechanics would need to place a high bar on execution, preventing some players from being able to access this extreme power.
I gave the example of Musou games earlier, but we might also think about the process of grinding out levels in a role-playing game as having the same effect. A player can choose to remain in an area, fight enemies over and over again, and then eventually be so strong that they far outclass anything in later areas. If the player is patient enough – and depending on how a game’s leveling systems are set up – they can even reach a point that the final boss encounter becomes trivial.
Or we might look to the use of cheats or mods to gain an advantage. To cheat in a way that the player has access to extremely powerful gear, for example, would provide this same outcome.
So if these are ways in which players might become extremely powerful, what is the point? Why would a player want to do this?
The first thing we can point to is a sense of catharsis. Playing video games and defeating opponents can be a useful way to work out frustrations and tensions from our lives. Enemies in a video game – whether computer-generated monsters or opposing players – can become a stand-in for the troubles that plague us from day-to-day, and defeating them can give us a sense of control and the elation of victory when we win.
In this way, this kind of extreme power is a kind of shortcut to that feeling: to be able to dominate against an opponent so easily provides both a “safe” and “certain” feeling of catharsis. “Safe” because we do not have to be terribly worried about the game pushing back in a way that removes our catharsis. “Certain” because we are practically guaranteed victory.
Which brings us to the second component, which is that such extreme power is freeing. Many games offer this sense of catharsis in some way or another. The release of tension is not unique in any way to the exercise of extreme power. In almost all games, players find themselves defeating countless numbers of enemies, displaying far greater power and proficiency than the opponents being defeated. But it is not about defeating enemies, or even defeating a lot of enemies. It is the particular feeling of domination, to so outmatch the opponent that they can be defeated with incredible ease.
The second value of extreme power is freedom. While the player character is much more resilient in just about every game than would be normally expected, they are still largely vulnerable. They are powerful, but can still be killed, to a degree that the player must be careful. But when the player character is extremely powerful, there is much less need for the player to worry about failure. Normal enemies pose almost no threat to the player, and any real threat usually comes from stronger enemies, or a kind of extreme inattentiveness. The player still needs to put in effort, but does not need to put in as much effort as, say, playing a much more punishing game.
The point of this freedom is to prevent further stress. We might think of this as “mindless,” and to some degree that is accurate. But the point is not really that the player does not have to think at all. It is that they have to think in a way that does not create further tension.
In fact, it is important to note that truly “mindless” action would be boring. If the player could not fail at all the entire time, the stakes would be so low as to be almost meaningless. There needs to be some threat to the player character, but the threat generally needs to be minimal. This is the fine line that any game based around extreme power needs to walk: figuring out how to make the combat easy, but not too easy.
Hence, when we talk about the fun of being extremely powerful, it is an enjoyment tied to the possibility of failure. The player must still be overcoming an obstacle, or feel like they are overcoming an obstacle. Having godlike powers, particularly something like invulnerability, removes this feeling. Once any semblance of challenge is removed, the value of having defeated an enemy is similarly removed. What is the point to your victory when you could not have possibly, even if you tried? So when games are built around giving the player this level of power (which is uncommon), we can’t simply give the player an absurd amount of power and be done.
Of course, this principle only applies when we’re intentionally trying to create this sense of extreme power. In many cases, players can achieve extreme power on their own by using a game’s systems, but contrary to the game’s “intention.” Such as overleveling. But here there is less of a problem from a developmental standpoint, because overleveling – especially to reach the point of extreme power – is a conscious choice of the player, rather than the result of playing normally.
The desire to exercise power is fairly normal, and while in many instances we might regard that desire as unhealthy, video games are useful for allowing us to these impulses in ways that are at least not destructive, and sometimes even constructive. To have power is on its own enjoyable, especially in a world where many of us can feel powerless. The ability to achieve victory in the face of setbacks, and to not just overcome obstacles but to utterly crush them, gives us a sense of completion that is not easily matched.
Now not everyone finds this sense of extreme power appealing. The way in which extreme power exists to some extent as a counter to challenge, especially tough challenges, means that some players may find the concept of extreme power baffling. It is by explaining why extreme power is enticing to some, even if not to all, that we can step back and better understand the motivations of others to play games in general, and why people play certain types of games or play games in certain ways, a bit better.
 I should note that cheating in this way does not always involve becoming extremely powerful. Sometimes some kind of cheat or mod might be used to lower a game’s difficulty, because it is simply too hard for a given player. Or sometimes the player may only be interested in a game’s narrative, and so becomes invincible and powerful so as to skip the actual gameplay and fast-forward to the plot. When I discuss cheating in this context, I discuss it as something done with the specific purpose of exercising power over the obstacles put in front of the player by the game.