Difficulty and Legitimate Play

Words: 4008 Approximate Reading Time: 30-35 minutes

Over the past summer I talked about difficulty in video games and how the language of difficulty in games is more complicated than the actual term lets on, as well as how the concept of difficulty can create a toxic framework for how we talk about players.

I wanted to expand on this latter idea to talk about the idea of “legitimate play.” Legitimate play is the idea that there is a particular way (or a set of ways) to “properly” play a game, and any way of playing the game outside of those established methods is “incorrect” or “illegitimate.” By this I mean that the experience itself is designated as invalid. We might envision this invalidation in the form of “you didn’t really beat/play the game until you’ve played it X way.”

I want to explore this concept not in the sense that we should think of certain forms of play as legitimate versus illegitimate, but because of the way that the very idea permeates how we can often talk about games and gaming in general. The concept of legitimate play, in whatever form it may take, serves as a way to gatekeep and present a sense of false superiority and inferiority upon players. And while distinctions of superiority and inferiority may be valid in particular instances of gaming – one player may be superior to another in skill in a particular game – it is the way that these distinctions may be abused that makes them a problem.

The initial issue with looking at legitimate play is that it is at its core a constellation of ways to distinguish between experiences, and especially as a way of making one’s own experience “better” than the experience of another. In this sense, there isn’t exactly a clear set of terms to pull out and examine. Sometimes legitimate play can take hold in small ways, such as shunning small aspects of a game deemed to be easy, or it can be relayed in more clear-cut ways, such as designating particular in-game difficulties (i.e. “Easy, Normal, Hard”) as valid.

There are also similar concepts that I want to bring up, such as “best” or “intended” ways to play, which are separate from legitimate play, and yet can be conflated. Usually we might say that there is a “right” way to play a game, and yet “right” in this context doesn’t really have a singular meaning. There are many different “right” answers to a variety of questions. And it is when we conflate these answers – mistaking, for example, ideal strategy for valid experience – that we engage in a conceptual confusion.

Legitimate Play

It is useful to begin from the standpoint that playing a game, broadly speaking, is about the experience the player has with the game. That experience is, by its very nature, subjective. The way I interact with a game will not be the same way you interact with a game.

Experience in this context can never actually be illegitimate. Firstly, the method by which this experience is reached – how much of a challenge the player imposes upon themself, whether the player gets help or not, etc. – is irrelevant. These things may impact the player’s experience, and that impact itself may be worth examining, but they cannot render the experience itself invalid.[1] Secondly, the outcome of the experience – whether I liked or disliked a particular game based on my interaction with it – is similarly irrelevant. While I’ve written about the ability to designate the mechanical aspects of a game as good or bad within particular contexts, those designations are distinct from like and dislike, and liking a “bad” game or disliking a “good” game are mere signs of preference, not of legitimate or illegitimate experience.

And so when talking about legitimate play, we must begin from the standpoint that the very concept is itself illegitimate.

The idea of legitimate play has existed for many years. Many older games would, for example, punish players for playing on an Easy difficulty setting (and in some cases, even on Normal), actively locking away content from the player who does not wish to – for whatever reason – play on harder modes. The game might end early, sometimes halfway through the playthrough or sometimes at the final level. Or the game might change some aspect of the ending sequence, forcing players to play on a harder setting to figure out what really happened.

Related are various ways in which games have mocked players for picking easier difficulty settings. The various games from id Studios (DOOM and Wolfenstein) are the best examples here: the names of difficulty settings or the icons that are associated with them were designed to make players feel bad for choosing the easiest setting (the symbolism of “being a baby” being a fairly common theme). The implication – even when designed as a joke – is that playing on easier difficulty settings is something that no “real” player would do, and the only reason that you are choosing this setting is that you are weak.

These are ways that game design itself can create standards of legitimate play (they are not the only ways, but they are the most prevalent), but players themselves can reinforce these ideas as well.

Firstly, players can use the inherent difficulty settings of games to differentiate legitimate and illegitimate players. Sure, you beat the game, but did you beat it on Easy or Normal? Players who play on easier difficulty settings can sometimes be argued to have an illegitimate experience, because they “needed” to play on Easy to get through. This of course ignores various discussions about why a given player may have done that or about the “appropriate” challenge in a game in the first place.

Secondly, even when there is no difficulty setting to a game, players may see any sort of outside assistance as illegitimate. For example, using a guide to figure out how to build a character, or to find strategies, or to figure out where to go next. The logic goes that using a guide suggests a player is incapable of solving these problems on their own. But the logic falls apart insofar as it assumes that the systems of a game can be thoroughly understood on their own terms. In fact, this logic often falls in on itself, since the games most likely to result in players using guides are the ones that are the least clear at first glance, and thus stand most in need of these guides.

Thirdly, players often designate the use of cheats or mods as an illegitimate form of play. To use cheats (usually excepting mere cosmetic changes) is to immediately relegate one’s experience as unreal. I covered this idea in an earlier essay as well, and to reiterate the basic idea, cheating within a single-player experience is ultimately a choice about how we interact with a game, and as such plays no real role in our experience of it. The meme that went around a few years ago, the “You cheated not only the game, but yourself” line, and the discussion that surrounded it is a good example of this issue. And yet, insofar as cheating is a purely private component of a player’s interaction with a game, that cheating does not make the player’s experience invalid or illegitimate. Simply put, a player can still enjoy their interaction with a game when they use cheats or mods, and since it is that enjoyment that ultimately constitutes the validity of an experience, that enjoyment is what ultimately matters.

There are very narrow limits where cheating does impact interaction. Where that cheating involves subjecting others to an undesired unfairness – cheating in otherwise legitimate multiplayer settings – is a form of interaction that is illegitimate because of its impact on others. And where cheating distorts our understanding of a game’s systems (i.e. cheating in a single-player game may give a player a false impression about how a game works or is supposed to work), it impacts our ability to talk about those systems with others who interact with those systems in a “natural” context.[2] But like I said, these limits are very narrow in their scope.

Fourthly, players can designate particular systems within a game as “easy,” even if the game has no inherent difficulty settings. This process can include identifying particular playstyles, skills, or equipment as “for beginners.” The purpose being not to say “here is a way of encouraging new players to ease into a game,” but as a way of designating those elements as “not for real players.” As a consequence, the “hardcore” players (or those who want to feel like they are hardcore) are expected to shy away from these elements because they are for the “beginner” crowd, regardless of whether those elements would be useful.

The problem with all of these components of legitimate play – whether from the standpoint of game design or discussion among players – is that they are ways to keep other people out. If you play on the wrong difficulty setting, you did not have a real experience with a game. If you used a guide, you did not have a real experience. If you used the beginner equipment, you did not have a real experience.

And this mentality discourages people from playing, either in starting or in continuing. It causes players to have less fun, because they feel pressured to play a “real” way, which itself may be so vague as to have no real meaning.

And it also encourages designers to aim towards harder and harder tests of skill to please those who want to reinforce this idea of legitimate play, which in turn means two things: a movement towards bad design (i.e. poorly-constructed challenge), and a further shuttering out of potential players.

This is all not to say that games devoted to the cultivation of particular skills are bad and should end. But the way we think about those skills, and especially what those skills mean outside of the context of the game itself, is what is important. That we may be able to overcome a challenge that another person could not would, in a sense, make us superior to that other player. But only in that very narrow context. The concept of legitimate play is essentially a way to preserve that superiority across a wider spectrum, to cement the idea that we aren’t superior in this one narrow respect, but superior period. And it is that drive to make others inferior and make them feel inferior that is unhealthy.

One final point regarding legitimate play to discuss is the role of merely completing the game itself. In particular contexts, especially with regards to reviewing, there is a tendency to perceive that an experience with a game is not legitimate until the game is finished (for a given value of being “finished”). But we can also see it in the context of dismissing people who did not like a game because they have not finished it. Yet in doing these things, we are simply refusing to engage with legitimate claims and criticisms by effectively defining them away.

The “Right” Way to Play

We should, however, also examine a couple of related concepts. Let us refer to these as “optimized play” and “intended play.” I want to examine these because they are on their own valid concepts. But they are also occasionally used as their own form of gatekeeping, to delegitimize particular experiences for not playing the “right” way.

Optimized Play

By the term “optimized” I generally mean the idea that there is a “best” way to play, specifically in terms of overcoming challenges. Particular equipment to use, skills to unlock, stats to invest in, and so on. There need not be a single “best” style for all possible players. Some games, for example, may offer different classes, which might then be optimized in their own ways. But the fact that there are “local optimizations” – a best way to play for a given build – does not negate the idea of optimization in general.

I bring this idea up because optimization itself does fit within the idea of a “better” playstyle. Insofar as a player is attempting to accomplish a goal, the point of optimization is to figure out the easiest and fastest way to accomplish it. The optimization can occur both internally – by a player experimenting with a game’s mechanics until they discover an ideal strategy – and externally – by many players experimenting and sharing information until that ideal strategy is figured out.

Discussing the optimal way to play is on its own valid. There are strategies that will – all else equal – work better than others in a game. This claim does not mean that those other strategies will be entirely useless, or that a player cannot overcome a challenge without playing optimally. Just that the “best” way to overcome the challenge is to play optimally.

But while the concept of optimized play is valid on its own, it can be used as a tool to reinforce the notion of legitimate play.

We most often would see this in the form of denigrating players who don’t play optimally. If, for example, a player were to choose to play as a wizard in a game, but did not pick stats that best fit with that class, we might see others criticize that choice on the grounds that it is not optimal. As a consequence, that player is playing the game “wrong.” Such a player might be ridiculed for their choice (regardless of whether it was intentional or accidental). But this ridicule – a symptom of the concept of legitimate play – would be conflating two concepts. It would be confusing the idea of a “best” form of play with the idea of there being a single way to play – that any other way of playing is incorrect. But the logic here would not hold up. As long as a player is deriving enjoyment from a game, that is fundamentally what matters. Playing optimally may (and it is important to stress here that it is not guaranteed) lead to a better experience, but even so the solution then becomes to provide information, rather than ridicule.

Less often, we may see players criticizing others for playing optimally. Since optimization is something that players can look up in guides, a new player using that information to create a particular character can be deemed as a form of trying to make the game easy and remove challenge. This creates an ironic twist on the idea of optimization, since the “best” way to play suddenly becomes illegitimate. But this stems primarily from the belief that players must discover things on their own, and that using a guide is a sign of weakness. But as we’ve already noted before, how a player chooses to interact with a game – be it on their own or with the help of others – is irrelevant to the question of whether that interaction is legitimate.

Intended Play

A more complex concept is the idea of “intended play.” By “intended” here I do not mean any possible action that was allowed by a developer.

I instead want to present a more narrow definition of “intended.” An example can be found in puzzle games. For any given puzzle in a game, there is usually an intended solution. The player’s progress through the game is then meant to be the culmination of figuring out the intended solution to each puzzle, sometimes in a particular order, sometimes not. Of course, players may find ways around these puzzles. Physics puzzle games, in particular, may provide players with the tools necessary to “break” a puzzle entirely, to bypass the intended puzzle. In this way, a player can play a game as “not intended.”

We should keep two things in mind, though, about this idea of intended play.

Firstly, intended play is something that can really only occur on a player’s first experience. A developer could, theoretically, intend for a player to go through a game multiple times – perhaps, for instance, to view multiple endings. But at a certain point the experience is “done.” The player can then replay the game once the experience is done, but at that point intended play becomes meaningless.

Secondly, not all games need to be built around an idea of intended play, and even if they are those conceptions of intended play can vary wildly. Sometimes intended play may mean nothing more than “get to the end.” Sometimes it may mean getting to the end in a particular way. Sometimes it may mean playing the game multiple times.

It is easy to conflate the idea of intended play with “getting the full experience,” but that would be inaccurate. An open-world game, for example, might be made with the understanding that players won’t go after everything, and so doing everything is not part of the intended way to play. Players can, of course, complete everything that is possible in a game, and that devotion may be appreciated by a developer. But that is not sufficient to declare it the “intended way” to play.

Now I bring up the idea of this intent because it is itself a valid avenue of inquiry. What did a developer intend for a player to do? For example, a game that gives a player very little information about their objective and a fairly open world to explore can be said to intend that the player to figure things out on their own. As a consequence, to look up things in a guide would be going against that intent.[3]

Like with optimized play, though, this ends up being a conflation that is used to delegitimize certain experiences. While we might be able to argue that it is better to play as intended (see Endnote 1 below), we cannot do so by ignoring how some people feel more comfortable experiencing games more generally. A player who feels uncertain about their abilities in solving puzzles or in learning about a game’s mechanics should be free to ask for help if they want it. The consequence of denying them help – to not only withhold that aid entirely but to argue that they are wrong to get that help if they really want it – is to essentially scare the player away entirely. Which serves no purpose, since that player’s enjoyment – however it is derived – can have no impact on any other player’s enjoyment. If someone else interacts with a game in an “unintended” way, it does not prevent us from enjoying the game in that intended fashion.

Nor, for that matter, should we regard the intent of the developer as sacrosanct and thus something to be revered. The ultimate objective of a game is to be played, and that means leaving the experience up to the individual player. To uncover the intended form of play is useful in creating information, so that a player can then decide for themselves how they want to interact with the game: do I personally wish to respect the intention of the game designer? But that question does not have a correct answer, and to impose on others a correct way to play the game and to attack them for playing the game “incorrectly” mistakes the purpose of these concepts and of play entirely.

It is also important to note that while I’ve said that the idea of intended play is valid, it is still obscure. If we are going to present a claim that there is an intended method for a player to interact with a game, we need to be able to refer to more than just our gut feelings or what we would like to be true. It is a process that requires careful analysis, and so we should be especially careful in imposing our conclusions upon other players, because we can simply be wrong.

Concluding Remarks

There is a very human desire to share our experiences with others, to observe them enjoying the things we enjoy. In part, this desire is rooted in a wish for validation – if someone else likes what I like, then I must be correct in liking that thing. But a potential perversion of that desire is to demand that others like what we like, and not simply that, but to like those things in the same way that we like them.

It is this very perversion that leads to this idea of legitimate play: to render another’s experience lesser or irrelevant because the experience was not created in the right way. If our enjoyment comes through suffering, then others must prove themselves through suffering as well. If our enjoyment comes through great effort, then others must put in an equal amount of effort. Legitimate play is generally a way to make others miserable so that we may feel better, not by actually improving our situation, but by bringing others down to our level so that no one else may be happier than us.

And so it is always important for us to remember that the idea of legitimate play is illegitimate. It holds no place within our discussion of media in general, and should be excised. When others enjoy something in a different manner than we did, we should see it as a cause for celebration, because great books and shows and games are those that can appeal to people in numerous ways. And it is by witnessing that different enjoyment that we ourselves have the chance to grow by seeing the things we love in new lights, and transporting that knowledge into our future experiences.


[1] In this context we might think about the idea of “authenticity.” A separate discussion would need to be had about whether an “authentic” experience is better or worse from a normative standpoint: whether players should want to have authentic experiences, what that authentic experience would look like, and the relative value of an authentic experience itself. However, even if we were to fully settle this issue of authenticity, the normative value of the claim – the idea that players should want to have an authentic experience – would not be able to get us to the conclusion that an inauthentic experience is invalid. Perhaps even “authenticity” isn’t the right term, and in carrying out such a discussion we would need to better clarify our terms. But this discussion is ultimately not the subject of this essay.

[2] This is a complex notion, and perhaps the best way to think about it is that we are at this point comparing two different games entirely, which merely happen to look similar and share the same name.

[3] As a digression to partially illustrate the point, I have long seen the systems in Undertale as an example of an “intended” progression for a new player through the game. The game provides somewhat cryptic messages about not killing monsters, but these messages don’t necessarily make complete sense until the player has finished the game and realizes that they didn’t get a very good ending. At which point, they are given the opportunity to go back (perhaps with a hint about how to get a better ending) and replay, at which point many of those messages now make more sense. The consequence is that the player is intended to play through the game (at least) twice: once to complete it as they naturally see fit, and then again to solve the puzzle they now know to be there. Of course, the player can still – even accidentally – stumble upon the correct solution their first time through. But this fact became somewhat ironic when fans of the game would then address players on streams or recorded videos to let them know that they “messed up” by killing a monster and thus “needed” to restart to get the best ending. There is a valid reason for why fans would want to do this – there is the possibility that a player may choose not to replay and thus might not get the full experience. But it also undercuts the game’s own intent and design.

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