Peer Pressure and Puzzles

Words: 1417 Approximate Reading Time: 10-15 minutes

I’ve mentioned before that I love puzzle games. There’s something special about learning a set of mechanics, and then reaching a brand new understanding of the rules of those mechanics to achieve some kind of solution. Feeling the gears in your head click into place gives a really strong feeling of accomplishment.

The joy is not actually that unique. There are plenty of other ways in which games can give you that feeling of accomplishment. A game known for its challenge might have tough bosses, but winning against those bosses can make you feel on top of the world. There are all sorts of ways that games can give you that joy.

But one aspect of how we often choose which games to play is through the lens of what we think is “expected” of us. There is a lot of social pressure for us to play certain games, and we don’t really put a lot of thought into that pressure. We understand that people can be toxic and ruin our experiences of games, but we don’t really stop to think about how we can effectively ruin our own experiences.

I wanted to examine this question in light of puzzle games because puzzle games inhabit a slightly unique space here. Plenty of games have this kind of pressure surrounding them. I wrote a while back about an article regarding the popularity of Elden Ring, and how the way in which we give in to that pressure hurts our enjoyment of games as a whole. Puzzle games can have the same pressures surrounding them, but with a special twist.

“Real Gamers” and the Pressure to Play

A lot of this can be tied to a broader trend of trying to draw lines for what a “real” fan of something is. There might be some validity to this practice,[1] but for the most part it is just a way to make ourselves – the “real” fans – feel superior to others.

This all plays out in the realm of video games with the idea of the “real gamer.” I would imagine that many people do not believe in this idea. What makes you a “real gamer” is whether or not you play video games and consider yourself a “gamer.” There is no inherent value to being a “gamer,” and thus no greater value to devoting more time to gaming than someone else. Playing just a couple hours a week is just as valid as spending multiple hours a day playing.

Of course, while many people probably understand this on an intellectual level, we still let it influence our behaviors in odd ways.

Sometimes that plays out in the realm of challenging games. A game like Dark Souls that is known for being difficult can appeal to a certain mindset – it is a game that challenges you, and if you can’t live up to the challenge, then you’re just not a “real gamer.” This all is designed to make people either keep going and thus prove their worth, or else give up. Either way, the “real gamer” idea is reinforced. We are probably most familiar with the problem in this way.

Puzzle games, though, appeal to a slightly different part of ourselves. Tough games can be ignored on the grounds that “challenge” isn’t that important. Overcoming challenges for the sake of challenge doesn’t make anyone better than anyone else. The club of “having completed a tough game” may be a bit exclusive, but…who really cares? You don’t have to complete that challenge.

But the ability to solve puzzles is – theoretically – about intelligence. If you can’t solve a puzzle, it’s because you’re dumb.

Or at least, that’s what we might tell ourselves.

There is a pressure for people to play and claim to enjoy puzzle games because “being smart” is something that we almost universally want – or want to be perceived as. In a way, not being able to succeed at a challenge doesn’t have to mean much – we can just prove that we can succeed at other challenges. But failing to solve a puzzle feels much more like a stain that cannot be washed away – sure, you could solve a different puzzle, but you couldn’t solve this one.

As someone who enjoys and plays a lot of puzzle games, I don’t think I (and others like me) are immune to the problem. There can be a tendency to insist on getting through certain puzzle games or powering through certain problems even when we’re not having fun. The feeling that we can’t let a puzzle “beat” us will occasionally compel us to persevere when intellectually we may know that it’s not worth it.

But I am more interested in this phenomenon as it pertains to people who don’t play puzzle games. The kind of people are bad at puzzle games. The kind of people who, despite being bad at puzzle games and getting frustrated when they play them, insist on playing them anyway.

There is a fine line between trying something you may not enjoy out of curiosity, and trying something you may not enjoy because you think you should enjoy it. And the problem is that it can be hard to tell which side of the line you are on. Social pressure is invisible, which means that even when it’s there forcing you to do something you may not realize it.

So the question must constantly be asked: am I trying to solve this puzzle because I think I can, or because I will feel dumb if I can’t? Put another way, am I continuing this for me, or because of what someone else might think of me?

When we keep pushing for our own sake, we end up with that feeling of accomplishment. That feeling of success is not about us being “smart,” but simply that we have discovered the solution. When we are pushing because of others, we end up with a feeling of relief. We’ve been going and going for who knows how long, and we’re just happy that it’s done.

One of the issues that we face is not really stopping to think about the ways in which we almost “pretend” to have fun. While we recognize that games are supposed to be fun – with a vague and uncertain definition of “fun” being applied – we can often push ourselves to suffer. Sometimes there might be value to the suffering. But if we don’t have a good reason to make ourselves suffer, then we are just making our lives worse for nothing.

And so it’s important to realize that puzzle games aren’t really a test of whether people are “smart.” The ability to solve a puzzle is simply the ability to understand rules and how to mess with them. These are skills that might be applicable in other ways, but we don’t have to possess those skills. Or we might possess those skills, but not be able to apply them in certain cases. Sometimes a puzzle stumps you. Sometimes a game’s mechanics don’t make sense to you. Sometimes you just forget how the game works halfway through. Sometimes you might not notice something important.

This all doesn’t have to mean that the puzzle or the game is bad. Nor does the fact that a puzzle or game is good reflect poorly on you. No one is dumb for failing to solve a given puzzle. No one is dumb for not liking puzzle games entirely.

Concluding Remarks

I’ve been more and more reflecting on the social pressures surrounding the games we play. In part because the more I watch other people play games, the more I see their frustrations and end up…confused. The desire to keep playing when people clearly aren’t having fun is something that doesn’t make a lot of sense…and yet it feels weirdly common.

Perhaps the kind of introspection needed to recognize when we ourselves aren’t having fun and knowing to stop is incredibly difficult to achieve. Perhaps there are many occasions where I am incredibly frustrated and ignoring that feeling – which could well explain the problem at hand. But even if that’s the case, talking about the issue and trying to catch ourselves in the act is an important skill to learn and cultivate.

[1] For example, someone might pretend to understand or enjoy something for clout – it’s rare, but it happens. Knowing how to call out such behavior is worthwhile, though by the same token it is important to know when not to call out others.

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