The joy of ridiculously difficult video games?

I wrote a while back about how I don’t really enjoy slow-paced games that require a lot of thinking, and never understood why people would deliberately seek out very difficult games. Much as I loved the setting and style of the original Deus Ex, I don’t think I’ll be returning any time soon, because it just feels like punishment. I gave up on Vampire TMB: Bloodlines annoyingly near the end because I just couldn’t get past that werewolf, and … it just wasn’t fun any more.

This intriguing article from The New Yorker spells out for me what I’d been missing before: it isn’t actually about having fun at all. 

According to Joshua Rothman, “PC Gamer likens [English Country Tune] to “an entrance exam for MIT.” That doesn’t sound very fun, but the point of the game isn’t fun, exactly; it’s more like fascination.”

I don’t have the quote to hand, but the book A Theory of Fun for Game Design by Raph Koster suggests that we play games – not just video games but tennis and Monopoly and anything else – because we have to. The idea of “fun” is a motivator and reward that keeps us at our task, but really games are as essential to human behaviour as any other activity. Games are a lifelong form of education, and the games we choose to play are based on the areas of our minds that we need to exercise and develop.

I gravitate towards two main types of games: Action-RPGs and fast-paced casual games like Bejeweled Blitz and Zuma. I didn’t get on so well with Peggle because it requires you to take your time to line up your shot – accuracy is rewarded over speed. On the other hand, I don’t flock to twitch-based shooters either, and the reason for that is that I don’t need to have fast reflexes in life, only fast decision-making.

The jobs I’ve had my whole working life have involved resolving problems rapidly and diplomatically, so it’s little wonder that something like Skyrim would appeal. Yes, I take my time to work out how to plan an assassination for a Dark Brotherhood quest, but if the answer doesn’t arrive in ten minutes or so, I consult the strategy guide.

I’ve always told myself that it’s because I “don’t have time”, but that’s not really the truth: I don’t have the patience, and I’ve never developed the patience because patience isn’t something that I need to develop. If I had more patience, took my time and spent hours forming a strategy at work when I could simply ask someone else and get the answer right away, I wouldn’t be rewarded. I would be fired.

On some subconscious level, I take that home and use my spare time to hone the skills I really need – the skill that tells me how to quickly judge whether I need to ask someone else to help or whether I can solve a problem on my own. I need the skill to instantly guess the verbal response to get the other person to do what I need them to in order to solve the quest. In the game, I learnt that the best way to assassinate the general was just to walk right up to him and tell him I was going to kill him. Telling the truth provoked him into an action (attacking me) and got the job done. In real life, I couldn’t resolve the problem of getting a contribution to a report I had totally forgotten about that was due that day. I didn’t have time to sit there and think about it – to try and fail and try again – so I just went right up to the person and told them the truth and passed a speech check (bribery – with cakes!) and provoked a reaction (they helped).

I would have thought that my addiction to Bejeweled was based around pattern-spotting, but it’s only Bejeweled Blitz that grabs my attention; I’m not interested in the non-timed version. Then I considered that my other addiction is Columns and realised that it isn’t the ability to spot patterns that I’m exercising but my ability to do it quickly. If I need to learn how to sort and prioritise 160 emails in five minutes, on a subconscious level my brain tells me to use my down-time to develop that skill.

Of course, it’s not entirely unknown that video games can train the user. All those Nintendo DS “brain trainer” games are testament to that. It’s just interesting to me how people select types of brain-training without even knowing it, and automatically gravitate towards the workout they need for the roles they play in their daily lives.

And call it entertainment.

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One comment on “The joy of ridiculously difficult video games?

  1. My theory’s been (YMMV) that people play “hard games” for validation rather than recreation or relaxation.

    When you solve an English Country Tune puzzle or kill a demon in Dark Souls, the good feeling is from have proved yourself, that you have accomplished a normally impossible goal. But, more telling, that you’ve validated your skill, whether that skill be puzzle-solving, resource management, hand-eye coordination, &c, &c.

    That theory also fills in the blanks on why hard gamers really despise “casuals”, read here as “anyone that doesn’t like hard games”. If you validate yourself via games, then people who don’t appear to be completely devoid of validation, soft and unproven. Despite the fact that you or I may validate our selves in other areas and arenas of our life, to the hard gamer, we appear weak, as weak as they fear themselves to be. Hence the constant need to prove themselves.

    I’m describing one end of a spectrum here, of course. Most people, I imagine, just like injecting a little bit of challenge in their lives where they find none.

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