Why We Love Hard Games – The Science Behind The Urge To ‘Git Gud’
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Featured Image Credit: Banda Namco Entertainment Europe, FromSoftware, James Daly, The Internet's Big Book Of Memes
I’ve made a very foolish decision, during my first play through of Elden Ring. I beat Demon’s Souls. I beat Bloodborne. I beat Dark Souls and Dark Souls III (my friends told me not to bother with Dark Souls II, but I’d like to think I could beat that as well). However, throughout all of those games, the FromSoftware oeuvre affectionately known as Soulsborne, there is one thing that I never did: I never actually counted.
This time, I’ve decided to count, and it’s making me feel awful – not just awful but pathetic, diminutive. As I cross through the fog wall into Malenia’s wooded chamber and hear that wind starting to pick up again, I add another vertical line to the tally chart in my head. Eighteen.
Here's how to defeat the hardest boss in Elden Ring – y’know, if you need the advice…
Why do I do this to myself? What have I done to make myself feel like I deserve this kind of pain? Is it stubbornness, a need for validation? Am I so fearful of missing out, of being the person who couldn’t do it and didn’t get to the end, that I’m willing to potentially waste an entire day – a sunny day no less; it’s really nice outside – on what is essentially just some video game? “Why am I here?” I ask myself out loud, in a fit of existential panic. “Why are any of us here?”
Jesse Schell, a game designer, and professor of Entertainment Technology at Carnegie Mellon University, calls this the “sword in the stone effect”. It’s the idea that, even if something seems impossible, people will nevertheless want to try because there is a chance – even if the chance is extremely marginal – that they could be the one who actually does it. In this scenario, our motivation for playing hard or frustrating games is very simple: kudos. We want to be able to boast about our achievements or, if not boast, then at least belong to an exclusive group of peers: a stratum of gamers above those who solely play games for fun.
And the plaudits, the reputation we gain from finishing difficult games, they go beyond simply mechanical plaudits, the idea that you are good at playing games. If you are willing to subject yourself to something which is actively unenjoyable or “un-fun” in the traditional video game sense, it implies that you see and you value things in video games beyond just their inputs and their outputs; that to you, games mean more than simply having a good time.
I remember when I was a film student watching the entirety of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, this four-hour, black-and-white historical epic from 1916. I didn’t enjoy it, but – in a way that I can now admit is kind of elitist and douchey – it made me feel good, like I was smart, a connoisseur. Perhaps when we play hard games it isn’t just to prove that we can do them, but that we understand video games, as a cultural form, have a deeper value than just fun.
But still, for me that isn’t an entirely satisfactory explanation. How many people have beaten Elden Ring? How many connoisseurs are out there? If I play hard games to look more intelligent and cultured than other people, surely that’s undermined by the fact that literally millions of other people, by virtue of having beaten the game as well, have an equally sophisticated taste.
“Our brains are designed to be very complex constraint-satisfaction machines”, Paul Schrater, a computer scientist from the University of Minnesota, told Scientific American. “We’re goal seeking, and having a goal means defining a constraint on an outcome. Satisfying that constraint can involve a whole path toward the goal that’s unenjoyable, like climbing a mountain to reach food or safety.”
In essence, we don’t enjoy things despite them being hard. We enjoy them, and assign a kind of worth to them, because they are hard. If we consider some of the things that we value in real life – real life being life when not playing a video game – they tend to be things that are hard, or take a significant amount of work, to achieve: wealth; a good job; a happy, long-lasting relationship.
I’m reminded of an episode of The Twilight Zone called ‘A Nice Place to Visit’, wherein a gangster called Rocky is shot by the police and wakes up to find that anything he asks for, anything at all, will be instantly granted to him. He has all the money in the world. All the ladies want him. When he gambles in the casino, he never loses. Eventually he grows depressed and despondent, and it’s revealed at the end of the episode that rather than Heaven, Rocky is in his own personal Hell, where he can never ever feel the satisfaction of having earned something for himself.
This is why open-world games get boring towards the end. Once our character is maxed out and we have all the unique weapons and gear, there is little gratification or sense of accomplishment in finishing a quest or defeating a boss – it all comes to us far too easily. We want status. We want comfort. We want happiness. And the reason that we want them is because they are hard to get – there are constraints on those goals. It’s the same reason cooking a meal is more satisfying than ordering takeout. Despite how it may sometimes seem, when you’re exhausted, fed-up and just want a break from life, there is an intrinsic part of us that wants to strive for more than what we have.
And it’s that intrinsic, maybe even slightly masochistic, part of us that attracts us towards hard video games. When we achieve something difficult in a game, it’s the equivalent – or maybe, you could argue, a simulation – of achieving something in the broader sense of real life. Games like Elden Ring don’t just reward our basic fun and pleasure centres. They reach into a deeper psychological need for work, struggle and attainment. Even when they punish and frustrate us, we come back to these games because they emotionally reward us in a way that is more rounded and comprehensive than perhaps other, easier games – they tap into a wider and more complex range of human needs, specifically the need for a goal and a purpose that requires us to actually try.
But does any of this give me comfort? As I sit here butting my head up against Elden Ring and wondering whether it’s possible that you can set up a repeat order on Amazon for fresh PlayStation controllers, does any of this make me feel better? I’m not sure. But at least it offers some kind of explanation. At least when I play hard games, I’m not just some freak who’s a glutton for pain and desperate for glory. In fact, I’m a very normal person. Anyway. Nineteen.
Follow the author on Twitter at @esmithwriter.