What’s the deal with difficulty
Posted by Ben Zeigler on August 31, 2006
So, there’s this guy at work who is a notorious grinder (oh, look, he’s playing Xbox Live Arcade games he doesn’t particularly like to raise his gamer score, right now!). He’s the kind of person who played Dark Age of Camelot before they quadrupled the leveling speed, and actually liked it. Because this is something that deserves to be mocked, I asked him if boring tasks were more rewarding than fun tasks. He said they weren’t, but that it was DIFFICULTY that made things more rewarding. But then, what makes something difficult, in a good way?
It’s not just about effort. Something can be very time consuming but not particularly difficult, such as slaughtering low level enemies without personal risk. It’s also not just about risk. Gambling money on a coin flip is plenty risky, but isn’t particularly difficult. The explanation he came up with is that something is difficult in a fun way (which I’m going to call “challenging”) if “it requires developing a skill to succeed”. This feels about right to me. Pressing a button and being randomly rewarded or punished isn’t difficult, but it sure is frustrating. If you show skill in defeating a boss, but it wasn’t actually needed, that isn’t difficult within the context of the game’s explicit goals. However, by setting higher standards for yourself, it becomes challenging again.
The obvious next question is: What’s so challenging about grinding, then? You repeatedly slaughter the same group of enemies with little thought or variation. Where’s the skill here? One answer is that the skills are higher up. The abilities to simultaneously play several games, or to develop the optimal way to increase leveling speed, or to create a complicated macro to avoid playing at all are skills in their own right. They may not be within the game design context created by the developers, but they’re skills. Grinding is about winning the metagame.
It’s an interesting idea, but I’m not sure I buy it. Why jump out of the game to the metagame in the first place? In the process of doing so, you miss out on a lot of the inherent challenge of a game. There can be just as much challenge and fun to be found by attempting the more difficult and interesting encounters within a game, but instead those are shunned for being too inefficient. Is it a rebellious streak? Do we generate more difficulty so the resulting rewards become more psychologically significant? Or is this all just a justification for seeking the approval of others? Whatever the reason, grinding is going to be around as long as games, and it seems like all we can do is try to make it less painful.
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