BITMAPS 86: The Reward of Challenging Games

I heard a story recently that reminded me that behavior is truly relative. Several friends were just hanging out, all playing games on a separate computers and TVs. Upon crashing into a tree in Burnout 3, one guy – who is generally the most relaxed fellow you’d ever meet – chucked his controller into the wall and elegantly screamed the loudest and most vociferous racial slur ever slurred. This shattered the peaceful atmosphere in the room like a truck of hammers crashing into a warehouse of fine china.

This is what unbreakable trees can do – the humanity.

If you’re like me, you’ll probably be reading this story and nodding in equal parts understanding and nostalgia. We collectively put ourselves through the mental and stressful wringer of difficult games quite willingly. The question of why we do this never really enters our minds. The challenge is there, so we attack. The process by which we gain skills through repeated failure, expletive shouting, and heart palpitations never needs much justification.

But, let’s be honest, this makes no sense to anyone else. Every time an absurdly difficult NES game induced my childhood dance of rage, my mother would poke her head in the room and ask me why it was that, if the games made me so angry, did I keep on playing. I never had a good answer for her, unless “Shut up, mom!” adequately satisfies. Emotionally, I knew why I was playing. Indeed, I knew what my goal was, but an agitated mind and a lacking lexicon didn’t do wonders for my eloquence.

Pride is a natural factor. After all, when a game throws the gauntlet it’s more or less daring any player to conquer it. However, the biggest factor may be the concept of “relaxation response,” popularized by Harvard Associate Professor of Medicine Herbert Benson. According to Benson, the relaxation response is “a physical state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress,” serving as the physiological counterpart to the fight or flight response. Benson originally suggested traditional meditation techniques to reach this state, but recent research shows that repetitive physical tasks like prayer, chanting, and knitting also induce this state

Talking about knitting on a gaming website. Yep.

If you’ve ever experienced the zen of washing dishes or performing household chores, you’ve already felt this phenomenon. A similar effect occurs when the mind is engaging in a thoroughly mastered activity. A master craftsman will enter a trance-like state while at work, hands moving deftly and independently while the mind is free to wander. Just as with crafts and skills, a video game can also provide the repetitive motions required to bring about relaxation response. The trance-like state of playing video games is often equated with mental degradation, but in reality it’s more meditation than stimulation overdose.

To extend the comparison, players toil away at difficult games for the same reason one undertakes a difficult craft, and that’s to achieve the mastery required to enter the beneficial state of relaxation response. Just as an apprentice blacksmith might botch a sword and throw it to the ground in frustration, so does a gaming novice chunk his/her controller into the television and hurl the console out of the window. In both cases, the interstitial suffering is only endured for the sake of the trance-like experience once mastered.

And yet, some games offer no trance beyond the suffering. Early NES games threw random and insurmountable challenge without the possibility of mastery. These games are not only frustrating in the interim, but ultimately infuriating because they never cease being challenging. This is the greatest failure of any game that offers a challenge. Simply put, a challenge that can be mastered offers an ultimate payoff, whereas a challenge that cannot only offers eternal pain and suffering.

WHY WHY WHY WHY WHY WHY WHY WHY

Other games allow the player to enter a trance-like state without requiring mastery, but rather through simplicity of controls and gameplay. Puzzle games excel in this regard, with obvious mention going to the legendary Tetris and other notable titles like Super Puzzle Fighter and Bust A Move. In these games very little needs to be learned, thus allowing the more active parts of the mind to relax quicker. The same is true of Geometry Wars. While the game may be extremely fast-paced and brutally difficult, the simple controls and gameplay allows the player to relax their thought processes while playing.

This realization leads to a comic irony. While it sounds absurd, the truth is that most gamers endure stressful difficulty so they can in fact relieve stress. Perhaps with this understanding gamers will better understand their motivations, as well as save a few trips to Home Depot for hole-patching spackle.

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