Why The Hell Do We Keep Playing Difficult Video Games?

I understand why you hate these video games. I really do. I understand why you shake your head as I play them. The truth is I don't always understand the impulse myself. Why do I want to hurt myself. Why do I choose to put myself through this physical pain and stress. What is the benefit? What is the evolutionary benefit.

I will not become more attractive to a potential mate if I get a gold medal on Inferno IV on Trials Fusion. Completing a Onebro run in Dark Souls II will not help me protect my offspring from predators. On the contrary there's a far greater chance of me ignoring his cries for help when he slips in the bathtub and gurgles his way to an early funeral if I'm completely engrossed in a video game.

Why the hell do I play video games that are so goddamn difficult. Why do I continue to punish myself.

On the Saturday night just past I had friends over to visit. Everyone arrived a little earlier than I expected and I was midway through Inferno IV, the most difficult Trials Fusion track in a series already noted for its bewildering level of difficulty. I was embroiled in an incredible struggle. One obstacle towards the end of the track was giving me particular difficulty. When my guests arrived I was sitting at about 150 faults. 15 minutes later I had run the clock out and was sitting at 400 faults.

Why The Hell Do We Keep Playing Difficult Video Games?

I had essentially repeated the same 10 metres of virtual track 250 times, failing each time. Hitting retry. Failing. Hitting retry. Failing.

I had done this before. I did the exact same thing in Dark City Run in Trials Evolution, and the exact same thing with Inferno II in Trials HD. Had I been alone, this would have been business as usual. Most likely I would have started the track from scratch again with a calm exterior, every cell of my body throbbing with a barely restrained rage. I would probably have given myself hives.

But this time it was different. This time, for a short period, I had an audience.

And that audience forced me to look at myself through a slightly different lens; an otherworldly, out-of-body gaming experience. I saw myself through their eyes. What did they think, watching this adult man fail at the exact same obstacle, in the exact same way, 250 times. I must have looked like a rat in a skinner box.

This was Mark Serrels in his natural habitat. This is how Mark Serrels spends his spare time.

On some level my friends must have understood. Most likely they had played video games themselves. I think everyone understands the impulse to play video games — as escapism, as a means to learn and practice some useless skill. There are multiple different ways to 'enjoy' video games and I think the lay person tends to understand most of them. But I'm not sure if my friends could grasp what they just witnessed: a human being writhing in anguish, continually returning to the thing that caused him pain, like a moth butting heads with a sixty watt lightbulb.

They didn't understand and when I started to think about it, neither could I.

Why The Hell Do We Keep Playing Difficult Video Games?

The next day, as I turned on Dark Souls II, I realised that approximately the last 120 hours of my gaming life had been spent with video games that made me feel the following emotions: frustration, anger, impotence, fear, rage, disappointment. So many negative emotions. But still I came back, time after time.

As human beings we have the ability to endure short term misery for some, as yet intangible, long term goal. Take exercise, for example. It fucking hurts to lift weights, or run for a decent length of time, but we do it because it helps us to get fit, or to look more physically attractive to others. Same goes for eating healthily, or dieting, or stopping smoking. We have the capacity to grit our teeth and endure because the rewards come later.

A video game like Trials or Dark Souls doesn't really have the same benefits.

And it doesn't necessarily have the rewards we attach to a certain type of game/art either. That idea that we're broadening our horizons or flexing our intellectual muscles. Dark Souls is not a Rubik's Cube. Trials is not Sudoku. The skills you acquire will not be applicable to any other area of your life.

But I continue to punish myself. As do hundreds of thousands of others.

Why?

It's difficult to quantify, difficult to define. There are a lot of reasons to like games like Trials or Dark Souls. Trials, for example, has pitch perfect controls, mind-bending track design. Dark Souls is a brilliant example of world building, has an incredible sense of scale, an incredibly rewarding combat system.

Why The Hell Do We Keep Playing Difficult Video Games?

But the difficulty. Why do we enjoy the difficulty? Both of these games would be markedly less interesting if they were less difficult; I don't think anyone could possibly deny that.

Why?

I think the short answer is this: it feels good to be good at something. It feels good to improve, even if that 'thing' is pointless and has no impact on your social standing or any standing for that matter.

There's also the idea of revelling in your own ability to stubbornly persist when others crumble. In that sense difficult games are a type of mental exercise: will you continue, will you give up in the face of this virtual, pointless trial? When you continue where others have failed there is an enormous sense of satisfaction. That sense of satisfaction might be misguided and elitist and ultimately pointless in the grand scheme of anything, but it is intoxicating. Intoxicating enough to be compelling. Compelling enough for you to chase that next high.

But it's an empty feeling. A hollow chase. I remember finally getting Gold on every single track in Trials Evolution. I remember that sense of satisfaction. That swell of pride in my chest. Even in hindsight it was quite the achievement. I put the controller down. I felt really good for a second, then nothing. I told my wife, 'hey I did it'. Barely registered. She was just happy she didn't have to hear the bloody intro song on loop.

I leaned back in the couch. Looked into space and thought to myself, 'well, that's that I guess'.

The end.


This post originally on Kotaku Australia, where Mark Serrels is the Editor. You can follow him on Twitter if you're into that sort of thing.