In my last post I wrote about Brice Morrison’s argument that today’s games, tuned to a perfect level of graduated challenge, have resulted in a standardized concept of difficulty.  Games that aren’t optimized to provide regular doses of life-affirming feedback, Morrison suggests, favor players who are self-starters, able to set their own goals, define the parameters of their individual success and approach failure as a learning opportunity.

It would certainly be a much more exciting and varied gaming environment if we had many different kinds of difficulty to play with, rather than variations on the same type of “optimized” difficulty with which we are provided.  There’s only one, tiny flaw in his argument.

Most players don’t want genuinely difficult games.

That is not to say that game players are some lesser species, constantly seeking shallow fulfillment at the expense of a deeper, life-changing challenge.  It is to say that they are people.  People in general are not interested in difficulty.  Most people do not read difficult books (most, of course, do not actually read much of anything, if recent surveys of national reading habits are to be believed).  They aren’t that interested in particularly challenging movies.  They don’t listen to particularly difficult music.  Avant-garde movies, books, and music (I desperately wanted to put “TV” in there but I just couldn’t do it) that push us way out of our comfort zone formally and conceptually and require us to work for our intellectual pleasures are consumed by few people, relatively speaking, and enjoyed by even fewer.  The great mass of people are much more comfortable with formulas, with optimized experiences that exhaust the object in the course of the experience and leave them needing to buy a replacement.

There is no reason why gamers should be any different.  In fact, we see this pattern replicated perfectly with games.  Very few games are lasting treasures.  They are designed as, and consumed as, a series of replaceable commodities.  You play through this game, maybe a couple of times, and then move on to the next, a game not substantially different from the last.

There’s not anything inherently wrong with this, of course.  I certainly enjoy my fair share of sci-fi, fantasy, detective fiction, and so on.  I enjoy my Avatars, my Lady GaGa.  But that isn’t all I enjoy.  And that is where Morrison offers an important cautionary argument.  If your pleasures are narrow and repetitive and not terribly challenging then that is a problem.  One of the most damaging aspects of the dominance of the military industrial edutainment complex is that it has sold so many of us on the lie that entertainment in particular and pleasure in general are purely recreational.  It is time away, time out, zone out, pure fluff.  It is a refuge, a temporary isolation from the stress and strain of our work lives, our family and community responsibilities.  In part this is a sad-indictment of how shitty those other areas of life have become for many people (all those vast wastelands of non-pleasure where we spend the bulk of our waking hours: slaving for the corporate overlord, or running our families as if we ourselves were the CEO of an asset-maximizing hedge fund).  Pleasure, therefore, is being defined in a way that is increasingly, and regrettably, compatible with US-style capitalism in particular: consumption without consequences.

Even as I type these words I can hear how old-fashioned they sound, especially in the context of a discussion of something as high-tech as contemporary gaming.  However, the same old-fashioned ideal underlies Morrison’s discussion of difficulty: that our pleasures are not inconsequential and should not be regarded as such.  What we enjoy, the pleasures to which we commit are formative as much as–maybe even more than–any other aspect of our lives.  We learn from them and through them.  They shape who we are, who we believe we can be, who we will become.   If we approach them as simply occasions to shut off our brains–and our souls–not only do we foreclose any opportunities for growth and change through those experiences, we are blinding ourselves to the ways in which they may be changing us in spite of ourselves.

The problem with Morrison’s point of view, however, is that he holds up the genuinely difficult games as a kind of gold standard because they replicate the kind of difficulty and therefore the kind of learning that you experience in real life.  Again, I think he is dead-on-balls-accurate.

That, however, is the reason most gamers want nothing to do with such games.  The more games approach the condition of RL, in fact, the less gamers are interested in them.

If this were not the case, there would be entire genres of games that are a lot more popular than they are.  A clear example here is hard core combat flight simulators, particularly those associated with WW I and WW II.  There are only a handful of such games and they are played by a mere handful of players.  Obviously I recognize that to a certain extent any notion of difficulty has a relativistic component to it.  Every game has a learning curve associated with it, and some of those can be quite steep and long (the original Company of Heroes took me a while to pick up).  However, once you master the basics, the rewards tend to come pretty quickly and with a pleasing frequency.

However, even highly experienced gamers with whom I have spoken, those who have dabbled in the flight sim genre, have acknowledged that these are typically very hard games indeed.  Most of the best ones–the IL2 series, the outstanding WWI title Over Flanders Fields, the online multiplayer versions Aces High and Warbirds–require you to actually master the majority of the skills necessary to fly a real plane.  In IL2 and OFF this extends even to engine management tasks such as manipulating turbocharger settings and controlling mixture and prop-pitch on appropriate aircraft.  Then you need to learn how to fight.  For new players these games are a punishing experience, especially when played against other RL players.  However much I suck at games like Team Fortress (and I do) I could still manage to get a few satisfying killing sprees going, in between picking up pieces of my own arse.  When I first started playing Warbirds on the other hand, it was weeks before I managed to shoot another player down.  Weeks of getting shot down over, and over, and over.  That was when I wasn’t badly misjudging the laws of physics and driving my plane into the ground myself.  And I had extensive experience playing stand-alone flight sims before I ever ventured online.

Furthermore, even once you have mastered the basics of piloting and gained a sufficient awareness of basic air combat maneuvering these games remain incredibly difficult precisely because they–and again, we are talking about the best ones here–are designed to mimic the unpredictability of real combat environments.  There is no pattern you can learn.  A moment’s inattention and the guy you never even knew was there shreds you from behind.  A breakdown in coordination between you and your squad members results in a a deluge of metal pieces raining down over the landscape–most of them not belonging to the other team.  Sometimes you are superbly organized and on your game but you come up against a squad that is just better.  See aforementioned comment about a hail of metal pieces.

Most gamers just will not put up with that shit.  And it has nothing to do with the content of these games.  War is a big seller.  WW2 in particular is a huge seller.  Planes are popular (witness the success of Microsoft’s Flight Simulator series).  Hardcore flight sims could be the perfect unholy marriage of carnage and technology.

But they are too difficult for most of the gaming population.  However, that also isn’t quite the full story.  The real downer for Joe or Jane Gamer is that the difficulty is largely unrelieved by convenient and easily recognizable rewards.  How could anyone possibly derive any pleasure from an entire evening spent online where you don’t actually manage to shoot anything down?  Gamers are born to kill, after all, right?

All I can say in response to that is that the majority of the most intensely pleasurable gaming experiences I have ever had have been flying flight sims (and I play a wide variety of gaming genres).  I’ve flown missions, especially as part of player-created scenarios that have left me trembling and shaking with a mixture of adrenaline rush and profound relief at merely having made it through to a landing.  Not surprisingly, as Morrison’s argument would lead you to expect, flight sims are one place where you get a lot of people setting their own goals and parameters for success: creating their own scenarios, making the games even more difficult (turning off all virtual aids, for example), figuring out what their role will be.  Some of my most satisfying moments have been where yes, I have played for an entire evening without killing anything, but I know I’ve played a really vital support role for those of my squaddies who were more successful.

Flight sims are not the only example of this phenomenon.  It explains why there are so few people who play hard-core strategy games, and why there is so little gamer support for even the best nineteenth-century warfare titles (I’ve been amused to see the ongoing whining about the AI in Empire: Total War–and it is true, it is pretty stupid–by players who wouldn’t last a week trying to play something with a much better AI, like Take Command: Second Manassas).  It is also the reason why WoW has millions of subscribers and EvE has about 300,000.

It is hard for me to make this argument while also indicating that I don’t see people’s desire to avoid difficulty in simplistic terms.  That simplistic view is the kind of thing that gives us the stereotype of games as escapist wish-fulfillment, and the act of playing games as essentially a compensation for the real-life inadequacies of the player (the Level 300 Paladin with an online harem who in RL is a lonely, compulsively masturbating phone salesman living on Fritos in his mom’s basement).  And there has been a strong and welcome push amongst game studies academics not to cavalierly dismiss activities to which people devote considerable time and money even if–especially if–they don’t correspond to hidebound notions of art and tradition.  However, toeing that line too uncritically reduces you simply to a fanboi or fanfemme for an entire media form.  Morrison asks us, in effect, to recognize that there are some pretty severe limitations built into the industrialized game market at the moment, limitations that are, regrettably, enthusiastically embraced by the vast majority of gamers–and that those limitations may have consequences that extend beyond gaming.