If you ever find me on an evening, on front of a TV, mashing buttons, as my character in video game failing over and over, you won’t be hard pressed to think that I might be flirting with insanity. If you ever asked me the question, why I play brain-splitting mind-numbing tear-inducing video games, I wouldn’t be able to give you an explanation; I wouldn’t be able to tell you why I cherish the thrill of difficulty. But I can try.
When you play the now fabled video game, Super Meat Boy; After every level you finish, the game shows all your attempts at the same time. It shows how badly you failed over and over until you got it just right. It’s a plain old white-knuckle video game. It has no narrative depth, neither a hidden meaning; The artistic masterstroke of the game is its ability to constantly remind the player that there’s nothing unfair about it; But it’s the player themselves did not press the right button at the right time, until they did. I found that absolutely brilliant! Ten years after it’s release, and about twenty five thousand retries later, I am still playing the game. Because who doesn’t want to dodge missiles while running through a maze of saw blades and being chased by a crazy robot scientist, while jumping over chasms full of magma! It’s the raw thrill, a small scale exhibition depicting one of life’s underrated phenomenons, the thrill of difficulty, in a video game stage.
Game developer Rami Ismael wrote in 2017 on a video game he co-created,
A lot of people see LUFTRAUSERS about a game of difficulty. It isn’t. What matters to us is that to you, it is ‘overwhelming’. In the face of those overwhelming odds, the game occurs. The difficulty is the backdrop. The gameplay a delivery method. The goal is grace.
LUFTRAUSERS is not about surviving, it’s about cutting the engine after a stall, falling down guns blazing, pulling up right over the water. It’s about bursting up from underwater through an exploding carrier, straight into impossible odds and a game over just BECAUSE IT IS COOL.
The point is that this is what we tried to create: LUFTRAUSERS was about making you feel like the coolest pilot in a tight 3-minute session. And then you die. The beauty of Jan Willem Nijman ’s core design here is that it doesn’t matter how good you are. LUFTRAUSERS will defeat you.
In LUFTRAUSERS, you, yourself, are pretty much the only arbiter of what is cool, so you’re always playing against & for yourself. So your skill level is almost entirely redundant. If you do anything at all that makes you go ‘oh that was fucking cool’, we did it.
Before your roll your eyes in disdain while reading analogue between video games and life, think about the last time you time you just kept trying to make something work. Lot of our struggles boil to down to struggles against ourselves, our insecurities, our vulnerabilities, our intellectual limitations, dexeterity, confidence, fears, patience. Be it break-ups or exams, learning to skate or trying to paint, being lonely or being overwhelmed, anything complicated and difficult; Chances are you had failed catastrophically, over and over. You might have thought about the futility of the struggle itself; You still might feel it every morning. But you kept working on it, you kept going. Maybe not because you wanted to win but you probably wanted to do whatever you were doing every moment of your waking hours, or maybe your circumstances didn’t let you detach from the struggle. From PhD theses to learning violin, you just kept banging your forehead, until you got it right. Maybe because you knew, consciously of subconsciously, that’s how the magic occurs.
Rami’s words, “you, yourself, are pretty much the only arbiter of what is cool, so you’re always playing against & for yourself. So your skill level is almost entirely redundant”, stuck with me. After finding the twitter thread in 2017, I went down a rabbit hole of philosophies, from game design & reward psychology to stoicism. When I came out, I had a realisation; Collectively we have conveniently hid overcoming of difficulty under a thin celebration of success and rewarding experiences. Instead of that, what we really should be doing is nurture ourselves in overwhelming difficulity. We humans, have an uncanny ability; Ability to confabulate real motivation when there is none or little extrinsic reward. It’s a testament to our evolution.
Richard Feynman, for example, was not only a nobel winning physicist, but also a genius safecracker. He famously said, “Physics is like sex: sure, it may give some practical results, but that's not why we do it.” During most of his work, wasn’t driven by a possibility of a nobel prize, or a tenure at Caltech. It was driven by pure curiosity. He was surfing on one of the core aspects of the human condition; Aspect we chose to forget in the wake of the last century.
Alex Honnold, like other free soloists that came out of Yosemite climbing scene, climbs extremely dangerous very tall stone walls without any safety gear. In recent years, he has become famous, and even a film of him climbing, Free Solo won an academy award. But if you ever hear him talking in an interview, he never really talks about the accolades, or grand rewards with enthusiasm, or anything clearly motivational; He talks mostly about veganism and how fun it is to climb; One has to be comfortable on a stone wall as walking on plain land in order achieve such dexerity to not fall to their deaths. For him, the climb is literally the only thing that matters, even when it means risking his life, every single day.
There’s a modern variant of chess that have become very popular in recent years, called the “bullet”. In this variant, the whole game lasts for 2 minutes in total. If ones thinks about it, it’s natural to find that there’s no real reason for anyone to taxing thair brain to the point where they have to finish a game of chess in a minute. But as chessmaster Alexandra Botez says, it’s really fun! As an abolute noob in chess, I tried playing bullet once, only to get checkmate before a minute was over. But the thrill was real; I could see why people play this variant, it wasn’t only playing against another human, but against myself; I was ungracefully trying to anticipate too many moves at a time.
I never played Super Meat Boy, or any game of the sort because I wanted to beat the game; But because I wanted to play the game. Goals. Productivity measures. KPIs. These are useful, but not as much as we have come believe. These tools are inherently unsustainable, as you and I, mighthave already figured out. Perhaps, what we should be asking is if the difficulty is worth the thrill.