Why The Hell Do We Keep Playing Difficult Video Games?

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 problems. 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.

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.

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.


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.

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.


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.


  • For me its the obsession of not being able to let it go, let it beat me. I will play a game that challenges me, makes me rage frustrated a whole lot more then a game I can breeze through.

  • I think the reason that we are attracted to difficulty is the same reason that on a bike you want to get over that stupidly steep hill, or when rock climbing you want to do that extra hard path. To know that you can. To know you have looked at failure, and accepted that it will hurt, and kept going anyway. Anyone can walk down a paved road. My 4 year old just cleared the Lego movie game basically on his own. Sometimes I want to go for a nice casual stroll down a nice path, and I hope the scenery is nice when I do. Other times, I want to know exactly where my limits are, and if they truly are my limits or just a barrier than can be broken….

  • Maybe its to validate our opportunity cost? learning to draw, paint, play music, sports is all difficult so unless we are able to sate our thirst for problem-solving we can’t commit ourselves entirely to gaming as a hobby.

  • I will not become more attractive to a potential mate if I get a gold medal on Inferno IV on Trials Fusion.Well, you never know 😛

  • Why The Hell Do We Keep Playing Difficult Video Games?

    Simple, I don’t. If the only selling point I see for a game is it’s brutal difficulty (like the Souls series, Trials, Super Meat Boy etc.) then I avoid it. It’ a matter of knowing my limitations: even after these years I’m simply not that good a gamer, and I’m very easily frustrated so such games hold no value for me.

    • the Souls series is a lot more than just ‘difficulty’. It isn’t even a ‘difficult’ game, it’s a fair game. But everything else, the world, the characters, the story (yeah, it’s there) are amazing too.

  • It’s The Grind in another form. A more sophisticated Skinner box, but the same pattern nonetheless.

  • A failure is a lesson learned. It’s not a failure, it’s more knowledge. It’s problem solving and thinking “There must be a better way.”

  • I feel like they extract value out of an ultimately pointless hobby. Easy games just kill time with minimal engagement. Hard games force you to pay attention and apply effort, so that overcoming the obstacles gives you *something* back, even if it is only fleeting satisfaction.

  • I find them more challenging than difficult.

    Thing is these games constantly make you think, make you try different approaches, styles, patterns, etc. Easier games mean you just do the same thing over and over again.

    Just think about the last time you played CoD, or replayed a level in CoD. Did your strategy change at all? Did you duck behind the same wall and fired at the enemies in the same order, throw grenades at the same exact spot? Even if you die you just repeat the same pattern once you reload.

  • I think there’s a direct link between hard games and everyday life to be made here.

    In the face of the crushing defeats, rejections and setbacks that we routinely face in our everyday lives, there’s a tacit acknowledgement that to prevail or endure, we need to hone certain skills. Games aren’t just a refuge from the world; in some ways, they’re like the VR training in Metal Gear Solid, in that they infuse us with skills and knowledge which we can apply in our everyday lives.

    As has been touted many a time on this very site, games are tools that teach us skills beyond hand-eye co-ordination, such as problem solving, spatial awareness, etc. Training your mind to take on a tough problem, and either approach it from different angles or simply persevere and push through, is what games like Trials and Dark Souls are teaching us.

    They have the safety of repetition and consequence-free play. They have enough flexibility that challenges can be approached in a variety of ways, and systems that are simple to learn and complex enough to master that the lessons can be driven home.

    I’ve made this link in the past: http://potakudotcom.wordpress.com/2012/10/16/how-demons-souls-restored-my-faith-in-games-and-reminded-me-how-to-live-life/

    A few months ago, I watched my little girl attempt to climb up onto the sofa while clutching her precious ‘Pink Baby’ doll. She struggled for a while, then fell on her bottom. The doll sprawled to the ground. Reasonably unfussed, she picked herself up and began again, remembering only when halfway up that she’d forgotten to pick the doll back up. So down she went, picked up Pink Baby, and started again. She struggled, teetered on the edge of the seat, and then triumphantly threw her leg over the top and climbed up. Then she got overconfident, stood up and bounced on the sofa, and stumbled. She stayed on the sofa, but the doll fell to the floor below.

    If that’s not a direct analogy of Demon’s Souls I don’t know what is.

    What’s it like to play Demon’s Souls?

    Struggle. Defeat. Renewal. Trepidation. Caution. Triumph. Pride. Overconfidence. Defeat.

    What does it mean to live?

    Struggle. Defeat. Renewal. Trepidation. Caution. Triumph. Pride. Overconfidence. Defeat.

    Again. And again.

    Life. Demon’s Souls.

    It’s also a fantasy fulfilment coping mechanism. If we can prevail against a tough game system, maybe we can tackle this life thing too. Of course, we’re forgetting that the closed and logical systems of a game have no bearing on the unpredictable random chaos of life 😛

    • Yeah, someone who works hard, and puts dedication into everything they do, can easily be passed off by someone who was born lucky.

      I still remember while job hunting I would come across many people who were obviously unqualified for the job but would always get it because they knew someone in charge of hiring or had a relative behind the scenes.

    • Yes but if you’d put all that time beating life, you could be on a winner.

      By putting all that time into the game, you’re just spending time. And time eventually runs out.

  • Ohhh a discussion close to my heart.

    Mark you may not have felt ‘well that’s that’ but there are many different processes that you have gone through which start shape your world view. I agree they are not overly useful in the evolutionary scheme, but the medium is still so young and has so much potential.

    This is the next iteration of games, will be when developers are able to turn the art of video games into a form of media that will have more than a passing interaction with the user for entertainment purposes. Sure there are ‘serious games’ created with a education purpose generally, but I think games are still to expand into the realm of text book, or critical essay, a piece of work that will educate through story telling and truly showcase a culture. We are seeing games come through at the moment that are pushing into these realms and there have been many throughout gaming history.

    I am playing through FFX HD at the moment – not everyone cup of tea, but my god the story gets me thinking about so much. Relationships, the utter chaos caused by death, the things we do to protect others and spirals, how we deal with reoccurring difficulties and how we react.

    As I mentioned, FFX is not for everyone, but the essence of my experience that of discovery of universal concepts which help me define how I view things in the world, is an exciting premise for games to explore and impact as it continues to grow as a medium. I am sure other have felt touched by a game, and there is still so much we are yet to experience.

  • Why do I keep playing difficult video games? Because they defied me. It laughed in my face so I need to get it in a headlock, give it a noogie and then pull its underpants over its head. I’m not really good at walking away from things…

  • I think it really comes down to there being 2 types of gamers; those that play games to kill time, and those that make time to play games. Difficult games are likely only to appeal to a subset of the latter.

  • The most obvious answer is that difficult games can provide a sense of accomplishment that easy games can not.

    I think it’s a little deeper than that, though. If the game feels like it’s impossible, we’re not going to pursue it. So a game should be very challenging, but still impart that feeling of being possible. It’s that combination which is rewarding. I think that shows a fundamental facet of human nature: if we believe we can do something, we’ll try our damnedest until we succeed at it.

    The success is a reward because it validates our original belief. Our actions proved us right about ourselves. That’s pretty satisfying.

  • Endorphins, more specifically the chemical high you get from accomplishing something difficult. Probably not too different from the high gamblers get when they final win after losing a lot.

  • How long do you spend thinking about easy games?

    For me one of the most attractive elements of a game is the time spent playing it with the system turned off.

    Difficult games should present some strategic challenge that can entertain a player even when they’re at work or school.

  • There are two types of hard games; ‘Cheap hard’ like Ninja Gaiden 2 (not 1, that was good) where you couldn’t see attacks coming due to a poor camera, and ‘Fair hard’ like Dark Souls, where deaths are most often the cause of your overconfidence, lack of concentration or whimsy.

  • When I was younger I played every game on the hardest difficulty setting. These days, I’m in my 30s with kids. And I’ll put a game away if it’s too tough. Correction. If it’s tough and NOT FUN.

    I don’t have a lot of time so a game has to be fun. I really liked the last Donkey Kong Country game, but it got to a point where it was ridiculously randomly tough and I put it away, I’ll probably sell it. It’s just not fun enough to handle the blind frustration that it brings up in me.

    I just bought Splinter Cell Blacklist for $20 and I can tell already I’m not going to finish it. Many missions have an instant fail condition where you’ll go back 20-30mins and restart. That’s not fun. And who has the time to keep replaying those kinds of missions?

    I understand the feeling of accomplishment and skill that you can get from gaming, but now that I’m older, with houses and jobs etc, gaming skill now seems like a useless skill. If I’d spent the time gaming in the last 15 years on literally ANY skill, I’d be one of the best in the country. But I’m not even the best gamer in my suburb!

    So that’s why crazy tough games are not for me anymore. Unless it’s fun, it’s not worth it.

    I do play a lot of street fighter and yes it’s tough but the difference is a round is over in 3mins. I’ve got 3mins to donate. 40mins? not so much these days.

  • The satisfaction you get from beating a tough video game is one of the purest and most personal emotions there is. You’re not doing it to “fit in” or please somebody else. The achievement is literally just for you and your brain. It’s like yoga with joypads. Personally, I think that’s healthy.

  • The sense of satisfaction you get when you finish a really hard game/level or beat your friends score is awesome. That’s why I play hard games.

    Also, bragging rights. Back in the day it was all about high score, and getting your name to the top of the list, That’s why I love games like Trials, it just kinda sucks that I’m at the bottom of my friends leaderboard on most of the tracks at the moment.

  • It’s because you, like many of us grew up in a different generation, games didn’t have a difficulty option, many of them required a 20c outlay for each turn and they were generally unforgiving. Ghosts n Goblins, Battletoads, Contra, heck even Double Dragon, Mortal Kombat and the Simpsons on Arcade. A time when completing a game was a badge of honor and defeating each boss meant high fives all round between you and your mates sitting on the couch in front of a TV passing the controller each time the continue countdown begun.

    The skill gap to achieve that has been reduced, you needed to learn the rhythms, and have some sweet pad skills and having perfect timing to dodge incoming attacks. You weren’t fighting the game you were fighting your limits.

    Given the shift to incredible story arcs and the want for developers to have you experience their master piece, if you can’t finish a level these days you can drop the difficulty, read a walkthrough or watch a you tube. The thing is doing those things while it allows you to progress you don’t get that little high, if you were still flanked by those childhood friends they would merely go “ahhhhhh okay” as opposed to the aforementioned mini celebration.

    This is also exacerbated by faux urgency in games where NPC’s say “We have to go now,!” but you are free to loot the room indefinitely before tripping the next scripted trigger. Chased by zombies, whether you just make it through the door or do so with time to spare the cut scene will ensure it looks like you juuuust made it. That false sense of urgency is a let down, once when you were chased by a bad guy it was live or die, and aceing it meant you were the king, just making it required a breather as the you reviewed the score for the level.

    Defeating a boss in Dark Souls or Inferno IV in Trials is that childhood you screaming out, passing around virtual high fives, sticking your chest out proudly. You can’t emulate that you need to earn it.

  • While not intentional I made a video about just this. I picked one of the hardest challenges challenges within Trials Fusion (2 actually) and made a real time video where you can see me go through the entire process, the hate, anger, frustration and eventually the victory.

    I can’t link at work but I really wanted to capture the journey rather than an edited down version to happy music.

    Inferno IV with no bike and also Pipe Phobia were both some of my proudest gaming moments, at least this year. University of Trials YT channel if anyone is interested.

    Good read as always, I read it on the US site for some reason so didn’t realise this was written by Mark, all makes sense now.

  • It’s not just a personal struggle though, I get almost as much out of watching Mr. Strange play things like Dark Souls and Trials as I do(or would, in the case of Trials) playing them myself.
    I’ve been with him almost every step of the way through Dark Souls II and felt like I was going to throw up when he lost a crapton of souls by doing something stupid, felt the exhilaration when he finally beat a boss he was having trouble with.
    Basically I guess I’m Bastion in the Neverending Story when it comes to Mr. Strange playing games. 😛

  • This. Or to be more precise it would be the dopamine your body is creating upon finally overcoming something you struggled with for so long.

  • I like to feel badass when I complete a hard game. It gives me a sense of accomplishment when I succeed where others fail.

  • When i was speed running certain stages in Sonic Generations I too went through the start/retry cycle more times than I care to admit. Eventually came up with this gem https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c3WNLEOAMxA
    and, if even for a day, a list of things saying I was the best at something was a pretty solid reward. The game needn’t be difficult to be challenging either, if we ourselves challenge ourselves to do perform the tasks the game asks us to do but in unique ways, we can make a basic video game far more difficult.

  • Survival. We get a kick out of persisting and struggling because our ancestors’ rivals who didn’t… didn’t have descendants.

    For all but a handful of us, we don’t have to struggle to survive, anymore. So we invent struggle to scratch that inherited itch.

  • For me it’s the excitement of the challenge that awaits. Some games are just too simple to entertain me and I always end up coming back to hard games or games I intentionally make difficult for my own amusement.

    I intentionally play Tera solo, to see how far I could get on my own two feet in a game where co-operation is key. I quit playing WoW, a game that started out hard but is now a dribbling mess of stupid. My God I love Kingdom Rush, it seems oddly simple at first but as you play complications arise that force you to change your style to overcome them.

    But I think the greatest feeling you can get from hard/challenging games is the sense of accomplishment you get when you overcome a challenge that has been your torment for however long.

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