Frustration and Mastery: Definitions

The Lord is near to the brokenhearted
And saves those who are crushed in spirit.

Psalm 34:18

This is my primary mode of thought regarding video games and life: you try, you get destroyed, and you get back again. God brings you back to life every day for each new challenge and circumstance. So what does this have to do with video games?

A funny thing started happening to me as I play video games: I talk to myself.


Now, I haven’t been known to do this at all, but I imagine recording Youtube videos might have something to do with it. Usually the silent interloper of digital worlds, I realized that I yelled at the screen and conveyed my thoughts out loud with each failure instead of, you know, keeping it inside my brain like a sane person. This turns especially awkward when someone else watches you play something, you describe in intricate detail exactly what happened, and people wonder who you address with your rant.

And, interestingly enough, most of these insane moments come from frustration. Usually the process of figuring out what you did wrong in a game comes from a mere ineffable feeling, and you end up correcting it in the next try. In Super Mario Galaxy 2, for example, I messed around with the camera controls on some challenges to my own detriment. Some areas contain a confusing angle which makes depth perception hard to detect, and I become a little miffed when Mario jumps to his doom without my say-so (even though it’s always my say-so). Now, I describe in detail exactly what I did wrong. In English.

Mario Galaxy 2

On one level, I sound somewhat crazed, absolutely. On another level, I find my predictions and ability to encapsulate what happened quite accurately (except fighting games, which continue to make little sense to me even as I play them). Not only do these events help me process what I did wrong; they also avoid the frustration that often rides the sidecar of defeat. Often, you can identify the difference between player error (like, 90% if the time) and game glitches (that other, much-maligned 10%). While it makes other people question your ability to function as a normal member of society, what with your imaginary friends and all, it certainly helps your game.

Identifying Problems or Frustration?

Apparently, many people who play video games cannot identify the specific problems leading to their failure. We know that video game contain a closed system of rules, and that we can explicate these rules with enough knowledge and practice. We can identify optimal strategies and the right dextrous movements to implement said strategy. Even so, the rational mind often gives way to the emotional one. We turn our brains off, and blame the game rather than our own lack of ability.

In something that surprises me in no way whatsoever, “Feelings of aggression after playing video games are more likely to be linked to gameplay mechanics rather than violent content, a study suggests.” That study passing the rounds of Internet news and social media reflects my experience much more than “violent imagery provokes violent action”. I could link much of my own aggressive behavior via an inability to separate my in-game frustration from the vicissitudes and strife of the real world. Did I want to yell at that person? Probably not, but the game put me in a frustrated state, and human beings don’t know better than to lash out.


Don’t give Dark Souls to young children.

Most people cite Dark Souls or its ilk in this circumstance, and I am not likely to blame them – a game that hard (well, in its own way) certainly does not endear itself to its audience when glitches and inadequate camera angles emerge. When a strategy or move appears counter-intuitive or difficult to grasp, we are likely to beat our head against the wall in frustration. The Souls’ series and its intentional obfuscation of information produces something similar. Its lack of a tutorial means that we start aggressive and most end up whimpering in a corner. Like a dog being beaten but not understanding why, some players come back against the wall and other flee. The less we know, the more incompetence we feel and the more likely we will end up frustrated.


Dark Souls remains a perfectly example, mostly due to promoting that most central of ideas in video games: mastery. Regardless of the aesthetics, setting, and systems, people who play games want to master those games. Those games with a short learning curve never last without depth and additional challenge to go alongside. A game with a long learning curve of memorization may end up rather droll without anything interesting to strategize (for me, I see the MOBA model and I’m not interested). A good game balances the need for mastery by meting out tiny segments which challenge a player’s skills, knowledge, and ability to manipulate the systems toward their own success.

In Super Mario Galaxy 2, the optimal path remains pretty obvious on most levels – they play mostly like linear Mario levels in 3D, highly abstract designs buttressed with platforming segments. And yet, the challenge comes from being placed in this corridor of design. Nintendo gives you a myriad variety of tools, mostly involving jumping, and you’re expected to figure out when to use what. Super Mario Galaxy in general suffers from excessive tutorializing (notice all the tiny animal NPCs of various shapes and sizing calling out what you should do), but Nintendo does this to reduce frustration and make the player feel competent. They have the tools, now they just need to implement them. Super Mario Galaxy 2 appeals to just about anyone.

Not so much with Souls games. Everything except the very basics remain obscure to the player; he/she must figure out what to do by themselves. Some find this a thrilling experience of mastering a complex interwoven system of rules and carefully designed challenges. Others will hate the lack of direction and help, most likely quitting. in the process. The degree of mastery required creates a much bigger payoff, of course, but the result is the same.

One further example: arcade games often present incredibly clear rules – get a high score, make it through the level, etc. However, the challenges often destroy most players, owing to the arcade operator’s desire to make money. Players responded in term by limiting their own monetary investment by memorizing and exploiting every option at their disposal, mastering every individual nuance of the game. Initial frustration led to conquest. Of course, that meant arcade games needed to become harder so that arcades could continue to function, so they did. Fighting games are a whole category unto themselves, but they contain clearly known rules that (with enough knowledge) you can constrain all the possibilities except your opponent’s mindset.


About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.