The Inherent Joys of Skill-Based Gaming

I think there’s a large misnomer regarding “hardcore” gamers – the idea that we’re bizarre digital masochists who love failing at everything repeatedly. See the recent wave of indie games designed as difficult experiences by forcing your own death, or even mainstream games: Bioshock Infinite’s 1999 Mode attests to some desire on the part of gamers for a more challenging experience. That’s all well and good, but the implementation of that “difficulty” remains the sticking point here.

What do we mean, then, by challenge and difficultly? Let’s define our terms before proceeding, using the terms established by Richard Tyrell’s Critical Gaming Network. Most games test five different skills: dexterity, knowledge, adaptation, reflex, and timing. Many games designed for the “core” gaming rest on the idea of dexterity, or the skill of action. What can I do in a game, and what abilities do I have? Knowledge consists of a variety of different ideas we learn through playing the game – what do I do in this circumstance? How did I deal with the previous obstacles? Generally, we categorize them into short and long-term memory, but there are surely other ways to arrange them.

Next, we have adaptation, the skill of adjustment and change. Can I perceive the shifting circumstances of a situation in a game and plan accordingly? How long or how short is the time frame for this adaptation? Reflex consists of how much one comprehends in a very small moment of time and how quickly/accurately one can respond in any given circumstance. Lastly, we have timing, the test of real-time awareness and synchronicity ( the experience of two or more events that are apparently causally unrelated or unlikely to occur together by chance, yet are experienced as occurring together in a meaningful manner). Each game tests one, two, or all of these skills in what Tyrell calls the DKART system. Tyrell states in his glossary:

As a pun on  René Descartes’ ‘Cognito ergo sum/I think, therefore I am,’ the DKART system is rooted in the fundamental concept of video gaming. Being a uniquely interactive medium, players have the power to influence the game state, presentation, or art form. This act of influencing is our agency. To act we must use some facet or combination of our skills. Therefore, we can express the idea of selfhood or agency in a virtual environment as, ‘I DKART, therefore I am.’

So how does all of this academic talk relate to video games? Once we define terms, we can easily proceed to showing what difficulty is: how challenging a task, action, or solution actually is within the game. Games that “challenge” us merely move beyond our own limitations in the DKART system; we may fail utterly at one or more of these skills that the game requires. Failure in games, though becoming a rarity, becomes a tangible indicator of your own skill level AND your need to improve.

Imagine this in terms of a single-player game, say Super Mario Bros. Games designed poorly do not test your skills or present literally insurmountable objects in your path; a good designer keeps the player in mind through a sequential progression. Good games test different skills at a rate which the player can learn what skills the systems require and then raise their skill relative to that challenge. Bad games simply fail at this basic objective – by failing to test their skill or making them rise to a challenge of any meaningful type, it’s difficult to find yourself investing in the experience all that much except on the level of aesthetic appeal. Take Bioshock’s new “difficulty” mode – it’s basically a quick-save fest, with the game reviving you repeatedly until you get situation X just right. That’s not skill – that’s luck, and we shouldn’t stand for testing our patience and time management rather than our skill.

The more modern example of a true skill-based game comes from Dark Souls and its From Software ilk. Dark Souls tests a combination of skills in the DKART system in a intensely precise way. Each enemy requires a different knowledge set; parrying their attacks requires knowledge, timing and reflexes. When new enemies pop into the picture or new traps, one must adapt in an instant to new threats or die immediately. Navigating through levels requires a lot of dexterity, as well as knowledge of the map (or at least adaptation to discover the obstacles in general). Simply put, Dark Souls tends to challenge a lot of skills at once in any particular situation, and eventually piles on the numbers of skills required in any particular instance. Watch Game Grief and you’ll see Brian’s struggles actually come from a lack of knowledge of any individual situation. Over time, though, he develops the skills required to succeed. He learns and triumphs over time.

Although not everyone’s cup of tea (I don’t even like it very much, though I need to play more extensively before making an evaluative judgment), Dark Souls and its predecessor Demon’s Souls awakened these dormant skills in many gamers without their knowledge. Some relished the challenges presented and rose their skill level to meet them; others fell by the wayside, either out of badly perceived moves, lack of commitment, or just general misunderstanding of the skills required. I imagine that’s why the Souls community abounded with people sharing their experiences, discoveries, challenges, and even knowledge of the lore (which doesn’t make sense as a direct narrative, but clues are strewn about everywhere for the faithful and studious). It truly astounds me that games create this sort of connection between people.

But isn’t that why we play games? It isn’t just that people overcoming challenges like to die; they like that thrill of victory after overcoming that challenge with their once-deficient skill. There’s no greater immersion in a virtual world, or a story, or any interactive entertainment that comes close to the zen-like state required for games with real tests of skill. Once you’ve done that, then you can share it with the world and discuss your common experience in whatever form (in person, message boards, podcasts, etc.) you can imagine.

That’s the whole point of video games, at least for me. If it isn’t challenging in some sense, I find it lacks a certain je ne sais quoi that keeps me interested in a video game. A long list of graves on the video gamer’s journey attests to that fact, not the least of which can be seen in my massive Steam library (I don’t want to talk about it…). And yet, when something comes along that truly, really grabs my attention, I often find it includes me failing repeatedly and often at it. Whether that happens due to my genetic makeup or a freakish disposition towards Sisphyean rock-pushing remains to be seen, but I would like to think that there’s a theological element to it.

Christianity, itself, does not seem easy. Once you scan past the surface of what you have been taught, or what people told you during conversion, or even in the relative comfort of your life, Jesus does not seem to think “comfortable” will work. Rather, He demands something of you, and everyone else.

23 And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. 24 For whoever wishes to save his [n]life will lose it, but whoever loses his [o]life for My sake, he is the one who will save it. 25 For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses or forfeits himself? 26 For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in His glory, and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. 27 But I say to you truthfully, there are some of those standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God.”

Luke 9

And that does not appear an innocuous turn of phrase. Many people in the Gospels come to Jesus and ask how they will get into heaven, or become righteous, or how to do things “correctly”. The one thing they do not wish to do, He asks them to do, and they cannot do it. They do not rise to the challenge; they fail because of their own desires. They do not deny themselves; they indulge themselves. They like to take the form of righteousness, but simply do not have the will to get there, to do what it takes. Joy in self-denial, to willingly say “my life is not my own”, takes some guts, I gotta say. To deny yourself what you want in lieu of a greater good speaks volumes. Practice makes perfect; act like you want to act, and soon you will not know the difference between the person you want to be, and the person you actually are.

The same goes for video games. Do they challenge you? I don’t just mean in the “narrative” sense; I mean honest-to-goodness difficulty conveyed through mechanics. If not, then what’s the point? Why bother? How much time do you have left on this earth to simply loaf around?

That is the question I asked myself, and I found my answer.

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.