3 Reasons Why We Play Difficult Video Games

Let's detail 3 reasons we play difficult video games no matter how many times players suffer a virtual death. While it may seem counter-intuitive, difficult video games offer a unique kind of fun and provide experiences that stay with you long after you have put the controller down. For some, an easy victory just won't do.

3 Reasons Why We Play Difficult Video Games Cover

It is late in the evening, and a familiar feeling hits. I know I should be heading to bed, but I need to shave half a second off my time in WipeOut and finally achieve that Elite Pass. You would expect there to be good reasons to sacrifice sleep to play difficult video games. The reward is, well, there is no reward except for a shiny yellow icon on the screen. Yet, it still feels like this is the most important battle of my life. Before the night is over, I will probably fail dozens of times again.

Video games come in various levels of difficulty, and games that are easy are available in abundance. Despite this, games that are notorious for their difficulty continue to amass themselves huge followings. This is true of titles such as Cuphead and Sekiro that test your patience as much as they test your skills. But why are we drawn to these frustrating experiences, and why do we consider it entertaining to endure a hundred losses for one win?

Here are three reasons why we play difficult video games.

1. They Are An Opportunity To Deal With Difficult Emotions

I am facing off against a traveler in God of War. He can kill me with one strike, so there is no room for error. The first couple of losses are frustrating but can be easily brushed off. After a dozen times of watching Kratos fall to the ground, questions start popping in my head. Am I missing something? Sure, getting more powerful gear would make the battle easier, and there is always the option to leave and come back later. However, theoretically, I should be able to deal with this boss right now so long as I play correctly. This is around the point where the darker questions start appearing. What if I’m just not good enough? What if there’s something wrong with me? What if I’m just a loser?

While video games can trigger these questions, they also manifest in daily life when challenges arise. The beauty of video games is that they allow these emotions of self-doubt and fear of failure to be expressed and dealt with in a safe, digital realm where the stakes are not high. Working through these difficult emotions in the realm of video games then becomes practice for dealing with similar emotions in real life.

God of War is a beautiful yet challenging game.

God of War is a beautiful yet challenging game.

This cathartic element of video games is the reason why the Dark Souls games, infamous for their grueling difficulty, have earned themselves such a devoted fandom. Many have argued that the oppressive world of Dark Souls games can be interpreted as a metaphor for depression and the accompanying struggles with low self-esteem and self-worth.

Matthew Gault, a writer for Vice, has discussed Dark Souls’ relationship with depression and has come to conclusions I agree with. Gault writes that “Dark Souls is all about survival and perseverance”. It is this theme of perseverance that runs through all the accounts of those who found value in Dark Souls during difficult times. Like other hard games, Dark Souls offers the opportunity to deal with dark emotions safely and prove to yourself that you have what it takes to keep going no matter how tough things get.

2. It Is An All-Consuming Distraction

When you are deeply consumed in an activity, you can enter a state of flow. This occurs when you are so engrossed in what you are doing that the rest of the world fades away, and you achieve laser-sharp focus on the task at hand.

This state is discussed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Here, he argues that flow is achieved when people become so involved in what they are doing that the activity becomes spontaneous, almost automatic; they stop being aware of themselves as separate from the actions they are performing.

WipeOut is easy to learn, hard to master.

WipeOut is easy to learn, hard to master.

Flow is necessary if you wish to conquer the hardest challenges the gaming world has to offer. If you are playing Call of Duty on veteran, for example, you cannot be worried about the dishes or issues at work while you are trying to clear a room of enemies with seemingly infinite ammo. Because of this, difficult video games can be a form of stress relief and a way to, at least temporarily, forget about the problems of life.

Although this form of escapism taken to an extreme can be unhealthy, in moderate doses, it can be a way to put the brakes on endless worrying and give your mind an opportunity to devote itself to something other than the stresses of daily life.

3. Winner’s High

I have been playing Bloodborne for hours, and I know the path back to the Cleric Beast like the back of my hand. With each death comes the small pain of failure, but I refuse to give up. The battle each time is so intense it makes me sweat uncomfortably. Other people have done it, so why can’t I? Then, finally, the beast’s health is down to a few pixels, and I finally land the killer blow. Prey slaughtered.

The feeling is beyond words. It is impossible not to smile, and all the frustration previously experienced suddenly feels worth it. This is perhaps one of the the biggest reasons why anyone keeps playing difficult video games. It is euphoric to finally see your enemies defeated, and a moment of victory can easily be the highlight of your week.

Bloodborne is one of the darkest video game worlds.

Bloodborne is one of the darkest video game worlds.

When you finally win, for a moment, you are Kratos defeating a massive troll or Deacon St John defeating a horde of hundreds of zombies. You feel powerful and victorious and truly believe that nothing can stop you.

Part of the winner’s high can be attributed to feelings of pride. Although pride is often considered a vice, it is not entirely bad. Having pride in your achievements can be a gratifying feeling that motivates you to do more.

Having achievements you are proud of can raise your confidence. Each achievement is confirmation that you do possess some degree of competence. If the confidence you gain in video games transfers to reality, this can be a positive thing. Sometimes, especially during times when you feel inferior or weak, completing goals in video games could be the first step towards gaining the confidence to solve the bigger goals you have in reality.

Demon's Souls - Announcement Trailer | PS5

All the factors discussed come together to make difficult video games feel like a drug. Returning to them after every loss is not a masochistic compulsion, but instead is an act motivated by a desire to chase that high once again and know what it feels like to be on top of the world.