Overview:

It’s not your imagination: games really have gotten easier over the years. The reason has everything to do with my generation's fear of failure, and our need to get payoffs we can't get in real life.

Reading Time: 12 minutes

My husband sometimes plays a player-vs-player (PvP) game I’ve come to know as Big Stompy Robots. And very often, he encounters players who really aren’t good at the game at all despite having played it for years. I recently shared a story about a longtime MMORPG player with the same problem. Longtime players can indeed suffer from a serious lack of expertise in their chosen games. Their egos won’t let them admit to any flaws or vulnerabilities, so that’s where they are destined to stay. Their fear of failure keeps them locked in these behavior patterns. And today’s games largely cater to them.

Big Stompy Robots: Possibly the hardest game I’ve ever played

Long ago, I worked at an indoor amusement park in a Houston-area mall. The park featured a number of fun games of all kinds, from arcade games to bumper cars to virtual reality to laser tag. But the hardest game they offered was similar to MechWarrior Online (MWO). It’s probably the Battletech game described in a 1994 article from Wired (and here too).

Definitely sounds like the game I remember. You don’t easily forget that kind of experience.

In this game, players sat in actual individual wooden cockpits outfitted with monitors that showed a virtual view from various angles. Before the game began, everyone chose a particular “mech,” or giant mechanical robot, to pilot. Staffers set the cockpits’ controls and views to reflect their occupants’ choices.

These players then all fought each other in a virtual arena in real time.

In 1993, this was all amazingly new and exciting—and expensive. Because it cost so much, I only played a few times, mostly after the park had closed for the night and the employees assigned to that game decided to run a few fights for fun.

It was hands down the hardest game I had ever played.

There was simply so much to know about each mech, and so many different mechs to know about, that I quickly felt completely lost. And I lost matches constantly and immediately. I never had any idea what buttons to push or what any of my cockpit’s countless levers and switches even did. So I didn’t bother learning it. I figured I’d go bankrupt long before I got even halfway decent at piloting any of its dozens of mechs.

Later, I’d learn about the tabletop roleplaying version of this game. Also called BattleTech, it was a favorite with the same sort of people who like expansive combat games like Warhammer. If anything, this version contained even more stuff to learn than that 90s-era arena game had.

Nowadays, it seems like most fans of big stompy robot combat games play MWO. Thus, MWO is where I see the most numerous—not to mention the biggest—collisions of modern players’ low frustration tolerance and fear of failure with a game’s super-steep learning curve.

Games help us learn skills, sometimes anyway

When I was a kid, the Atari 2600 console came out, knocking the Pong console at last from its throne. As it grew in popularity, industry advocates assured worried parents that video games taught valuable skills, namely hand-eye coordination and memorization. Perhaps less mentioned were skills in frustration tolerance, exercising curiosity and exploration drives, and even improving creativity.

Even less mentioned were skills in minmaxing, which my husband has defined as getting the most out of limited resources. Others may define it as twinkery, but I like his definition better. Unsurprisingly, he’s the best at it that I’ve ever seen.

(Note: Gamers’ version of “twink” has nothing to do with the gay community’s word. In gaming, a twink is someone whose roleplaying-game character is inconsistent with the character’s stated background, resources, and level. For example, a twink might outfit their low-level character with incredible gear, or have the character act on information that they really shouldn’t know. Gamers do not tend to like twinks, unless they’re playing one themselves.)

Once multiplayer games like MUDs came around, we added teamwork to the mix. Or rather, we sometimes didn’t.

Some video games are way more geared toward skill-building than others. One big classic in the field was Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, for years a mainstay on computer shops’ software shelves. Others, like the popular Carmen Sandiego series, taught history and geography in fun and engaging ways.

But I’d argue that almost all video games teach some kind of skill. At the very least, players must learn how to work within the game’s confines to win against it.

Video games are indeed getting easier to win

When video games first came out, wow, they were hard. In the early 1980s, it took me weeks to beat the Atari title Mountain King. When PC games came out, my friends soon discovered that they came with even greater challenges. But sometimes, if they got lucky, the game had an easy mode.

In the early 1990s, a good friend of mine had a toddler. This kid and his daddy just loved Castle Wolfenstein. The boy called it “the Uh Oh Game” because whenever he fell, his parents would say “Uh oh!” They tried not to make a big fuss over it if it wasn’t serious. My friend would set the game to God Mode, in which the character was indestructible, and let the kid run around ingame killing Nazis. The kid just loved it. When a Nazi fell dead, he’d chirp cheerfully, “Uh oh!” I have no idea how he’s doing now, but I hope the game made him dislike Nazis at least.

I got more into the Sim series of titles, like SimEarth and the original SimCity. These were extremely difficult, with no quarter given for ignorant mistakes.

Modern players who try retro titles like Dig Dug often note that they are exceedingly difficult compared to modern games. Even modern titles like the Dark Souls series, which prides itself on being extremely difficult to complete, seem sometimes like a studied reaction to modern games’ greater easiness. Those titles are so difficult that modern players don’t always like them.

Sometimes, games journalists blame early software developers’ lack of understanding of gamers’ psychology or needs for this difficulty difference. Nowadays, it’s true that developers understand this stuff a lot better. They’ve had decades to perfect the art of game design, and they’re still working on it. Often, they clearly make games easier to attract more gamers to their titles, especially younger ones who might have less tolerance for frustration.

Don’t ever underestimate frustration tolerance in gamers

The result of developers’ greater understanding, of the vast increase in technology that helps gamers complete games in so many ways, even of the shift in goals from winning the last fight to completing all the content in the game, is gamers who aren’t quite as open to sticking with titles that are brutally difficult or which require them to learn moves and strategies that take a long, long time to master.

And developers need all the knowledge they can get.

For years, I’ve suffered from low frustration tolerance. Maybe it’s true what some folks say about Generation X: that we grew up with Gifted & Talented programs and all those other parenting and educational fads that told us we were completely brilliant, and now so many of us just can’t handle not being experts the first time we ever try to do something.

If so, then we aren’t the only generation facing this challenge.

Someone on Twitter put it into words very well a few weeks ago, noting that Gen X should be able to relate as well:

So, any other ADHD millennials have trauma regarding “gifted and talented” programs and the subsequent failure to meet expectations put upon you by adults who didn’t understand why you were “so smart” but couldn’t complete assignments?

@medus4_cdc, August 3, 2022

A bunch of other tweets along those same lines make me suspect that younger folks face this same situation.

Game developers slowly learned how to appeal to the most people

When I was a teenager, I could and happily did spend many hours learning exactly how to defeat the video games I liked. But as I got older, I stopped wanting to do so much of that anymore. I’m a busy gal. I’ve got stuff to do. And I don’t like feeling frustrated.

If I’m at all representative of gamers as a whole, then it seems very likely that developers who want to sell millions of copies of their games will figure out how to please us. People who want games to be harder can almost always make them harder, after all.

I think my husband uses all of this list of mods for Skyrim that vastly increase its difficulty. I’m still learning that game, so just looking at that list makes me quake.

EDIT: I just asked him. He uses everything but the last item, because he likes being able to pause if real life calls him away. And he uses many other difficulty-raising mods besides those.

There are (at least) two types of gamers in this world

Post title: Boyfriend won’t stop trying to min/max my game

Best reply ever: Buy him Factorio.

2nd reply: Especially if she never wants to see or talk to him again. The factory must grow.

r/StardewValley thread, September 2022

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve never seen a minmaxer as good as my husband. He’s got a mathematician’s eye for figuring out exactly how to get the most out of skill points, exactly what combinations of gear and skills produce the best damage and protection, and exactly what strategies pay off the best.

This man makes spreadsheets to keep track of everything about the games he plays. When he notices someone who plays better than he does, he learns everything he can about how they play, especially about anything they do that’s different from what he does. Then, he incorporates this knowledge into his own gameplay.

For someone like me, who can’t remember playing that old mech game without wincing, it’s just a dazzling display of expertise. But his metrics don’t lie: he’s really good at his chosen games.

He doesn’t get why I play and love The Sims 3 even though I’ve scare-quotes “beaten” it many times. Likewise, I don’t have any interest in figuring out exactly which missiles to put on a Big Stompy Robot and learning when and exactly how to fire them for maximum efficiency. We’re just two completely different kinds of gamers that way, and that’s okay. He can always make a game harder!

It’s just that the gaming world seems more and more geared toward my type of gamer than his, that’s all. And when he runs across players in MWO who seem unwilling to improve yet get upset about losing matches, he gets a little frustrated himself.

Responses to losing in difficult games

When people play a really hard game, they have a few different responses to failure:

  1. Git gud. They realize they lost, and this experience makes them knuckle down harder, learn more, and get better at the game.
No, really.

2. Nope out. They realize the game is extremely hard and not what they want to play, so they leave it for something that suits them better.

Neither of these approaches is inherently bad or indicative of moral failure. We can and should spend our free time however we like. But the next response might not be the most well-adapted way to go about playing:

3. Rationalize and don’t change anything, but get salty about losing. They decide that the other players are bad people for playing better. They decide that this build works best, even though the evidence says otherwise. And they drill down harder on the playstyle and build that don’t actually win. Whenever a git gud veteran tries to help them improve, they get mad at that person.

You can find this third type of gamer everywhere in difficult games like MWO.

Thousands of matches don’t translate into expertise

People often say that practice makes perfect. This isn’t true. Practicing bad techniques won’t lead to mastery, no matter how many times a player executes them. Rather, practicing good techniques leads to mastery. So in a very real sense, perfect practice makes perfect.

To the third type of gamer, though, the idea of imperfection is a challenge to their entire sense of self-worth. They might complain mightily on game forums and in chat about their losses, but they absolutely do not welcome suggestions of any kind. In their own minds, they are complete experts at their game because they’ve played thousands of matches. In their minds, that time translates into expertise.

That they’ve lost the majority of those matches doesn’t matter at all. They can easily rationalize away those losses: morally bad opponents using morally bad techniques or builds, bad luck, you name it.

Changing anything about how they play means moving from imperfection to greater perfection. And above all, they can’t handle the idea of having been imperfect all that time. Change would be admitting to ever having been imperfect.

Fear of failure and change: the universal constant

Benjamin: Let me run this by you because you’re… a sharp guy. I’m thinking about giving Vanderhoff a weekly interview. How would you feel about making a change?

Garth: We fear change.

Wayne’s World (1992)

You can find this type of person everywhere in our world, not just in gaming, obviously. I’ve seen them pop up in weight-loss forums, in crafting circles, in ballroom dancing clubs, and most especially in religion.

(When one’s god is perfect, imperfection becomes the enemy. When one’s god is changeless, change itself becomes a sin.)

In gaming, though, we can see flaws writ large. And the primary one causing players to refuse to get better may well be a fear of failure itself.

Psychologists and the business world have been studying the fear of failure for a long time now. One oft-cited (but paywalled) article from 2007 claims that two in five people suffer from this fear. Psychologists seem only recently to have connected this research to gaming.

But we normie gamers have known for many years that a great many of our peers seem to suffer from not only the fear of change, but fear of the failure that change often brings with it, and of the additional work that will be needed to adapt to the changes looming ahead.

When fear of failure and change collide with compensation motivation

One Chinese study from last year discussed “self-compensation motivation” as a factor leading to gaming addiction. Compensation motivation refers to the payoffs people expect when they do certain things. When we go to restaurants, we expect to have a good meal and a fun time. When we take a walk outside in nice weather, we expect to come back feeling refreshed and rejuvenated.

Similarly, many people play games online because they expect to relieve stress, socialize, escape their problems, and feel accomplished. They don’t have other ways to meet those needs. Gaming is it, for them. Thus, playing their chosen game becomes a much-needed transaction. They expect this transaction to pay off in these particular ways, much like how working at a job pays off in compensation like money.

I’m not talking about players who have other ways to get those compensations, or who don’t game to get those things in the first place. They’re the ones who’ll just nope out and find something else to do—no hard feelings, just it wasn’t their jam. Rather, I’m referring to people whose essential motivation for playing is achieving a kind of compensation that they can’t get in other ways.

If someone expects and craves certain things and doesn’t get them, but lacks the adaptive skills and mindset needed to change to get them (or at least to latch onto something else to get them), then frustration is the certain result of that collision.

The fear of failure leads to rationalizing to stay the same rather than actually achieving one’s stated goals

These gamers may claim that they want to win. Indeed, they may really want to win. But if winning matches were the actual payoff they wanted, then they’d be changing to win more often.

But it’s beyond clear that something matters more to them than actually winning. When we identify what that something is, then we learn what their payoff really is.

Just as we can look at the people in those other arenas I mentioned as having a whole different set of desired payoffs, we can look at gamers’ actual behavior as clues to what their real payoff desires are.

For instance, if evangelical Christians wanted growth through recruitment as much as they say they do, they’d be changing their behavior to reflect that goal. They’d be studying fast-growing groups with successful recruitment campaigns to learn their secrets, then changing their strategies accordingly. But they’re not doing any of that.

So increased recruitment is not their actual goal. It can’t be. Whatever payoff they really want through their current strategies, increased recruitment isn’t it because none of their strategies have ever resulted in that payoff. (In fact, most of their strategies backfire hilariously.) It may well be that the actual goal of most evangelical recruitment campaigns is getting donations from evangelicals, because that’s the only part of an evangelical recruitment campaign that always succeeds.

Similarly, when we encounter a gamer who loses a lot, but who refuses to change to win more often, we’re seeing someone whose payoff doesn’t come from winning.

Instead, their payoff comes from playing as they currently play. It comes from feeling like they are wonderfully-talented, accomplished, fearsome, and high-achieving gamers. When anything happens to contradict that self-image, they have a toolbox full of techniques they can use to deny that evidence.

Confronting our own fear of failure

If you’ve recognized yourself in this post, take heart. There are ways to confront and get past the fear of failure. It doesn’t have to rule you forever.

Sometimes, this fear is so powerful that we might need professional help to identify and resolve it. If so, that’s okay. It’s always okay to ask for help when we’re stuck in a pit and can’t climb out.

If you want to tackle it yourself, numerous resources exist online to help you. Some games passively confront both the fear of failure and the fear of change that feeds it. Issy Van Der Velde notes of Minecraft:

Because these updates were spread out and I was free to engage with new mechanics as much or as little as I wanted, I could dip my toe into the vast sea of change without having to be dragged into its undercurrent.

Issy Van Der Velde, 2021

Similarly, games like Settlement Survival and Anno 1404, with their countless map setups and endless random events, and which offer the ability to return to a previous save should a decision turn out to be less-than-optimal, can help players stop fearing change and failure quite so much.

ProZenGamers on Reddit offers a great many tips for getting past the fear of failure, as well. Most of it centers around resetting one’s expectations of oneself, the other players, and the game itself.

More than anything else, that advice seems like a key component of successfully resolving the fear of failure.

May you enjoy all the games you play, and may you play all the games you enjoy.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...