How Do Video Games Force Us to Gain Perspective?

by Kym Buchanan

25 February 2016

Sometimes “hard” in a video game isn't just a difficulty setting.
Concept art from the Starcraft series (Blizzard Entertainment) 

Are harder games better? Many people are exploring this question lately, including the designers and fans of “old-school” games. But suppose there are different meanings of “hard”. First, I’ll explain a traditional meaning. Then I’ll unpack a different meaning that deserves more attention.

When we call a game “hard”, we’re often describing the gameplay stakes. By stakes, I mean the rewards for exercising abilities such as quick thinking and sensorimotor precision and the penalties for failing to do so. Rogue-likes are a popular and illuminating example. One of my favorite rogue-likes is Dungeon of the Endless. In this and similar games, I don’t get checkpoints, past save points to reload, or continues. Instead, with just a few mistakes (or a vicious series of random elements), problems rapidly snowball. My characters die one after another, and I soon face the dreaded Game Over screen. The gameplay stakes are absolute. In any given battle, I can lose everything. Ouch! Other such rogue-likes, like FTL, offer similar extreme stakes.

These experiences remind me of the glorious pain of many games on the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), which is my touchstone for “old-school.” Games such as Blaster Master and Castlevania captured my interest and brutally punished my mistakes. The limits of technology partly dictated this experience. The NES didn’t have a hard-drive and most cartridges lacked on-board save systems. Some designers worked around this by programming a password system, allowing me to continue from a checkpoint, perhaps with a new rack of extra lives. Yet, there seemed to be a conscious design philosophy behind making some games unforgiving (e.g., by not including a password system).

Regardless of the technology, the NES player culture celebrated the high stakes of what we now call “hardcore” games or game modes. Part of this culture was the social prestige of being adept at a particular game, not just being familiar with it. For example, in the pre-Internet era, one of the only ways to even see the final boss in Blaster Master and thus properly discuss him with my friends was to fight my way there. Today, a similar design philosophy and player culture drives the creation and popularity of rogue-likes and similar old-school/hardcore games.

By increasing the gameplay stakes, games can foster feelings of greater intensity and accomplishment. To fully appreciate those feelings, we need only to look at the antithesis of hardcore: a “casual” game. For example, Traveller’s Tales’s LEGO games are delightful experiences, including their humor. Yet these games are minimally challenging (at least in the main quests) and the gameplay stakes are quite low (e.g., unlimited lives). A game such as LEGO Star Wars is so forgiving that nearly any player of any skill can eventually bumble through. There’s enjoyment to be found within the context of playing for such low stakes. But in contrast, when I play Dungeon of the Endless, I prize every inch of progress because I struggle to earn it. I’m not just any player; I am adept.

Since the NES era, the technology has changed substantially. In fact, platforms such as YouTube and especially the cultural development of Let’s Play videos have made certain experiences accessible with no struggle at all. For example, I could probably see the final boss in FTL with no more effort than a Google search. But I don’t execute that search because I don’t just want to watch the climax of FTL, I want to play through it (and I did, eventually).

I’m not hating on Let’s Plays. These are a wonderful addition to our gaming culture for many reasons. For example, when my wife and I got fed up with the design of the final boss battle in Resident Evil 5, we watched it on YouTube, instead.

However, watching isn’t the same as playing: playing allows for deeper engagement. Rogue-likes leverage our engagement for sake of the stakes of gameplay and the extreme nature of those stakes to create an intense experience, from the euphoria of victory to the agony of defeat. Yet, just as playing can be more engaging than watching, games have another way of creating an intense experience. The trick is manipulating a different kind of stakes: identity and story. This is the different meaning of “hard” that I believe is worth closer examination.

I’ve encountered this kind of “hard” in several strategy/role-playing games with mixed results. While playing each game, I find myself in the role of a character with at least questionable sanity and morals, given a mission objective to help the “bad guys” and harm the “good guys”.

In Starcraft, while playing as a nameless commander, I face a potentially-overwhelming Confederacy force. Up until now, I’ve been vigorously destroying the monstrous Zerg. But in this mission, Arcturus Mengsk orders me to protect the Zerg, so that they can weaken the Confederacy. In Warcraft 3, while playing as Prince Arthas, some of my men question my plans and want to desert. My objective is to burn my ships, stranding the men with me in the north.

In Kohan 2, while playing as Sebak, I desperately flee from Council forces into the wasteland and then transform into the colossal Abaddon. My objectives are to kill the forces that have been pursuing me and raze their settlements. In Heroes of Might & Magic 5, while playing as Markal, I desperately flee from the Academy faction and then rebuild the Necropolis faction and wreak revenge. My objectives include raising hordes of undead and corrupting the Academy’s Silver Cities.

At these points in each game, I remember stepping back and sometimes even quitting the game for the day. I was uncomfortable with the objectives and unsure whether I wanted to play the role demanded of me. In the cases of Starcraft and Warcraft 3, those pauses have been indefinite; I’ve never finished those missions and thus never progressed farther in these games.

In the cases of Kohan 2 and Heroes 5, I kept playing. In fact, I ultimately embraced and delighted in the experience of being the bad guy. This delight was substantially driven by the gameplay. Most units in Kohan 2 are comparatively weak and must work together to be effective. By contrast, Abaddon is lone powerhouse of near-invincibility and devastation. Markal’s necromancy is similarly intoxicating. In Heroes 5, playing as any other faction, I lose at least some troops in every major battle. As Markal, I gain troops instead, sometimes reanimating the same corpses over and over, and growing my horrific army to an unstoppable size. (The designers eventually heavily nerfed necromancy with a patch; it was that gruesomely spectacular.)

In Kohan 2 and Heroes 5, by overcoming my resistance to play as the bad guys, I was rewarded by further chapters in the games’ stories. In subsequent chapters, I was back in the role of good guys. Most memorably in Kohan 2, I eventually was given the objective of defeating Abaddon (now an NPC). I better understood the scale of the gameplay stakes because I knew first-hand how powerful he was. I knew it would take a battle of bloody attrition to defeat him, so that’s what I built towards and won with.

Furthermore, after playing these games, I better understand the identities and stories of the bad guys. I have tasted the fear of being pursued, and I have exulted in the power of being a vengeful juggernaut of destruction. Through Markal, I better understand the necromancers’ proud disdain for other wizards, those who let a “minor” matter of morality stop them from claiming nearly-unlimited power.

All of this reminds me of Peter Elbow’s excellent Believing Game, which is a mental game that facilitates learning (Methodological Doubting and Believing: Contraries in Inquiry, 1986). Elbow encourages us to play the Believing Game when we encounter an idea that seems bad. If we’re sincere about trying to understand the idea, we shouldn’t prematurely discard it.

Rather, we should pretend to believe it, intellectually and emotionally. We should try to view the idea as its proponents do with their values and their mindset. We may ultimately reject the idea, but our understanding will be richer for playing the Believing Game first. We can play the Game in many areas, including science, religion, and politics. For example, try to view a political candidate you dislike through the eyes of those who support him or her.

In the vast multiverse of villains across all media, Sebak and Markal are relatively shallow archetypes. Both verge on caricature, as they are portrayed simply as angry, insane, eeeevil wizards. Yet their games pushed me to take their perspectives, to experience their persecution, megalomania, and vengeance, to play the Believing Game with their values and mindsets. I was only able to continue their games if I accepted the story stakes, such as trading my humanity for power.

With Starcraft and Warcraft 3, I was sufficiently interested in the stories to eventually read synopses on the web and watch some cut scenes. But I didn’t learn as much as I could have by playing. Had I played instead of watched, I’d have personally taken the perspective of cold pragmatism and used the Zerg against my enemies. As Arthas, I would have decided that it’s okay to use terror to maintain discipline when authority has failed. Afterwards, I would return to my own morals and mindset (hopefully!), and yet perhaps I would be a little more forgiving of other people’s failings in similar matters. Those understandings, and many more like them, would help me to become a better person.

Of course, some players commit to gameplay stakes while rejecting story stakes. They may click rapidly through dialogue, skip cut scenes, ignore story objectives, or just gleefully drive over everyone in their path. That may be fun. But the phenomena that I’m describing only occur when the story is sufficiently enticing and a player commits to the story stakes. It may help to realize that temporarily adopting an uncomfortable role is a different kind of hard and overcoming that challenge is a different way of being adept.

Books, comic books, movies, and television have long since demonstrated the power of the Believing Game, by forcing us to take different, sometimes-uncomfortable perspectives. Such perspective-taking can have many benefits, including fostering more empathy, compassion, and generosity. This is very exciting to consider, because on this matter, video games have the potential to leave other media in the dust. Watching or reading isn’t the same as playing.

However, we have only just begun to explore how the story stakes can make a game hard. So far, designers’ efforts have been commendable but often simplistic (e.g., a morality meter that bobs wildly up and down). I hope that we see more experimentation in this direction. I hope that in many more games I have a moment when I pause, step back, and examine my discomfort with what I’m being asked to do. And then I hope that the gameplay and story are so engaging that I dive back in, see the world differently, and grow as a person.

Kym Buchanan is the Associate Dean of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He studies and teaches psychology and human development, including the intersection of adolescent development and modern media. His ideal game would be a mashup of Kohan, System Shock, and dwarves. His professional website is KymBuchanan.org and he tweets @reach2grow.

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