Hard Fun in Gaming: On Finding the Sweet Spot in Anxiety

As gamers, we frequently contrive artificial difficulty to foster enjoyment.

I see the world differently: I have what I call a “gamer mindset”. While some people avoid challenges because they find struggle unpleasant, I try to embrace challenges as growth opportunities. While some people only consume existing stories from libraries or streaming services, I like creating new stories. I especially enjoy creating stories with my friends, as a Dungeon Master.

“DMing” is one of the most challenging experiences I know and it’s also one of the most fun. That’s not a coincidence. Rather, there’s particular enjoyment to be found in challenging experiences, a kind of “hard fun”. To illustrate this, I’ll unpack the hard fun of DMing.

Confidence vs. Doubt

I’ve previously written about the general benefits of playing tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, including developing empathy, practicing collaboration, and solving open-ended problems. Those benefits and the game itself are made possible by one player acting as the DM. The DM is a combination of world builder, narrator, and referee. The DM describes everything the other players experience and interprets the outcomes their actions.

I’ve been a DM off and on since I was 13. I recently started a new D&D group. To help dust off my skills and get ideas, I’ve been tapping into books, podcasts, YouTube videos, and websites. In all that advice, a recurring message is encouraging people to try DMing: this is fun, you can do this, you should try this.

I mostly don’t need such encouragement. When I started DMing as a teenager, I had an age-appropriate experience: my mental abilities were substantially increasing in a relatively short time, fueling my self-assurance. My friends and I agreed to take turns DMing so that everyone got a chance to play a character. I was eager to do my part and confident in my growing abilities, so I had few of the self-doubts or fears that can dampen creativity and authority.

I mostly don’t need encouragement, because I still experience some anxiety as a DM. D&D is a special kind of game in which much of the fun depends on the DM — my preparation, communication, improvisation, adjudication of the rules, and so on. Another player can be unprepared or minimally engaged without critically impeding everyone else’s experience. But as the DM, I bring the essential energy and I set the tone for the table. My awareness of that responsibility kindles some anxiety.

Optimal Anxiety

Psychologists like me are fascinated by anxiety and its effects. We sometimes interchange the terms “anxiety” and “arousal”. (Yes, we’re talking about that arousal, as well as many other kinds.) We’re interested in arousal both as a mental and physiological state. For example, anxiety can increase adrenaline. While adrenaline primarily boosts our brains (by maximizing blood glucose, which works as “brain fuel”), it also affects our heart rate, breathing, pain tolerance, and more. Thus, some anxiety can be a good thing. When I’m facing a challenge, a certain level of arousal can enhance my performance.

Psychologists differentiate between three states of anxiety: nominal, facilitating, and debilitating. Imagine the tachometer of a car. It measures how hard the engine is working, in revolutions per minute (RPM). (The tachometer is often the other big dial in the dashboard, next to the speedometer.)

Nominal anxiety is minimal arousal, when I’m barely engaged in a challenge. It seems too easy or flatly impossible, or I don’t place much value on success. My tachometer is low; I have only a little power to apply.

Debilitating anxiety is maximum arousal, when I’m overwhelmed by a challenge. I place high value on success, but I’m preoccupied by doubts about my abilities or by fear of the consequences of failure. If I have an audience, one of those consequences could be their disappointment or derision. I may have too much adrenaline in my bloodstream, causing my hands to shake or my vision to blur. My tachometer is very high, in the red “danger zone” where the engine is working too hard and can overheat. Furthermore, if I’m burning mental capacity on doubts and fears, I’m diverting power that I could apply to the challenge.

Facilitating anxiety is optimal arousal. I place high value on success. I may have to bring my best effort to overcome the challenge, yet I’m confident that I will succeed. I’m devoting most or all my mental capacity to the task, and adrenaline is helping me optimally focus and react. My tachometer is in the “purring” middle: the sweet spot of sustainable, focused power.

(graphic source: Kym Buchanan)

Notice how my anxiety is affected by my expectancy and value: the belief that my ability level is equal to or greater than the challenge level, and the importance I place on success. I’ve previously written about Expectancy-Value Theory. That theory predicts that when expectancy and value are high, my motivation will be high. Facilitating anxiety takes this is a step farther: high expectancy and high value can also facilitate high performance.

When I DM, I experience some anxiety both before and during a game. I tell myself that’s OK. Part of my gamer mindset is believing that I can improve, especially by striving at the edge of my abilities (i.e., reach to grow). If I can keep my anxiety at the facilitating level, it becomes energy I can use to run a great game. It would be a mistake to deny that I feel anxiety or to try repressing it. Rather, I embrace the challenge as a growth opportunity: I can become a better DM through practice. I transform my struggle into enjoyment.

Contriving Challenges

I give Seymour Papert credit for the phrase “hard fun”, In the ’80s, Papert gave elementary school students hands-on time with a simple computer programming language (Logo) and observed how they thought, felt, and learned. The students simultaneously experienced challenge and enjoyment. Papert wrote, “I have no doubt that this kid called the work fun because it was hard rather than in spite of being hard.”

Many gaming experiences are fun because they’re hard, rather than in spite of being hard. In fact, as gamers we frequently contrive artificial difficulty to foster enjoyment. For example, consider how I can turn a simple photograph into a game. I can cut it into pieces like a jigsaw puzzle, scramble the pieces, and then time myself as I try to reassemble it. I can scramble and reassemble the pieces repeatedly, trying to improve my time. I can make it a multiplayer competitive game by taking turns with my friends to see who is faster, or I can make it a multiplayer cooperative game by teaming up against the clock.

The artificial challenges of games are a stark contrast to the organic challenges of other activities. For example, in cooking or fashion, the organic challenges include the boiling point of water or the flexibility of cotton. I can contrive greater difficulty in these activities — such as trying to prepare a dish as quickly as possible — but then I’m back in an artificial, game-like mode. Series like Iron Chef and Project Runway illustrate how to contrive artificial challenges to create games about cooking and fashion.

Now consider an adventure novel written for a reader versus a commercial D&D module designed for a DM and their players (e.g., Dracula vs. Curse of Strahd). A module typically contains details about the overall setting, specific locations, backstory, important non-player characters, pivotal set-piece moments, and so on. The novel is an intact photograph, while the module is a jigsaw puzzle. If we just want to experience an exciting adventure, the easier approach is reading the novel. But there’s a distinct pleasure in the challenge of bringing the module to life, of collaborating with other players to bake our own unique cake. The contrived challenge of the jigsaw-puzzle module leads to hard fun.

However, novel versus module is an imperfect metaphor. Roland Barthes and others argue that reading the same novel is often a different experience for different readers, because of what we each bring to the experience. So the novel and module aren’t a binary pair. Rather, they’re on a continuum of progressively-greater ambiguity, possibility, and creative freedom. To go even farther on the continuum, a DM can diverge from a commercial module or mix-and-match pieces of multiple modules. To go farther still, a DM can create a wholly-original setting and story, an approach we call “homebrew.”

One of the essential duties and joys of DMing is finding a sweet spot on the continuum. The main plot of many D&D adventures is traveling from one place to another and/or defeating a major enemy. That could be a simple, mediocre story, so the DM contrives many artificial challenges to enliven the story — I cut up the photograph by adding additional enemies, obstacles, subplots, ethical dilemmas, mysteries, and so on. The sweet spot varies from group to group and even session to session. This is why D&D players perpetually explore and debate how to balance “on rails” elements (low freedom) with “sandbox” elements (high freedom). The DM and their group search for the sweet spot on the continuum, where everyone can experience facilitating anxiety and the pay-off of hard fun.

Authenticity, Not Expertise

These issues are relevant far beyond games: the continuum and pay-off are present across a variety of creative activities. DMing can be hard fun, and so can writing fan fiction, experimenting in the kitchen, or designing your own clothing. With that in mind, I’ll wrap up with some wisdom from expert DMs. They’re talking about running D&D but these principles apply to any comparable creative endeavor, especially collaborative ones.

Matt Colville writes novels and games. In his excellent YouTube series, Running the Game, he tries to bolster expectancy among novice DMs. In so many (rapid fire) words, Colville encourages finding the sweet spot of facilitating anxiety. Yes, DMing well is a big responsibility demanding a deep, varied skillset. Yes, it’s hard to contrive and run artificial challenges that satisfy players. However, it’s easy to get started, and the best way to improve is also the most fun: just do it.

Chris Perkins is a designer for D&D. He DMs the Acquisitions Inc. group which plays publically at PAX conventions. Perkins offers similar advice:

I’ve discovered over the years, that DMing is not that hard. I think some DMs make it hard on themselves by over-preparing and fretting about what could happen, instead of just living in the moment and improvising when things go off the rails. I think the way you learn to improvise well is just practice and experience. Some people might be just inherently good at it, but for me it just took a lot of time. It took a lot of DMing, a lot of campaigns, a lot of not-so-good sessions and a lot of great sessions for me to kind of hit my stride and feel comfortable not doing too much work beforehand–just kind of riding the wave during the game. (Polygon, 27 August, 2015)

When Perkins says that DMing is not that hard, he means that getting started isn’t hard. Furthermore, it can be very enjoyable to ride the wave of hard fun, and grow.

My own advice for DMs is: Focus on relationships with and among players and characters. My day job is training teachers. Both novice teachers and novice DMs tend to feel debilitating anxiety about their content. The teacher fears that unless they thoroughly know the course content, their students won’t respect them. The DM fears that unless they know the rules and the world extremely well, their players won’t have fun. Actually, in both cases, being open about their current abilities matters more than being thoroughly knowledgeable. Being open makes them more authentically present. Authenticity, not expertise, is the foundation of meaningful relationships. It’s relationships that people will cherish in a classroom or around a gaming table, and remember long after.

That may be the hardest fun of all: being open and authentic with other people. It’s both the means and the end of being a great DM, as well as being a great teacher, boss, life partner, or parent. It’s part of how and why I work on my own Dungeon Master mastery, and it’s an essential part of my gamer mindset.