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Friday, January 01, 2010


Posted by Adam Roberts on 01/01/10 at 11:13 AM

Over on my review blog, and by way of reviewing to a bound proof of a Rollicking Big Fantasy Adventure due out in March 2010, I quote a John Lanchester article on video games.

About a year ago John Lanchester published ‘Is It Art?’, an essay in the London Review of Books on video games ... Lanchester considers gaming intelligently as a sort of invisible seismic shift in culture, and one of the things he’s good on is the difficulty of most video games. Here he is on Ken Levine’s 2K Boston/2K Australia game Bioshock, which he likes a great deal:

As a video game, BioShock fully subscribes to the conventions of the medium, and if you as a non-gamer were to pick it up and give it a try, it is these you would probably notice most. Not just the conventions of which buttons and levers you press to move about the world of the game (annoying and hard to recollect as these often are) and not just the in-game mechanics, such as the ‘plasmids’ which you have to inject to give your character the powers he needs, or the tapes which are conveniently left around for you to discover and play back to hear the story of Rapture; but also the whole package of conventions and codes and how-tos which become second nature to video-game players, but which strike non-gamers as arbitrary and confining and a little bit stupid. Northrop Frye once observed that all conventions, as conventions, are more or less insane; Stanley Cavell once pointed out that the conventions of cinema are just as arbitrary as those of opera. Both those observations are brought to mind by video games, which are full, overfull, of exactly that kind of arbitrary convention. Many of these conventions make the game more difficult. Gaming is a much more resistant, frustrating medium than its cultural competitors. Older media have largely abandoned the idea that difficulty is a virtue; if I had to name one high-cultural notion that had died in my adult lifetime, it would be the idea that difficulty is artistically desirable. It’s a bit of an irony that difficulty thrives in the newest medium of all – and it’s not by accident, either. One of the most common complaints regular gamers make in reviewing new offerings is that they are too easy. (It would be nice if a little bit of that leaked over into the book world.)

In the spirit of that admirable sentiment, I say: Tome of the Undergates is too easy.

I don’t mean to pick on Tome of the Undergates, by the way. It’s a very entertaining yarn, and is going to be huge.  But Lanchester’s question interests me.  Why should it be that people specifically prize ‘difficulty’ in their video games, but fight so thoroughly shy of it in their novels?


I think you are dealing with two kinds of difficulty : Difficulty to beat and Difficulty to understand.

Some games are difficult to beat but this difficulty is not at the level of access.  These games are just as easy to understand as other easier to beat games.  One does not sit in front of Ninja Gaiden on the XBox and think the game difficult to get one’s head round.  Instead one curses one’s fat and malcoordinated fingers.

By contrast, some games are difficult to understand.  For example, the SF RPG MAss Effect is difficult to understand because its menus are poorly designed.  It is easy to beat but you do so in a state of epistemological confusion.

Very few games are difficult to understand in the way that novels or films are.  There are a few art games that play around with the semiotics of the genres they are rare and the difficulty is seen as niche to the point of pretentiousness.

By Jonathan M on 01/01/10 at 01:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Interesting.  Couldn’t you say, though, that ‘beating’ a text (which is to say: getting through it) and ‘understanding’ it share the same currency? Perseverence, for instance?

Lanchester’s more fundamental point is why gamers enjoy the difficulty posed by their texts, where readers of Fat Fantasy novels don’t seem to.

By Adam Roberts on 01/01/10 at 01:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan:  I disagree.  We *should* be cursing our fat, malcoordinated fingers, but often we blame the game for cheating.  Accepting responsibility for one’s inadequacies is not typical of people who play video games.

Mr. Roberts:  I think the answer to your question is actually a simple one.  A difficult video game is often still a very fun game.  Gamers want games that aren’t too easy because they like the challenge (a challenging video game is an entertaining game).  That’s not necessarily true of book readers.  A difficult book is not necessarily an entertaining book, and while people probably should read for more than just to be entertained, most don’t.  I read to be entertained, but I also consider myself somewhat odd in that I enjoy many difficult books while others do not.

That may not be the answer anyone wants to hear (particularly a scholar/academic/critic such as yourself), but it’s sadly very true of most people who read books.  The good news is that at least these folks who want unchallenging literature are keeping publishing alive.

By SMD on 01/01/10 at 01:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

SMD: I don’t disagree with you, but you seem to me to have restated the question (who do gamers find challenging games entertaining, where readers don’t tend to consider challenging novels the same way?) rather than answered it.

By Adam Roberts on 01/01/10 at 02:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The answer will likely be related to this question:  why do people (in general) latch onto visual mediums (television/movies) more so than non-visual mediums (books)?  I suppose I didn’t really answer your question to begin with (thought I did, but looking back it really just restates the problem).

My best guess (and I’m not a psychologist) is that it has to do with levels of interactivity.  In the case of movies/tv, the work of visualizing the medium has already been done, so all one has to do is sit back and let the screen do the work; with books, obviously that’s not the case.  With video games, in this line of thinking, it must follow that combining a pre-rendered visualization of whatever is going on with the ability of the user to affect the game landscape.

But, thinking about that, I don’t know if that’s entirely true, since many difficult video games don’t actually allow one to change the landscape at all (think puzzle games; most of them are pre-set, and the only changes that can occur are:  you figure it out, or you don’t).  First person shooters, though, definitely fall into this line of thinking, since any move you make (any shot of a gun, any wrong turn, right turn, what have you) influences how the game interacts with you.  So, a game that is difficult would provide the kind of challenge that stimulates the mind, but with the added bonus of personal influence (like a choose your own adventure, I suppose).  This seems to point to why difficult games are desirable, while difficult books are not:  one is difficult, but with an added bonus, while the other isn’t necessarily (I would disagree with that assessment personally, but I also sort of understand it having once been deeply rooted in game culture many years back).

But this is all guesswork, and I don’t know if your question can be easily answered without significant psychological study on gaming and reading culture.

Then again, you originally asked a “should” question, which is kind of unfair.  I guess that’s why I’m having problems trying to answer the question (however inadequately).  How do we properly address a “should” question about anything?

By SMD on 01/01/10 at 02:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

SMD: I don’t disagree with you, but you seem to me to have restated the question (who do gamers find challenging games entertaining, where readers don’t tend to consider challenging novels the same way?) rather than answered it.

Challenging, well-made games play fair - a game with an unsolvable puzzle is ‘broken,’ and a seemingly impenetrable problem in a game (e.g. the more arbitrary find-there-use-here puzzles in Zork or a Super Mario Bros. canyon that looks too wide to cross by jumping along) can always be thought through.

That’s one of the key shared values among gamers: a good game, however difficult, is ultimately fair, and can be mastered. Even something like Nethack, with its capricious randomly-generated dungeons and inappropriately nasty creatures, behaves predictably within certain parameters.

‘Challenging’ stories needn’t ‘play fair’ at all. Where the fuck is Godot? Is Tony Soprano dead? How can ‘a long the’ connect up with ‘riverrun’?

‘Wants me to tell him something pretty,’ Al Swearengen said. Well, games always do. The rules are clear - indeed the game is its rules, to a first approximation - and if everyone follows them we know exactly where we stand.

That’d be my first pass at answering your question.

By waxbanks on 01/01/10 at 04:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Shorter me: games carry an implicit guarantee of correctness and completeness (terms of algorithmic analysis, those). Stories don’t. Genre is one (weak) version of this guarantee.

...which maybe throws some light on the SF/games/coding geek nexus?

By waxbanks on 01/01/10 at 05:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This reminds me of discussions of musical virtuosity, both with respect to the requirements of various compositions, and the capabilities of musicians. There is such a thing as a virtuoso “show piece,” a piece of music that makes a spectacular effect and requires a great deal of physical skill to play. There are also pieces that are not so physically demanding, but are more musically profound. And then there are pieces that are both profound and physically taxing.

Where does this put the virtuoso performer? Shallow showman? Deep musical thinker?

By Bill Benzon on 01/01/10 at 05:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Mr. Benzon:  Would that be like the difference between Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron (i.e. dodecaphony, or the twelve-tone opera styling) and any other opera movement preceding the Modernist interventions (i.e. Mozart, Wagner’s Rings of the Nibelung, etc.--namely, a more pleasing thing to listen to that the intensely dissonant, incredibly difficult music of Schoenberg)?  That’s not to say that non-dodecaphony opera is easy (opera is hard in general), but perhaps somewhat more pleasing to an audience.

By SMD on 01/01/10 at 06:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Accepting the premises of the question, how about: Because the player of the game is not the reader of the novel, but one of - or possibly several of - the characters. The reader collaborates with the author to create, the player fights against the game to complete. Both suffer necessary illusions - the reader that he can fully understand, the player that he can win without the connivance of the game itself. A difficult novel breaks the illusion. A difficult game reinforces it.

By on 01/02/10 at 06:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

All this assumes that understanding is the primary goal of reading.  I don’t think that’s so, either for readers or for writers.  I’d say the vast majority of readers (of both popular and literary writing) read for effect: pleasure, surprise, suspense, atmosphere, mood, and so on.  We always think about difficulty in terms of the content or ideas of writing—that is, we think about difficulty as a formal obstacle to idea-parsing.  I tend to think that readers get pissed off—or find works difficult—when the effects are obscured by the style.  This is why, I’d argue, Wallace Stevens or John Ashbery remain relatively popular, while many Language Poets, whose work is no more difficult, can’t find an audience.  And why those Lang Pos with an audience are often those whose work maintains a clear effect despite the difficulty, such as the humor of Charles Bernstein and Bob Perelman or the rapturous intensity of Susan Howe.

By on 01/03/10 at 06:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The reason I haven’t contributed further to this thread isn’t that I don’t want to, and isn’t that fascinating ideas haven’t been raised (they have).  The truth is I’m mulling over what Waxbanks wrote.  Something very significant there, I’d say; but I have this itch that it’s also significantly wrong. Not sure I can lay my finger upon why, though.  I’ll come back in a bit.

By Adam Roberts on 01/05/10 at 05:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

1. But the most “difficult” novel in the world can be read to its end by anyone who is basically literate (whether they enjoyed or “understood” the content): so, paradoxically: zero difficulty in novels (ie, anyone can do it… no honor in completing the experience), which leads to…

2. The crucial issue of “scoring”. The reward system in novel-reading is unquantifiable; achievement hierarchy in Lit is fuzzy/subjective/ maddeningly up to endlessly circular debate. Games offer the compelling reward of clear-cut ranking.

No (ahem) contest.

By StevenAugustine on 01/05/10 at 06:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, this I gotta hear!

By waxbanks on 01/05/10 at 07:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

SMD, That’s certainly the kind of difference I had in mind. But I’d bet that someone who knows opera better than I do could find examples of the (alleged) difference entirely within 18th or 19th century operas.

By Bill Benzon on 01/05/10 at 07:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Take 2:

A single-player game is a series of challenges - puzzles, tests of skill, etc. Well-made games escalate tension in ‘dramatic’ fashion. A game like SimCity moves from deliberately-paced optimization problem (what’s the ideal layout for these development zones/power plants/water towers?) to more frantic crisis-management mode (hurricane!); Tetris is similar, though its mechanics/dynamics evolve less dramatically over the course of play. Super Mario Bros.‘s most admirable trait, in some ways, is its absolute consistency - within each of eight worlds are four levels following a fixed progression using familiar architectural forms and increasing in complexity bit by bit, etc.

One definition for games is ‘rules governing behaviour and desire’ - this differs from stories in that (e.g.) your reading behaviour doesn’t change as you flip through the book. Indeed ‘behaviour’ isn’t right for describing reading activity. OK - so insofar as the game is its rules, if the game doesn’t follow its own rules it is not itself; it betrays or undermines itself.

Well, then there’s e.g. Ulysses, which starts off like an unusually allusive more-or-less realist novel and just throws that shit right out the window about halfway through. Or Ender’s Game, which gets Interesting (as opposed to just Somewhat Enjoyable) at the point when it dropkicks its ‘dark coming of age story’ premise and becomes something else. (Am I misremembering that horrid/moving little book?)

How many great novels/films/TV shows get described as ‘transcending their genre’? (’It’s not TV, it’s HBO’ - bullshit but that’s how they see themselves.) Whereas gamers tend not to talk about games that way. The game’s action-set is its genre, in a way. The only way it can ‘transcend’ that setup is to change horses in midstream.

It seems to me ‘difficult’ novels violate readerly expectations in some way(s): by being too long to keep easily in mind all at once, using opaque/dense/unnatural/stylized language, disregarding narrative conventions, or - at a more basic level by being stories with no discernible teller, seemingly uncoupling narrative-sharing from its customary interpersonal function. Yet those are the things (nonwriting) critics praise ‘difficult’ novels for. (Novelists tend to make better critics than critics do, in this regard.) That doesn’t help win readers over to the hard stuff.

A good game never ‘overflows its genre,’ because its genre is dictated by the actions it requires of the reader. In that regard there’s no class/instance disjunction as with Great Books. There is a small field of so-called ‘serious games,’ which no gamer gives a damn about - not least, I suspect, because they ‘bravely’ put category before experience, and end up just forgetting to provide an intrinsically meaningful experience.

By waxbanks on 01/05/10 at 07:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Floating around at the edges out there is the related point that linear narratives are now subject to the same ‘spoilers’ that gamers have long utilized under the name ‘cheat codes’ - one more cultural thread linking games to other mass media/sign of the coming apocalypse.

By waxbanks on 01/05/10 at 07:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think it might be a good idea to split two forms of difficulty, only one of which is valued.

Games _don’t_ value difficult interfaces. Reviews of games use words like “intuitive” and “playable” as good points. Look at the way interfaces are designed: joysticks are better than keyboards, ergonomic joysticks are better still, standardised interfaces such as handsets tend to use similar buttons for similar functions across different games. (There aren’t many that have the up arrow firing the gun and the red button moving you forward.)
The Wii is terrifically popular because it allows you to play tennis (or whatever) in an instinctively obvious way.

But they do value games that are difficult to master - i.e. to succeed in, to win or finish.

How do these relate to novels? Maybe it’s the choice between difficult language and complex plotting and structure. The question is: why do we value complex plotting and structure as much in, say, Le Carre and Umberto Eco as we do in BioShock, but we don’t value bad interfaces in computer games as much as we do in Cormac McCarthy?

By on 01/07/10 at 07:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Here’s a review of Guitar Hero and The Beatles: Rock Band that’s relevant. From the review:

It is tempting to interpret the phenomenal success of music-oriented games--especially the wildly hyped Beatles edition of Rock Band, introduced in September of this year--as evidence of music’s return to the center of young life, or as validation of the aesthetic values of classic rock. The reality is more complicated and less flattering to boomerdom. For one thing, these games have fairly little to do with music. After all, they are games--like poker, the Olympics, or pro football; and like those and other games, they are, to varying degrees, largely about the pursuit of status and glory, wealth and sex. Guitar Hero and Rock Band involve musicianship in the same sense that chess involves military service. Rocking, like rooking, is the thematic action; but the content is the form, the rules.

For another thing--and this is the main failing of music games, and it is a significant one--they have the insidious effect of glorifying classic rock, a music with an already bloated reputation that is founded on its very bloatedness. In the games’ absorption with technical prowess, speed, flash, grandiose show, and fakery, they not only affirm the enduring allure of classic rock to kids and young adults, especially males; they also advance its tyranny.

. . . . .

What’s troubling about Guitar Hero and Rock Band is not the presence of competition in the context of music, but the terms of that competition: the values--or more accurately, the non-values--the games promote. The games measure performance almost entirely by two standards: speed and flash (accomplished by use of a whammy bar on the play guitars). The more notes you hit on the games’ buttons and the more rapidly you hit them, the higher your score, the richer you get, and the more girls who thrust their gargantuan digital breasts your way.

By Bill Benzon on 01/07/10 at 02:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

How do these relate to novels? Maybe it’s the choice between difficult language and complex plotting and structure. The question is: why do we value complex plotting and structure as much in, say, Le Carre and Umberto Eco as we do in BioShock, but we don’t value bad interfaces in computer games as much as we do in Cormac McCarthy?

I wonder how much of this is conflating two meanings of the word “we”.

The “we” that values the arbitrary difficulty of Cormac McCarthy seems to refer to those who devote an incredible amount of mental energy to literature, while the “we” that does not value arbitrary difficulty in video games seems to refer to the population at large.

If you look at the people who spend a similarly uncharacteristic amount of mental energy on video games, I suspect you’d find that they mostly play on the higher difficulty levels, which aren’t really more complex, just gratuitously more difficult.  And not only “more difficult”, but more difficult to a point that someone who did not play a lot of video games would feel confident that beating the game at that level was impossible.

By on 01/08/10 at 09:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"I think you are dealing with two kinds of difficulty : Difficulty to beat and Difficulty to understand.

Some games are difficult to beat but this difficulty is not at the level of access”

Spoken like a true gamer. However, looking at it another way would show that this isn’t necessarily the case.

To a non-gamer, the difficult is at the level of access. If I put my father in front of Project Gotham, he’s hopeless. A gamer instinctively knows just how to control the inputs, but a non-gamer won’t only know how to control the inputs, they’ll have trouble finding them in the first place. Once they’ve found the trigger to go faster, they don’t want to let go. With steering they press ‘right’ to go right, and ‘left’ to go left - no graduation of fine control at all, just left or right. All over the track.

Put them up in front of an FPS like Call of Duty, or indeed, Bioshock, and its worse. “What am I doing?” or “I don’t understand” they’ll say, and I’m sure many the gamer has felt the frustration of trying to instruct someone how to play. You *know* how it works, why on earth can’t they grasp it? The fools!

So the PC, the PS3, and the Xbox 360 pretty much by default discriminate against people in a ‘difficulty to understand’ way.

Nintendo know this. That’s why they made the Wii. To a hardcore game, offensively dumbed-down and easy. To people like my father, a gaming system they can use! Instead of buttons and triggers and sticks, they simply have a wii-mote which they wave around to approximate the actions they want to happen. This gives ease of understanding rather than difficulty.

Considering the issues in that context, turn back to books. Those who read and appreciate difficult books are like the hardcore gamers; they have a certain level of understanding that the majority don’t. So they’re primed to appreciate the books more, understand them more, and get more out of them. Whereas people who don’t know how difficult books work will instead stick to the easy books - the equivalent, say, of favouring a Wii over a 360. The barrier for entry is lower, the potential for struggle is less, and thus they’re more likely to enjoy the experience.

To go back to the original question posed:

“Why should it be that people specifically prize ‘difficulty’ in their video games, but fight so thoroughly shy of it in their novels?”

It’s possible to say that the question is broken. It presumes one set of ‘people’ to which all applies. When, rather, there are four sets of people:

1) People who like difficult computer games and read easy books.
2) People who like difficult computer games and read difficult books.
3) People who like easy computer games and read easy books.
4) People who like easy computer games and read difficult books.

So considering that, it makes it harder to generalise an answer to the question. Notwithstanding the kinds of ‘difficult’ that it could be.

That aside. Looking at it from my perspective, that of someone who has been playing video games since a very young age, about six or so, and this going back to the days of the Spectrum and all that, my own view would be this.

Broadly speaking, computer games can be divided into two types. The liner type, where the game has a beginning, and the goal is to play it through to the end; and the open type, where there is no end and you simply play the game for the sake of playing the game.

Examples of the former should be obvious (adventure games, platform games, etc. Basically anything with a definite ending where you can say you’ve beaten the game).

Examples of the latter would be sports games (football, etc), what I can only describe as ‘High Score’ games (Space Invaders, etc.), and strategy games (Civ, Sim City).

In the case of both types, difficulty matters, though for slightly different reasons.

In the first case, in order to get to the end, the player likes to feel they’ve achieved something. If it’s too easy, there’s little incentive to carry on. It gets boring. The flipside is that if it’s too hard, the player will get frustrated and give up. Take adventure games. If the puzzles are too easy, if there’s no challenge, then it’s little more than reading an interactive storybook. And that’s no fun - videogames are an interactive pursuit, so the player has to feel they’re doing something. The ideal level to pitch a puzzle is where the player has to think about what to do, puzzle the answer out, and try it. If it works, there’s a real sense of achievement. If it doesn’t, try again.

LucasArts adventure games are a good example of this, particularly Day of the Tentacle. Figuring out that if you put a hamster in a freezer in the past you’ll be able to them retrieve him in the future, or that the way to get George Washington’s teeth is by giving him an explosive cigar, or that pushing over a speaker on the floor above will dislodge something from the ceiling below are all puzzles that reward the player. If the game simply put a hamster in the right place for the player to pick up, or George simply handed his teeth over, or the object was never on the ceiling in the first place, that’s no challenge for the player. Why play, then?

Similarly, with games like Doom, Call of Duty, Half-Life, the point is to get to the end, but you don’t simply want to walk through the game without breaking a sweat. There has to be the feel that you’re *doing* something to achieve the goal. With these types of games, different players have different comfort levels, so the games have different difficulty levels. Easy may be hard for some people, which hardcore gamers may find nothing less than hard gives them the challenge they need. In any case, no matter the level the player plays at, one thing is constant - they don’t want it handed to them on a plate.

The second type of games, ones with no ending, give even more importance to difficulty. A football game isn’t fun if you can stick 20 goals in the net every time; Space Invaders isn’t fun if the main thing that determines how high your score is is how long you last until you get bored; strategy games where you can just much around and win instead of deploying actual strategy is shallow and disappointing. How dull would Tetris be if the blocks dropped at the starting speed throughout the entire game.

What matters hugely in this case then, is not so much the difficulty per-se, but the difficulty *curve*. So in Tetris, the blocks drop slowly, and then speed up to insane levels. The longer you last, the higher the score you get. Play with a bunch of mates and suddenly it’s all about bragging rights; he who get the highest score is the best! He can cope with difficulty like no other! It is perhaps, slightly a macho thing, in a way.

Similarly with strategy games; the best encourage those who consider management of resources, outflanking opponents, where and when to attack, with which unit(s), and so on. The more the computer acts in the same fashion, the harder it is to beat, the greater the sense of achievement when beating it.

Perhaps the word ‘achievement’ is the key. Complete a difficult game and you get the sense of achievement, either through reaching the goal, or through being ‘the best’ - demonstrating great skill at the game, if it were. Reading a difficult book doesn’t quite work in the same way. Complete the book, and… that’s all you’ve done. Any actual achievement has been done by the writer, not you. Your goal reading the book was to enjoy it, more than anything else. Whether you understood what the writer did or not is, in a way, immaterial, in a way that it isn’t when playing videogames.

That may well express my view more than a more general view, but I don’t think I’m completely off the mark.

And finally, on a historical note, games being difficult probably goes back to the early days, first in the arcades, then early home games. Arcade games were made rock hard (Rolling Thunder, Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins) because the intention is to keep the player pumping coins in when they die in order to continue. Often they were, pretty much designed to be impossible to complete in a single life. Then later, for a long time home games were also designed to be difficult to complete - either somewhat unintentionally, due to being arcade ports; or intentionally, due to either the game not being terribly long (only so much can fit in 48k!) so making it harder also makes it last longer. Or, related to that a reason that particularly fit me back in my early gaming days, kids (like me) couldn’t afford to buy new games often, so the longer a game lasted, the better, and difficulty was the best way of extending playtime. In any case, it can certainly be argued that from the earliest days, gamers have been *conditioned* to expect difficulty from videogames.

By on 01/15/10 at 08:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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