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The Anatomy of challenge in video games

The Anatomy of Challenge in Video Games

Ordering One Hot Take Over Easy

I’ll get right into the topic by saying something incredibly controversial. Most people don’t like it when a game feels too easy for them, and sometimes, they don’t even know it. That’s because the concept is directly opposed to how our brains interact with video games. More accurately, it’s how our brains reward us with dopamine for playing them.

You can find a video version of this article on my YouTube Channel!

Difficulty setting screen in Assassins Creed Valhalla.
Easy modes can still feel challenging for many who play them.

Sure. Sometimes it can be cathartic to live out a power fantasy and smite all who oppose you within the safe confines of a virtual world. But it’s often short-lived, and you’re brain will stop rewarding you for it pretty quickly as it seeks out new novel experiences amid other games.

Challenge is fundamental to what makes a game, a game. The reason why plenty of folks will instantly take offense to my opening claim is that the entire concept of the words “challenge” and “difficulty” have been somewhat twisted and placed inside the confines of a small little box with a singular label. Let’s work through that and see if we can’t free those words from their restrictive prisons.

Creativity is Challenging

These days, when a game is thought to be challenging, difficult, or hard, most people likely visualize the type of game that pits you against extremely tough boss fights or hordes of enemies that tear you down over and over until you beat them. But that’s a rather small piece of what challenge could mean.

For example, what if I told you that playing Minecraft in creative mode is a really challenging experience? You might be tempted to laugh at me. After all, it’s highly unlikely that anyone playing would claim it was a hard game or ever view it as such. But I’m being completely serious, it’s exceptionally challenging.

A minecraft cabin with zombies closing in around it

If you’re playing Minecraft that way, it’s likely because you just want to kick back and build cool stuff. The thing is, building cool stuff, isn’t easy at all. It takes time, patience, skill, perseverance, and the ability to learn and adapt to different methods in order to obtain the result that you want. Many of those words, could also be applied to people playing Dark Souls and Elden Ring.

Sure, you aren’t being punished in any way, and you aren’t overcoming a knight with a sword the size of a sperm whale. But you are still overcoming a challenge. That challenge is your ability to work within the limitations of the system to build houses, mansions, statues, or whatever else you can think of.

It’s similar to drawing in a way. No one would ever claim that drawing is easy. It’s a skill that takes time to develop as an artist. Drawing techniques have actual names and methodologies behind them that artists learn to bend and combine to make something that looks truly striking. There is no easy process, even for an experienced artist, they overcome a challenge with each finished work.

A minecraft castle

It’s something that weirdo tech bro’s who constantly peddle AI art fail to understand. There’s no process or challenge behind having an aggregator puke out something because you typed in “Sexy Elf Girl”. It’s empty and devoid of anything behind its process that an artist would painstakingly imbue into the art. It’s utterly soulless.

No artist would be satisfied with, enjoy or be proud of pushing a button and having a drawing appear. Likewise, a Minecraft player’s enjoyment would plummet quickly, if instead of building a mansion, they simply pushed a button, and one appeared, without ever laying a single block.

The challenge of building that mansion is core to the enjoyment and a strong reason they would feel proud of it once it’s completed.

The Gambling Gotcha

Still not convinced? Let’s talk about mobile games. Mobile games have the biggest slice of the gaming market by a large margin. As much as folks are at each other’s throats over which is better, Xbox, PlayStation, PC, or Switch, in a game of pure numbers, Mobile has them all whooped.

Now, there is a lot that goes into why mobile gaming is so big. In a nutshell, mobile gaming is incredibly accessible and full of free games that are purely designed to prey on the human psyche. They are made to be highly addictive and take advantage of those addictive tendencies to extract money from you. But guess what? Gambling and addiction might be the sinker, but challenge is the hook and line used to reel those players in.

You might find that surprising, mobile gamers are often thought to be the most casual of anyone. However, mobile games have no problem slapping your ass to the floor like you owe it money. They have to. Otherwise, the whole system doesn’t work.

A battle in raid shadow legends
Plenty of mobile games feature some pretty compelling gameplay, it’s just undercut by excessively greedy microtransactions.

Many of these mobile games initially give you a wide berth. They start out just tough enough to let you get your feet wet and wade deeper into the pool. After a little while they gradually get tougher, slowly cooking you without you ever realizing the water is getting hot.

Eventually, you will hit a wall. Not a massive wall that looks impossible to climb. A wall that your fingertips reach the edge of before you slide back down. Just high enough that you feel like you could reach the top if only you had the tiniest of boosts. Just a little boost and you would have it.

By this point, you’re hooked on the gameplay loop. The game has felt great the entire time. You just need a little nudge, that’s all. Something like that shiny microtransaction that just happens to be on sale. You’ve already put hours in, surely the developers deserve some money, after all the game is free! So you buy it.

Up and over the wall you go! And heck, the game still isn’t easy. It’s still a challenge, but one you feel like you’re overcoming on your own merits. That way, you don’t even feel like you cheated by digging into your wallet. This is great! And then a short time later, another wall appears, and look…you can almost reach the top of it.

Raid starter pack menu
Just a little taste, a little bump to get ya over that wall. There’s always another wall, however.

Challenge is a tool. It can be used nefariously, just as it can be used for good. The point is, without it, the entire money-making system that mobile games use falls flat. If the games were easy, you would likely get bored before you met your first wall. The walls also don’t exist if you can just climb over them.

You won’t buy into those mobile microtransactions and power boosts if you don’t need them in order to succeed. If the game was easy, you don’t need anything to succeed, and the mobile market would be a fraction of the size it currently is. Again, this is because challenge is a central tenet to our ability to enjoy games.

Standing in Your Own Way

The most important reason we need to have better conversations regarding challenge is our own enjoyment. Thanks to the discourse that’s spawned around various discussions with Souls games and accessibility, we have entered a type of tribalism.

We act as though we are divided into two teams. Easy mode players and Hard mode players. For one, that ignores the fact that most players don’t play on either mode. Secondly, it’s making those modes part of our personality.

A graph showing what percentage of players played what difficulty modes in Jedi Survivor
In Jedi Survivor. Most players choose “Jedi Knight” the game’s “Normal” setting. (Source via EA Starwars Twitter)

I’ve met a person who refuses to play anything but the hardest mode in games and gets so incredibly frustrated that they end up disliking the game and quitting.

I’ve also met a player that refuses to ever increase the difficulty and has a militant stance about that refusal. That player also becomes frustrated when the main questline in Assassin’s Creed becomes too easy because they are over-leveled from side quests.

Both players would be happier if they would disconnect the idea of difficulty settings from their own personalities and change them. The first player views lowering the difficulty as a personal failing.

The player kicks an enemy soldier away in Assassin's Creed Odyssey.

They view it like it’s somehow an embarrassment if they play anything than the highest difficulty. That player is following rules that do not exist. Rather than playing the game at a challenge level they are comfortable with, they are choosing one that only frustrates them.

The kicker is, if they lowered the difficulty a notch, they would likely become good enough at each game, that they could tackle the hardest difficulty on a second playthrough. You can’t run before you learn to walk. This player is ignoring how we, as humans, learn and improve at a fundamental level.

The second player has the mindset that when they play games, they want to relax. That they aren’t a masochist that enjoys frustration. This player has a fundamental misunderstanding of why people play on harder modes. Sure, most players don’t enjoy games that are too easy, but most players also don’t enjoy games that are frustratingly hard either.

The thing is, hard-mode players, aren’t having a frustratingly hard experience. A hard mode to them is what normal or even easy mode might be to someone else. They aren’t playing those modes because they want to get kicked in the face. That’s the mistake that the other player I mentioned is making.

A viking faces down a flail wielding warrior in Assassin's Creed Valhalla

Hard mode players are playing those modes because those modes are providing a suitable, but not insurmountable challenge for their current skill level. The challenge is one of the core ways our brains siphon enjoyment from games.

That player, who gets bored when they accidentally over-level the main quest in Assassin’s Creed, would enjoy the game infinitely more if they bumped up the difficulty when they hit that point. The act of over-leveling has broken the comfort zone of difficulty that they enjoy.

Both players have made their choice of difficulty level part of their personality, rather than a tool to use for their own enjoyment.


I tend to play games on higher difficulties. When I review a game, I always list what difficulty I played on. I do that to try and be transparent about what to expect. The various aspects of a game may feel different on lower difficulties than on higher ones. It’s certainly explained the disconnect I’ve had between something I read or heard a reviewer say, and what I myself experienced.

I remember passing up Insominac’s Spider-Man game for a long time. A review I had watched had described the game’s combat as a button masher. That’s not the type of game I enjoy. However, by kicking up the game’s difficulty, that was simply not true.

Spider-Man sticks a line of webbing to a gangsters face.

In order to do well, I had to utilize Spider-Man’s entire arsenal, prioritize targets, be precise in my movements, and use every advantage possible. This resulted in a challenging game that made me look and feel like Spider-Man as I played. If that reviewer found the combat to be button mashy, it’s because they were playing a difficulty setting that was too low for them.

I also remember a reviewer talking about Horizon: Zero Dawn. They mentioned the wide variety of gadgets and weapons the game offers. But the reviewer thought it was pointless because they would almost always use a single bow and sling as the rest of the weapons seemed unnecessary. You could only come to that conclusion by playing a difficulty that’s too low for you. On harder difficulties, you need to take advantage of your entire arsenal to succeed and to utilize the various weaknesses of the machines.

Aloy aims at a storm bird in Horizon Zero Dawn

I myself got on a bit of a simulation kick after playing Hardspace: Shipbreaker. This led me to try a game called Snowrunner. At first, I could not for the life of me understand how anyone could enjoy this game. It’s a simulation game about driving various trucks around in the mud and snow while completing objectives. It’s very slow, you get stuck in the mud all the time, and I eventually wagered that it was for hardcore fans of trucking and mudding. I am neither one, so it obviously wasn’t for me.

However, before I gave up entirely, I tried the game’s hard mode as well as its customizable new game plus. Suddenly the game instantly made sense. You see, normally gas and repairs are free, and you can just teleport your trucks to the garage anytime you get stuck. However, on the hard mode, gas and repairs cost money, and you had to pay to retrieve a stuck or flipped vehicle.

A jeep stuck half way into a pool of muddy water in snow runner

Suddenly the game became this resource management and planning sim. I had to plan my routes to be effective. If I could deliver wood to one location and pick up metal for another delivery nearby, that was ideal. I had to strategically place fuel tankers so as to not run out of gas.

The mere act of driving up mountains and in the mud became intense. If I were to become stuck or flip a truck I would need to drive another truck out to it and use a winch to rescue it if I wanted to avoid the high retrieval fee. If I did poorly, I could get into a position where I ran out of money and lost the game.

I poured hours into a game that I initially couldn’t fathom enjoying, simply because I played a harder mode. I can’t help but wonder how many people would suddenly enjoy a much wider variety of games where something was feeling off, just by moving that dial up or down.

Play Your Way, but Find Yourself

The goal here isn’t to convince you to play a higher difficulty. You should always play the difficulty that’s going to give you the most enjoyment. Odds are, the mode that’s going to give you the most enjoyment is the one that poses a suitable challenge to your skill level. Sometimes that’s easy mode, other times it’s not.

I don’t think a lot of people these days recognize when it’s time to try another setting. Folks are getting locked into these mindsets of “I play to relax!” Or “I’m only a real gamer if I beat the hardest setting” and letting that dictate the decision for them.

A character wielding magic, a white bird flying into camera view and a hideous monster in Elden Ring
No matter how popular a game is, it simply won’t be for everyone.

If you find yourself getting too angry, turn it down. If you find yourself getting bored or the game getting repetitive, turn it up. Just test it to see how it affects your enjoyment. Since not all games have difficulty settings, it also means sometimes accepting that a game simply isn’t for you altogether. I myself have done that with most of Nintendo’s entire catalog. There’s no shame in it.

Challenge and Difficulty is a much deeper topic than most folks give it credit for. I’ve only scratched the surface. However, we have enough silly tribalism in gaming when it comes to console wars. We don’t need difficulty setting tribalism to join it.

This isn’t my first article on the topic, and it won’t be the last. You might also enjoy The Importance of Challenge in Gaming and The True Impact of Challenge in Gaming.

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