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Researchers & devs weigh in on why some people love super-hard games

Researchers & devs weigh in on why some people love super-hard games

March 9, 2016 | By Alex Wawro

"Doing game design is much more like cooking than it is like chemistry. Long story short: human psychology is complicated."

- Veteran game designer Jesse Schell.

Lots of people love a good challenge, and there have always been games designed to capitalize on that fact.

From the original Rogue to more contemporary games like Super Meat Boy or Dark Souls, ultra-tough (if fair) game design is accepted, and even welcomed, by many players. Why is that?

That's a question Scientific American recently posed, in one form or another, to a psychologist, two game designers and a computer scientist researching intrinsic motivation in humans.

Their answers, excerpted in an article published this week, are worth reading for developers curious about why some people seem to love playing hard, frustrating games.

"Our brains are designed to be very complex constraint-satisfaction machines,” computer scientist and psychology researcher Paul Schrater told Scientific American. “We’re goal seeking, and having a goal means defining a constraint on an outcome. Satisfying that constraint can involve a whole path toward the goal that’s unenjoyable, like climbing a mountain to reach food or safety. Achieving the goal involves releasing the goal, which is satisfying—but it’s a peculiar kind of nonhedonic kind of satisfaction."

Schrater's theory suggests that even though super-hard games aren't always "fun" or joyful to play and complete, they may stimulate the same physiological systems that motivate humans to set and achieve goals -- and therefore, on average, survive and thrive as a species.

He's well in line with University of Rochester psychologist Richard Ryan, who tells Scientific American that this intrinsic is supported in part by multiple portions of the human brain being stimulated at once while engaged in solving challenges.

However, that isn't enough to keep players engaged with a game if they can't understand why they're struggling with its challenges -- and how they can eventually overcome them.

"If you bang your head against a wall too many times, you’ll quit,” says Ryan. “So there’s got to be some kind of expectation that you can break through, that it’s possible if you work or think or practice hard enough."

Intriguingly, veteran game designer Jesse Schell caps off the article by noting that players of VR games seem to be much more eager to tackle difficult challenges than in non-VR games -- something he's observed in developing his own VR game I Expect You To Die.

"We’re finding that in virtual reality, people don’t like that slow ramp," Schell noted. “They seem to much prefer a very difficult ‘cliff’ that they have to confront and deal with. They love that it’s so hard. And I have to say, right now I don’t understand why that is."

You can read further comments from Schell, Ryan, Schrater, and game designer Bennett Foddy in the full Scientific American article.

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