The Different Flavors of Video-Game Pain

Why games are a great way to talk about the pleasures of difficulty

Clive Thompson


“Bullet hell” games test the limits of my endurance, but I love them anyway

Video games are difficult — yet we love playing them anyway.

In fact, we love them because they’re difficult. We play them specifically to experience different flavors of difficulty.

It’s an interesting human behavior, and pretty weird too, right? In his wonderful book The Art of Failure, the video-game theorist Jesper Juul frames this as a central paradox of the gamer soul: Games are one of the few occasions that we humans actively seek out the experience of failing.

As he writes …

Let us first consider the strangeness of the situation: every day, hundreds of millions of people around the world play video games, and most of them will experience failure while playing. It is safe to say that humans have a fundamental desire to succeed and feel competent, but game players have chosen to engage in an activity in which they are almost certain to fail and feel incompetent, at least some of the time. In fact, we know that players prefer games in which they fail. This is the paradox of failure in games. It can be stated like this:

1. We generally avoid failure.
2. We experience failure when playing games.
3. We seek out games, although we will experience something that we normally avoid.

So why the hell do we subject ourself to games, when we know we’ll fail?

Juul raises a bunch of interesting possibilities, noting that games function a bit like horror movies — they’re a safe space in which to experience identity-piercing emotions. In a classic sort of Aristotelian catharsis, we’re swept up in operatic feelings (rage! triumph! terror! glee! humiliation!), but we don’t have to suffer any long-term real-world consequences.

He also argues — my favorite point in his book — that games are a way for us to test how resilient we are. How leathery are we, mentally, psychically? How much crap can we take, how much anxiety can we deal with?



Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”.