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True Grit: Why Some Gamers Really Love Being Punished

True Grit: Why Some Gamers Really Love Being Punished:

“Because it’s there.” These are the three most famous words in mountaineering, the reply given by adventurer George Mallory when asked why he wanted to climb Everest. Why put up with the cold, the exposure, the risk of death that wavers between ‘almost certain’ and ‘at some point within the next five minutes’? Just because, well, y’know, you can. No biggie.

People like Mallory, it goes without saying, are a different breed to most of us. They pack the grit and determination it would take the average human being seven lifetimes to accrue and crap it out before breakfast. They see a challenge and they just won’t give up on it. Not even, as was Mallory’s ultimate fate, if they die trying.

Yet—if we climb far, far down the spectrum of bravery—that sense of stubborn determination has a younger, more safety-conscious relative, one that can be found in many of our living rooms. Thanks to the glory of technology, we no longer need to venture beyond our front door to embark on a strenuous, near-impossible journey.

We’ve got, as the kids like to call it, the vidya.

Video games have a long history of offering up ridiculously hard challenges. In the 1980s Nintendo thumb-twiddlers came of age fighting against ultra-hard classics like Battletoads, Contra and that infamous encounter with Mike Tyson in Punch-Out!!—cartridge-shaped bastards one and all, no doubt responsible for a million broken joypads on a million Christmas mornings.

Since then, the prevailing cultural narrative goes, games have become far easier. Mega-franchises like Call Of Duty now do little else but guide the player’s hand through successive reams of glide-along set pieces. Yet there’s been a recent upsurge in the notion of game-as-daunting-obstacles. It started off in the indie sector with low-key efforts like platformer Super Meat Boy and moved into the fringes of the mainstream with fantasy epics Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls—and then, earlier this year, Bloodborne arrived.

The latest dark masterwork by Japanese developer From Software—the same studio behind the aforementioned Demon’s/Dark SoulsBloodborne could charitably be described as not for everyone. The PS4-exclusive game casts players as the Hunter, a lone fighter battling their way through the creature-infested city of Yharnam.

It’s brutally difficult, a punishing challenge that requires equal measures of well-honed skill and trial-and-error. Yet Bloodborne surpassed all developer expectations by selling well over a million copies, not to mention receiving near-universal critical acclaim. So: fair to say that crushing difficulty is back in vogue.

In the spirit of hyper-amplified competition—this is gaming, after all—players have since been trying their best to out-Bloodborne each other. A number of amazing “speedruns,” trying to complete a game as quickly as possible using often outlandish tricks, have been clocked, while YouTuber BOYvsVIDEOGAME managed soon after the game’s release to complete the whole thing without leveling up once.

Another user—Craddoc—completed the game without using any “blood vials,” which recover your health, without armor or guns, and with the weakest class (the charmingly named “Waste Of Skin”). Simply finishing Bloodborne normally is a feat of endurance. Finishing it like this is something else entirely.

TRUE GRIT

The critical consensus on Bloodborne was positive, a fact that Forbes contributor Dave Thier called out, stating that there were “fundamental truths about the game” that most game critics failed to communicate—namely, that “most people won’t be able to make it past the first boss before rage quitting.”

I’m with him. I tried Bloodborne, and I didn’t get it—I don’t see the appeal of dying over and over and over. This, as Thier discovered from the venomous feedback fans provided him, isn’t a popular opinion.

He blamed that partially on “the old hint of elitism,” the feeling among some gamers that “games should be hard, and beating them should be an accomplishment. Specifically, it should be an accomplishment that most people can’t achieve. So many games, Bloodborne included, are power fantasies, and a key part of that fantasy is knowing that you’ve done something that the plebes couldn’t manage. That’s why the multiple endings are so important. Sure, you beat it, but did you get the real ending?”

I’m wondering: is there a particular type of person who does like the challenge, some common trait uniting those who dedicate their time to such punishing experiences? What exactly makes them tick? Why are they so bloody determined?

“What you are calling ‘determination’ is what psychologists have recently started calling 'grit’,” explains Art Markman, psychology professor at the University of Texas and author of Smart Change, a book about “the psychological mechanisms that form and maintain habits.” “Grit is the willingness to stick with hard problems and see them through to completion. There are definite individual differences in grit. Some of that may reflect aspects of personality that people are born with, but as with almost any mental ability, it can also be learned.”

“Video games generally try to teach people that their effort in the game will be rewarded,” he tells me. “Games start out relatively easy and get harder over time, so that people believe the skills in the game can be learned.”

This is the interesting thing about Bloodborne. Doesn’t “not getting it” make me part of the majority? There’s a sliding scale of player skill, sure, but show-off stunt-completionists like the ones linked above make up only a tiny fraction of gamers. Aren’t these guys, for want of a better term, freaks?

“Few people are really compelled to become truly excellent at anything,” Markman reasons. “Whether devoting a lot of time to a video game is a good thing or a bad thing depends a bit on what people give up in order to make that happen.”

Compelling, yes, but Markman’s analysis can’t help but feel a little speculative. To really get inside the head of one of these Bloodborne champions, it would make the most sense to speak to one of them directly.

LOVE AT FIRST DEFEAT

“I fell in love with this game the moment I laid eyes on it,” recalls Craddoc, one of the aforementioned gamers. He regularly streams live sessions via his Twitch channel. “I love challenges. I got through Bloodborne on my first playthrough pretty quickly and painlessly.”

His decision to subject himself to the no-guns, no-vials challenge came from a spirit of one-upmanship. Having watched BOYvsVIDEOGAME’s effort to beat the game without leveling up, Craddoc thought: “Hey, I can do better than that. Let’s make it even harder.” And he keeps inventing greater and greater challenges for himself.

The question still stands, though: why?

“I love games when they are difficult as hell,” Craddoc explains. “I am a very determined and patient individual. If I decide to do something, I will do it no matter how long it takes. I just simply never give up.”

“I am always eager to take on new challenges and to develop myself via these challenges,” he continues. “It is definitely a good trait in life, I think.”

It does seem that the necessary mettle to take on Bloodborne is something that can be advantageous—even admirable—in a wider context. Yet, while there’s no doubt someone trying to complete a blindfolded one-armed speedrun right now, it does seem that most gamers are more than happy to enjoy their exhaustive tutorials, frequent checkpoints and “easy” settings. I’ll probably never understand those who aren’t, though maybe in reality that’s just one more challenge I don’t feel like taking on.


Christopher Davies is a journalist and television writer based in London. Follow him on Twitter @chrisjdavies.


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