Mind/Games: Hard Games
Formerly Why You Play It, Mind/Games looks at the underlying psychology, sociology and other principles that keep you playing various games. Today we’ll look at super difficult retro-style games like Contra, Megaman, and Super Meat Boy.
Remember when all videogames hated you? They existed for the sole purpose of destroying you over and over again, killing your self esteem and eating your quarters. You probably spent as much time looking at the game over screen as you did playing the damn thing. And you loved it (well at least I did).
Most videogames today aren’t made this way because there’s really no reason. Game creators don’t make 25 cents per kill anymore. Few people are willing to pay $60 for the privilege of having the controller-smashing, rage-inducing experience that was expected from old school arcade games. This is why there are few modern analogues to Super Mario 3’s tank level, or Punch Out’s Mike Tyson.
So why do people love hard games? Certainly there are the bragging rights involved with blasting through the infamous speed bikes level in Battletoads, but that doesn’t make the experience fun. What makes such a punishing experience so enjoyable?
Once upon a time in the 1960s, there was a psychologist named Mihaly Csikszenmihalyi. He’s Hungarian. Mihaly proposed that when the human mind is thoroughly focused and engaged in something, we enter a state known as “flow”. Flow is characterized by enhanced performance, a feeling of euphoria, and a tendency to lose track of time. Sound familiar?
People can enter a state of flow at any time while doing any thing, but it is most likely to occur when you’re doing something you are good at, but challenges you. The activity you’re doing must have clear goals and immediate feedback so that you are able to adjust your responses without breaking your focus. Games that have simple controls and mechanics but challenging gameplay fit these requirements perfectly. That’s why you can die over and over again in Contra until you’ve burned through your entire Saturday.
Got any good stories about flow and games? Any favorite games that kick you into this state? Leave something in the comments.