Sunday, January 8, 2012

Sunday Sidebar: Easycore? – How lifestyle changes affect gaming approaches

There is a maxim that refers to the three stages of life, and how these three stages govern the management of free time. To relate it to gaming is not hard. As children, we have no money, but a veritable abundance of free time. For many of us, this is how our gaming habit takes root. Long nights (mis)spent exploring cavernous dungeons or aboard extraplanetary vessels, our imaginations caught like ships amidst digital storms. As school or college students, we have more money, but less free time. Where previously we could consume infinite amounts of experience, we must begin to better focus our gaming habits. It is at this stage that we will normally commence honing our skills in a particular area.

The next stage is adulthood. For the purposes of categorisation, I define adulthood as the moment when you enter into full-time employment. At this stage, money becomes something to which you have much easier access. You learn (hopefully) to save and to invest your hard-earned coinage in valuable returns, be that World of Warcraft, or the latest modern military shooter. Of course, all of this time spent earning directly translates to less available time to play. Often, we must bid adieu to gaming all-nighters, or even more simply the idea of just daily gaming. Free time becomes windowed and highly-focused. If we have an hour to indulge ourselves, we must carefully decide how that hour shall be spent. This week I’d like to bend your ear on a particular subject that has gradually become ever-increasingly noticeable in my gaming habits throughout the past few years:  Game difficulty settings.

Merely looking at this thing
makes me nostalgia like woah.
As a young buck growing up on the mean streets of the ‘burbs, I made my first friends (also from said mean street) through the medium of gaming. We even synchronised our console purchases so that we could better benefit from our parents’ offerings. A birthday present for one us soon became a valuable trade commodity in our free market of Sega Master System titles for the rest. At that time, games came pre-loaded with three distinct player experiences: Easy, Normal, and Hard. As a child, I had internalized that my intellect most likely did not stretch appropriately to let me play with the big boys. I regarded ‘Hard’ difficulty as something you loaded up for a joke; an impossible venture purely designed with the aim of making you fail. I genuinely believed that Hard mode in all games was unable to be completed without the use of something resembling the Konami Code.

In fact, it wasn’t until I purchased my Xbox 360, and was playing Call of Duty 2 side by side with a similarly newly-consoled friend of mine, that my eyes were opened to the worlds of Hard mode. In Call of Duty, it took on the title of Veteran, and was already more enticing after that mere name change. As I loaded the game and dived in Normal difficulty (by this stage, I felt I had truly graduated to the level of a norm), my friend stopped and stared at me. ‘You don’t play on Veteran? Don’t you want to get the achievements for it?’ I protested that I’d rather have fun finishing the game than spend my time getting frustrated by impossible challenges. ‘Chris, these modes are designed for the likes of you and I. They’re for people who know how to play games.‘ Said friend was a master of encouragement and influence, I must confess, and after not much further debate, I had started a new path towards the world of the ‘Hardcore Gamer’. I was so Hardcore. So very, very Hardcore. You cannot begin to fathom the molecular bonds of that core I had. Bro, it was dense.

This young lad is experiencing some serious PS1-era Fiero
Truth be told, I soon began to revel in the extremes of gaming experiences. I began to see difficulties not so much as a test of my abilities, but rather of my patience. If I kept bashing my head against the problem long enough, I would soon find out exactly how to best it. To those who do not indulge in such behaviors, it sounds frankly ridiculous, but it is rooted deep within our collective psyche. The rewards your brain doles out for accomplishing a tough assignment are addictive. In Reality is Broken by games designer Jane McGonigal, she describes this victorious endorphin release as fiero, Italian for ‘proud’ or ‘fierce’, and without wanting to unveil too much of my sass, I must say that I felt pretty fierce when I overcame the unnecessary obstacles placed before me. Before too long, I played everything on its highest difficulty first, and wrestled each game to put it under my control. I was a wrangler of vidja games, folks. It was during this gaming high-water mark that I ranked #1 in the United Kingdom, #54 in the world at Hexic. I didn’t excel at killing dudes. I excelled at rotating tiles, son.

As time has passed, however, I have incrementally ascended into adulthood and jumped forth into the world of work. Grinding at the ol’ 9-6 leaves me with perhaps two or three hours maximum of game time per evening, and after a hard day’s work, it can sometimes be hard to face the prospect of almost insurmountable obstacles. Where some choose the passivity of television, I am still loyal to my gaming roots, but now I seek out quicker satisfactions. I no longer have time to spend five hours wrapped up in passing an Act in Gears of War. Instead, I have moved into turn-based games, or more particularly games which do not require an inordinate amount of invested time in which to become good at them. While I’m not particularly drawn to them, I have full confidence that my entrails would be strewn amusedly across the ground were I ever foolish enough to try a deathmatch game of Modern Warfare 3. I am no more the Hardcore gamer that I was, but does that make my contribution to gaming any less? Can one be Easycore and proud?

As life moves further on, I expect I’ll eventually be blessed with offspring who will then command even further chunks of my time. Gamer parents in particular humble me with their time management skills. So I put it to you, dear VGW readers: How much time do you spend gaming? And which pressures, if any, do you feel bearing down on you throughout?

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