Saturday, February 03, 2024
Equity vs. Equality in game difficulty
If you follow the history of the progressive movement over the last century, you will find that at some point there was a shift of focus. For a long time the progressive movement had been a fight for equality, demanding that everybody had equal chances. Thus Martin Luther King's speech, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.". During the celebration of the 60th anniversary of that speech, it was rather obvious that this line was deliberately not mentioned, and that progressives when asked about it said that MLK hadn't meant it that way. Because the progressive movement now was *against* equality, and for equity, demanding that the outcome for everybody should be the same. Thus progressives these days want very much that little children will be judged by the color of their skin, and be given a leg up with "affirmative action" based on that. In social matters, like education, equity instead of equality is heavily disputed; it can lead to other minorities, like Asian Americans, being discriminated against, and some people (some of which black) argue that you don't actually help a black kid if you give it college degree with lowered standards.
I was thinking of that when my previous post lead to a discussion of whether a game should have a fixed difficulty, or whether difficulty should be variable and possible to be individually set by the player. Do we want each player to have equal conditions to succeed in a game, or do we want equal outcomes?
I think the key here is to consider the consequences. I can understand the argument in the case of education that if you abandon standards, the outcome might be more satisfying for the teacher ("all my students passed the grade") than for the pupil ("but I still can't spell right"). Having some sort of paper saying that you "passed" this or that school only gets you so far; at some point in a job your actual skills are being tested by reality, and if you can't meet certain real world standards, you aren't going to be very successful in that job or in life. But the very definition of "playing" and "games" is that it is an activity without consequences. Whether you are able or not to beat a certain game doesn't have much influence on your success in life or your job. In fact I have seen some video game content creators and video game journalists, where watching footage of them playing a game revealed that they weren't actually very good at it.
Many of our ideas of "fairness" in games comes in fact from sports. Which is somewhat misleading, because in my opinion the Olympic Games aren't "games" at all. Sports generally are based on equality rather than equity. In a race, everybody starts at the same time from the same starting line. The predictable consequence is that the age distribution at the Olympics and other athletics events is rather narrow. Too young, and your body hasn't fully developed enough to be able to compete, too old, and your body is already past its prime. Of course that depends on how much the particular sport depends on athlete fitness, there are older Olympians for example in equestrian disciplines. But even in chess age plays a role, and cognitive decline results in most grandmasters peaking in their 30's.
Video games can be "sports", thus the existence of esports and competitive multiplayer games. But many video games are either single-player, or offer both single- and multi-player options. They aren't necessarily designed to be competitive. They are designed as an entertainment product. One commenter mentioned the common experience created by two players playing the same video game at the same difficulty level. But I would question whether that is true. Wouldn't a grandma who tried Elden Ring as her first video game have a very, very different experience with the game than her grandkid who already played all other Souls games? The only games where everybody would have a common experience is rather linear games, walking simulators without much challenge. As soon as you introduce challenge into a game, you get a very different experience based on ability. That might be cognitive, a typical problem of Paradox games that are too complex for many players, or based on reaction time. There has been a large amount of scientific literature showing that a) reaction time of different people is different, and b) reaction time declines with age. The time a video game gives you to make a jump or react to an attack is somewhat arbitrary, but for some people it will be well within their capabilities, and for other people it will be not.
I have seen games, I think it was from the Call of Duty series, in which your reaction time and performance was tested in some sort of tutorial, and the game then suggested a difficulty level to you based on that performance. The idea here is clearly that people would be more likely to have a common experience and enjoyment of a game when they would be challenged to the same degree. Because if you are too slow to ever kill Margit, your experience of Elden Ring will definitely not be the common experience of the people who have faster reaction times. Now I used cheat codes to play Elden Ring, because otherwise I wouldn't have been able to see most of that game. But cheat codes, and even difficulty settings designed by the game developers, tend to be just a crutch. I have yet to see a game difficulty setting or cheat code which would just directly make the game some percent slower, so as to directly compensate slower reaction time. So this isn't a perfect solution either.
However, at the end of all of these considerations, I would say that many modern video games have some sort of story arc, or series of challenges. They are fundamentally somewhere between a game and a movie or book. And while not everybody chooses to play a game until the end, there is an argument to be made that everybody *should* at least be able to reach the end of a game. Thus many games today have "story mode" difficulty settings, that are easy enough for nobody to be excluded from progressing to the end of the story by some arbitrary challenge. Which still comes closer to a common experience of the game than some person playing it to the end, and another being prevented from progressing past a certain point due to a lack of ability. In games, as an entertainment product, equal outcomes might be better than equal opportunities.