Tobold's Blog
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.

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I don’t think this works for the majority of people. I don’t doubt that many people could learn to play Souls games well if they invested 700 hours into it. But most people are unlikely to do so, especially in this modern world where “attention deficit” is a recognized disease.
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@Jerwin What happened? I might not be the greatest fan of Souls-like game, but I appreciate your insights into the genre.
So I actually think Eldenring is a good example of a game that has both reaction and knowledge based difficulty but can shift based on player choice.

Certain builds will need good player reaction all game long while others can entirely ignore that aspect of the game.

With enough game knowledge, reaction times can become a non issue as the player can knows all the encounters.

A player with 0 game knowledge could struggle at Margit for hours meanwhile a player with lots of game knowledge can become overpowered in 30 minutes and kill Margit in 2-3 hits.

I personally enjoy games where knowledge translates to power and find them more rewarding then twitchy reaction based games.
@Tobold I felt that I was selling the Souls series too hard. As popular as the series may be, ultimately they are just games. Like with other media, I believe that a player's experience should be personal to them. As such, I do not wish to "force" my personal experience on others. I'm happy to answer questions, but I'd recommend that players try it for themself, and come to their own conclusion if it is worthwhile to them.
Sure, games are designed as an entertainment product.

Perhaps in the future we will have an AI that will generate a game custom tailored to your tastes, something like:
graphic engine -> Starfield,
visual style -> Bloodborne,
gameplay -> GoW 2018,
with adventure similar to Neverwinter Nights

But before that happens - satisfaction is not guaranteed.

I know developers started implementing "story mode", but I'm actually ignorant on the usefulness of it, because I use "[Insert Game Name Here] walkthrough no commentary" for games that I'm convinced I would not enjoy playing myself.
Maybe this PlayStation commercial was right all along -
Jerwin: "I felt that I was selling the Souls series too hard."

No, I think you added a valuable perspective to the topic. Like you said, you used the easiest mode to play games but Souls changed that by forcing you to approach that game and other games in a different way.
Which is what I believe games should do: challenge us and our abilities, make us think creatively and push us.
The level of difficulty will be different for everybody and something too easy will be to hard for the next. But I don't think there can be a "one game fits all" approach because that allows players to find the solution in dropping the difficulty at the first sign of "too hard" instead of looking for an ingame solution.
@Tobold I would love it if, as an example, Returnal gave me a difficulty slider so I could finally get past the first boss after three years of periodically trying and failing, but I do not have a problem with the idea that game designers should decide to set difficulties according to the needs of their game and vision. Souls games as a genre are an example of where difficulty is one-setting and baked in. I am always unhappy about this because Souls games are so very, very close to the kinds of adventure games I want to play and enjoy, so I find myself having to pass over many games I would like to play because I just lack the time, patience and internal sense of accomplishment necessary to dedicate to them (my internal sense of accomplishment tells me beating a souls game is a mark of failure in life, not success). Then I will accidentally buy a game like Thymesia not realizing it is a souls game and get quite irritated that I wasted the money (or if I'm lucky I get a refund). But this is a "me" problem and I do not feel the souls genre of games and developers owe me anything other than a proper ad copy explaining what their game is. I can go play a metric ton of other titles that do provide difficulty sliders, or which are by default better for my particular temperament and dexterity.

Side note Tobold-Your first couple of paragraphs about much more serious issues on equality vs. equity and the problems faced with how both the right and left have co-opted and misinterpret King's own words are interesting but maybe deserving a more sober conversation elsewhere, as I don't think they do the much more trivial topic of game difficulty any justice here (and vice versa), and the problem of game difficulty is at best tertiary to the notion of meaningful human rights and recognition.
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