I wanted to touch on a subject here that’s been a sore spot for me since I watched a flamewar brew over it years ago. The concept that playing a game – any game – on anything less then it’s most punishing, hardcore difficulty is somehow wrong drives me insane.

Games are interactive, that’s their key advantage over movies, television, radio, music, books, and most any other media. Games should not be ‘watched,’ they should be played, therefore there has to be a challenge. There needs to be something to work for to make the games worth the time invested. However, what that challenge is and how big it should be is what I’m going to discuss here. Games with no challenge whatsoever or nothing to strive for aren’t really fun to me. If the game doesn’t allow me to use a modicum of skill and know-how then it may as well be just a video. I don’t debate that playing games with hand-holding and training wheels depreciates their value.

I do however argue against the idea that unless the game makes you suffer for failure, then it’s not worth playing. Having to restart from the beginning of the game if you fail a level in a platformer, losing your hard-earned XP and loot on death in an RPG… those and other archaic forms of padding out a game’s play time drive me nuts. Also irritating are games that put up barriers to story progression that require an arm and a leg to pass. Just to be clear, I’m not referring to things like raiding/dungeon tiers in MMORPGs. Those are designed for a certain kind of gamer and aren’t required for the average player. If you want to take part in them you can, and if you don’t want to you aren’t forced to. The rewards for instances in an MMORPG are usually nice but are often used primarily to take on more difficult challenges. If you aren’t doing instances, you don’t need that gear, so it doesn’t hurt you. Sure, you might not be as well equipped as those who do partake, but again you don’t need to be.

I don’t have a problem with games who like that kind of thing, and in fact am often impressed at their skill. What bothers me is the occasional outspoken specimen who feels the desire to rip on those who don’t want to use their game time as some kind of combination Mensa test/digital Olympics. Personally, I take my free gaming time (as in, when I’m not playing something for this site) as a time of relaxation. I don’t always want to be pushed to my limits. Sometimes I just want to see the bots in Unreal Tournament get gibbed all over the map instead of playing Team Fortress 2 to take on those Teenage Mutant Ninja Cyborgs I tend to meet online.

The gamer who likes the play-until-it-hurts difficulty is a significant part of the game community, but is becoming an endangered species due to the all-inclusive mentality of developers. This is a sad development because if they’re trying to include as many gamers as possible, then you have to offer a stiff challenge for those who want it, along with the more mainstream level of difficulty. I think of Mass Effect 3 when I think of good examples of all-inclusive gameplay. There’s an action mode for focusing on just the combat, a normal mode for vets of the series and the average gamer, and a story/narrative mode that allows less experienced gamers to still enjoy the game without the fear of being blown away in the shooting sections.

I’m glad there are those out there who are able to push themselves to master hardcore gaming, but I’m also glad that I’m not required to play at their level. I’m also thankful that all games aren’t casual Flash-based Facebook/Zynga style titles (yet). I just wish that the noisy members of the “I like it hard” crowd would leave the average gamer be about failing to play right. Thankfully they’re in the minority and this doesn’t seem to be the issue it was when I bore witness to that flamewar all those years ago.

That can only be a good thing.