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Opinion: Why Do We Let Video Games Break Our Spirit?

I had a great weekend; I spent some time hanging with friends, went to a food truck festival, and played a bunch of video games. Even so, by the end of Sunday night I felt deflated and humbled. The reason was XCOM.

Video games help fulfill our desire to feel accomplished and worthwhile. Some of my most memorable accomplishments have come after taking down a particularly challenging boss or solving an obscure puzzle. Conversely, when I'm unable to overcome a challenging sequence in a game, I often feel worthless. This is what happened to me late last night.

I love Firaxis' recent XCOM reboot – I adore the game so much that I recently went back to try an Ironman playthough of the game on the hardest difficulty. That difficultly mode is called Impossible, and after last night, I'm convinced that it really is. Early on in the game, I ran into a group of Thin Men, and as I moved my squad to flank them, I accidentally alerted two more groups of enemies. My eager hunt for alien blood quickly turned into a human slaughter. I lost all four of my commandos who had actually survived long enough to achieve a respectable rank.

I tried not to let this little setback dishearten me too much, and immediately started another playthough. I fared even worse the second time around; on my second mission I watched the alien invaders cut through full cover and systematically take out my entire squad. On the third mission, my rookies freaked out and started to fire at one another. After, three hours with XCOM, I felt like I had made no headway into the game and was ready to throw my keyboard at the wall. Even so, I spent the rest of the night dreaming about moving soldiers into cover and sniping grey-headed aliens. This morning I was even thinking about how I could change my tactics when I make another run at Impossible Ironman again tonight.

Why am I doing this to myself?

I've beaten a lot of games over the years, but sometimes the games beat me. Still, I've never been entirely turned off by hard games. I crave the challenge, because overcoming those trials is even more rewarding. Now, I have nothing against easy games. Some of my most memorable gaming experiences have been with easier titles where you can't really die, such as Journey, BioShock, Kirby's Epic Yarn, and Gone Home. But those games don't prevent me from craving the rewards of a real challenge.

As humans, we're tempted to think that we don't like to be challenged, because a challenge requires effort. However, any gamer will also tell you that we love leveling up. We have an innate desire to feel like we're growing and becoming more adept. This kind of growth only occurs when we challenge ourselves. Video games tap into this psychological need to grow in our accomplishment. Most modern games are balanced to deliver a nice reward after a little bit of effort. However, some games strike a different balance, offering up insane challenges in order to deliver a greater sense of achievement when we overcome them. (I'm not taking into account poorly designed games, which you should just avoid anyway.)

Keep this in mind next time you're about to go into a rage over a game. The reason you're so upset is because the game has challenged your assumptions about your own sense of self worth. You feel like should be able to overcome whatever challenge the game has set in front of you, and if you fail to achieve those goals then you might feel like the "game is cheating," or "I'm worthless, and suck at everything." You might get angry. You might want to break something. Don't. The game isn't cheating, and you don't suck at everything. The game is doing what it's suppose to do; it's appealing to your desire to feel accomplished. It's also a game – it's a safe environment designed to test your cognitive thinking and reflexes (among other things). If you feel like the game you're playing is doing more harm to your psyche than good, then take a break, play something that will give you that sense of reward, and maybe come back to that other game later.

Now if you'll excuse me, there are some aliens with whom I need to settle a score.

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