Last week, I finally wrapped up my first playthrough of XCOM: Enemy Unknown. I ran into a couple of tight spots during my quest to defeat the alien forces, and lost a few good soldiers along the way. But all in all, I found the game to be quite a breeze, with very little to speak of in the way of true challenge. I'm not boasting—far from it, in fact.

You see, I played on Easy mode—and more often than not, I wouldn't have it any other way.

In my experience, the phrase "Easy mode" has an almost universally negative connotation among avid gamers. The silent consensus seems to be that if you're a true gamer, playing on Easy shouldn't even be a consideration. You just don't do it. And if, by chance, you ever did do it, you certainly don't admit to it—at least not where any true gamer might hear you. It's simply a self-evident dictum—the unspoken, unwritten creed of the "hardcore" gamer.

Ah, that devious little H-word. So often we toss it around like it's nothing—sometimes seemingly without even realizing it. The term "hardcore" has become nearly ubiquitous within gamer culture, paradoxically both widely used and generally stigmatized. But I'm not here to debate the term itself, so in the interest of avoiding as much controversy as possible, I won't use it again. Instead, I'll swap it with the less tainted, yet perhaps more appropriate term "serious." As in, "a serious gamer would never play on Easy mode." You know what I mean; wink, wink.

Though our individual opinions on the matter may differ, within our video-game culture there seems to be a certain set of expectations and assumptions about what constitutes a serious gamer. Serious gamers keep up with the latest industry news; serious gamers keep track of upcoming releases; serious gamers are knowledgeable about games, and play games frequently. In short, well, serious gamers take their games seriously.

By extension, it is generally assumed that gamers who are serious about their games naturally crave a challenge, and revel in competition. This console generation in particular has given rise to numerous manifestations of this basic philosophy. Trophies and achievements proclaim to all the world a precise tally of the many in-game challenges a gamer has overcome, while gamerscores and completion percentages provide even more clear-cut fodder for bragging rights. Moreover, the growth of online gaming has laid bare the vast extent of our collective competitiveness: one needs only to consider the astronomical popularity of the Call of Duty franchise, for example—which focuses primarily on competitive multiplayer—to see that much.

But the archetype of the serious, challenge-seeking gamer is by no means a new concept, either. In previous decades, of course, we had no achievements or trophies to mark our exploits, but we still made a point to tell our friends about that insanely hard level, or when we finally triumphed over that particularly troublesome boss.

I can't deny that there is a certain sense of satisfaction and accomplishment that goes along with overcoming a challenge. And for many of us, this is, in a nutshell, what gaming is all about. The notion of challenge is, after all, an integral part of what makes video games what they are. All forms of interactive entertainment hinge upon the fact that they require the player to think, to actively make decisions—and with video games in particular, to exercise their reaction responses and fine motor skills. Ultimately, this interactivity is the reason why video games exist in the first place, and thus, why we tend to pride ourselves on doing these things well.

Within this challenge-centric ideology, the concept of Easy mode is often regarded as little more than a contrived appeal to the "casual" gaming crowd. After all, back in the day, games didn't even have variable difficulty levels—what you got was what you played, and if you were serious about your gaming, you simply rose to the challenge.

Personally, there are a number of reasons why I often choose to play on Easy mode. But in general, it pretty much boils down to this: I don't really care for combat. I have little patience for reloading saves, and even less patience for approaching hostile encounters in a mindfully efficient manner. The way I see it, I'm just trying to get somewhere—to reach the next area, to advance the story, to discover the next secret—and for the most part, combat only slows that down. Thus, I typically try to streamline the process—and switching over to Easy is one of the simplest ways to do that.

But in the midst of a modern gaming culture that strives to accommodate as wide a range of gamers as possible, there are certain games that seem to scoff at the very notion of variable difficulty. And over the past few years, one series in particular has become something of a point of pride among those of us who love a good challenge.

Given what I've said about my overall preferences, one would likely assume that the Souls series would be about the last thing I would ever want to play. And as a matter of general principle, I would completely agree. Nevertheless, I have played Demon's Souls. And what's more—I actually enjoyed it.

Aside from the vague fact that it was an RPG, I can't really say what appealed to me about Demon's Souls. I certainly couldn't tell you what it was that made me want to play it despite the horror stories I'd heard about how god-awfully difficult it was. But I did get it, and I did play it—though it took me the better part of a year to work up the courage to do so.

After dying perhaps a dozen times or so against the first few waves of enemies—and making absolutely zero progress as a result—my nerves had become quite frayed, and my patience was wearing thin. This was not why I played games—but then, I'd known that all along. I started to wonder what on Earth I had been thinking when I'd decided to submit myself to such a ridiculous ordeal.

Yet somehow, I found the determination to soldier on. Instead of the smooth, easy progression I was accustomed to, my advances came in fits and starts. Any meaningful gain seemed to be almost always countered by some grievous failure around the next corner—but on those rare occasions when I did find true success, the mixture of elation and relief that washed over me was intoxicating. Though my ultimate motivations in playing Demon's Souls remained the same as with any other game—to explore unknown worlds, to see stories unfold, to expand my character's power—I also discovered something that I'd never really thought would appeal to me. I realized that a challenging game could be enjoyable.

And ironically, I realized at the same time how much I appreciated the concept of Easy mode. Because the fact is, no matter how much I enjoyed Demon's Souls, it's definitely not the experience I want all the time. Sometimes I just want to sit back, relax, and slaughter some aliens on Easy mode. I love being able to lower a game's difficulty because it gives me the freedom to define my own path, to find a way to enjoy the game that works for me, regardless of what mood I happen to be in.

One of the greatest strengths of video games as an entertainment medium is that there are so many different things to love about them. As gamers, we have the freedom to enjoy our games for whatever reasons we choose. To me, this fundamental idea is the exact reason why the concept of variable difficulty is so important: it grants us the freedom to choose the experience that we want to have.

And if that is not ultimately what gaming is all about, well, then I suppose I don't know what is.

We exist in a gaming culture that both reveres and incentivizes challenge-seeking for its own sake, and glamorizes the individual pursuit of mastery over our games. Within such a culture, the notion of variable difficulty often earns little more than disdain.

As for me, however, I'll gladly seize the opportunity to mold my game into a more enjoyable experience. And speaking of which, it's about time I got back to sneaking and slicing my way through Dishonored.

On Easy, of course.