How the computer game industry has redefined success and failure over the years.

Computer games have evolved significantly over the last quarter century and those changes have not been random.  Not everyone knows, but if you played computer games on a very high difficulty level then you would know that the very definition of success has evolved repeatedly.  However, now we have a chance to define for ourselves what success is.

When playing games at a very high difficulty level achieving victory conditions becomes very difficult.  The computer will not only play to the best of its abilities but would also regularly cheat by receiving more resources, units and have knowledge that it shouldn’t possess.  Success is usually defined as reaching the maximum possible level and eliminating your opponents or finishing a quest line.  However, how to get there has changed over the years:

  • 25-15 years ago: make one mistake and you have to load from a previous point
  • 15-5 years ago: as long as you put time in, you will always have a stronger character / army
  • 5 years ago: play short 30 minute daily missions
  • present: revisiting old / retro games with a fresh perspective and redefining success

The “impossible” setting:

In the beginning, the only way to truly challenge yourself playing a computer game was to set the game on “impossible” difficulty level.  However, this presented a dilemma, it was impossible to recover from a mistake.  Sending troops in the wrong direction, failing to supply battle lines or losing health to a powerful attack meant that you were done for.  Even though you were not knocked out right away you were still a goner.  They game would continue but you have 0% chance of winning.

What does the “impossible” setting say about us?  It is similar to a classroom setting when there is no extra credit.  You can always get a bad grade and you can never get the points you lost back.  This is an environment that doesn’t encourage experimentation and people are punished for deviating from the proven strategies that work.

In gaming, this created a save-and-load mentality.  If something went wrong, you had to have a “save point” that you can go back to, effectively, going back in time.  However, in real life you can’t do that, so it teaches people to either not try or to make sure to have someone to blame if things go wrong.  The save-and-load method of playing creates a what-if mentality which makes the person always question their every decision, leaving them to wonder if they could have chosen, or “played” a situation better, but without the ability to go back in time to a previously saved point.

The “hardcore” setting:

The ultimate expression of the “impossible” setting came with the Diablo series and its “hardcore” mode.  One miss-click, one tiny mistake, and your character would be gone forever.  There was no redo, and even real life money would not bring your character back from the beyond.

Playing on “hardcore” had one advantage, it was impossible to go back to a saved position.  This mode was a rebellion against the save-and-load style of decision making but took the punishment of making mistakes to the extreme.

The “impossible” mode created a generation of gamers with a completely skewed understanding of success.  Success in real life is never being 100 percent all the time.  For example, if you are a salesperson you will never convert 100% of your leads into sales.  If you are a professional baseball player, you will not connect with all of your swings.  Yet for 15 years computer games (and the western school system) taught us that success is being 100% all of the time, or else you get penalized.  However, in real life such a level of success is unattainable.

If you play it you will advance:

After a few decades media companies figured out that there was money to be made with computer games, but games had to be made more widely accessible.  As a result, a new model for achieving success was created: as long as the player put the time in, their character/empire/ship/etc… will always become better.  This was a complete rejection of “impossible” and “hardcore” modes and interestingly enough, a rejection of the save-and-load model as well.  If over time your character always became better, why would you ever go back in time to a previous saved point?

Therefore suddenly gaming evolved from a system that viciously punished mistakes and experimentation to a system where every decision made would be a good one.  Arguably, some decisions are better than others but to the casual gamer that would not even be apparent.

So over 25 years, the computer game industry went from one unrealistic model of defining success where 100% was always expected from the player, took it to the extreme with “hardcore” mode where a single bad decision lead to certain doom and then made a complete reversal with an even more ridiculous model where every decision was a good one.

Success is the ability to move from one failure to another without loss of enthusiasm. – Winston Churchill

There is a new trend in computer gaming to remake old classics to work with newer devices such as Xbox and iPad.  This offers a unique opportunity to gamers and people looking for a challenge alike.  Everyone now has a chance to play the classical games where there were bad decisions but redefine the very definition of success.  What if you played at a slightly lower difficulty setting but purposely accepted the mistakes that you will inevitably make and try to recover?  What if you don’t win, but realize that with the limited resources you had you put up a great fight without constantly saving and loading?

With the advent of retro gaming, we now have the opportunity to approach gaming from a different angle.  For example, the recently released Rome: Total War for iPad is a monstrously difficult game, but who cares if you conquer all of Europe or not?  If you know that you pushed yourself to your limit and did the best you could is that not enough?  We can now redefine the very definition of “success” for computer games and our daily lives.

1 Comment on How the computer game industry has redefined success and failure over the years.

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