In Masochistic Twist, the Faster You Die, the More Popular the Game; Failure, in Video Games, Has a Sweet, Addictive Allure

In Masochistic Twist, the Faster You Die, the More Popular the Game

Failure, in Video Games, Has a Sweet, Addictive Allure

MARCH 16, 2014


The popularity of video games is proof that people enjoy having problems. Apparently life isn’t tough enough for those of us who seek amusement in failure’s premiere form of entertainment. Taxes, relationships and health troubles not stressful enough? Play an arduous video game that you’ll fail at in seconds. Millions of people do. They like a challenge. They like to walk into a bit of trouble.

It’s been a good winter to examine the appeal of interactive self-inflicted torment and to try to understand just how gleefully masochistic people who play video games are.

A month ago, the hottest game in the world was Flappy Bird, an excruciatingly difficult mobile game involving the piloting of a bird through narrow gaps. Like many games, dating back to Tetris or Pac-Man, there was no way to win. Success was measured by delaying failure, in staying alive as long as possible. Flappy Bird was so tough that a standard session would last little longer than a bull ride.

Nintendo, a company known for putting smiles on faces, recently released Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, a side-scrolling action adventure more tuned to producing gritted teeth. The company promoted it with a trailer highlighting players’ struggles and offered some unapologetic hype: “It’s really, really, really hard!”

The bleak Demon’s Souls (2009) would be chiseled into any video gaming Mount Rushmore of masochism. That popular home console game casts the player as a vulnerable adventurer in a grim fantasy world of trap-filled castles, murderous monsters, fragile swords and tricky spells. Its players pay to suffer. One edition of its sequel, Dark Souls, bore the subtitle “Prepare to Die.”

Dark Souls players fretted that the latest game in the series, Dark Souls II, released last week, might not be as hostile as previous editions. Perhaps to assuage them, the game’s publisher, Namco, produced a website that tracks players’ in-game deaths: already several million’s worth and climbing rapidlyall the time.

Life would be easier without playing Flappy Bird, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze or Dark Souls II. It would be easier without playing dozens of games in a variety of styles, all designed to give players a tough time. Gamers, however, seem ever more delighted to take this path.

Difficult games are popular in defiance of any expectation that people have an appetite for easy entertainment, and against the march of the medium’s own history. For a couple of decades, video games became easier, drawing criticism from older players that newer titles coddled their users. They became easier in the name of accessibility to broaden their appeal. That has changed in the last half-decade or so as some players have hungered again for a challenge.

This has felt like a correction, or at least a clarification, of what was good in a form of entertainment that consistently taxed its audience. The new tough games have become the hyper-examples of the value of all video games to present problems and invite players to find solutions.

In Dark Souls II, for example, every death is a learning experience that teaches players about the speed of their characters, the location of enemies, the weight of a sword or the effectiveness of a spell. The game’s most important quality might be its fairness, its avoidance of what gamers might call “cheap” deaths in exchange for offering a difficult yet consistent and comprehensible world. That fairness encourages perseverance.

Difficult games also bring warmth to what can be an icy experience. It’s fun to commiserate about a tough game and enjoyable to troubleshoot a solution. After all, who doesn’t love giving advice? Imagine earning points for doing so. Imagine being alerted when someone heeds your wise words and appreciates them.

That’s not real life, but it is possible in the Souls games. While they are largely single-player games, they allow people to scrawl hints into the virtual world’s terrain. Those hints appear in others’ copies of the game. A preset batch of phrases lets players warn one another of ambushes and traps, among other hazards. Some players use these tools to deceive one another, but a rating system incentivizes nonlethal help. There’s a special thrill to struggling through a tough part of Dark Souls II and then being notified that someone else in the world just saw a helpful message you left in the game and gave it a thumbs up. You just made someone’s life easier.

In video games, we find tribulations we can conquer with practice, sweat and, sometimes, the aid of others. We invite their troubles because we are promised solutions. The tougher games are, the more exciting our success will be.

Watch a reel of a Dark Souls II player’s consecutive deaths, and you’ll witness improvement. You’ll see proof that, in failure, we can learn how to do better. Such challenges might be dispiriting to players conditioned by many modern games to feel powerful and never die. Easier games such as Grand Theft Autoand Call of Duty remain more popular. But Dark Souls II and its like exhilaratingly provide the appeal of avoiding danger by inches. Survival is less an accident than the product of purposeful play, of entering a strange world with cautious respect. Check the equipment. Peer into the shadows. Take it slowly. Remember the lessons of your last failure. You will succeed this time, or maybe the next. If only real life so consistently rewarded such diligence.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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