The Perfect Difficulty Level

Today’s lecture got me thinking about the dynamics of difficulty in gaming juxtaposed with how this helps or hinders the learning process through games. This also relates to how we treat difficulty levels in the classroom. I first thought of some recent PS3 games called Demon Souls and Dark Souls. These game’s have been touted as some of the hardest games ever released to modern gaming consoles. There’s not even a pause button enabled for the user.  If you are in the middle of fighting a boss and have to go to the bathroom or deal with some other distraction, forget about it. Reviewers and players around the web have often applauded this strategy of game making. Getting past even the weakest of enemies feels like a major accomplishment. However, there is also a large group of players who are frustrated with this approach. This reviewer really liked the game, but couldn’t actually finish it on time for the review deadline. Nonetheless, he reccomended it for those who like a “stiff challenege”. He noted that the whole point of the game is that “You’re supposed to get up, dust yourself off, learn why you died there, and then come back in a soul form, doing your best not to die there again.” Thus, the game really moves forward with that idea your parents have always been trying to drill into your head: if you try hard enough, you will succeed. Its clear that people are very polorized in their opinions on whether or not this works (see here and here). If the player becomes too frustrated because their endeavors are seemingly never paying off, is the learning component rendered null? This more or less feels a lot like how the education system works today. If you fail your test, you have to look it over, find on what you did wrong, and figure out how to do better on the next one. But if a class or a game is too much for someone be it because their skill or knowledge level is too low, then this system more or less collapses.

Dark Souls Trailer [Warning: a bit creepy]

Cue the idea of “Dynamic game difficulty balancing also known as dynamic difficulty adjustment (DDA) or dynamic game balancing (DGB)…the process of automatically changing parameters, scenarios, and behaviors in a video game in real-time, based on the player’s ability, in order to avoid them becoming bored (if the game is too easy) or frustrated (if it is too hard).” [Source: Wikipedia]. This is used in certain games nowadays and enables the “just right” level of difficulty that was touched on in class. It made me think of Madden with the “My Skill” mode that alters the difficulty of the game based on how you have been playing and fairing against the game’s competition. I haven’t played the newest iteration of the game, but I remember the system being slightly flawed (one instance I would get badly beaten by the game and the next I would easily win with this cycle endlessly repeating). Is this the better way for games to function? Does one method foster the learning component more? And could an approach like this latter one work as a substitute for the current education system?  These are some tough questions to work out but are interesting to consider going forward, especially as technology enables these techniques further and as our understanding of such processes develop.

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. enreamer
    Jan 13, 2012 @ 14:17:02

    The idea of a system that changes difficulty based on the player’s ability is an interesting one. I wonder what impact this type would have on the player. Does the difficulty still grow slowly, encouraging the player to continue learning skills but in a safer environment with less opportunities for failure, or, if the player loses motivation to continue learning how to master the skills necessary in the game because the game removes the challenge of increasing difficulty, does the player stop learning from the game and simply continue playing the same way that he or she always has? If you, or anyone else, has played a game like this, what impact did it have on you?


  2. seangordon
    Jan 18, 2012 @ 15:20:42

    Good question. In the case of the Madden game that I touched on above, the system was flawed. You’d play some games that were really easy and then the game would get too hard. It couldn’t seem to find a happy medium. And I think the problem with a sports game like that is, there may be a ceiling as to how good you can actually become at the game. Perhaps you could continue to improve your skill at choosing the right play for certain game conditions, however, like real life sports, you are more or less at the mercy of the other team if they are significantly better than you. Mario Kart was another game that would provide a loser of a race with better “power-ups” that they would be less likely to get if they were winning. These better power-ups would give you an advantage to catch up. However, in this case there are no apparent educational values. Its more just giving all players a fair chance to win. I’d be curious to see if others have had different experiences with this phenomenon.


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