The thought here is old: Practice makes perfect. But it’s amazing that something a lot more recreational than, say, practicing piano imparts similar lessons about diligent repetition. Playing this game, this hard game, reminded me that “trying it again” was not weird or a waste of time: It was the best and perhaps only way for me to become the kind of person capable of going down these hills on a bike. Mastery requires error and segmented iteration. This isn’t some wooly life lesson. It’s simple, practical advice that I learned by realizing that I had to dive here, no here, no, here to take out the guy with the howitzer.
Games have unique influence because we do them, and doing them can change us. Being hard isn’t the only way games can use doing to trigger growth. 2011’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution broke my heart by dramatizing the weight of non-repeatable choice. My decision to let some hostages die affected how other characters perceived me for hours of subsequent play: I lived with shame and vowed to redeem it. But games’ most potent pedagogical tool is their ability to be hard: to demand that we learn and improve if we want to be rewarded. (You can always ratchet down the difficulty settings, of course. But cakewalks don’t build character, weakling.)
Let’s be clear: None of this teaching need come at the expense of pleasure. Max Payne 3 is fun. Bonkers fun. The point, as Bleszniski says, is that games should ask something of us. Big games that don’t require us to do anything—ones that are just shattered movies that we walk around in—forgo one of the medium’s best attributes. Not every game need be as difficult as Max Payne 3, but the light expectations that many of today’s AAA titles place on players—long-familiar play mechanics, few real challenges—deprive us of things we may not even know we’re missing.
So ratchet up that difficulty to your personal max. Find a game that’s set forums alight with frustrated invective. Oh, you’ll yell. But you’ll finish with something to carry, maybe right up into the mountains.