I grew up playing video games with a nearly religious fervor. I can remember pretending to be sick so I wouldn’t have to go to school and then firing up the Nintendo 64 to play Ocarina of Time all day. The ability to sit down and veg out on games for hours at a time hasn’t left me, and I’ve found that in my mid-twenties I still enjoy a good game as much as when I was a kid, if not more. I enjoy the story, the ability to imagine myself at the center of it, and the sense of accomplishment that comes from slaying the final boss, rescuing the princess, and saving the kingdom.
The one that’s grabbed my attention lately has been a Double Fine Studios game with the title “Massive Chalice.” It’s basically a top-down strategy game that’s very similar to X-Com, from soldier movement to levelling up to combat. I originally beat the game a couple of years ago and put it down, but something kept drawing me back to it. The soundtrack is amazing, an epic collection of tracks, and the graphics, though simple, are appealing.
When I first revisited Massive Chalice, I decided to ramp up the difficulty from “hard” to “brutal” and to play the game on “IRON MODE,” an additional option that disables your ability to manually save. This is as gear-grindingly hard as it sounds. By my count, I’ve had to restart the game an excruciating 20 times (after putting multiple hours in each time) and am still trying to beat the thing on its hardest difficulty. After about five hours worth of playing through my last attempt, I failed once again, threw down the controller, and decided to go on a run. I wasn’t happy, to say the least.
I was mad that I’d just spent five hours of my life doing something that ultimately left me with nothing to show for it when I could have been writing, making music, working out, or even working a side hustle. I was mad that I had “wasted” the day, that it was dark out, and that I could have gone on a run when there was still light. I was mad that I felt I wasn’t disciplined enough to put the game down and just do something else.
Fortunately, exercise — running, specifically — has a way of illuminating mental ground, of making the fog of war in my mind, so to speak, evaporate. It’s a sobering effect. As I was pumping my arms back and forth, kicking pavement, and sweating profusely, I exasperatedly reached the high point of the psychological debate with myself.
“So, was wasting five hours worth it?” I asked myself. “Was it worth sitting around, hacking away at the hardest difficulty setting just so you can experience the challenge?”
I slowed down a bit while my mind processed that last word: “challenge.” It’s a word I haven’t really thought about since I got out of college, and I’ve always associated it with “school.” In grade school, my teachers used to tell my parents that I wasn’t challenged enough. In high school I was constantly “being prepared for life’s challenges.” In college I was told to “turn challenges into opportunities” and was paradoxically “challenged to challenge myself.”
At a certain point it, I think it just became a … word. A word that held no meaning to me anymore and that I eventually disregarded. Don’t get me wrong; I still know words. I have the best words. I just haven’t flirted with the word “challenge” in awhile.
If you Google the word “challenge,” its first definition when used as a verb reads: “invite (someone) to engage in a contest.” So when asking children to challenge themselves, we’re generally asking them to self-engage in a personal contest, to push themselves to do things that they’re not sure they’re even able to do in the first place. My first time ever beating Goldeneye’s Facility level on 00-Agent mode, for example, taught me that I was capable of much more than I ever thought possible. I was 8 years old and realized I had accomplished something even most adults, let alone kids my age, could not and would not do.
In education and in developing children, risk, challenge, and adventure are imperative to successful growth. After we’ve grown up, however, that all goes away. Phrases like “work smarter, not harder,” and “it’s all about the bottom line” pop up more often. Risk, adventure, and especially challenge tend to take a backseat to the miasma of mundanities that permeate adult life.
This isn’t to say that adult life isn’t hard. It’s definitely hard. But there’s a difference between difficult and challenging. Waking up at 6 a.m., being overworked and underpaid, trying to get your bills and your rent and your debt taken care of — all of these things suck. They’re difficult. Unfortunately, they’re also not the types of life activities that feel very rewarding to most. Overcoming the challenge of fighting wave after wave of elite soldiers while you save the planet, on the other hand, feels extremely rewarding and is often perceived as more stimulating than real life.
The second definition of the word challenge reads: “to dispute the truth or validity of.” I bring that up because when we challenge ourselves in the traditional way — when we take risks and go on adventures and engage ourselves in personal contests — we are disputing the truth that lies within ourselves.
During that run, I realized that I crave challenge deeply. When I sit down to play video games, especially on the harder settings, I am pushing myself to do something I’ve yet to do. I am disputing the truth that I am who I think I am, and in accomplishing my feats, I walk away with the knowledge that I’m not. I’m stronger. I’m smarter. Maybe it took trial and error and a couple hours of trying, but there is value in exercising your mind — and maybe this is how counselors could utilize video games for counseling, as self-esteem and confidence building tools. It’s already been proven that gaming trains the hippocampus and can positively impact cognitive ability.
Anyway, in the end, as I found myself running, pondering what it means to be “challenged,” I realized that I didn’t waste those five hours playing Massive Chalice. I spent them that way. In the same way that money spent on experiences makes people happier than money spent on things, even though there’s nothing physical to show for it, my time spent playing games brought me joy. Happiness. Challenge! It may seem like a complete waste to an outsider — but I walked away realizing that I need to build a Crucible in order to overcome the XP problem with my bloodlines. What that actually means, to non-Chalice players, isn’t really important. What’s important is that I solved a puzzle and walked away with knowledge.
So in the end, when I asked myself “was it worth the challenge?” I answered back “yes.” I enjoy playing video games, I don’t let them completely monopolize my ability to challenge myself (like challenging myself to run, for example), and I need more positive challenge in my life.
I’d go so far as to argue that we all do.