Turning Frustration into Fun
I’m currently in the process of attempting to get my mother interested in gaming, and watching her grow into my hobby has been very eye-opening, to say the least. She’s older, pre-dating video games by a fair degree, and while she enjoyed Wii sports, this is the first time she’s been asked to actually use a ‘proper’ controller and navigate a 3D world on her own.
While it would have been good for a brief laugh to put her in front of the TV and pop Grand Theft Auto 4 into the Playstation 3 and watch her struggle, I knew that would be needlessly complicated for her and it’d quickly turn her off gaming for the rest of her days, so instead I’m having her play Littlebig Planet–it’s a easy game with simple controls, a masterfully crafted difficulty curve, and charming ascetics, making it the perfect first game for her.
We play every day, or every other day, as her schedule permits, and it’s been an extremely gratifying experience so far. Her ability to use the controller is improving and it’s interesting to see just how much progress she makes in any given night–when we first started she could barely figure out how to jump right, and it took her nearly an hour to get through the tutorial. But two weeks later, she’s a fair ways into the game and she can do one, maybe two levels a night, occasionally using my help to get her through the trickier parts, although when she does that I insist she complete a challenge mode to keep practicing.
It’s a balance. If I’m going to get her invested into gaming as a hobby, I don’t want to walk her through it until she’s effectively watching me play it for her, but I don’t want her to become so frustrated that she throws a controller at the TV and ruins her night and a perfectly good TV.
It’s this balance that got me thinking about fun and frustration in games, and how they seem to be on two sides of the same coin. Because the mistakes that makes my mother laugh, the first time she makes them, are the same mistakes that cause her to grunt in annoyance and hand the controller to me later. So on the surface it’d be easy to say “Repetition is where the line is at. It’s funny when you get crushed by a giant wheel of fire the first time. It’s frustrating when it happens nine times.”
And this is true. But not satisfying, or complete. because even when she gets past the flaming wheel, she doesn’t find it especially funny when she’s crushed under a giant boot. And it doesn’t even matter how strangely or interestingly she gets killed, if it was her last life and she has to restart, she always groans.
Now, I’m not a psychiatrist by any stretch of the term, so I can’t get into whatever part of the human mind that would be responsible for these knee-jerk reactions, but from what I can observe, one of the key differences between frustration and fun isn’t strictly repetition, but also a feeling like you haven’t made progress, either with the game itself or your ability to overcome obstacles.
Consider a game like Super Meat Boy. The game’s core mechanic is it’s repetition–the stages are short but brutal, and at times a player will die upwards to 30, 40 times before they finally complete the level. It has every potential to be an agonizingly grinding and tiresome experience, and yet, it’s addictive, fresh, and critically acclaimed. Why?
Well, the simple answers are fairly obvious–since the levels are short, repeating the parts you’ve done already doesn’t take much time, and you re-spawn nearly instantly, so there’s effectively no wait between goes. But even with those design choices, the game wouldn’t be immune to frustration–there are half a dozen flash games that play similarly to Super Meat Boy in the above regards and are still controller snappingly frustrating–including, ironically, Super Meat Boy’s prototype, Meat Boy.
But Super Meat Boy does have another feature–when you finally do beat a level, you get a replay where all your attempts play out before you at the same time, and you watch all the times you’ve failed, and just how far each meatboy gets before meeting his doom, as you follow the one meatboy you controlled that reached the end of the stage. Not only is it a heck of a spectacle, it’s a brief testament to just how much you improve through your constant efforts. Through a chronicle written in blood (or meat, if you’d rather), you watch yourself discover the course, it’s secrets, it’s flow, and you can really see how you’ve improved as each individual meat boy gets a little bit farther and farther into the level before meeting his untimely death.
It’s the sense of progression that makes Super Meat Boy such a draw. It takes the frustration we’re bound to feel and turns it on it’s head–we know we’ll be rewarded with that little anthology of our previous efforts if we work hard enough, and the more times you fail, the more spectacular the reward will be. It both advertises your failures as well as comments on your improvement, and that’s an extremely satisfying thing to witness.
So when I play Littlebig Planet with my mom, I be sure to try to emphasize the progress she’s making. Sure, she may get stuck on one small part of a level, but some of the parts she navigated herself this run through were stuff she would of given me to do earlier. While repetition will always be a source of frustration, by pairing it with a feeling of progression, it can be used as the fertilizer to grow more fun!