Game difficulty settings: safeguards or gatekeepers?

It’s no wonder that the debate about difficulty settings in videogames is reignited whenever games like Hades, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, and Dark Souls are released. As with all titles in genres dubbed ‘masocore’ and ‘soulslike’ — videogames where surviving and winning a game is engineered to be difficult — their core gameplay revolves around timing and precision. Players must spend hours to truly master the games’ controls before being able to progress to other levels.

Often, players who object to the prospect of difficulty settings being implemented in these types of games see it as something that will dilute the game’s ‘true’ experience. Responding to the inclusion of an easy mode in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice in late 2019, David Thier wrote:

There’s a lot of talk about ‘respecting the player’ when it comes to not including an easy mode, an idea that all players can and should play this game in this particular, punishing way. And yet I think the lack of an easy mode showcases the exact opposite. It shows an almost stunning lack of respect for players with the idea that they cannot be trusted with their own gameplay experience, that even those who want a challenging game would somehow be lured by the siren song of lower difficulties and destroy their own experience because they’re too impatient or immature to know what they actually want.

Players may have several different ways that they’d like to customise gameplay for themselves. The suggestion that there is only one ‘true’ experience of a game also suggests that there is a single homogenous audience that the game should mainly cater to. This presents the question: what constitutes a ‘real gamer’, and who gets to label themselves as such? And in turn, what makes for an ‘authentic’ gameplay experience?

While games are often seen as something stereotypically geared towards men, the presumption that games have always been the domain of male players is erroneous. As pointed out by Brendan Keogh, the term ‘gamer’ was only coined in the 80s and 90s after a push through gaming magazines and marketing to transform games into the domain of teenage boys:

From the mid-80s onwards, the ‘gamer’ identity was created and cultivated as a particular target consumer base through gaming magazines and marketing. For the nerdy kids that could self-identify as gamers, it was something to embrace, something to be, and, for the videogame publishers, it was a known, homogenous group that can easily be marketed to. They were sold an identity, they took it, and it persists today: ‘I’ve been a gamer my whole life.’ Or, alternatively, think of how many people feel the need to caveat any comment on videogames with, ‘I’m not a gamer, but…’ The imprinting of a ‘gamer’ identity was so complete that those who aren’t gamers felt unable to comment on games.

There is extensive research that shows that a significant percentage of people who enjoy games are in fact women, and, while many games have traditionally featured muscular men as the lead, in August 2021, Quantic Foundry published results of a study indicating that one in three men prefer playing as female characters. In light of this, some have questioned the industry’s use of the label ‘gamer’ and whether it’s still relevant. Elle McCarthy, the Vice President of Brand at Electronic Arts (EA), recently questioned whether the term was useful at all in a marketing context:

I often get asked about how brands can partner with gaming or talk to gamers—but there’s really no such thing as gamers at all and understanding that will be crucial. Did you know that only 14% of players self-identify as gamers and that is as low as 6% for women?

When it comes to gameplay experience, it’s clear that there’s no one-size-fits-all either. One of the most noticeable examples is the boom in popularity of ‘cozy games’ during the pandemic, demonstrating that there is significant demand for non-achievement-oriented virtual gameplay formulas. In this genre, there’s a conscious move towards non-violent gaming premises that aren’t focused on winning. This gameplay structure is at odds with the stereotypical image of male players who supposedly favour combative and violent gameplay. There’s also been a sharp increase in games that offer safe spaces for underrepresented groups like the queer community. Hit games like Dream Daddy: Dating Simulator and Best Friend Forever, for example, provide safe in-game spaces for queer players to express themselves.

All this indicates that the traditional 80s and 90s notion of the ‘true’ male gamer and their gameplay experience is shifting, revealing a broader spectrum of diverse players with a range of preferred playstyles. This shift is an important consideration when it comes to understanding the debate around difficulty settings.

Many argue that the value of not including difficulty settings is to provide a single unified experience where perseverance and a resulting sense of accomplishment is key. Writing about difficulty settings in soulslike games on Fextralife, Senior Editor Castielle wrote:

‘Easy Mode’ is used interchangeably with accessibility but that does not always mean better for everyone or anyone. For example a lot of players would even argue that Dark Souls 3 was dangerously close to becoming too “accessible” simply because there were so few new mechanics to uncover and the challenging boss encounters were optional. This diminished the community feel of accomplishment that titles like Demon’s Souls and Bloodborne brought home so well.

Similarly, FromSoftware —the developers of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twicestated that their main reason for not including difficulty settings was to provide an experience that would be identical across the board for players:

We don’t want to include a difficulty selection because we want to bring everyone to the same level of discussion and the same level of enjoyment. So we want everyone … to first face that challenge and to overcome it in some way that suits them as a player.

However, the introduction of difficulty settings by no means erases the ‘intended’ or most difficult gameplay mode. If you’re able to play a game on its hardest difficulty setting, why oppose the introduction of easier or alternative levels as optional extras? While countless games, from the Witcher franchise to recent releases like The Outer Worlds, include a ‘story difficulty’ setting for those who wish to experience the game’s narrative without a focus on combat, many titles also include a short explanation accompanying the developer’s ‘intended’ experience setting. Those keen to experience the developer’s favoured setting are free to do so, and the presence of different difficulty settings will not alter their gameplay.

So, if difficulty settings don’t hinder players from accessing the intended experience crafted by game developers, what’s truly the point of the difficulty debate? While for many, the discussion may just be about personal preferences, for some it’s a way to resist change in the gaming landscape. As Stacey Henley recently pointed out in TheGamer, it’s easy for purists to see difficulty settings as a tool to measure your ‘gaming worthiness’:

[Difficulty settings have] become a strange measure of ‘gamerness’, a gatekeeping tool that rises as high as the current gatekeeper can manage the difficulty on.

Whatever your position, it’s clear that the definition of what constitutes a gamer and the debate on difficulty settings are intertwined. The gaming industry has already started shifting its focus to include more diverse audiences. However resistant ‘traditional gamers’ may be, difficulty settings have well and truly arrived and are here to stay. For plenty of people who don’t fit the stereotypical gamer mould, that’s a good thing.


Image: a screen shot from Dark Souls III

Lise Leitner

Lise Leitner is a games and fiction writer and communications professional based in Melbourne. They've published short stories, games, and scripts, and regularly review games for Checkpoint on Joy94.9. They're currently working as 15 Minutes of Game's Marketing and Community Manager on the studio's upcoming title, Trash, and have also contributed to the game's narrative. Lise sometimes tweets about stuff @lisekarel.

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