Difficulty in video games is something that has, unfortunately, fallen by the wayside in favor of mass appeal and a low barrier to entry. While accessibility is an excellent concept that more core games need to embrace, accessibility at the cost of difficulty is a ruinous trend that only serves to remove the unique immersion that video games provide. Without difficulty and challenge, immersion and true “flow” are impossible to achieve, and as games become easier and simpler, developers have forgotten just how important difficulty truly is.
Difficulty in games is comparable to suspense in film, as they both serve the same basic function: the establishment of tension. Without adversity or suspense in a film, you’ll never be on the edge of your seat wondering what will happen next. Similarly in video games, a lack of difficulty translates to a lack of immersion and what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to as “flow”. Csikszentmihalyi (no, that’s not a typo) argues that true happiness comes from a conscious and absolute connection with any particular activity that requires mental and physical immediacy, such as video games. In fact, the primary difference between lazily enjoying a game and becoming fully absorbed in its intricacies is, simply, flow.
Without a binding or enrapturing element in any form of interactive media that aims for immersion, flow is unattainable. The very best video games understand this, and wield difficulty as a powerful tool that allows players to consistently suspend their disbelief and connect with their in-game avatar. When every button press could mean the difference between life and death in Dark Souls, or a slight hesitation could send you back to a tough checkpoint in Halo 4 on Legendary, you pay attention. Every ounce of focus is spent trying to succeed, and you forget for an absolutely savory period of time that, in actuality, you are sitting in your living room, controller in hand, staring at a bunch of flashing images on a TV screen.
Without flow, without difficulty, games cease to provide meaningful and memorable experiences. Scalability is, of course, crucial to working the delicate balancing act that is accessibility and intensity, but ignoring the necessity of dynamic and challenging artificial intelligence or adversarial environments to better reach a wider audience only detracts from the experience. Of course, an engrossing narrative and sense of purpose are equally important, but making gamers forget for but a moment what they are truly doing is the most powerfully successful form of game design. Without meaningful and actual difficulty, video games as an entertainment medium fail to reach their attainable potential, and developers should remember to invest as many resources into challenge as they do graphics and sound design.