Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” – Matthew 19:26
I have an odd relationship with difficulty. Sometimes it just frustrates me. I play most shooters and other action games as well as most story-based RPGs on “normal” or “easy.” I tend to get annoyed when I’m playing a digital card game and the random number generator seems to favor the computer’s draws more often than not. But there are times when that falls away. I tend to thrive on a certain amount of pressure at work (even if most of it is internal), I love the feeling I get when I figure out a solution to a real-world problem, and I definitely like some more difficult gaming experiences.
I think the difference is that there is more than one kind of difficulty. One type represents being inadequate in some way I’m unable to overcome. This type of difficulty manifests in being shafted by a random number generator, being unable to twitch fast enough in a FPS or RTS to do anything but die, or even encountering an unexpected and unavoidable traffic jam on the way to work. I can’t control the random number generator, as I age, my reflexes aren’t going to get any faster, and there is no amount of good planning that will save me from the consequences of someone else, 20 minutes ahead of me, getting into an accident that snarls traffic in all directions.
The other type, however, comes from inexperience and invites growth. Some of my favorite gaming experiences have come from this type of difficulty. Way back in the late 1990s, Jagged Alliance 2 kept me on my toes and I moved a rag-tag squad of mercenaries around a map trying to liberate the oppressed country of Arulco. That game is really tough, but the toughness feels fair; enemies are subject to the same rules as you, and while they often have better numbers and equipment, they are seldom any match on a personal prowess level for your team. In addition, staying calm and using solid tactics will usually be enough to get you out of all but the thorniest jams. XCOM: Enemy Within plays out in a very similar manner, as do a number of other great turn-based strategy games I’ve played over the years.
Two more good examples are the entire roguelike and rogue-lite genre cluster and Lords of the Fallen, which I’m playing in preparation for taking a crack at a Dark Souls game. Like the aforementioned turn-based strategy games, they give you a consistent set of rules that everything in the world plays by, then puts you in a set of circumstances designed to test how well you can work within those rules. As you play, you can feel yourself getting better. When I first started playing Lords of the Fallen, a single rhogar marauder was more than a match for me. Now I can take on two at a time and usually come out victorious (if not unscathed).
Finally, there are deck-building card games, which I have very hit-or-miss luck with. I’m good enough at Magic: The Gathering for it to be fun in a casual context (and I love Commander/EDH) but I’ll never darken the door of a tournament. I tend to get my clock cleaned in Race for the Galaxy and Dominion, but I love those games anyway, I can feel myself getting slowly better, and the success I experience in all three is more satisfying not only for the failure I’ve experienced, but for the knowing why.
There is a parallel, I think, between the struggle to get better at some game and getting better at being a person and a Christian. The Apostle Paul uses the metaphor of athletic competition often when he’s talking about the Christian life, and I think he’s onto something. Resisting my habitual sins and being more loving, more forgiving, and more learned in my faith isn’t effortless. It’s sometimes really hard, in fact. But I don’t think we’re supposed to look at the struggle as a futile one we can’t make any progress in. Much like a more experienced player or a strategy guide, we have Jesus, and Paul, and countless other scriptural figures to show us at least some of what we need to do if we’re going to overcome the obstacles in our path. And even with that help, we’re never going to succeed 100% of the time. But much like with those pesky rhogar marauders, if we keep at it, we’ll eventually find that things that used to seem insurmountable to us are now challenges we have a solid chance of overcoming.