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Playing Hard Video Games on Easy Mode Is Catharsis Leveled Up

My name is Eddie Kim, and in 2020, I’m a mediocre gamer and proud of it

I threw everything I had at Taron Malicos for nearly an hour. Nine attempts, nine failures, covering a thousand button presses on my controller and only slightly fewer curse words. Again and again, I swung and jabbed my lightsaber in endless combinations, thinking I was edging toward having the upper hand on this white-haired prick, once and for all.

And every single time, he swung the momentum back at my face, finding another gear and unleashing a torrent of violence I couldn’t quite block. Beating his health down by half only seemed to anger him: Malicos began darting around even faster, beaming boulders and his dual lightsabers at my face, then leaping across the arena to batter me up close.

I knew that the video game Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order would provide a stout challenge, even though I’ve been playing video games steadily since the age of 7. But I couldn’t remember the last time I had been so thoroughly defeated by a single boss fight — and not even the final one. There was a time when this defeat would’ve felt like a ripe insult and the mark of a worthy challenge. Now, it just felt like… more stress. The thought of trying, and losing, once again made the bile rise up in my gut.

Despite all that, I didn’t want to look up hints. I definitely didn’t want to lower the game’s default difficulty level. To do so felt like a betrayal of everything I had learned as a voracious video game lover. All those tryhard hours grinding away at hard games. All the times I laughed at bad players, thinking that noobs just need to git gud.

The online world of game fandom has fetishized skill since the advent of Pong, and the difficulty of the games you play — and the high score you can rack up — has always reflected how much of a badass you are. Conversely, looking for cheats and tricks to make a game easy has always been a fast way to get labeled a “pussy” and mocked. That thinking mostly stems from the toxic, hypermasculine culture of online gaming, but regardless, git gud remains a core element of gamer pride. Getting worse at fast-paced video games, whether it’s a shooter like Call of Duty or a sports title like Madden, is basically analogous to becoming old and frail.

A day after my hour-long flail-session against Malicos, I returned to Fallen Order, scrolled into its settings, and reluctantly flipped the difficulty down to “story mode.” And, to my surprise, the boss battle stopped being punishment and instead just flowed. Holding my own still required timing and tactics, but finally, I actually felt like a preternaturally talented young Jedi rather than an idiot sitting on the couch and fumbling the wrong buttons.

The lightbulb went off. Pride set aside, I completed the rest of the game in this de facto easy mode, relishing how little time I wasted replaying the increasingly harder battles. In 2020, amid the anxiety of the pandemic and constant economic and political unrest, I realized I didn’t crave a brutal challenge — I wanted a cathartic one.

And now, playing games in easy mode is something I actively look forward to.

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It reinvigorated another game I left languishing because of a difficult boss fight, Nier: Automata, and allowed me to better absorb its ambitious story about androids, existentialism and the blurred line between humanity and machinery. I even booted UFC 3 back up, vowing to actually win some fistfights instead of getting choked out in the third round again and again. I’m not entirely proud of how much giggly fun I had whooping the life out of so many digital fighters on easy mode, but to be honest, it felt a little like therapy to make it happen.

I’m not the only one to see the light when it comes to video game difficulty, and people on game forums sound a little like they’re confessing something when they share their own appreciation of easy mode. My theory is that this lingering shame is a vestige of when games were all about reaching higher levels and higher scores; to demonstrate your ability in, say, Pac-Man was to show how much you cared about it.

But these days, top video games are so cinematic and beautifully designed that this perspective doesn’t make sense anymore. Progressing through the narrative is as much a reward as the gameplay challenge, even in a beat-’em-up fight game like UFC. Turns out, at the cusp of 30 years old, I’m losing the desire to prove something through gaming. I mostly just want to fulfill daydreams of kicking ass and gawk at the gorgeous graphics while doing so.

“I used to be afraid of playing anything below normal out of fear that I would become ‘less’ of a gamer,” one redditor writes. “As I graduated and got a full-time job, I had considerably less time, and it wasn’t realistic to take that into consideration anymore. I still wanted to play the meaty games that Bioware or Bethesda put out but don’t mind taking a more casual route so I can get through it quicker. There simply isn’t time to relish it.”

I have more time than ever to game while stuck at home this year, but feeling frustration when I hit the wall, as character-building as the struggle may be, isn’t so fun anymore. Just getting through each week feels like a chore during pandemic times. I get it now when people observe that “raging and getting really stressed” over a video game is a little absurd. And when I watch, say, a world-record speed run on maximum difficulty through the hellacious shooter known as Doom Eternal, I don’t think, Wow, I’d like to try that. I want to feel like I’m that good without putting any of the time in.

Whether you’re a lifelong nerd or a total newbie, few things can transport and entertain like a good video game. So screw it: I’m done chasing the fading pride of being a hardcore gamer boi. My name is Eddie Kim, and in 2020, I’m a mediocre gamer. And thanks to the magic of menu settings, I no longer fear the path ahead.

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