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Difficulty Spikes

If real life were a videogame it would be praised for its high level of involvement, its deep level of engagement, its attention to detail, its audio-visual fidelity and it open-ended, varied nature. But as a game, real life has a major flaw – its horribly inconsistent difficulty. One day you can be cruising through so effortlessly that boredom is beginning to set in, then the next… BANG! A big, fat, seemingly unassailable difficulty spike comes out of nowhere. One way or another, we’ve all been there.


But life isn’t a game. You can’t just throw your controller out the window, turn your console off and go watch Eastenders instead. And you definitely can’t take it back to the shop and trade it in for Call Of Duty 4. You just have to keep going, and get through that spike somehow. Your only other option is to just give up and be stuck in the same place forever.

It’s usually not really a question of skill in life either. It’s just one of those games where the only way to progress sometimes is to persist against the odds – just keep trying the same thing again and again. You feel like you’re going nowhere, but remain focussed through all the deeply unfair adversity the game throws at you and eventually you’ll get the break you’re looking for and everything will just fall into place and go right for the first time in what feels like forever. You’ll reach that checkpoint at last and will be able to look forward to what comes next.


But it’s not all about bloody-minded endurance, banging your head against a wall over and over hoping that the brickwork, and not your brain, gives way first. Most people figure out ways to get themselves through a spike. You can’t cheat – there’s no way to make that spike disappear, shrink or become any less sharp – but you can find solace in music, film, literature and art. For me personally, nothing puts a real life difficulty spike into perspective better than a song. Just hearing reflections of my own difficulties and frustrations sounding somehow good and positive in music is a great comfort. And I have no doubt that movies, books, paintings, religious texts, profound quotes from history’s great thinkers and speakers… all can have the same kind of impact. But what about games? Can a game serve to unlock and unravel the tangled mess of a difficulty spike? Can it impart the required kind of wisdom? Can it help clear the path to the check point on the other side?

To be blunt, I don’t think so. I’ve certainly never played a game that did that for me. That said, I do believe videogames have their place in overcoming a difficulty spike – they can be very, very, very therapeutic. This is presumably in part because for a gamer, playing games is a preferred and familiar way to relax and unwind. But apparently there’s more to it than that. Experts believe that videogames can be an effective therapy in treating autism, brain damage, strokes, seizures, depression, anxiety and alcoholism. It has something to do with the way some games encourage concentration and strengthen pathways in the brain. In other words, they help you get your head together.


Not all games of course. We wouldn’t recommend playing anything unforgiving or potentially frustrating. Tom Clancy games are out, as are driving simulations and linear adventures. And Devil May Cry 4 is really, really out.. You want something that you can just steadily get on with and lose yourself in without having to try too hard. My own ‘in case of difficulty spike in life – break glass’ list includes Civilization, Katamari, Football Manager, Dynasty Warriors, Railroad Tycoon and Carcassonne, all of which have a welcome numbing effect in times of strife.

I’d pretty much rejected the idea that games could provide that other kind of therapy – that (for want of a less pretentious term) unlocking of the soul, sometimes so deftly performed by other more personal, expressive forms of entertainment. But then, during an extended Guitar Hero II session, I played the game’s final track, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Freebird – a song about someone having to move on, needing to be free and leaving someone they love behind – and I nearly, just nearly, changed my mind.

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