Tough But Fair - Video Games

###I don’t think games should be fair.

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“Tough but fair” is a phrase used to praise difficult games these days, from roguelikes (FTL or The Binding of Isaac) to behemoths like Dark Souls. It’s often a way of saying “this game is difficult, but I like it”, but there’s something going on there implicitly that I don’t think I like. There’s an assumption that a game should be fair, that difficulty is only justified by decency - and that the game is ‘beatable’ by its very nature.

It’s easy to assume this sort of thing - games are designed, they have an intended progression and very often an intended end that you are very much meant to see. Furthermore, they rely on mechanics that are, as you would expect, mechanical. They may be more or less predictable, but they are consistent at some fundamental level. When we call a game ‘fair’, we are saying that it is beatable, almost on an atomic level, even if this isn’t transparent or obvious.

But this idea is a terrible one. “Beatable” or “fair”, while seemingly commonplace terms are completely abstract and metaphysical. It assumes not only a knowledge of the game, but of the player - and a mechanical, deterministic knowledge at that. Can I beat the game, with my skills and motor functions? Can my reflexes ever reach the point necessary, or is my patience too thin to manage it? What is a ‘fair’ amount of time to dedicate to a game with the hopes of beating it? Ten hours? A year?

Not only that, but games are frequenty unfair, and not to their detriment. Randomness is a big force in roguelikes, and is by definition unpredictable. The odds of winning against the giant spiders in FTL might be ‘even’, or they might not, and countless invisible factors might affect the outcome of that choice. But the fairness of the choice is not overly important, at least not in an absolute way.

Rather than ‘fair’, which I think in a broader philosophical sense is a bogus term, I think we play games in terms of ‘tolerance’. Much like the suspension of disbelief, there is a certain amount we will tolerate before we lose hope of success. Games that skirt the edge of that can do quite well, and surprisingly they often get called “tough but fair”, despite being less fair than most games. Hope can’t really be measured in a game, but it informs how we play - the choices we make, the risks we take - and the risks we think we are taking.

This has important consequences for what we think of as fairness - and the choices we make as a result - in the world outside of games. But then, that’s hardly a surprise.

Written on September 17, 2015