The Difficulty of Difficulty

The ball on the left represents material that's too easy and the ball on the right represents material that's too hard. And like reality, it's really hard to tell which side is which.

The ball on the left represents material that’s too easy and the ball on the right represents material that’s too hard. And like reality, it’s really hard to tell which side is which.


A balancing act in both the classroom and the world of games.

Difficulty Setting

When we begin a game, often the first decision we have to make is whether or not we change the difficulty of the game. Ironically, we do this before we actually know how difficult the game is. “Eh, I’d like to relax. Let’s put it on Easy,” you say, not realizing that Normal was actually perfect for what you wanted. “Hard. Because I’m hardcore and I want to lose a lot!” But the game never communicated that Hard Mode really requires knowledge of some arcane systems you’d only learn on an easier difficulty setting. So, in the end, people make choices with only gut feelings.

We do this in the world of study and self-study too. Before we study things, we often debate whether or not something is actually appropriate for us. It’s why having a teacher or tutor who knows your personal level is often the best way to advance, as they can tailor challenges directly for you. We often think we know ourselves best, and we do know ourselves well, but we don’t necessarily know the material that we’re putting into our brains.

It’s good to be open about something in the moments before attempting it. And maybe even while attempting it. Not to give up before you start.

The Classroom

Teaching is both fun and challenging, which is a nice combo for most people. There’s a lot of interacting with other people, seeing them grow, and trying to figure out ways to facilitate faster growth.

One of the big challenges most teachers face—aside from disciplinary issues, perhaps—is the need to make your material applicable to a class of 4-400 different students. Of course, by traditional methods, this is an impossible task. Even when I was in a class of 3, learning Chinese in China, everyone in that tiny class was different. Two of us had backgrounds in Japanese, and another had a background in French, and we were all adult males from North America, so it’s not as if we were on crazy ends of a spectrum. In spite of that, the class wasn’t easy for the teacher. Both of us Japanese-learners could deal with Kanji being thrown at us, for instance. The French speaker tried and tried, but he gave up pretty quickly, dissatisfied with the teacher. 3 students, and not even all their needs could be met.

For the two of us, we felt the class was at a perfect difficulty level. We were being challenged daily, and we saw our progress. Perhaps, because our levels were so similar, we managed to become rivals, and the other guy felt left out. Regardless, the class was amazing for us, and terrible for him.

Such is a common problem in teaching. Is the class going well when 20/30 kids think the level is just right, 5/30 think it’s too easy, and 5/30 think it’s too hard? Some teachers would say, “Just give the people who think it’s too easy extra work to go more in-depth and give the people who think it’s too hard extra attention.” Or, “Have those kids who think it’s too easy help the kids who think it’s too hard; the former group will cement their knowledge while the latter group will get an explanation from their peers.” Both are good options, but they still don’t address the fact that at the end of the experience, some kids are going to be much more prepared for future content than others, widening the gap as time goes.

Indeed, the time outside of the class is another balancing factor. Those with more time can integrate study into their lives more easily than those with little time. This is, to hear it from many teachers, the factor that ends up being the most uncontrollable.

Most teachers I know fall into two camps: “You can’t get much better than 2/3rds”-teachers who end up lasting longer and “I won’t stop until everyone in the class thinks the class is at a perfect level!”-teachers who usually give up sooner and move on. Not that these groups are static. I think I started in the first camp and have transitioned into the second camp, which has helped to fuel my burnout.


Games teach like classrooms teach. They present material to the player and trust that the player will learn the lessons. If they do, the game will usually be fun. If they don’t, it won’t be.

Additionally, they may teach lessons that the player didn’t intend. Like a very boring math class, an RPG might teach the lesson that RPGs are boring and a waste of my time. That’s a lesson! Just so we’re clear.

One benefit games have is their “failure-cycles” and no limit on time. That is, players can fail and try again many times without being to the detriment of anyone else. While classrooms also have the ability to implement “failure-cycles”, they still have a pretty hard time limit. Classes usually finish after a few months or a year. After that, there’s no more time. On the other hand, a game could last 3 years, played on-and-off. The game doesn’t even demand you see the ending. Online and mobile games don’t even have “endings”, making it possible to continue learning for as long as the game is playable.

True, learning also has no end. You’ll never know “every bit of Japanese” or every bit of anything, really.

Anywho… Like a classroom, games have students and those students have different needs to be met. They might have the 5 “easy”, 20 “normal”, 5 “hard” students, who see the base game as such. That’s why you have basic difficulty levels, like the example from the start. But the problem with that difficulty system is that it assumes everyone can play the basic game.

What about those students who “can’t” play RPGs?

Shichikashuku II

As I work on this next game, that’s the biggest question that comes to my mind: “Can everyone play this?” I assume a certain amount of basic game literacy in making the game. Certainly, everyone was able to play both of my previous games. But neither of them are as intense as this one is.

Should I have a “difficulty” setting? That would be nice, if I could implement it.

Should I have an ability that kills everything for those players who don’t want to fight? Not a bad option, except that battles and equipment are meant to help teach in some way.

Should I have nothing, and assume my students will help each other out? Indeed, I’ll be there to help too. But that’s not the ideal way of things, is it?

In any case, I write this as I consider the difficulty of the various things I make for my students and hope that by writing I can see some new angle.


3 thoughts on “The Difficulty of Difficulty

    • I’m glad to hear that I’m offering a unique perspective. And I’m never glad to hear that something like game design is looked down upon.

      I think the biggest problem is that game design and education tend to attract very different people, when in fact the same principals govern both. In both cases, it’s “how do we get the person on the other end to comprehend and ultimately use the information we’re giving them”. Perhaps game design is looked down upon because “game” is in the name, or because games are all about “fun” to many people.

      But really, it’s probably just a lack of information. Once game designers and educators work together, I think we can get some pretty amazing things out there. And I don’t think that day is far off.

      Are you more on the game design spectrum, or the educator one? 😛

      • Game design, but I did study English but I understand where you’re coming from when you mention how games have a negative stigma towards educators. I’d say I’m a writer instead of an educator, but most of the people with the degree I’m getting are mostly in it to become educators. I understand it’s difficult to get a job in the writing field, but if I have to teach, it’ll only be temporary until I get my big break as a writer.

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