By Matt Sayer

What is ‘normal’? Philosophers have grappled with this question for centuries, seeking to establish a set of archetypal human characteristics that represent the baseline of our species. Despite their best efforts, though, the concept resists codification. Is normal the mean, the average, the mathematical derivative of the grand sum of human life? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the ‘average’ household income in the U.S. for 2014 was $72,641, a figure I suspect most Americans would baulk at. Skewed by the million-dollar incomes of the economic elite, the average is a poor measure of normality.

What about the median, then? The mid-point, the value for which half of the data are greater, and half are lesser? The median American wage for 2014 was pegged at $53,657, which certainly seems more reasonable. But median values can be misleading, too. The median sale price of houses in the Peregian Springs region of Queensland, Australia leaped from $275,000 to $375,000 between 2014 and 2015, not because the ‘normal’ house price had gone up, but because a number of luxury villas had sold for over $400K. Single-bedroom units, meanwhile, remained at a stable price point, despite the median suggesting otherwise.

Other measures of normality fare even worse. Social norms vary from person to person, with standards of acceptable behaviour fluctuating wildly depending on age, gender, ethnicity, and economy, just to name a few factors. ‘Normal’ psychology stresses a neutrality of temperament, devoid of deviance, but what is ‘deviance?’ Is it violence and aggression? If so, every MMA fighter, football player, and self-defender would fall under the label. Is it disobedience of authority? Classifying the likes of Rosa Parks, Che Guevara, and Copernicus as mentally aberrant doesn’t seem right. Perhaps it is simple instability? But who gets to decide the difference between regular emotional variance and an abnormal mood swing?

In the realm of video games, the concept of normality is especially dubious. Many games feature multiple tiers of difficulty, traditionally presented as Easy, Normal, and Hard. As one of the first choices a player has to make, it sets the tone for the entire experience. Beyond mechanical implications like more enemies or less ammo, the decision functions as a personality test: are you a hardcore gamer or just a normal one? Are you a pro or a lowly n00b? The decision is as much about self-identity as it is challenge; the label we choose becomes a part of who we are, reinforcing our role within the gaming ecosystem.

Consider the way Halo describes its difficulty levels: Normal is the default difficulty, where you ‘face firm resistance from competent, determined enemies’, but on the next rung up, Heroic ‘will truly test your skill and wits; this is the way Halo is meant to be played.’ So, who are you: a ‘normal’ Halo player, or a ‘true’ one? What tangible difference is there between the two? And if Halo really is meant to be played on Heroic, why isn’t it called Normal?

The act of play itself has an even keener effect on self-identity. If you opt for Hard mode and find yourself charging forward without breaking a sweat, your ego gets a significant boost–I’m even more of a badass than I thought! On the other hand, if you pick Easy and you’re struggling to progress, your self-image takes a hit–Great, I’m even worse than I thought. Experience clashes with expectation, forcing you to re-evaluate your own ability in order to eliminate the cognitive dissonance.

Recalibrating your self-image takes significant mental effort, so we try to avoid it whenever possible–it’s why we justify chocolate as a reward for our healthy diet, rather than a late-night moment of weakness. Similarly, it’s much easier to write a game off as too hard or too easy than it is to admit we’re not who we thought we were. By blaming the game, though, we start to see it as the enemy, picking out its flaws or even losing interest entirely.

At this point, it can be tempting to simply change the difficulty, but that introduces its own set of problems: if a game proves intractable on Normal, dropping it down to Easy feels like surrender, an admission of weakness in an industry obsessed with competition. Increasing a placid Normal to Hard, however, carries with it the unshakeable suspicion that the game is going easy on you, that all your accomplishments are just gimmes. Either way, your experience is irrevocably tainted.

The concept of normality gets even more confusing when you consider the lack of standardisation in the industry. Difficulty levels are game-specific; one game’s idea of Normal might be entirely different to another’s. This makes sense when the games require distinct skillsets, but within the same genre, the use of common terminology can be misleading. Why am I Normal in one racing game but not this other one? How am I supposed to pick the right difficulty if their labels are entirely arbitrary?

Regardless of skill level, when we engage in any challenging activity, we seek an equilibrium known as optimal arousal. Described by the arousal theory of motivation, optimal arousal represents the sweet spot between boredom and frustration, where a task is tough enough to demand focus, but not so tough it wears us out. Of course, we all have different thresholds for boredom and exhaustion, which makes any sort of one-size-fits-all approach impossible. The problem is, ‘normal’ implies otherwise. It dismisses our differences and lumps us all together under one reductive banner: Homo Homogeneous, a humanity stripped of individuality. That is not who we are.

For as complicated as it is, avoiding the normality problem is relatively simple: just don’t mention it. By dropping all references to Normal–and ideally Easy and Hard, too–a game can avoid the precarious connotations associated with normality.

This isn’t a new idea. Sid Meier’s Civilisation offered bespoke difficulty levels back in 1991. Chieftain, Warlord, Prince, King, and Emperor; each represents a position of power worthy of respect. The scale is wholly positive, free of the judgement implicit in labels like Easy and Normal. More recently, The Witcher 3 presented its lowest difficulty level as ‘Just The Story!’, addressing the desire for minimal challenge without attaching any assumption of skill. The game’s ‘Story and Sword’ and ‘Blood and Broken Bones’ settings are similarly well phrased, capturing the tone of their corresponding experiences without resorting to loaded language.

The catch here is that in eschewing skill-based labels, a game risks miscommunicating what its difficulty settings actually represent. In Civilisation, for example, we have no inherent understanding of what the Warlord difficulty entails, nor what distinguishes it from Prince. To combat this, a game needs to employ simple, quantifiable terminology with clear mechanical implications. The Mario Kart franchise does this well. Difficulty is categorised in terms of engine size: 50CC, 100CC, 150CC, and so forth. Lower values reflect the slower speed of the karts, establishing a hierarchy of challenge free from the connotations of skill-based language.

Goldeneye 007 offers another pertinent example. Like Civilisation, its difficulty tiers are all titles of prodigious ability. From Agent to 007, they preserve the fantasy of being James Bond while still catering to a range of arousal thresholds. Increasing the difficulty adds more mission objectives to a level, making it immediately apparent what to expect from each tier. Knowing that you’ll need to destroy all the security cameras in the Surface level on 00 Agent, in addition to all the usual objectives, is far more informative than simply calling it ‘Hard’.

There is a darker side to custom difficulty tiers, though. Just as Normal and Easy carry certain connotations, so too do other labels. Wolfenstein 3D cemented itself as a product of the ’90s with its approach, taunting players with names like ‘Can I Play, Daddy?’ and ‘Don’t Hurt Me’. The smack talk is in keeping with the game’s brutal tone, but among today’s broader gaming audience, it serves only to deter those seeking a lesser challenge.

A more severe example exists in The House of the Dead: Overkill. Like Wolfenstein, it aims for edginess in its difficulty settings, but rather than dressing it up in humour, it turns to lazy expletives for its inspiration. Easy is replaced with ‘Bitch’, Hard with ‘Motherf****r’. These labels are not only insulting, they convey no useful information as to the experiences they represent.

Normal needs to go. It’s subjective, intangible, and divisive, an unreliable yardstick masquerading as something clear and concrete. It frames our expectations around an arbitrary standard, skewing our behaviour based on our desire to conform or rebel. It is an illusion, a façade of order in a world built on chaos. Humanity is not homogeneous. Normal means nothing… and yet it means everything. Without a guidepost to calibrate our journey, we’d all wander off into the wilderness, walking in the same circles and stumbling into the same pits. But if we all follow that guidepost, there will be no room for discovery or exploration. Normal is at once a shelter and a prison, a sherpa and a gaoler. Knowing when to heed its advice and when to deny its authority is the most important lesson we can ever learn.

Matt has written for ZAM, PC Gamer and Waypoint (formerly known as VICE Gaming) follow Matt on Twitter

2 thoughts on “The Normality Problem

  1. I haven’t played Witcher 3 yet, but I like the way you describe its difficulty levels. That sounds just right to me–descriptive enough to let us know what we’re in for, but in a non-judgmental way.

    Like

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