A decade before The Last of Us had a popular HBO adaptation, it was a lauded zombie-apocalypse video game that infuriated me. What I remember most about the 2013 title was how Joel, the game’s main character, would get bitten or mauled to death so many times that my outbursts would wake up my toddler daughters in the next room. After mistiming my moves yet again during a frenzied attack, I’d squeeze the black plastic of my PlayStation controller until my hands ached.
It never occurred to me that I could change the difficulty of the game. After all, The Last of Us, like many titles, allows people to choose how challenging they want their experience to be: in this case, easy, normal, hard, plus two more modes for the especially masochistic.
In this way, video games, as an interactive art form, have always been different from TV, novels, and many other types of entertainment—it’s up to you to develop the technical proficiency required to see a game through to its conclusion. Perhaps that’s why few people finish their games. Many of us don’t have the skills or the potentially dozens of hours necessary for exploring, and thus will never get to see everything the game has to offer. “Easy mode”—which might make your character stronger, faster, more resistant to demise—has long been derided by hard-core gamers as undermining the grind, and eventual thrill, of mastery. However, I am 48, and my relationship to games has changed. For one thing, I believe that there should be no stigma in lowering the bar of expertise a little if it makes people happy. But beyond that, easy mode also indulges a specific fantasy in adult life that has nothing to do with slaying the undead or racing supercars: the dream of summoning a little more ease at will.
Easy mode never used to be for me. I grew up in the 1980s, a pivotal decade for gaming culture, and spent much of my childhood in the dank, dark video arcades of suburban South Texas alongside other sweaty fanatics. If your character died in an arcade game, earning the GAME OVER screen, you were out 25 cents at least. There was no difficulty setting, but there was both an audience of onlookers and clear monetary stakes for losing—so you learned to maximize your quarters by studying Donkey Kong’s movements and memorizing Pac-Man mazes.
Later, my friends got Atari, Sega, or Nintendo consoles in their living rooms. Games played at home were more customizable to the player, and have long had functions to make them less onerous. Even Pong consoles included difficulty settings, and the popular Atari 2600 had switches on the back that could make competitive games easier. Meanwhile, the gaming industry was implementing other ways to soften a demanding game—cheat codes that unlock resources or powers, walk-through guides that tell you what to do when you’re stuck (they used to arrive in magazines but now dominate YouTube). Still, there was something of a social code to the gaming subculture: Assistance was for nongamers, or little siblings with underdeveloped hand-eye coordination. Video games were challenges to be conquered; in many cases, the experience was technical, not narrative or emotional, and those who couldn’t keep up might be considered posers.
Some of those attitudes haven’t changed today—but gaming has. The mid-2000s rise of smartphones and consoles such as the Nintendo Wii widened the range of who could play, and precipitated a slew of indie and casual games. Today, 3.38 billion people play games; the industry’s earnings eclipse those of the global film business. Many acclaimed titles focus less on high scores and achievements than on poignant narrative or memorable vibes. They can relieve stress instead of creating it. Complex, dexterity-testing games have not been replaced, but some have gotten more creative with their easy modes: A player might get to choose how aggressive their enemies are or have their character get subtly stronger every time they die.
Yet it wasn’t just the industry that changed my relationship with easy mode; it was life. Between my daughters growing older and a shift to working as a freelancer, sinking hours into mastering a game no longer seemed prudent. When The Last of Us Part II came out a few years ago, I made a conscious decision to enjoy the game’s story and not get hung up on gunplay and action sequences. I played on easy mode, and I didn’t lose my gamer cred. No one in my household made fun of me.
The benefits of embracing the mode are obvious: Not everyone has the emotional-pain tolerance to deal with a game’s setbacks over and over again. It also reinforces that there are multiple valid ways to engage with a game (in fact, some people would rather experience a game even more passively, which may be one reason why video-game livestreams are so popular). Difficulty options can also benefit people with disabilities who might otherwise find it hard to beat a particular game.
None of this is to say that the satisfaction of gaming proficiency is irrelevant today. For example, the ultra-tough and very popular Dark Souls games deliberately don’t offer so many guardrails as to diminish the game’s integrity—what the series’ director, Hidetaka Miyazaki, calls “a sense of accomplishment by overcoming tremendous odds.” The dedicated, technical gamer is still everywhere, “speedrunning” games as fast as possible or beating Tetris.
But personally, I’m not looking for a harder life. Much the reverse: As I’ve embraced easy mode in more games, I’ve also come to dream about an easy mode in other areas of my existence. I wouldn’t mind one for child-rearing, where you can fast-forward through the sometimes-tedious “escort the kids with your minivan” sequences and dial back parent-assisted homework by 30 percent. I wouldn’t say no to a career easy-mode option that allows me to skip over sending invoices and stressing about retirement savings.
Real life, of course, doesn’t offer those options. But that’s part of the allure of turning down the difficulty in games as an adult. Those fictional worlds are more under your control than actual life will ever be. That’s a real fantasy come true.