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Nov 16, 2010


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Kamil Skalski

I think the last sentence is crucial: most of the "difficulty" and "success" criteria really depend on expectations and mind-set. Some philosophies state that there are really very few "real" difficulties in the world, actually that the only "real" one is to start treating all the others as "fake".
I'm not sure if unpredictable vs pre/arbitrarily-defined challenges is a good distinction - e.g. in 1. you actually "compete" with teacher and achieving some expected level might be real difficulty, same with 2. you compete with game designed to win in some circumstances. As for 3-5 one could consider them really "fake", since if he is indifferent for outcome of computer/love/soccer game, he simply won't perceive "winning" them as success at all.

I think difficulty can be purely defined on how much effort do I need to put to achieve some goal. I agree that those, which you called "real" are usually harder, though I guess winning Civ 5 on Deity level is harder than winning series of Starcraft multiplayer with most of the opponents. However "fake" vs "real" applied to "success" is much more compatible with what you say - but it is more about setting expectations.

Jakub Petrykowski

Hey Kamil,

I disagree with what you wrote.

Perhaps I left out some important aspect of my idea.

The problem with scenarios 1 and 2 is that the rules of the games in there are:
a) arbitrarily decided by a human being
b) fully known, predictable and expressed by that human being (extremely rare if impossible in areas such as business, science or relationships)
c) can be changed at will by that person
d) ALL of the struggle is in "winning" against the set of rules decided by the other human ( rules which follow a-c), i.e. the actor - student - is trying to beat a game artificially created by a person.

What I'm saying is that the most important games in life aren't like this.

In most important areas of life: science, politics, economy, business, relationships etc. noone knows all the rules; noone has the ability to set them (laws that sciences such as physics, biology or psychology try to discover is what sets the rules!).

If difficulty comes from somewhere, it's not only from known conditions (as in multiplayer games), but also from the fact that there is another dynamic force (will and skill of the opponent) that a games is against, and that other force is not a "game master", but an actor - in a different position, but definitely not in a position of the author of the rules.

"Real" difficulty is hard to assess & define, and it's not a person that defines it.

Of course, there are places where "fake" difficulty is introduced by some people in hope of achieving specific, useful results. College admission process or hiring process (interviews) in companies are good examples. The key is the right perspective: what is the goal -- if the goal is to select some people, and I am "competing" for the seat, then it's a real thing. If the goal is to create an artificial score (as is *during* college - when you get scores on exams, and do or do not obtain a diploma) -- it's usually fake and misguided.

Higher education is a good example here. It doesn't matter if I pass the exam or not - what matters is whether I learned the topic; if doesn't matter if someone has a formal degree or not -- it's whether he knows all the things the degree "stands for".

It makes sense to introduce verification systems (e.g. tests when we want to allow someone to be a surgeon and operate on people) because that's usually practical, but that's vast minority of tests. Majority of tests, and games, and broadly speaking entertainment are 'fake'. It's very easy to take something 'fake' and make it 'real'- have a group of people compete on the same arena. But very frequently people don't actually do that. All those flash games are single player really. It's about getting more points etc.etc. not about having more points than other human players.

If someone plays a game but is indifferent to the outcome - e.g. doesn't care about winning in competitive sports or doesn't care whether he wins or loses money in financial markets - then what's the point of staying in that kind of competitive game??

I think your last paragraph is worth thinking through.

Whether difficulty of achieving a goal is considered absolute or relative is not that important. Consider this:

Imagine two soccer players, one is a great world-class athlete, another is a young kid that can barely tackle. They play against a third player, someone whose skill and physical ability is in between the two guys.

If their goal is to win in 1:1 soccer game against that guy, is the difficulty the same for them or different?

You can say it's the same, because their game arena is identical - that's how I look at this.

Or you can say "the kid has it more difficult because it's so much more effort for him to win".

But relative vs absolute is different distinction than fake/real difficulty.

In this soccer scenario, it's fake if the third player becomes the game designer and decides that when the kid plays, he'll be nice and let him pass exactly 4 out of 5 times (and can actually do it like this), and when the great player shows up, he suddenly consistently and repeatably plays like a superhuman (to achieve similar level of "challenge" - what games do, and what most tests during college do).


Hej Kuba,

I feel I am not perfectly fine with your definition. I think I see your point - rules that are well known and artificial create a fake difficulty, the unknown and misc create the real ones - is this understanding more or less correct?

Please note the following scenario - let's say that you amend the example #2 by introducing purely randomized events into the game strategy. The game plot changes into unknown immediately, there is no correct strategy to win with algorithm driving the game play underneath, you may only increase the win probability. Just as with real problems - we are usually aware of some set of common sense rules that we can try to apply to external black boxes driven by misc rules (like: girls, salespeople, business partners, etc.) and observe the effects, I would say it is everyday behavior of everyone.

Reading your text I have had this feeling in my guts that a slightly different definition sound better to me: difficulty is fake when the problem is fake what means that solving it does not bring any personal improvement to you, it is just a worthless effort in terms of your personal goals.

Playing Civ is not (shouldn't be) a personal goal to anyone, dating is, closing deals is, negotiating any agreements fits as well. Ie. mowing your lawn if you are a well paid professional (condition #1) and it does not give you any fun at all (condition #2) is a waste of time. Getting the thing done by yourself won't be an achievement, it would be a self misguidance, a loss of personal focus. This is a fake difficulty because it should not be difficult at all if you can hire someone else to do the dirty job. Our time on this beautiful planet looks pretty limited to me, and playing such "games" of fake difficulty is simply odd, as you can easily omit them and stay on your things.

What do you think guys?


Kamil Skalski

I really think we got lost in definitions. I understand "difficulty" as it is stated in dictionary, e.g. "a factor causing trouble in achieving a positive result or tending to produce a negative result". I think what you describe is really tied closely to the set of ideals and values that you consider important and in such setting it would be much more clear to attach "fake" vs "real" to words like "goal" and "achievement", which right now you freely exchange with "difficulty" or challange.

If we say "fake achievement", then I mostly agree with all the distinctions of pre-defined artificial "games" being fake and "real-life" problems or interactions being "real". Still, it depends on personal values. I can easily imagine a person, for whom getting next experience level of WoW character is more real achievement than signing a business deal.

We could probably talk a lot about relative character of those definitions (e.g. for me "difficulty" is actually an absolute measure independent of the goal to be achieved, while for you it changes depending on what is the purpose or who is the "game-master"), however I wanted to highlight a different aspect. One might participate in a competition where he is indifferent to result, when he is confident that he can handle any outcome, but still *something* needs to be done or he simply enjoys the process. For example competing for a job in interviews and treating it as learning process that will eventually end up with some interesting proposal. Of course people have preferences and get emotional about them, but it's probably good to recognize that my "happiness" cannot be affected by outcome of some random people's decisions or pure luck events. It is true that real-life problems bring in much higher randomness and unexpected events, which probably bring more satisfaction when we win in them, but they also have higher probability to make us feel bad if we fail. I'm looking for ways to not attach myself to such outcomes, which are usually less dependent on my actions than I would like - both the feeling of success may be deceiving and fake as well as feeling of failure could be unjustified.

Jakub Petrykowski

I still disgree with you guys. I see it's hard for me to express myself clearly here...

1. Kamil, I don't see where I "freely exchanged" goal/achievement with difficulty. I wrote specifically "difficulty of achieving a goal"... is there some place where I confuse the two?

2. Kamil: If I don't care about the outcome of an activity, the word difficulty simply doesn't apply... doesn't matter what happens, so doesn't matter what I do, so who cares about doing something?

In other words: considering difficulty only makes sense when you WANT to "succeed".

Now, I think people want to succeed in things that make sense and in things that don't make much sense, i.e. personal goals that are productive and such that aren't.

But I see "worthiness" of goals at least partly independent of the difficulty.

E.g. some people want to pass the exams regardless of "how well" they did; others want to have the best score possible. Both groups have their reasons...

What I'm saying is that when we consider each student individually, score on a test depends on "fake" difficulty (as set by the college professor). It could be any other result, if only professor wanted it so.

Difficulty is just as fake for both, even though their goals were different.

Of course if there's a student who doesn't care if he doesn't get kicked out of school, he also doesn't care about difficulty - he might as well not even take the test. So it's an abstract concept for someone like that.

So yes - goals matter, but only to the extent that you are invested in the process of performing in the "arena".

Now, if you treat something as an opportunity to learn, than it means you want to acquire some skill or knowledge or something that will allow you to solve some problem in the future / get success in the future -> that means it's a situation where "level of difficulty" does apply, and hence you do care about the outcome! You may not be devastated by not "winning", but you acquire feedback and insight which are part of fighting future challenge.

So I don't belie it's typical or even possible to experience a situation where "I do something to learn but I don't care about the outcome" - your mindset means you're trying to figure out how to do something well, i.e. succeed - now or in the future.

Kamil, I like your term "fake achievement", but it can be easily misunderstood by people in that they will think "this achievement doesn't give you anything 'worthy' in life".

That's not what my concept is about.

If someone loves playing single player computer games in life in a non-competitive manner, and it makes that person happy, it may be a great personal achievement from the perspective of that person that they win in more and more abstract, difficult, crazy scenarios. How can I say it "isn't"?

But I can say, regardless of the motives or value system of the observer or actor, that the nature of the game makes the difficulty level 'fake'.

So I still think motives/goals are not the defining factor in deciding whether something is or isn't real.

Does that make sense?

I should probably find more good examples of "fake" difficulty. Somehow school tests and games are the only two big classes I found so far. Hmm. Do you see any similar activities?

Jakub Petrykowski

misia: as for your "randomized" game - can you give some examples from real life?

If you don't point to an existing phenomenon it's pointless to classify it in my opinion. I'd rather talk about what's, uh, real.

If you simply mean software, then I'd say software-based randomness as a source of difficulty is "fake". Pure fake. Of course you could say "but the author forgot how it works", but then I'm saying "the fact that author forgot how it works doesn't change the fact that if it's software, its behavior can be completely rewritten in a trivial way" and "the fact that he forgot didn't change the system, or quality of its level of difficulty". :)


Kuba, I think I see your point clearly, the definition is well built but... I just suggest that I do not think such classification of difficulties is of any use - playing Civ either against computer or a human being is a worthless effort, if you are not a professional player. I do not see any practical advantage of going into difficulties which are real according to your definition, I would prefer mine saying to stay focused on difficulties that matter. Don't you like it? :)

Frankly, I think that going into "real" difficulties according to your definition is a purely false goal, it wrongly sets one's personal objectives. I do not see why entering a human-to-human interaction to any activity changes its difficulty. Treating your opponent as a black box, it does not matter whether its a randomized computer algorithm or a wicked mind.

Kamil Skalski

Ok, so I see that your definition is rather strict: "fake" is something, difficulty, which was artificially created / architected by "someone". I agree with misia that this distinction doesn't sound very useful...

As I understand you try to avoid wasting time and emotions on something, which has its bounds and expected behavior, or even worse, which is already solved. Out of curiosity, how would you classify solving formal problems, e.g. finding out about law, sending formal request / inquiry, paying bills. Those activities are mostly mechanical, boring and unable to surprise you problems, which still can become some time or mental difficulty.

Elaborating on the necessity of caring about outcome of activity. There are numerous activities, which are not performed for any particular outcome, just for the sake of process itself. It's usually "having fun" or feeling good in some aspect (aesthetical, physical, intelectual). You can argue that I still have a goal to feel better, which is true, but it's possible to just say to yourself "whatever happens will be good" and if your are bored / unable to continue just switch to different activity. As you said "there is no difficulty there then" - what I was trying to say is that there is such a mindset, where nothing is "difficulty". You just do what needs to be done and get over obstacles. And I guess there is also place for solving artificial puzzles if they amuse you.
Anyway, I'm probably under influence of http://www.amazon.com/Awakening-Conversations-Master-Anthony-Mello/dp/0829412603 and having difficulty to express what I didn't grasp completely yet.

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