Critical Analysis of “Why We Love Games That Most Enrage Us”: Why We Actually Enjoy Hard Fun


This article was written by Contributing Writer Erik van Mechelen with significant input from Yu-kai Chou and the Octalysis Prime community. All mistakes are Erik’s. All good bits are the community’s. 

We Don’t Like Hard Fun Because It Enrages Us

Earlier this year, John Pavlus (non-fiction writer and filmmaker) wrote an article about education and hard fun. It is a great article and he is a great writer. However, I want to dig into a specific claim about intrinsic motivation and see if the Octalysis framework helps us understand the claim in a different way.

The article opens in response to FranktheShank1‘s comment on Reddit:

1 hour into super meat boy, i’m already throwing tantrums and curling my toes

For now, we’ll disregard some contrary opinions immediately shared on the Reddit thread and focus instead on how writer John Pavlus used this comment to make a larger statement about hard fun and where the motivation stems from when we decide to spend time on difficult games or pursuits. Again, this is a great article–we are focusing on one specific part of the argument.

As always, we’ll approach this from an Octalysis perspective with a particular focus on Core Drive 6: Scarcity & Impatience.

Superhard Does Not Always Imply There Is Intrinsic Motivation At Play

In the article’s opening, John Pavlus talks about how people love games that are specifically so hard and frustrating that they become infuriating.

The gaming press describes Super Meat Boy as “a definitive work in the subgenre of brutally difficult platformers,” but casual games like Flappy Bird and strategy games like the Dark Souls series are infamous and addictive for the same reason—they’re superhard.

Such a description is clearly a Core Drive 6: Scarcity & Impatience design, which is Black Hat and Extrinsic (

The author then tries to connect why we might like such a game to the concept of intrinsic motivation. Ah-ha! It must therefore be intrinsic motivation.

The concept of “hard fun” neatly encapsulates the experience sought by many players of Super Meat Boyand other ultrahard games. Psychologists call it “intrinsic motivation”—the urge to make progress toward a goal without the promise of an externalized reward.

There is no logical (and more importantly, motivational) connection made in the author’s argument. It’s a simple case of a logical fallacy. Instead of explaining why players are motivated, Pavlus makes the claim without evidence. As a substitute, the author brings up intrinsic motivation and ties it back to the initial claim without appropriate detail.

It is true that the literature (Ryan & Deci) says intrinsic motivation comes from competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Many people make mistakes like this. However, adherents to the Octalysis framework will understand competency, autonomy, and relatedness as corresponding to Core Drive 6: Scarcity and Impatience (very few people actually achieve it), Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback, and Core Drive 5: Social Influence & Relatedness.

The problem lies in the author’s claim to connect the player’s struggle in difficult games (aka “hard fun”) to competency, autonomy, and relatedness isn’t made.

While we’re at it, let’s take a look at competency, autonomy, and relatedness one by one.


It is actually argued that frustrating games like Flappy Birds are the opposite of competency – it actually makes people feel incompetent and angry about themselves. In actuality, we are seeing how Core Drive 6 can influence Core Drive 2 (another extrinsic motivator). My analysis of Flappy Birds dispelled the myth of intrinsic motivation. Here’s an excerpt:

The impatience and frustration that people feel when they lose leads them to keep striving for actual wins. They are compelled by Core Drive 2 (Development and Accomplishment). As they develop finesse with the mechanics and get better at navigating the bird, they start to feel a stronger sense of accomplishment in realizing the attainment of higher scores.

So, clearly he just made it a nice statement (this is intrinsic motivation), threw out some literature on that statement (Ryan & Deci), without truly understanding the motivation behind it.


Pavlus goes on to make a point about Autonomy:

To Schrater, a person playing Dark Souls or Super Meat Boy is not motivated by the pleasure associated with competence. Instead, it has more to do with autonomy: the mere act of setting and releasing constraints in a specific behavioral context is inherently motivating.

Here, Pavlus is on the surface only making a point about Schrater, but implying once again that reportedly enraging games like Super Meat Boy motivationally succeed because of player autonomy.

It’s easy to see there is autonomy in other non-frustrating games (and people like those games, too).


Pavlus continues with an argument about relatedness:

Other legendarily difficult games, like the 2014 viral hit Flappy Bird and its countless imitators, leverage what game designer Jesse Schell calls “The Sword in the Stone effect.” “Everybody wants to be able to pull it out. Nobody can, but they try anyway,” he says. “That notoriety goes a long way.” This effect of invoking players’ needs for competence and relatedness also drives the appeal of niche console games like the Dark Souls series, whose sophisticated play controls appeal only to expert gamers. Last month a player made news in the online gaming world for completing Dark Souls without taking a single hit from an enemy—the video-game equivalent of pitching a perfect game in baseball.

Again, I’m not questioning the “The Sword in the Stone effect,” only what motivates it.

Pavlus is making a few points here. Unfortunately, he once again implies that “The Sword in the Stone effect” be attributed to intrinsic motivation, when it’s clear we should understand this effect as deriving from Core Drive 2: Development & Accomplishment. In the sense that there is competition, Core Drive 5: Social Influence & Relatedness is also invoked–when there is competition, Core Drive 5 can be Black Hat.

Penalties and Constant Feedback Loops

Pavlus’s advice against penalties and in favor of constant feedback loops is good for students, at it adheres to Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback principles, but it isn’t clear that he acknowledges the differences to his opening statement of extremely difficult games.

I want to thank everyone in the forums on Octalysis Prime for a lively discussion! A special callout to Mike Finney’s crisp response which demonstrated his understanding of the Octalysis Framework, especially applying the Intrinsic/Extrinsic understanding to this practice.

You must engage in the conversation!!