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I was recently reading about the various game content rating systems in place in various areas of the world. When describing the PEGI system, Wikipedia observes, "The age rating does not indicate the difficulty of the game or the skill required to play it.". The overview of the North American ESRB rating system, by its focus on content factors (such as violence and sexuality), implies that game difficulty is not a factor there either.

That really makes me wonder - is there some sort of standardized scale or rating system to describe the difficulty level of a game as opposed to the level of mature content in the game? I recall playing many games in the 1980's that were wickedly hard compared to the games of today - you had to twitch that joystick just right repeatedly for several pulse-pounding minutes to advance to the next stage, but the content was much tamer than today - no blood or nudity to speak of, extremely minimal use of four-letter words, etc. Such games would merit very low ratings on the ESRB or PEGI scales but are probably very inappropriate for little children.

To be clear, I'm very aware that designing a workable scale or framework for rating game difficulty is itself a challenging task. That's why I'm curious if such a framework meaningfully exists at all, even if it has known flaws or is not very well respected.

As for the use case of such a rating system, perhaps I am looking for a game where the difficulty level does not correspond to its content level. For example, this month I might want a wickedly hard game with minimally offensive content to bring to my local elementary school's after-school enrichment program for rising overachievers, and another month I might need to blow off some steam and desire a super-easy game that will let me run around decapitating NPC's and desecrating their corpses without having to make complex platform jumps or solve IQ puzzles first.

In response to a comment by Nolonar, I am aware that game difficulty is a multifaceted concept (e.g. one player might be very good at making precise jumps but lack the reading level to understand the game instructions, or vice versa), but my response is that content is also multifaceted. A game might be devoid of sexual content but be very violent, or a game could be low on both violence and sexuality but include positive references to drug use or disfavored political movements. Some existing content rating systems allow for qualifications (e.g. rated [rating] for violence and sexuality), so a difficulty rating system could too (e.g. "rated Late-Teen Difficulty - ninth grade reading level required, complex jumps, frequent deaths, low continues").

In response to various comments, I am aware that there is a difference between an age maturity rating scale (i.e. keyed to child development milestones in cognition, dexterity, etc. and how they map to the ability to master certain gaming skills), and a scale based on actual experience, skill, or knowledge in gaming (e.g. newb, beginner, intermediate, expert, master, grandmaster, grandmaster elite, galacticus adept, etc.). A scale attempting to match either of these would be acceptable.

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There is not.

Typically, difficulty scaling has to do with two major factors:

  • Your survivability
  • Enemy survivability

For example, Skyrim scales its difficulty by changing the amount of damage creatures do:

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In terms of actual standardization, no, there really isn't. It's up to the developer to determine what they consider as "difficult" and what they do not. Play data can be used to determine future adjustments.

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    What about the difficulty for puzzle games then, or other types that don't involve survivability in any way?
    – Zoma
    Commented Jul 21, 2021 at 14:59
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There is no standarized rating system for difficulty, no. Terms like "bullet sponge" exist for a reason. It's entirely up to the developer.

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    Hi AwfullyCalm, this claim seems to be based on opinion rather than fact. Arqade is not a forum, but a Q&A site, and we like our answers to be backed up by information from other sources (or experience that can be corroborated) (I see you've followed the Tour already, so you probably know this). Defining 'bullet sponge' doesn't really add anything to your answer. Do you have anything else to back your answer up?
    – Joachim
    Commented Jul 22, 2021 at 10:10
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There certainly is not an age-related difficulty system, because difficulty does not meaningfully correspond to age. A player's ability to handle difficult games is much more a factor of how much practice they have in the game's genre (both in terms of years played and hours played) and how much patience and dedication they have. There are many children who have these traits, and many, many adults who do not, simply because they have experienced video games differently, and those skilled children are only going to become more skilled as they grow older.

In addition, content rating systems are mostly about preventing unwanted mental distress before purchase, and difficulty in and of itself does not cause that. A child will more often than not just be confused or strangely contented with a game that's too hard for them - if they do feel distressed about it, it will usually be because they're being bullied for their lack of skill. Offline from parents/friends, it's a separate problem, and if the game itself can facilitate it through online play, that fact is listed in the content rating. Also listed in the content rating is whether the game has in-app purchases, which some games tacitly encourage their players to spend money on if they're losing.

Of course, none of this precludes the existence of a rating system based on some other scalar value. However, there is another issue with difficulty that makes it different from content, in that while content rating is usually concerned with everything you can see, difficulty is often experienced as a series of trade-offs and also changes both as the game is updated and as players gain more experience with it. In the N64 platformer Super Mario 64, for instance, players only have to collect 70 of the game's 120 Stars in order to reach the final boss and finish the game, and players will make different decisions as to which ones they leave behind. Over the years, players have also discovered glitches that allow them to bypass checks for these Stars to 50, 30, 16, and lower - these glitches are not trivial to execute and certainly took great collective effort to find, but they provide an alternative to collecting the additional Stars, including ones the players might find more difficult or time-consuming to reach. And then, of course, there are players that disregard all of this and collect all 120 stars anyway. Here, difficulty exists in permutations - it would certainly be unfair to document the most difficult path, and people would not be able to agree on which path was the easiest.

And ultimately, at the end of the day, it appears to me that nothing has been proposed as a difficulty standard because none of the dozens of media outlets that I have encountered for games reviews, from large corporations to small teams to individual people, has ever used one.

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