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Outgrowing Button Mashing by Ben Huxley

My last job was a cashier at a petrol station.

At the end of the shift I had to count up the day’s takings while making sure a hundred-quid float remained in the till. Terrible with numbers, I counted the coins and notes, subtracting the float with a calculator – all while a supervisor glared over my shoulder. Fuel requests beeped, queues got longer, coins fell, clinked, and rolled under the counter. £5 and £10 notes fell and scattered like autumnal leaves. My arms and hands flapped and jabbed respectively at the touch screen monitor.

Some thrive under pressure; others don’t. For me, pressure unleashes a flustered panic, mindlessness, the proverbial headless chicken let loose in public. When gaming, it manifests in button mashing: hammering the controller and hoping for the best, the headless chicken confined to fingers and thumbs. In the past this has worked for me. It’s how I got through Tekken, Devil May Cry, God of War, even the Final Fantasy 7 Remake. It takes a long time, and a lot of luck, but eventually I knock the keys in just the right order to snuff the last boss.

Last month I bought Sifu, the new beat ‘em up from French studio Sloclap. I’ve always been a sucker for martial arts films, especially ones where a single hero takes on a horde of enemies: Zhang Ziyi in Crouching Tiger, Iko Uwais in The Raid. I thought Sifu would let me live out that fantasy, dispensing the goons with ease as a fighting master. This wasn’t the case. Sifu is hard. And for someone who button mashes when the going gets tough, it’s impossible. And that’s without exaggeration or hyperbole. It’s literally impossible to button mash your way through Sifu.

The game opens with a prologue/tutorial which I swept through with ease, excited to get started. Reader, it took me a whole day to finish the first stage. Sifu’s roguelike gimmick is a magical ageing charm, in which our character ages every time our health bar depletes. Once we pass our seventies, the run is over, and we have to start again. My avatar finished the first stage as a weary and grey 79-year-old, and I felt like one myself.

I’m never going to finish this, I thought. And with my button mashing tactic, I never would have. There are five stages, and you continue at the same age you finished the last. Repeating the same stages again and again are mandatory.

I don’t know what motivated me – a rare 7 hours of sleep, maybe – but the next morning I started again with a new aim. I didn’t want to simply finish the game. I wanted to learn to play it. If that meant experimenting, taking time to learn, and losing more often, so be it. Surrounded by six foes with baseball bats, I wouldn’t thrash with my thumb, but observe what they did. Do they swing high first, or low? Do I react with a parry, block, weave?

I died constantly because gaming this way was new to me. I’ve tried applying mindfulness to gaming (link to previous article?), but I’ve never expected constant failure to this extreme. Learning the enemy’s routine took hours of trial and error, which sounds like a boring slog, but I was enjoying it more.

I would go into a Sifu run expecting pandemonium; an intense rush of unfairness where things will go wrong. The fact that I was expecting this changed everything. As the pressure rose and the plethora of fists, boots, and bottles gravitated to my 59-year-old avatar, I took a deep breath and told myself it’s okay. It’s just me and the game; nobody’s watching; this isn’t a competition. It took me a couple of weeks to finish it, which is way longer than average, but that’s what I’m getting to.

Single-player games are personal journeys that one usually takes alone, like reading a novel. This makes them a safe space for trying new things, taking risks, and cultivating patience without any social pressure. Pressure can trigger instinctive reactions that often make the situation worse. It sounds glib to compare button mashing with life-debilitating stress responses, but hear me out.

At the age of 29, I have unlearned a negative instinct that I’ve had for as long as I can remember. Pressure is unavoidable, but with a little training we can learn to unlearn our bad instincts. It’s possible to rewire your mind to actually enjoy certain pressures in life. Within reason, of course. I now play games differently to just last year; I see improvement quicker, and experience deeper satisfaction than ever before. My friend, aware of my previous habits, couldn’t believe his eyes when I finally let him watch me play Sifu.

Video games provide a safe environment for training before, say, starting a shift at the petrol station during peak hours. If I can unlearn button mashing, I can unlearn my headless chicken routine. It will take a bit longer, but now I have hope that it’s possible. You can do it too, just don’t expect it to be easy (Sifu certainly isn’t).


Ben’s Muckrack

Ben is a freelance writer based in North Wales. He believes games are one of the most important and undervalued art forms, and aims to share their value to as many people as possible.