There’s nothing like an almost-punishing challenge to bring a group together, and those bonds cross over the digital divide.

I’m currently waist-deep in Halo 5. The dialog isn’t fantastic, but the combat and mechanics are some of the most fluid I’ve played in a first-person shooter in a long time. For what it’s worth, it did seem to learn from Titanfall; it features both sliding and some verticality, though you can’t go prone, you’ve never been able to go prone in Halo: the speed of the game and the map construction just aren’t designed for it. I’ve been having a blast with the player vs. player (PvP) game modes, but tonight I dove in with a fellow writer on the co-op campaign.

Halo 5 allows you to take up to four players through the entire campaign mode together, fighting through waves of enemies as a team to discover more about the stories of the Master Chief and Spartan Locke. When I started the co-op game, Cory said, “Well, let’s not play it on normal. We should at least play it on Heroic.” Heroic is the equivalent of “Hard” mode in Halo, one step below Legendary (the mode you play when you want to die frequently). Sure, I said, why not?

Turns out Heroic was pretty hard, but it was worth it. I’m finding it’s always worth it to turn up the difficulty when I’m playing games with groups of friends; it tends to bring out the best in us.

Halo 5 - Locke Co-Op

When I was younger, I used to play all of my games on harder difficulties; I thought it didn’t “really count” if I beat the game on an easier level since I couldn’t brag about it to my friends, and usually the rewards for beating the game were better: stronger weapons, more detailed/alternate endings, or maybe even codes to unlock bonus characters! Now, as an adult, I don’t have as much time to pour into my games, so I tend to play on Normal mode because it gets me through the story more quickly, allowing me to move on to the next game. But when I’m playing with friends, I’m not playing to experience a story; I’m playing to spend time with friends and socialize. So why not step up to a challenge while we’re at it?

My best multiplayer gaming memories are all from intense battles with a group of allies against an overwhelming boss; these are the types of experiences common in MMOs: Massively Multiplayer Online games that take place live in an online world. In MMOs, you’re generally rewarded with more experience, money, and better loot for tackling harder challenges, creating a tangible incentive to fighting harder bosses. Even though Halo 5 isn’t an MMO and doesn’t offer those concrete rewards, my intangible benefit every time I play cooperatively is watching our team of ragtag allies band together, becoming a coordinated attack force against a single enemy, even if we all die and have to start over a few times in the process.

Cory and I did just that, wiping multiple times during a midboss fight in the second mission of Halo 5. We’d run in, guns blazing, and gets knocked down by small grunts that would have been no challenge in Normal mode. He’d run to the left side of the map, while I went around to the right; he’d get shot and killed by a laser, and then I’d get killed when I ran over to try and revive him. After a couple times of trying it solo again, we eventually started communicating. “Let’s focus on the turret in the left window,” I said, and next thing you know, the enemy went down. From there, we pushed our way up the line, talking as we encountered new baddies. We punched a hole in their defenses by working together, learning and adapting in a way we never would have if we didn’t have the challenge of the increased difficulty.

When I get spare time, I tend to play Diablo III; it’s a pretty mindless hack-and-slash game that I can play with friends to blow off steam while feeling like I’m doing something productive (because I’m gaining levels and loot, of course). But I’ve found that if I play it with friends and we don’t turn up the difficulty enough, I actually get more stressed out than when the difficulty is a touch too high and I’m dying more often than not; the experience and loot is too weak to be useful to my character, and boredom starts to take over. Given, there’s such a thing as too much difficulty: if we’re all constantly dying, or we have to keep going back to base to repair my armor because I keep dying, then that ruins the fun for everyone. But there’s a sweet spot of difficulty, just a little bit more than we think we can handle, where we learn that we’re capable of a lot more than we’d originally thought: that’s where I like to keep my experiences in gaming, though I try to keep them there in life as well.

Halo 5 - Master Chief Co-Op 2

The fear of failure keeps many people from every trying something truly challenging in life, and that fear can be justified. Unlike in gaming, we don’t get extra lives or revivals when we fail in reality: we may lose reputation, property, relationships, maybe even our lives. One bad event, one misstep can be beginning of a life of pain and heartache. But Easy Mode-ing our way through life means that we end up underdeveloped, weak, and we don’t bring the beauty and awesomeness to ourselves and our world we could have if we stepped up. To really make a difference, to find the potential we have in ourselves, we have to know what our limits are, our real limits: that comes from running a little further than when you run out of breath, getting the salad instead of the pizza when we know we’re hungry, swallowing your pride and apologizing when you know you could lash out. Those can all be hard to do, but they get easier when you do them with friends.

Cory and I haven’t always seen eye-to-eye (as those who’ve kept up our Popzara podcasts know), but we’ve gotten along better over our time working together; a lot of that is owed to the time we’ve spent together gaming (as well as traveling to events together and whatnot). Even more so, a big part of the reason that this site exists on the Internet instead of just an idea in my head (which it has for the past few years) is because I finally went co-op and decided to work with another friend who’s trying to improve her business. We meet regularly and discuss our plans for improving our businesses and the tasks we need to complete, and we’ve both accomplished things we’d talked about doing but hadn’t done alone. I’ve published an article either here or on my personal blog, Hey, That’s My Life for the past 21 days; that’s more days in a row of writing than I’ve ever done in my life. But I don’t think I could have set that goal and really felt like I could achieve it without a teammate, someone else who I knew would ask questions and I’d have to be accountable to for my progress.

Sure, starting my own website and challenging myself to post every day was turning up the difficulty a bit. But it turns out that this is a lot easier than going it alone, and a lot more rewarding, too.