The Long and the Short of it

The question:  Which is a more difficult race, a marathon, or a sprint?

The answer:  Which is a fruitier fruit, an apple, or an orange?

The explanation:  The question is not valid because the two races are difficult for different reasons and require different skills to obtain victory.  A sprint is “burst difficulty”, where the problem is very hard for a very short period of time, while a marathon is “sustained difficulty”, where the problem is moderately hard for a very long period of time.

To express the situation numerically, suppose on a scale of one to ten, Challenge A is ranked at 9 and lasts for half a minute, while challenge B is ranked at 6 and lasts for ten minutes.  A simple person might comment, “Well if you multiply the rating by the duration, Challenge A is a 4.5 and Challenge B is a 60, so B must be more than ten times harder!”  However, the numbers break down once you introduce the human factor into the equation.  Joe Shmoe might have a skill level of 9 but can only maintain it for a minute; Challenge A would be easy for him but B would not.  Conversely, Plain Jane might have a skill level of 7 but can maintain it for an hour; Challenge B would be easier for her.  If Joe and Jane were to compete head-to-head, the victor would of course depend on the type of games played, and if the two wished to become equals, Joe would have to train his stamina while Jane would have to train her skill, the difficulty of such training dependant on their individual psychologies.

But suppose a grayer situation.  Joe Shmoe still has a skill level of 9 for one minute.  Which is harder for him:  A challenge rating of 8 for two minutes, or a challenge rating of 10 for twenty seconds?  Both are outside his abilities, but only just; he may still achieve victory.  With the former, his skill level does not immediately drop to 0 after his one minute is up, and he could endure; with the latter, if he knows the challenge is very short he may find additional focus and turn his 9 into a 10 for a brief period of time.  Yet again, the human factor determines everything.  Perhaps Joe is more comfortable having his skill boundary pushed, or maybe it is his stamina boundary; likely even he will not know until he tries, and the results will show him what areas he should improve upon to become a better competitior in the future.

A greyer situation still:  What is worse, a challege of 9 for five minutes, or a challenge of 8 for twenty?  The difference in difficulty is not so great, but the longer the event goes on the more evident the difference in difficulty becomes, to the point where even a skill-focused challenger may desire a longer-but-easier challenege, and a stamina-focused challenger may desire a harder-but-shorter one.

The length of the competition directly effects how much effort can and should be put into achieving perfection.  In a marathon, minutes count.  In a mile, seconds count.  In a hundred-meter dash, milliseconds count.  The shorter the competition, the slimmer the margin of error, because there is less opportunity TO err, and thus less chance that your opponents will err.  The winner is defined not so much by the person with the most skill as the person who makes the least mistakes.

Let it not be forgotten that the maker of the challenge itself is biased, based on what they believe is difficult.  If they are comfortable with burst difficulty, they may place a challenge of sustained difficulty as the final obstacle, or vice versa.  This can create a situation where a participant experiences an oscellating curve of difficulty as what they find difficult clashes with what the maker finds difficult.

There are simply too many factors which influence the skill and comfort of a challenger in the arena to deduce what is “harder” and what is “easier”, or why it is so.  Each competes in their own way, and their minds make demons out of different things.  While some credence can be given to the majority opinion, or the opinion of the professionals and experts, such metrics are reliable only for the broad cases, and their specificity is rarely applicable to the case of the individual.


{Does anyone else find that the second-to-last boss, or even third-to-last boss in a video game is often harder than the final one?  It is because the final boss is meant to be more cinematic, drawing the difficulty out over multiple attack patterns and forms?}


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