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Understanding Challenge

January 8, 2013 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

What is challenge? Talking about challenge is difficult when the vocabulary we have is limited to "physical" or "mental." It doesn't give us the necessary tools to examine games with any sort of substance. The Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics (MDA) framework states "Charades emphasizes Fellowship over Challenge; Quake provides Challenge as a main element of gameplay."1 We inherently recognize that the challenges between these games are significantly different, but there is no language available to explain that difference. We need to move away from vague, ambiguous words like "physical" or "mental" and toward a more definitive vocabulary. But what?

In A Theory of Fun, Raph Koster wrote "fun is just another word for learning."2 Fun comes from learning and mastering new experiences. We learn a game's underlying patterns to the point of absolute and intuitive understanding. It's simply what we do. Fundamentally, games are engines for learning. And if this is the case, then we could borrow a framework that explains how we learn.

Educational theorist Howard Gardner's study Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences outlines seven different learning styles, comprising:3

  • Spatial
  • Linguistic
  • Mathematical-logical
  • Bodily-kinesthetic
  • Musical
  • Interpersonal
  • Intrapersonal

In his later work, he introduced two more: Naturalistic and Existential.4 In this framework, all of us enter a learning setting with these intelligences already in place and the educator draws upon and addresses these intelligences to guide learning.

Likewise, games draw upon these intelligences to guide learning in the form of challenges. Admittedly, Koster does briefly hint that these intelligences could provide a vocabulary. He states: "the list suggests right off the bat that different people will be interested in different sorts of games because of their natural talents... they'll select problems and patterns they think they have a chance at solving."

These problems and patterns are the challenges that we see in games. This article intends to examine challenges with regards to the aforementioned taxonomy.


Spatial challenges test your ability to understand and judge space, and represent that space within your mind. They involve the recognition and use of patterns in space. Do note that these challenges are separate from the player's ability to move through or manipulate the space.

A jigsaw puzzle is a spatial challenge that involves properly arranging numerous oddly-shaped pieces to reveal a complete picture. To do so, you need to internalize the pieces and see them in the "big picture." Depending on your ability and the complexity of the puzzle, this is typically done incrementally, arranging the pieces into groups according to colors and patterns, and assembling mini-puzzles from each group. If you notice a part of a building, you find and add more pieces to construct that building's features. You continue to add more and more pieces, understanding how each fits in the whole, until you accomplish your goal.

Similarly, Portal is a game that requires you to internalize a space before knowing where to use the portal gun. For instance, Test Chamber 05 (see below) consists of a single door to with a lock that opens when two buttons are simultaneously depressed. There is one cube down in a pit and the other is on top of one of two platforms. On the other platform is an end of a portal. You must understand how to move through the space so that you can collect the cubes and open the door. This setup extends to each room in Portal, requiring that you understand more and more complex spaces in order to continue.


Linguistic challenges test your capacity to use language. They involve spoken and written language, the ability to learn languages, and the capacity to use language to accomplish certain goals.

Consider a crossword puzzle. The goal is to fill all of the empty squares with letters and form words or phrases. To be successful, you need to identify and understand the clues being used, differentiating between any similar words or phrases. Take the following puzzle: feline: C _ _. You need to recall a list of words with a similar meaning as "feline" that are three letters long and start with the letter "C", all of which require you to understand language.

Insult sword fighting in the Secret of Monkey Island is another example of a linguistic challenge. It involves you and a pirate flinging insults and counter-insults at one another. To start, the pirate presents an insult, such as "You fight like a dairy farmer." You must retort with the appropriate counter-insult from your collection to win the round:

A "I hope now you've learned to stop picking your nose."

B "And I've got a little TIP for you. Get the POINT?"

C "First you better stop waving it like a feather-duster."

D "How appropriate. You fight like a cow."

A nonsensical response causes you to lose the round. After you win (or the pirate wins) three consecutive rounds, you win (or he wins) the fight. Your ability to understand your potential retorts determines your success.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Matthew Burns
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Chad, this is an excellent article on understanding and discerning "challenge." I particularly like how you summed up the Mathematical-Logica section; l"The degree of the challenge is proportional to the supply of the resource against its demand. Regardless of what the resource is, the game challenges you understand its value."

Well done.

Luis Guimaraes
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Categorizing by nature is good, it can be easily done by completing the sentence: "this challenge will test your ______ skills". But the nature of the challenge can be twisted by the player's approach.

Pressing A when prompted by a QTE merely tests your reflexes, which the article puts under "Bodily-Kinesthetic" challenges. A player can react to the challenge, or he can have his pattern recognition anticipate the QTE before it happens, or he can play in a methodical way that makes it impossible for him to be surprised by QTEs, or he previously failed at the challenge and memorized the moment and button to press, or he has a statistical solution for the situation. All these twisting the most obvious nature of the challenge by the nature of the solution.

A game example of this is in skill-based shooters, there's this tactical skill called "crosshair placement" which is a solution for a problem of nature to "twitch aim", but of different nature, that can minimize and sometimes almost completely ignore the perceived initial nature of the challenge.

One way I like to think of challenges is their value nature, which in many cases can be a hint over complexity and IMO also a measure of quality.

Back on the QTE example, in it's simplest form, user can either press the right key in the right time or not, which categorizes the challenge as a binary-value one, for both input (press key or not) and outcome (beat challenge or not). Therefore the player can't evolve past the ability to overcome a challenge, and can't measure his skill progress doing so.

Taking Angry Birds as the example. It's a game that falls under the trajectory calculation genre (almost pure math, but players can simply learn where to pull the bird before releasing it, turning it in a memorization task), summed with a physics layer to it (mostly math and strategy), a bit of timing skill (to activate special abilities of the bird in the right moment), and the challenge is not just one of hit-or-miss anymore, but there are many different spots a player might want to hit (strategy comes from choices) and there's different levels of precision for a hit (which turns the aiming challenge, of mathematical nature, into a task of analog-value). But in the end, a huge amount of people play it as a slot machine, subverting all the challenges and their nature into a matter of chance.

Many challenges in games have more than one nested nature into them. In Quake 3, hitting a player with the Rail Gun and with the Rocket Launcher are tasks that share some natures but also have many differences to it. That's because each task can be split down into smaller tasks many times. Aiming where you want is a "Bodily-Kinesthetic" challenge, both guns share the same componential sub-task (a task which requires analog-value input), but beyond that the differences come in, where math tasks are inserted in the Rocket Launcher case, there's also the explosion radius, changing the resulting aspect of the challenge into an analog-value (how close you hit the rocket defines how much effective it is, which side you hit the rocket defines where the opponent can potentially be thrown), which the Rail Gun, which requires analog-value input, has binary-value outcome (you either hit or miss).

Analog-value tasks have different levels of failure or success, and allow players to evolve inside and measure the quality of their performance.

Binary and analog values are not the only cases tho. Games with special hit-boxes add other layers of strategy to the gameplay. In Counter-Strike, hitting a player in the head is harder than hitting body, but causes much more damage, hitting a player in the body is easier but causes less damage, hitting a player in the legs causes lowest damage, but slows the target down the most. While head-shots are the perceived immediate optimal strategy, the tactical situation of the game, the weapon you have in hand, the health situation of the shooter and the target players, the amount of players involved in the firefight, the amount of time left in the round, the recoil state of the weapon, all affect the management of outcomes and statistics of choosing where to aim for in a split second decision.

Strategic, option-value choices are often limited and clear distinguished from each other (in a logical way, player-perceived way is another subject), where you do one (or more?) of the possible choices in a given action.

Comparing these three basic input and outcome value-types to programming language, a challenge can have it's input and outcome categorized as boolean (binary), int/float/double (analog) or enumeration (finite-option).

Some challenges tho, can have ambiguos/subjective value-type. Doing a test, with score of 0-100, where 70 and above are considered success, can be considered by one player a binary-value challenge, and by another an analog value task. Similarly, the outcome of a finite-choice can be taken as binary-value or analog-value, it all depends where the player draws the line. "I want the S-rank", "the Golden trophy", "to beat the level without killing anybody", "without using ammo from the strongest weapon". Player's can also have different standards for different situation, as in "beat the level saving all Revives for the boss battle", then "just beat the boss, whatever I have to spend in the battle".

Concluding the personal opinion on quality stuff: binary-input, binary-outcome are the weakest, less interesting, less addicting, and negatively affected by repetition, kinds of challenges possible. That's mostly where categorizing challenges by value-type comes handy: to make uninteresting challenges into interesting ones... IMO.

Mathieu Halley
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Couldn't the outcome of a scored test be categorized as having a complex value-type? Irrespective of whether the player succeeds or fails, they still receive a score. Success/Failure is a boolean outcome and Score is an analog outcome.

Continuing from that perspective, I suppose you could analyse a challenge, determine which of the inputs and outcomes are of primary significance and then use this information to determine the nature of the challenge. For example: How does a challenge that has Success/Failure as the primary outcome differ from one that has Score as the primary outcome?

Luis Guimaraes
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@Mathieu Halley

Quite interesting observation!

This can be a good example as to that feeling for a player that didn't kill the boss yet, but had his HP way lower than in the first try". There's no binary Success yet, but still a sense of analog Progression, which is a powerful motivator to Try Again.

Chad Kilgore
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Thanks for taking the time to read the article and your comments...

The strength of using the Theory of Multiple Intelligences as a foundation is twofold. First, each intelligence requires the following criteria:
1.) Potential for brain isolation by brain damage,
2.) Place in evolutionary history,
3.) Presence of core operations,
4.) Susceptibility to encoding (symbolic expression),
5.) A distinct developmental progression,
6.) The existence of savants, prodigies and other exceptional people,
7.) Support from experimental psychology and psychometric findings.

As you can see, this breakdown is not an arbitrary classification. In fact, I would love to see brain scans of people playing different types of games to determine if this taxonomy is sound.

Second, the theory removes the concept of quality, which appears to be your primary focus. In my opinion, discussions of quality ultimately lead to an argument of subjectivity. What you deem as interesting, I may deem as uninteresting. For example, there are millions of people that find reality TV fascinating; I do not.

That said, your categorization is certainly insightful. But I think it could be simplified into 2 categories based on the expression of the game's rules: progressive or emergent. Progressive rules create challenges that require the player to perform a predefined sequence of events, whereas emergent rules create challenges that "emerge" from the interaction of the game's mechanics. Your Quake 3 and Counter-Strike examples would both fall into this category, as there are a small number of simple rules interacting to produce more complex results in both cases. The difference is the expression of meaningful choice and feedback in that choice.

You are absolutely correct in that repetition negatively affect progressive rules. But I think it would be hasty to dismiss such rules are inherently uninteresting. Take "The Walking Dead" for example. The rules are clearly progressive while simultaneously being interesting.

John Maurer
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First off, excellent article Chad. I thought it quite insightful. @Luis, I see your point, and I don't mean any offense when I say this, but your post seems a little trollish. Thing about emergent gameplay is that it tends to "emerge" out of progressive mechanics. Not that emergent systems have not been made intentionally before, but I would imagine that even then a lateral thinking player likely managed to suprise a designer.

What Chad is trying to do is develop an evolved jargon, one that is both abstract and meaningful. Diving into a new or revisited mechanic your always going to want the high-level first, helps one to wrap their mind around a new or existing system.

"This mechanics has these bells & whistles, but its basically [fill in the blank]." I'd rather hear/read something like that out the gate going into a design than pour over documentation or worse ping tribal knowledge, and I believe this may be the spirit of what Chad was trying to communicate with this article.

Chris Toepker
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Thanks for a very interesting article. I would suggest adding another category: Strategic Challenge.

That is, challenges in decision making.

As Dixit, Skeath and Nalebuff write: “The simple rule is that unless there are two or more players, each of whom responds to what others do (or what each thinks the others might do), it is not a (strategic) game."

“There must be some cross-effect of actions; what one does must affect the outcome for the other” (AND), the participants must be mutually aware of this cross effect. Going further: “Playing games requires many different kinds of skills. Basic skills such as shooting ability in basketball, knowledge of precedents in law, or a blank face in poker, (or, interfacing with a console or PC to make moves quickly and efficiently) are one kind (of skill): strategic thinking is another.

"Strategic thinking starts with your basic skills and considers how to best use them. Knowing how well your football team can pass or run and how well the other team can defend against each choice, your decision as coach is whether to pass or run. Sometimes, strategic thinking also means knowing when not to play.”

While your "interpersonal" area touches on this, I think it can be refined, ultimately into its own category. In any case, there is rich literature out there on this, just not specifically tailored to (video) games, which I think may be useful in your (likely ongoing) efforts. And thanks again for them! (

Chad Kilgore
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Sorry for the late reply.

You bring up an excellent point. Personally, I think strategy can be considered an economic challenge that strongly weighs the situation. In the case of Gears of War (and other cover-based shooters), you evaluate potential cover positions based on the enemy locations and the cover points health. You have to quickly evaluate the cost of each potential tactic. This case combines Mathematical-Logical and Spatial challenge. In Poker, you may willing lose a hand to throw off opponents from reading your tells, which combines Mathematical-Logical and Intrapersonal.

Do you have any recommended literature that discusses strategy?

Jay Anne
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This was a fun article to read. It is not useful though, b/c it spends most of its pages describing challenges that most games do not use and really glosses over the challenges that 99% of game design actually uses.

Yama Habib
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The article analyses challenge in terms of its basic components. As Luis noted above me, while it is rare to find a game that revolves solely around one of these, the majority of challenges encountered in games can be described as a product of one or more of these components. I'll even go so far as to infer that some of the greatest games ever made utilize most or all of these perceptions of challenge in some respect.

Chad Kilgore
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I'm sorry that you don't find the categories useful. If the article spends its majority describing challenges that most games don't use, then I would beg the question: Why don't we use them? And could we use them?

Robert Hoischen
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An interesting article to say the least. It does put an intriguing spin on what fun in gaming is and made me think about my playing habits and how those fit into "my profile" as given by your categories. Pretty accurate I found.

Also, I do agree with Chris above that I feel strategic-thinking components in games are slightly under-represented in your list, although you do touch on various parts of that. What I seem to miss the most is: the needs to plan (far) ahead using limited, incomplete information you do have. Of course you can count information as being a resource, but there is a distinct difference between a resource given to you as a definite number in a game or on the map and a perceived and possible manipulated situation encountered in the game (a ruse for example) which forces you to decide between two or more options. Decision making for long term goals is one of the most satisfying aspects of the RTS and Grand Strategy genres.

While I found your Ultima V story a bit amusing, I don't think it catches the essence of you want to say? (Or maybe I get the situation the player is put into all wrong!) You say yourself it doesn't make any difference in the game, but the choice is not trivial (i.e. it has the big picture question tide to it). The way I understand the situation I have to disagree: it is indeed trivial as the existential outcome is the same too: in both cases the children die, either of starvation, disease, or worse, OR by your sword. It doesn't really change anything. If the outcome basically is the same, the player indeed is faced with a trivial problem and has no incentive to care.

I find some of the no-right-no-wrong choices in The Witcher series to be much better examples here, as they DO change non-trivial things and make you think about similar topics.

Anyway, nice write-up! :) Cheers!