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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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