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Understanding Challenge

January 8, 2013 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next


Mathematical-logical challenges test your understanding of the underlying principles of causal systems, or to manipulate numbers, quantities, and operations. Typically, these are the challenges that we refer to as "mental" challenges.

A common example of a causal system is a lock (actual or metaphorical) that prevents you from accessing an area of the game and all you have to do is to bring it the appropriate key. Quake uses gold and silver keys, each of which opens respective colored doors within a level. It's a simple cause-and-effect system. However, locks and keys do not need to be so literal.

In King's Quest VI, when you first travel to the Isle of Wonder, you meet five sense gnomes that throw invaders into the sea. You need to trick each of them, one by one, with a flower of stench, a mechanical nightingale, a mint, a rabbit's foot, and invisible ink. In other words, you need to use the appropriate key (i.e. the items) on the appropriate lock (i.e. the gnomes).

More complex forms of these challenges present a set of objects, often related in ways that are not directly obvious, that need to be manipulated to make a key. Keep in mind that causal systems are not limited to locks and keys. Any system that has predictable events based on specific actions is causal in nature.

Other mathematical-logical challenges require mathematical skill, such as those used in blackjack. Think about it: Each time a card is drawn from the deck, the probabilities of drawing other cards increases. If you draw the Queen of Hearts, then that card is guaranteed to not come up again, and the remaining cards have a higher probability of being drawn, since the deck is now smaller.

Various strategies based on these probabilities have been derived in order to maximize the chances of winning and minimize the chances of losing. The same principle is applied when you min/max your character in Dungeons & Dragons or World of Warcraft. You are trying to minimize undesirable or unimportant traits and maximize the desired ones. The classic application of min/maxing is to make a fighter with very high physical traits (i.e. strength constitution, dexterity) at the expense of mental traits (i.e. intelligence, wisdom, charisma). Both strategies are applications of number manipulation.

Similar principles extend to economics, the flow and management of resources. In many games, the challenge is simply to accumulate money. In Monopoly, you buy and sell properties, participate in auctions, and collect rent with this goal in mind. But economies in games are not limited to money. Any resource that can be created, moved, stored, or destroyed either physically or conceptually can be considered.

Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams said, "Even a first-person shooter has simple economy: Ammunition is obtained by finding it or taking it from dead opponents, and it is consumed by firing your weapon."8 Likewise, there are health, mana, inventory capacity, real estate, and the ability to save. 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.


Bodily-kinesthetic challenges test your ability to control of your bodily motions, capacity to handle objects skillfully, and sense of timing and reaction. One way to understand bodily-kinesthetic challenge is to view it as the "challenge of doing."

At the large scale, gross-kinesthetic challenges test your use of large muscle groups to perform tasks like running, jumping, or balancing. For example, charades uses gross-kinesthetic challenges. You use gestures and your acting abilities in order to make your team guess the movie, book, celebrity, or whatever it is that you are thinking of. If you were thinking of "Harry Potter," you could wave an imaginary wand around or maybe gesture a scar on your forehead. You could play with your hair and then mime forming clay (i.e. being a potter). Regardless of what you gesture, the idea is for you to use your body to communicate instead of verbal or written language.

A similar type of challenge is experienced in Dance Dance Revolution (DDR). During play, arrows scroll upward and pass over a set of stationary arrows. When the scrolling arrows overlap the stationary ones, you tap colored arrows with your feet on the dance platform. The game moves you around in such a way to approximate dancing, demanding gross physical control.

Looking at the smaller scale, fine-kinesthetic challenges test your ability to use smaller muscle groups to perform tasks that are precise in nature. For example, Jenga is a game of manual dexterity that involves removing blocks from a tower and moving those blocks to the top of the tower. Over the course of several small moments, you are required to analyze and adjust the amount of force each individual finger is using. In the same way, when playing Halo, you have to apply the ideal amount of pressure on the analog sticks with your thumbs to move through the space, move your thumb off of the analog stick to press other buttons, and perform numerous minor adjustments.

Bodily-kinesthetic challenges further include the concepts of timing and reaction. Timing is about acting exactly at the right moment, coordinating with something else happening in the game. Running and jumping across a chasm by pressing the jump button at the last second in Prince of Persia is an example of timing. On the other hand, reaction is about acting as fast as possible. Quickly moving your hands before they are slapped in a game of Hot Hands or instantly responding to a prompt from a Quick Time Event are examples of reaction.

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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?

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!