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Understanding Challenge

January 8, 2013 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4


Existential challenges test your ability to ponder the "big questions" about life and death. They ask you to question how you ought to act, morally speaking. They deal with right or wrong, not with social conventions, religious beliefs, or law. Recently, these challenges have become a more established category throughout games, ranging from board games to video games.

Such challenges are often expressed in games as either obviously good or obviously evil – maybe neutral, often substantially rewarding the extremes. For example, at one point in the action-adventure game Infamous, you are forced to choose between saving the life of your girlfriend Trish and saving the lives of several doctors. In other words, it asks the question "Is one life more valuable than the lives of many?" And due to the game's structure, you immediately know what choice is good and what choice is evil.

However, these challenges may not be clear-cut; two different courses of action may seem equally good or equally evil, depending on how each one is viewed. For example, it is wrong to steal. But is it wrong to steal food if the only alternative is to starve?

This ambiguity of choice forces one to take pause. Ultima V presents such a challenge where there is no clear choice. Deep in one of its mazes is a room filled with jail cells. Inside those cells are children.

When you enter the room, you can see the children and want to save them. But due to the limitations of the game, any "friendly" characters in a dungeon behave as monsters. This results in the children attacking their would-be rescuer as soon as they're set free. Richard Garriott, the game's designer, recalls:

"Well, I thought, that is an interesting little problem, isn't it? Because I knew darn well that the game doesn't care whether you kill them or whether you walk away. It didn't matter, but I knew it would bring up a psychological image in your mind, an image that was in my mind -- and any conflict you bring up in anybody's mind is beneficial. It means a person has to think about it.13

Do you set them free? If so, do you kill them to save yourself? There are no benefits or penalties for either action. It is not a trivial problem.

Summary of Challenges

Now we can assert that all challenges from across the history and into the future of games can be understood using the following:






Space as challenge


People as challenge






Language as challenge


Self as challenge






Numbers as challenge


Nature as challenge






Bodily-control as challenge


"Big question" as challenge




Sound as challenge


Keep in mind that there are numerous archetypal challenges that were not specifically cited (e.g. mazes, riddles, Rube Goldberg machines, physics puzzles). Regardless, they can still be understood in this taxonomy. Also note that a challenge is not necessarily limited to a single category; it may involve multiple intelligences. For example, while running and jumping across a chasm in Prince of Persia does involve fine-motor skills, it also involves understanding and judgment of space.

But what does this really mean? The vocabulary provides a more informed understanding of what and how challenges are used to create the player experience:

Charades: Bodily-kinesthetic (gross), Interpersonal

Dungeons & Dragons: Mathematical-logical, Interpersonal

Secret of Monkey Island: Mathematical-logical, Interpersonal

Myst: Mathematical-logical

Quake: Bodily-kinesthetic (fine), Spatial

Portal: Spatial, Mathematical-logical, Bodily-kinesthetic (fine)

Infamous: Bodily-kinesthetic (fine), Spatial, Interpersonal, Existential

Here we can see how each game uses challenge similarly and differently. When we compare charades and Quake, we can see charades emphasizes gross-kinesthetic challenge over interpersonal challenge while Quake emphasizes fine-kinesthetic challenge over spatial challenge. As with any formal model, by understanding how challenges impact the player experience, we are better able to break down that experience and use it to guide design, research and criticism.


1 Hunicke, Robin, Marc LeBlanc, and Robert Zubek. "MDA: A formal approach to game design and game research." In Proceedings of the AAAI Workshop on Challenges in Game AI, pp. 04-04. 2004.

2 Koster, Raph. Theory of fun for game design. O'Reilly Media, 2010.

3 Gardner, Howard E. Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. Basic books, 1985.

4 Gardner, Howard E. Intelligence reframed: Multiple intelligences for the 21st century. Basic Books, 2000.

5 Portal Wiki contributors, "Portal test chamber 05," Portal Wiki, (accessed October 21, 2012).

6 Monkey Island Wiki contributors, "Insult sword fighting," Monkey Island Wiki, (accessed October 21, 2012).

7 King's Quest Omnipedia contributors, "Sense Gnomes," King's Quest Omnipedia, (accessed October 21, 2012).

8 Rollings, Andrew, and Ernest Adams. Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams on game design. New Riders Pub, 2003.

9 Wikipedia contributors, "Loom (video game)," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed October 21, 2012).

10 Dni Wiki contributors, "Selenitic," Dni Wiki, (accessed August 10, 2004).

11 L.A. Noire Wiki contributors, "Interrogation," L.A. Noire Wiki, (accessed October 21, 2012).

12 von Ahn, Luis, Ruoran Liu, and Manuel Blum. "Peekaboom: A Game for Locating Objects in Images." (2006).

13 Addams, Shay. The official book of Ultima. Compute, 1992.

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