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Understanding Challenge

What is challenge? Day 1 Studios (F.E.A.R. 3) technical designer and Iowa State University instructor Chad Kilgore examines the types of challenge that games present to players, putting them into a usable framework.

January 8, 2013

20 Min Read

Author: by Chad Kilgore

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.


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.


Musical challenges test your ability to recognize and recall musical pitches, tones, and rhythms.

Consider Loom. Its gameplay centers on music so much so that all interactions come in the form of four-note sequences called drafts. As you play the game, you learn drafts by observing objects that have qualities of a relevant draft. For example, you learn the "sharpening" draft by watching a blade while it is being sharpened. Normally when this happens, your distaff -- a tool used for spell weaving -- glows with the appropriate note. However, if you play as an "expert" then your distaff is not marked and you must play solely by ear, demanding an even stronger understanding of pitch and tone.

In the same manner, the Selenitic Age in Myst with its trickling waterfalls, whistling winds, fiery chasms, and the sound of wind whistling through crystalline formations requires you to recognize audial patterns. Most notable and probably misunderstood, is the vast maze in the underground caverns of the Age, which is traversed with what is known as the Mazerunner.

When you first sit down in its pilot chair, it looks simple enough: a FORWARD button, a BACKTRACK button, a LEFT button, a RIGHT button, and a compass. By pressing FORWARD, the runner is lowered onto a track and a small bell sounds – ping. After some trial-and-error (or by recalling the tones from the Mechanical Age), you can learn that sound is a cue corresponding to a compass heading.

In fact, each direction has an associated sound: "ping" means north; "chirp" means west; "spring" means east; "dong" means south. Knowing this, you can easily travel the caverns by following the cues at each intersection. Although this task does have you traversing a maze, your ability to recognize the musical patterns circumvents any need to map the space.


Interpersonal challenges test your ability to understand the intentions, motivations, and desires of other people. They involve reading people and changing your approach to achieve a desired goal. While being extroverted or liking other people may be beneficial, it is certainly not a requirement.

Take poker, for example. The most successful players aren't masters at calculating probabilities. Instead, they are able to read their opponents, noticing the slightest nonverbal gestures and inferring their feelings about their hands. If you closely look at your opponents when they first look at their hands, most won't be able to hide their excitement or disappointment. Or if there are sudden changes in their behavior for a hand (e.g. somebody who is normally very talkative suddenly becomes quiet), you know something is going on. Once you get a good read on someone you'll know when to cut your losses or play aggressively.

In the same way, interrogation in L.A. Noire tests your ability to read people. By asking something compromising, you determine whether the suspect is telling you the truth or lying. Some notable tells are sweating, shifting eyes, and nervous tics. Being able to correctly read the suspect's behavior leads you closer to the truth, while any misunderstandings cause the suspect to either provide bad or no information.

Do note that interpersonal challenges require engaging people at a social level. If you're interacting with others as though they're cogs in a machine, then you understand them as elements in a causal system. Additionally, these challenges are different from the pleasure felt when playing with or against other people. Challenges require overcoming obstacles; in this case, the obstacles are people.


Intrapersonal challenges test your level of self-awareness. They deal with your capacity to understand your feelings, opinions, fears, experiences, preferences and motivations. In effect, you are the challenge.

One game that masterfully uses intrapersonal challenge is the experimental game Brainball. In the game, you and your opponent compete to control a ball's movement across a table. To do so, the two of you each wear a strap containing electrodes around your foreheads. The electrodes read alpha and theta waves generated when you are calm and relaxed, which move the ball forward. So in order to win, you need to be relaxed and focused. Conversely, if you are stressed, you will lose.

To a lesser extent, the same can be said about games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill. These games can make your heart race, mouth dry, and palms sweat. Consider the first time you stumble across the pale, overtly muscular figure with a large red, triangular head in Silent Hill 2. The ghastly scene is completely unexpected as you witness it rape and murder two mannequins from a nearby closet. What the hell is this thing? Are you trapped? Are you safe? At its core, you are challenged to overcome your fear and understand the situation at hand.


Naturalistic challenges test your ability to recognize and categorize both natural and unnatural artifacts.

Let's take the game Peekaboom [pdf link] by way of example. The game involves two random players taking different roles in the game: Peek and Boom. Peek starts out with a black screen; Boom starts with an image and a word related to it (see the screen below.)

Your goal, as Boom, is to slowly reveal portions of the image so that Peek can guess the related word. For example, if the image contains a cow and a field, and the word associated to the image is "cow," then you reveal only the parts of the image that contain the cow. Both you and Peek need to understand what characteristics constitute any particular artifact in order to succeed.

Contrary to its namesake, naturalistic challenges do not always involve identifying natural artifacts. For instance, in Shivers II, a series of numbers is revealed after holding a finger-printed piece of paper to a flame: 5559547. What is it? A safe combination? A password? The number is meaningless. You may stare blankly at this number not knowing what to do – I did.

Yet if it were written as 555-9547, it's immediately clear that it's a phone number. Until that leap, the number is just random noise. Now you may have recognized the number as a phone number even without the hyphen. But ask yourself, would you have recognized so quickly if it were written as "five million five hundred fifty-nine thousand five hundred forty-seven"?

These challenges should not be confused with lock-and-key causal systems. When you pick up the mechanical nightingale in King's Quest VI, you may not understand how it interacts with the space -- other than it sings -- but you know that it is a mechanical nightingale. Understanding how an artifact and its interactions affect the space and understanding what the artifact actually is are distinctly different challenges.


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



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, http://theportalwiki.com/wiki/Portal_Test_Chamber_05 (accessed October 21, 2012).

6 Monkey Island Wiki contributors, "Insult sword fighting," Monkey Island Wiki, http://monkeyisland.wikia.com/wiki/Insult_Sword_Fighting (accessed October 21, 2012).

7 King's Quest Omnipedia contributors, "Sense Gnomes," King's Quest Omnipedia, http://kingsquest.wikia.com/wiki/Sense_Gnomes (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, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loom_%28video_game%29 (accessed October 21, 2012).

10 Dni Wiki contributors, "Selenitic," Dni Wiki, http://dni.wikia.com/wiki/Selenitic (accessed August 10, 2004).

11 L.A. Noire Wiki contributors, "Interrogation," L.A. Noire Wiki, http://lanoire.wikia.com/wiki/Interrogation (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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