The Value of Challenge in Games

Challenge in Games

Challenge stimulates our mind resulting in discovering, learning, and the development of schemas. Whether it be learning to better aim, learning to make smarter decisions, or learning to stay calm and collected when under pressure, we seek out these type of experiences as a form of mental stimulation. I believe there are a number of instinctual process that drive this desire. Our minds seek knowledge in the same way they seek pleasure; pleasure through play helps establish both needs. We can observe animals in the wild doing just this, such as the lion cub pinning his sister in a headlock developing necessary skills to catch prey in the years to come.

I believe good design seeks to satisfy this need and desire. Players are most engaged when a game challenges them, the trick is to balance the degree of challenge relative to the players. This concept is often labeled as pacing or difficulty, but I think that tends to misconstrue the underlying issue. For example, difficulty seems to be an external factor which you can modify easily through tuning of certain variables, where challenge seems to be more inherent within the core design. Challenge is something you have to be very mindful of when developing the core gameplay, as the features and mechanics you design need to be transparent and not overly complex.

The absence of challenge can be a very toxic element within a game as it removes this stimulus resulting in lower engagement. I also believe that as a player ages, it becomes more difficult to satisfy this desire as their previous experiences will impact what content stimulates their mind. Will Wright highlights some of his influences in regards to design, drawing from the teachings of Maria Montessori. He speaks to the value of self discovering through play in Spore, Birth of a Game. He asserts the value of creating an experience within games that enables the player to learn and grow; as these type of experiences are most likely to stick with us as players. I really enjoyed getting his insight into design, I feel it highlights the importance of challenge within games as challenge is a very key component to learning.

In Compelling Game Design, I reference an article which observes the learning patterns of children. The author found that a child plays with a toy until the toy no longer presents a challenge to the child. At which point, the child discards the toy for something new. Similarly, if the toy presents to great a challenge, the child discards the toy in an effort to find something more suitable to their capacity. However, the child will later go back to the toy that previously presented a challenge in an effort to master it. The fact that the child went back to the toy that previously presented to great a challenge is very interesting point to note. Perhaps the child sought to master what had previously presented itself as overly challenging. Could this behaviour be a consequence of the child’s desire to seek stimulus?

Challenge in Creating Challenge

Designing a game which contains a game-loop that is dynamic, simple to learn, and hard to master seems to be the underlying goal. I would imagine that a dynamic game-loop is the first requirement to achieving the goal of mastery. A dynamic game-loop is constantly evolving in a non-predictable manner. This evolution causes the player to adapt, constantly challenging their perspective and understanding of the game. However, the game-loop has to be transparent and easy to understand in order to accomplish the goal of simple to learn.

The point of this article is to encourage a perspective of design that looks deeper into the way challenge is developed within a game. A believe there is a need to be very intentional in how we design challenge, how we push the player to learn and grow, and how this process adapts and grows as the game ages. This is something I myself have recently tried to be more mindful of. Questioning how our decisions will impact challenge or how we might improve the development of challenge within our games should ultimately result in more meaningful experiences as a player. Lets not just entertain, lets provide the player the opportunity to grow.

Interesting Readings

Gee, J.P. (2005). Learning by Design: Good Video Games as Learning Machines. E-Learning, 2(1), 5-16. Retrieved January 17, 2014 from http://www.editlib.org/p/68984

Garris, R., Ahlers, R., Driskell, J. E. (2002). Games, Motivation, and Learning: A Research and Practice Model. Simulations & Gaming, 33(4), 441-467. Retrieved January 18, 2014 from http://sag.sagepub.com/content/33/4/441.short

Will Wright (2007). Spore, Birth of a Game



  1. Ciez Reply

    Interesting read, I really like the part that talks about the difference between a game being difficult and a game being challenging and I think it could really be applied to more games these days. It is very hard to find a game that is truly challenging in an interesting way and not simply difficult because they crank up the numbers so high, but don’t leave room for clever/interesting decisions to be made by the player.

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