Reimagining Challenge

I am a gamer, my brothers are gamers, some of my best friends are gamers, but no matter how much it hurts, I must speak the truth: Gamers are what’s wrong with the game industry. It’s gamers who are reserving the Xbox 360 months before they could hope to secure one of the pricey units, even though the game library contains nothing but graphically souped-up Xbox games (Perfect Dark Zero notwithstanding). It was gamers who allowed Castlevania: Symphony of the Night to wallow in lackluster sales, despite its brilliance in ludic design, simply because its 2-D graphics were out of fashion in 1997. It’s gamers who fuel EA’s tyrannical grip on the industry, fattened by a stream of franchise sequels.

Any industry’s business model will evolve according to market conditions, not the other way around. The game industry is the way it is because its audience has voiced its particular demands in a powerful way, keeping the status quo. Smashing that status quo, even marching on EA headquarters, isn’t going to change the nature of the market’s pulpy waters. If games are going to grow up, game designers are going to have to grow the market radically, not incrementally, or abandon the “gamer” market altogether in favor of a much wider demographic. Making this market transition may require game designers to question the fundamental aspects of their craft, to the point where the term “game designer” may not be the ideal.

What do gamers want? What have game designers typically hinged upon in making their games fun? In a word: challenge.

There are many definitions of “game”: Some focused on competition, others on puzzle solving, and others still on incremental progression toward an explicit goal. What all of these definitions have in common is games are structured by rules and focused on a goal. The pleasure derived from accomplishing the goal comes from the neural connections made when a player learns the game’s patterns. In order to be fun, though, the process itself has to be challenging. Otherwise, a gamer might ask, “What’s the point?”

The Escapist has already observed that gamers are willing to put up with a lot of crap in order to appreciate their entertainment media. Learning curves and re-loads, hamster-wheel leveling and quick-save racketeering, no amount of suffering will stand in the way of that glorious dopamine pay-off when the challenge is finally bested. Challenge is a persnickety beast – its victory conditions have no patience for ambivalence, hesitations, shades of gray. In a game, almost winning is just as good as losing.

Watching your gaming efforts tumble to oblivion when the boss has only a sliver of health left is a jarring, frustrating experience that detracts from the flow of an otherwise artistic experience. Even Shadow of the Colossus and Psychonauts, two recent low profile favorites described as “art games,” suffer from the morays of challenge. Ever take on the 8th Colossus, that gas spitting salamander thing, and get killed two stabs away from victory, just because the damn thing rolled over on you? See how much the impressionistic visuals move you, then.

In contrast to the traditionally challenging interactive fare, thoroughly paidic titles can be found, which eschew challenge altogether. If interactive works were living beings, these specimens would hang out in the Mos Eisley Cantina: hypertexts, “art games,” non-games, political activism games – an intriguingly perverse menagerie roaming free on the internet.

Staurt Moulthrop’s seminal hypertext, Hegirascope, is simply a set of over 200 web pages with clever, satirical text written on them, with each page being linked to four others. Hegirascope has no explicit goal, other than the pleasure of reading. An imposition of challenge would obfuscate the craft and quality of the work as a whole.

Cory Arcangel’s Super Mario Clouds is a hacked version of the original NES classic. It removes all sprites and bit-maps, even Mario, leaving behind serenely similar clouds which float on without obstacle.

Electroplankton, the only commercial title in this list, allows players to experiment with various types of plankton to generate a musical effect; its functional value lies in making it easy for people to spin good tunes. In all these examples, challenge is absent or minimized; the emphasis is on play for play’s sake.

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If the abovementioned examples are anomalies in the typically challenge-oriented taxonomy of games, Gonzalo Frasca’s September 12th is an anomaly of anomalies. As the introductory text puts it, “This is not a game. You can’t win and you can’t lose. This is a simulation.” The simulation presents a Middle-Eastern city, complete with innocents going about their daily business, but the occasional terrorist lurks about. The player is offered one verb, one recurring choice: to shoot, or not.

While there is no explicit goal, there is an implied one: Use the only verb to eliminate all terrorists. It’s not so easy. The simulation is tuned to provide a challenge against this implied goal, and the insurmountable nature of this challenge implies a political message. Every time a terrorist is assassinated, an innocent bystander will inevitably get in the way, leading mourners to become terrorists themselves. A positive-feedback loop kicks in, increasing the number of terrorists in direct relation to the player’s active involvement. Though September 12th is a work of very low interactivity (one verb is about as low as you can go), it provides a very significant precedent.

Frasca has used challenge to make a statement outside of the system in which that challenge originated. In other words, challenge can be an artistic statement about the world at large, not just the game system.

Clearly, Frasca differs on at least one point with noted ludologist Espen Aarseth, who claimed games are, by nature, closed systems; culturally distinct entities with their own self-consistent logic. Aarseth’s view is consistent with traditionally challenging games and the process of closed numerical tuning designers utilize to create and refine challenge. The result has been a sea of often entertaining, sometimes inspiring play experiences that, when the final boss finally crumbles, leave no lasting impression other than, “Hey, it’s only a game.”

Maybe we can do better. Maybe challenge can be used with social mechanics, not just abstract or physical ones. Maybe challenge can extend out of the flickering electronic box from which it’s born and frame the player in ways never before considered. Maybe challenge can instigate cultural dialogues, inspire young people to better themselves, reflect light on unjust mechanisms within our society; maybe challenge can teach us something about ourselves.

But how? I’m not proposing we re-invent the wheel, it’s likely the same principles which allow challenge to be created in closed, ludic systems can be effective in open, paidic systems, and anywhere between. In his paper, “A Preliminary Poetics for Interactive Drama and Games,” Michael Mateas ascribes two features to interactive experiences in general: material and formal constraints.

Material constraints form the tools of play, what’s given to the player within the closed, formal system, the “how” of accomplishing anything within the simulation. In Tetris, the falling blocks comprise the material constraints.

Formal constraints represent the ends of play, the rules which dictate or imply what the player should be doing, the “why” of play. In Tetris, the formal constraints include the torrential falling of blocks, the rule that a filled-in row removes all blocks from that row, as well as the scoring system and the speed-progression.

Mateas’ paper lays out Quake‘s formal constraints: Everything that moves will try to kill you; you should try to kill everything; you should try to move through as many levels as possible.

Based on these formal rules, the player is given an arena with crystal clear intention. Creating challenge in this arena is simply a matter of providing just enough materials to keep the player alive, but on his toes. When the formal elements, the monsters and maze-like level designs, are pitted against a player running low on plasma ammo and resorting to a final cache of shotgun shells, this is when challenge is felt most palpably, when the opposing constraints put on the squeeze.

This principle of challenge, the squeeze effect, holds true for any sort of interactive experience. When the balance between formal and material elements is tweaked, the implications of the experience reverberate the loudest. People don’t look back on their Quake play sessions and think in wonder of that time they jogged through a level, picking up the odd med-pack, thoughtlessly blasting monsters until the exit presented itself. People look back on that one deathmatch when their best friend had them pinned between an alcove and a chaingun spray, their armor quickly dwindling, and their teammate rushed in with explosive poise and gibbed the shooter with a rocket.

People remember the play sessions where confluence of supply (material constraints) and demand (formal constraints) forced them into a state of sweet, sweet flow, where they hauled their ass in gear and pulled through, where their course of action seemed like it couldn’t have been any other way. People remember their experiences of challenge as … stories. The best examples of this tend to occur when the player feels some sort of social alignment with the parties involved, whether they’re other players or well-constructed NPCs. I didn’t just solve some esoteric puzzle, I helped Manny Calavera find final peace. I didn’t just micromanage the hell out of a couple dozen military buildings and five score units, I helped them destroy the Zerg Overmind once and for all. I didn’t just spend 100 precious hours of my life repeatedly clicking to build higher and higher stats, I teamed up with my fellow Horde and participated in a glorious raid. I haven’t just spent my entire life as a lump of grey meat churning more complex electrical patterns in an endless requiem of learning and adaptation, I interacted with people.

We need to stop thinking of challenges as obstacles to be mastered, and start thinking of challenges as realities to negotiate. Social dynamics are the toys to charm society. Social challenge is what we’ll call the feeling when we push through the climax of an interactive storyworld and look back on the very personal effect we had on our respective stories. The excluding factor in other forms of challenge is they force people to adapt to the system on its own terms, something many can’t do, even if they had interest. But social maneuvering and choosing between socially created values and bonds are what people have been adapting to their entire lives. Release a socially challenging game and you’ve got a potential audience of hundreds of millions of people. You can’t say the same thing for an RTS.

Social challenge seems difficult to imagine, much less implement, due to the finely granulated and fuzzy nature of social interaction. The raw tools are available: Context-specific pattern recognition AI, personality models, probability theory – there are many technical approaches to social challenge. Designing social challenges will typically involve importing or modeling a social mechanism from real life, whether it’s a particular complex relationship, a family feud, a political revolution, the alienating halls of modern middle-schools – translating a culture to rules is essential to support the core paidia. Material constraints will consist of how characters express their personalities; formal constraints will consist of their motivations.

Since most people are able to handle social challenge well before they ever sit down to play, the pacing architecture can change from building up to higher and higher levels of difficulty, and toward building up major thematic choices. The public wants these sorts of choices presented to them, even if they don’t know it. There is a buzzing transparent need beneath the surface of our culture, a desire to play with vital issues film and literature cannot bend to approach. Society needs to be challenged if the culture at large, perhaps humanity, is going to adapt and prosper in this insane world of accelerating change. If game designers take advantage of this brave new territory, in 20 years, pundits might just look at videogames as the cultural force that kept us all sane. Gamers aren’t going to convert the mainstream to gaming – the needs of the wider market will convert gaming to the mainstream.

Patrick Dugan is a ludosophist. He runs King Lud IC, a blog regarding game design theory, memetics and interactive storytelling. He looks foward to prototyping with Chris Crawford’s Storytron, and to pioneering socially-oriented narrative challenge.

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