Why Do We Play Games? Part 2: Challenge

“Just beat BioShock, still processing it all”

That was the title of a blog post on Grinding Down I stumbled across not too long ago. It still sounds odd to me when people say they’ve ‘beaten’ a video game, and it’s not something I’ve ever said myself: I’ve ‘completed’ games, but never ‘beaten’ them. As far as I can gather, it’s an American phrase* – just another one of those peculiar differences between British and American English I guess.

Still, minor language quirk though it may be, it did get me pondering the way we think about games. The use of ‘beat’ in this context has interesting connotations: it implies that the game is a challenge to be overcome, a construct against which to test your mettle and emerge victorious. For many games this seems like a fitting description: after all, a platform game like Super Mario Bros. is ostensibly just a collection of challenges of ever-increasing difficulty. When you think about it, most games just boil down to a series of challenges, be they solving puzzles, memorising combos or levelling up your character by completing tasks.

When all other considerations are stripped away, perhaps the overriding reason we enjoy playing games is the satisfaction we get from completing a challenge successfully. One of the first games I remember playing is Invader From Space, an old Grandstand electronic game from the 1970s that was passed down to me from my uncle (no prizes for guessing what arcade game it was based on). I remember being transfixed by the game, content to play it again and again in the hope of beating my score, and above all I remember the elation I felt when those final numbers came out a bit higher than my previous best effort.

Games have evolved quite a bit since then, and most games have moved away from having a simple score as the badge of your achievement, but the cycle of challenge/reward is still entrenched. You might not have a high score, but completing a challenge successfully usually brings some kind of reward – perhaps a new level, a secret costume or an Achievement/Trophy. The best games tend to be the ones that balance the challenge/reward cycle most carefully – make the challenge too difficult and you’re likely to frustrate players, but make it too easy and they’ll lose interest. Likewise, the reward has to fit the effort you put in – ending a 60+ hour RPG with a screen that simply says “Game Over. Thank You For Playing!” is likely to go down like a lead balloon.

You could argue that the ‘rewards’ you get for completing game challenges are ultimately pointless. After all, unlocking a new costume in Street Fighter IV is unlikely to help your bank balance, get you a girlfriend/boyfriend or aid you in your new job (unless you work for Capcom). Certainly, when handled badly, game challenges can come across as empty wastes of time – the tedious flag-collecting in Assassin’s Creed is a particularly good example, as it represents probably hours worth of gameplay ‘rewarded’ with a single poxy Achievement. On the other hand, completing a particularly difficult game challenge can provoke fist-pumping bursts of triumph and elation.

The thing is, the human brain is hard-wired into the challenge/reward cycle. Every day we’re participating in a great many challenge/reward cycles, probably without even realising it. You might be taking on extra work in your office in the hope of being rewarded with a promotion. Or on a smaller scale you might reward yourself with a cup of tea and a biscuit after completing half an hour of tedious paperwork. Games just tap into that innate instinct for challenge and reward – the difference is that games might give you a chainsaw gun for completing your paperwork instead of a cup of tea. Proof once more that games are more exciting than real life.

Perhaps we’re just addicted to that feeling of satisfaction: the sense of triumph, overcoming the odds to win through, be it in a virtual world or in real life. Beating the game.

Which brings me back to the quote I started this post with. There’s still something a bit odd about that statement – “Just beat BioShock”. If you’re not familiar with BioShock, it’s a first-person shooter that was justly lauded for its clever and complex story, so it seems strange to say you would ‘beat’ it, in the same way you wouldn’t ‘beat’ a book. As I said at the beginning, it’s ultimately just semantics, but it also shows that you can’t consider all games in the same way – whereas some games, like Angry Birds, are almost entirely built around the challenge/reward cycle, others are not there to be beaten but rather experienced. In the next installment I’ll be looking at the increasingly complex stories within games and, importantly, the conflict between telling a story and providing a challenge.

*Do please let me know if you think I’m wrong here: are you an American who ‘completes’ games or a Brit who ‘beats’ them? And what do people in other English-speaking countries say?