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?


  1. Great post! I’ve thought about this before too. I’m an American but I’m not big on using the term “beat” to describe finishing a game. I prefer “complete.”

    The main reason I use “beat” is as shorthand for “finished the main quest line,” in a game where I’ve defeated the final boss character but still have side quests to do for fun. So I say, “I beat the game but I’m still playing it.” The origins of “beat” do make sense given the competition and challenge/reward aspect of video games, as you said. But then, with non-violent games like “Journey,” it seems a bit harsh to say I beat that calm, lovely game!

  2. Ah, so you tend to distinguish between ‘beating’ the main story and ‘completing’ everything the game has to offer? Interesting…

    Glad you enjoyed the post!

  3. ‘Beaten’ suggests overcoming adversity, striving to be all you can be, putting your heart and soul into something and coming out on top then finally grinding the end-boss into the ground with the heel of your boot. All those phrases our American cousins seem to love that make them winners. ‘Completed’ is more passive, suggesting you walked hand in hand with the game, figured out (together) how to do something and giving the game a friendly high-five at the end.

    The new phrase I – and some of my compatriots use – is ‘1’kd it’, which is something pretty much Xbox-exclusive as it denotes all achievements gained (not being a PS3 owner I dont know what the altervative for getting all the Trophies is). Now you may gaffaw at achievement collecting, but for me if I get into a game and I enjoy it then I want to get all the achievements. That may mean playing a game 2-3 times over, something pretty much un-heard of back in the good ole days. Back then, you played a game and if you completed it, very rarely went back again straight after and played it again on *shock* a harder difficulty! Of course, why would you cause there was nothing to gain. Achievements now give a purpose! Saying that, those poxy AC flags can go do one, so its not all true. Just sometimes true XD

    1. I definitely think Microsoft should be lauded for introducing Achievement points – when they’re used well than can really add something to a game, especially when they encourage you to play it in different ways or to provide a reward for completing really tough challenges. Lazy Achievements are a curse though – you can tell that some developers just add them as an afterthought and put no real effort into thinking up creative challenges. The tedious flag collecting in AC is just one example.

      I tend to pick and choose my acheivements nowadays – I’ll take a look at what’s on offer and just go for the ones that sound most interesting, avoiding the overly dull or ludicrously hard ones. I’ve still yet to ‘1’k’ a game though…

  4. Great post Lew! Always enjoy them! Well, this ‘merican for one grew up using the term “beat the game”… I’m not sure if that is particularly American semantics or not. However, these days I also rarely use the term. As games have become more cinematic and immersive, it feels less appropriate. I’ll say “finish or complete” or even “made it through the main story line.” With Achievement points, games never really end these days… and on that note, I also agree that the a skillful “Goldilocks” use of Achievement points (not too hard, not too easy) is an art in and of itself. I’m like you, rather than trying to do everything, I’ll take a look at the achievements and just try to do through what looks fun and reasonably challenging.

    Looking forward to reading more on this series.

  5. Glad you enjoyed it Branpanman! It sounds like ‘beating a game’ is evolving towards a more specific meaning – like Paul says above, we tend to ‘walk hand-in-hand’ with a lot of modern games rather than beat them into submission.

  6. ‘Clocking’ is an interesting one – makes me think of ‘clocking’ someone (i.e. hitting them). I suppose in that sense it’s similar to beat.

  7. As the question of motivation was sort of the crux of some undergrad research I did a couple years ago, I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of this series play out.

    Regarding the topic at hand? I’ve certainly said “beat” many times (full disclosure: American), but as you and some commenters have suggested, the phrase’s currency is definitely wearing off. My initial thought was just what you suggested: the phrase is rooted in old games, where making it to an end/kill screen was the sign of having conquered the challenges offered by a game and, ultimately, having gotten “everything” out of it.

    As games have grown more diverse, and particularly as their focus has shifted to other things (be it socialization or storytelling or exploration), the notion of player vs. game has dissipated and with it the concept of “beating” things. Of course, that’s subjective, and it’s not even necessarily a per-game standard. For example, I may have played through Bioshock the first time on normal to “finish” the story — find out what happened. My second playthrough, on the other hand, was about “completing” the game (getting every audio diary, saving every little sister, etc.) AND “beating” the game’s greatest challenge (hard mode with no Vita Chambers). The latter two are encompassed, I supposed, in the aforementioned “1k” notion (and to answer Paul’s question: the PS3’s equivalent would be getting the game’s platinum trophy, which is literally a “got all other trophies” reward).

    I’ve wrestled with the value and utility of achievements before, and I agree with what has been suggested: at best, they give you an incentive to try things in the game you might not otherwise have thought of or felt bothered enough to attempt. Depending on the game, the “fun” may die out before all achievements have been gotten (say, a pesky time trial or finding all those flags may become a chore you do for the sake of the achievement, rather than getting the achievement for the sake of doing the task; a little journey vs. destination going on there). Conversely, the fun may outlast the achievements, either because you find new things to do that the developers didn’t come up with, or because Microsoft and Sony limit the number and value of achievements/trophies in their games.

    The Ratchet & Clank games are a great example, because in their transition to the PS3 they implemented trophies without losing the Skill Points system, a vastly more robust “achievement” system with more varied and difficult challenges. Long after getting platinum, there are new ways to play the game. Likewise (back to Bioshock), some players have come up with their own challenges and imagined names for them, such as play-throughs that stick to only certain weapons or plasmids. These self-imposed restrictions are another way that long after official “completion,” a player can find reasons to keep playing a game.

    And so back to the initial question: people play games for different reasons. If one’s goal is to overcome a challenge (specifically, the challenges set forth by the developer) then hitting the title screen or getting a platinum trophy may indeed be seen as “beating” or conquering the challenge; if not, then such phrasing will seem unfitting. The semantics follow player aspiration.

    1. It’s interesting how the language is evolving to fit the many different ways people play games nowadays. As you say, there’s a world of difference between just ‘getting to the end’ and seeing everything the game has to offer. I’ll try to cover the different types of game experiences in later posts.

  8. Intriguing post! I’ve gotten away from saying “beaten” over the last few years to now saying “completed”, especially for some games, such as Fez, where I saw it through story-wise to the end credits, but in no shape or form felt like I beat it, considering how much cubes and anti-cubes I missed, as well as the general fact that I just didn’t grok most of what was there.

    1. Thanks Paul! I wonder what you can say for a game in which you only finished the main story? We need a new word!

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