Gamer Motivations: Challenge

By Michael Mendis

This is part two of a three-part series on gamer motivations.  Click here to the read part one, on escapism.

Overcoming challenges can often be some of the most exciting moments in our lives.  Sometimes these challenges are physical, like scaling a tall mountain.  Other times they are psychological, such as conquering a deep-seated fear or insecurity.  They may be professional (securing a lucrative and/or influential position in your career) or relational (hearing the words “I do” from your fiancé on your wedding day).  The big challenges in our lives can look different for different people, but no matter what they are, they take a lot of time, dedication, study, and practice in order to complete them, and when you finally do complete them, you feel like you’ve conquered the world.

Many games tap into this innate desire to overcome incredible odds, to push ourselves past what we thought we were capable of, to do things that few (or in some cases, none) have done before.  Gamers find themselves motivated to play these games because of the challenges provided to the player, and the reward at the end for completing those challenges.

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Game developers have created a variety of ways to provide challenging experiences to players who seek them.  Perhaps the most common way of accomplishing this is through a simple selection of several difficulty modes, with the harder modes featuring tougher enemies or puzzles.  This approach doesn’t require a developer to dramatically change the content of their game in order to satisfy a wide range of gamers.

Other games use challenge as a selling point, essentially daring the player to try to beat it; no matter what difficulty mode you choose, the enemies are relentless, punishing your mistakes almost instantly (the Dark Souls series is perhaps the most well-known example of this approach).  The player will often find themselves banging their head against a wall time and time again as they struggle to figure out how to make it through a tough area or topple a particularly nasty boss.  Why would someone put themselves through that?  Because when they do finally beat that boss, the sense of success is practically palpable, and they can expect a reward at the end (treasure, armor, etc.) that will make them stronger and ready for the next set of obstacles.

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Still other games find creative ways to introduce challenge.  For example, some games contain a feature commonly referred to as “permadeath”, in which a character, once they have been killed anywhere in the game, are no longer present; they don’t respawn or reappear elsewhere, but are gone for good.  Suddenly, the stakes in every battle have been raised significantly.  In a game like Spelunky, this means that anytime you die, you have to start the whole game from the beginning.  In the strategy role-playing series Fire Emblem, it means that characters that you spend time interacting with, leveling up, and growing attached to are now dead, and you are now left to finish the rest of the game without them or any of the benefits they would have been able to provide.

Some gamers even go out of their way to create challenge in games that aren’t primarily designed to be that challenging. For instance, unofficial “Nuzlocke” rules are used by people who want to introduce new mechanics to Pokémon games; players who follow these rules are severely limited in the Pokémon they are allowed to capture and have to set them free if they ever faint in battle. Speedrunning is another great example; this is when you play a game with the sole intent of completing it (or sections within it) as fast as possible.  Whole communities of people have sprung up around speedrunning through their favorite games, and the best speedrunners attract large audiences on Twitch as they chase after world record times.

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So how then does this information help us, as Christians, as we seek to understand gamers and share Christ’s love with them? All people have been instilled by God, the ultimate creator, with a creative and industrious spirit that yearns to tap into our abilities and accomplish new and exciting things with them.  When we meet someone who seeks out challenging experiences in games, we have a starting point for asking questions and getting to know that person better.  What is it about the challenge that attracts them?  Do they crave a sense of accomplishment, or do they perhaps really enjoy finding creative and/or strategic solutions to tough problems?  It may also open a window into other aspects of this person’s life.  Do they regularly seek out challenges in their career or other activities, for example?  Or does work/family life seem stale or boring to them, and games act as their creative/challenging outlet?  Getting the answers to these questions helps us make a connection to these types of gamers, finding common ground and laying the foundation for relationships as we identify the ways in which we ourselves seek challenge and accomplishment, and where we find our sense of worth.