A common misconception among gamers and game designers is that challenge is equivalent to difficulty. In fact, the two terms are not interchangeable. In this brief post, we’ll look at some thoughts from game design experts on why these two concepts are different.
Game designer, Nicole Lazzaro, includes challenge in her list of the four keys to fun. She uses the Italian idea of ‘fiero’ to articulate what exactly challenge is:
With this idea of challenge and mastery, you go from frustration to this feeling of winning which I call fiero, from the the Italian for personal triumph over adversity. There’s no good word in English, so I use that term. It’s that feeling when the arms punch the sky.
Nicole continues to discuss how challenge relates to the often-cited concept of flow:
With challenge and mastery, you want it just on that edge between too difficult and too easy. … The only way you get the feeling of fiero, the arms punching the sky … You can’t push a button and win, you can’t push a button to save the princess. You have to be right at that edge where you’re about ready to throw that controller through the window, and then you win. That’s when the arms go up.
Another designer, James Portnow, uses Super Mario as an example of where we can find challenge:
It isn’t about the difficulty. It’s about the joy of overcoming those specific obstacles. … Maybe two-thirds of the way through the [first level of Super Mario], you hit the block and the star comes out. And you go running after the star … So you got this little bit of difficulty there, but when you grab it, you get all sorts of sense pleasure stuff reinforcing this moment. You start flashing, and then right in front of you are four or five goombas in a line. And you run through them … You’re just taking them out all over the place. Big numbers are popping up. That moment is challenge, because although it’s much easier than fighting those four goombas at any other time, it’s the joy of overcoming that obstacle that is really challenge.
There you have it. Difficulty is the idea most people are familiar with. It’s the idea that is typically conflated with challenge. However, challenge a separate idea. It is the pleasure, joy and catharsis that comes from successfully performing a difficult task.