Games: Challenge vs Experience

Games, all sorts of games, are inherently an interactive experience, which is what differentiates them from pretty much all other forms of media, entertainment, or art. Yes, you can have semi-interactive experiences with other works of art or media, but what makes game games, inherently, is this drive to interactivity. For the most part, whether it be a sport like soccer or hockey, a board game like Arkham Horror or Monopoly, or a video game like Persona 3 or Mass Effect, ultimately, at the end of the day, what makes the game itself is, in fact, what the participants bring to it. It’s not only either superficial appearance or deep meaning that the participant brings to the game, but ultimately the style and character of the game itself is determined by the participants … and by their goals, purposes and desires.

What this allows for is, to my mind, a dichotomy that doesn’t exist outside of games: the distinction between challenge and between strict experience. TV shows, movies, books, visual art, music … all of these are pretty much about the experience you have while participating in or viewing/observing them. Even the interactivity and meanings in these fields are all there to supplement and provide an experience. And games themselves can be just about the experience, about playing the game without any real sense of challenge or a real test of skill. Think of an RPG video game that you play to experience the narrative, or a board game like Arkham Horror where the experience of the game is more vital than the fact that you play it, or an RPG game like Call of Cthulhu where the players pretty much expect, like the universe it is based on, that you will lose at the end, and that it’s how you get there that’s the fun of the game, or a pick up game of hockey where the end score doesn’t matter as much as getting to play a bit and have fun with your friends.

However, games have been more famously known for, in fact, being all about challenges and tests of skill. They’ve been all about one person, one group, one team proving their skill and their superior skill by challenging something and, ultimately, beating it. This doesn’t exist for the other things, the things that are primarily if not solely experience-based. There’s no sense in talking about “beating” a movie, or a TV show, or a painting, or an orchestral symphony. There’s no real way to compare one’s “skill” at experiencing these things, and what you get out of it is, really, what you get out of it. But with games, there traditionally has been the idea that their purpose is to go out and “win”, either by beating someone else or by beating the game itself. The idea of games as experience has been mostly ignored or, at least, designated to a secondary goal.

For sports, this seems to still be the case — despite the many people who play them “recreationally”, as a way to have some fun with friends without worrying too much about overcoming challenges — but for board games and video games the idea of them being more as a means to an experience is becoming more and more popular. The interactive nature of games, in general, allows for a different type of experience than can be provided by the other things that are primarily aimed at producing experiences. So, more and more, board games and especially video games have been aimed at providing experiences rather than merely providing challenges, or even providing challenges as a way to provide experiences. However, they haven’t lost the idea that challenges ought to be in there somewhere.

The issue with this is that providing challenges and providing experiences are, in fact, often in opposition. To really provide a challenge, it has to be possible for the player to lose, and so to learn that they need to increase their skills and abilities, try harder, practice more. But this takes you out of the experience, and encourages you to think of the game not as something you do for the experience, but as something you do to win, or improve. Even in sports, in a simple pick-up game you might be willing to try higher risk plays because if it fails and you either miss an opportunity or give one to your opponents, it doesn’t matter. If the game is on the line, you had better make the safe play that will more obviously help you win the game. But the higher risk plays add more to the experience than the lower risk ones. With board and video games, you act less like the character you are playing would act and more follow set strategies that give you the best chance of winning. But the experience of these games is best furthered by playing in character, not following a set of objectively highest probability plays. So due to their interactivity, games can provide both challenge and experience … but often simply can’t provide both at the same time, even if the same game — played with different mindsets — can provide one or the other.

In another post, I’ll talk about how video games specifically have issues with this dichotomy.

One Response to “Games: Challenge vs Experience”

  1. Video Games and Challenge vs Experience | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] last week I talked about games of all kinds and the distinction between a game as experience and a g…. As I said there, video games have special issues with the challenge vs experience dichotomy, and […]

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