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Engage, Challenge, Interact

Video games are complicated. Years ago I started writing about the basics of game design. I started with mechanics and moved outward from there. Until we understand all of these concepts individually, we can't understand how these ideas layer together. Many game writers tend to start with their feelings or impression of a game and arbitrarily explain why the game influenced such an experience. Having a critical language allows us to understand the limitations of a comment like "X game has bad controls." After all, "bad controls" may actually be any one or more of these issues...

  • a learner error (reading the instructions wrong, hitting the wrong button)
  • a familiarity problem (being too used to how other games have designed similar mechanics (intuitiveness))
  • a physical inability to handle the controller properly (without pain or accidentally hitting buttons)
  • a mechanics problem (lack of individuality, directness)
  • a system problem (poor frame rates and can throw off timing)
  • a glitch/bug
  • a lag problem when playing online
  • an opinion 


At this level, we can look at a given result and understand all the many ways a game can be designed to produce the result. To further develop our language and understanding of game design, I will clarify the subtle differences between engaging, challenging, and interactive design. (see here for more on engaging game design)


Interacting with Mario's face for you enjoyment

Precise definitions are a must. So here they are...

  • Engaging: When a player uses the DKART skills in response to a game's presentation, rules, or system. The more types and sub-types of skill the player uses, the more engaging the experience. Relating emotionally to an experience is the result of relating to its concepts (ie. using Knowledge skills)
  • Challenging: When a player uses some level of DKART skills beyond their comfort level or past their limits. Obviously, this is highly subjective and should be supported with a statement of the particular skills/abilities of the player(s) involved. When unspecified, I refer to my own skill profile. We often use the word "unchallenging" to refer to gaming experiences that are too easy. Read here for more on flow in games
  • Interactive: Actually executing actions (dexterity) that the game system recognizes and responds to. Can be measured by action per unit time (APM) or in any other specified manner.


If you think these concepts are common knowledge, the perhaps the following examples will illuminate their subtle combinations and variations.


Mostly Engaging

  • DVD Movie Night: True, playing a DVD movie is not the same as playing a video game. But why? It's engaging almost entirely for knowledge skills. It can be highly challenging (for knowledge skills again) depending on the movie-viewer combination. It's not, however, very interactive. Putting in the DVD into the player and hitting play are the only two interactive actions for hours of entertainment. In the same way, non-interactive cutscenes, load screens, and credits can engage and challenge players without interactivity. 
  • Tetris DS Puzzle Mode: (see video here and here) Like many great puzzle games, Tetris' puzzles engage the mind. Learning to read and double read the gamestates stresses LTM, STM, and code/decode skills. Also like many great puzzle games, the levels start off easy and then get progressively more challenging. At some point, you're likely to find at least one level that will force you to tweak your heuristics/approach/reading method. On the other hand, the interactivity can be as simple as  few taps of the touch screen. Is this so different from the DVD movie night's 2 actions? Certainly having a measurable goal that the game can detect is a big difference between movies and games. But simply looking at the experiences, puzzle games can be similar to watching movies. There are some puzzle games that the player must only make the 1 correct move reducing the interactivity of the experience to the lowest level.

Challenging, Engaging, & Interactive

  • Dexterity: This indie game is a series of challenges meant to test your dexterity skills. Though there isn't a set goal, the idea is to do your best and measure your skills. Each game is very simple, stressing as little of the other 4 DKART skills as possible. The level of challenge is unreachably high meaning a human is highly unlikely to be able to get the maximum score. In this case, because the challenge stresses the DKART skills the experience is at least as engaging/interactive. Most skill based games are like this. Keep in mind that the relationship between engagement and challenge isn't always equivalent.

Mostly Challenging

  • Casino "games" and Games of Chance: Some games are as engaging/interactive as pressing a button and waiting for the results. Yet these games can be almost impossibly difficult. Since games of pure chance stress as little of the DKART skills as possible, it's questionable that we can even consider these games challenging. It's just a numbers game. The chances of picking the right number in Roulette, winning the Pokemon lottery, or rolling double 6's are not in your favor. Still, there's surely thousands of games that smoothly trasition between pure chance and pure skill. Somewhere in these examples we can find cases where what little skill can be exerted does little to curb the great odds.

Mostly Interactive

  • Wii Muisc: If this game isn't very engaging for you, then it becomes the perfect example of a game that's mostly interactive (not very engaging/challenging). The motion controls and the dynamic contextual music that can be played makes a highly interactive experience. Yet with no fail state (depending on the mode), the challenge of this game can be very low. Depending on how you play many music rhythm games from DDR, Guitar Hero, Electroplankton, to Rock Band your experience can also fit this odd combination.


Here's another important concept to note. When considering games with adjustable difficulty, we can define the effort of adjusting the difficulty of one's experience to when the player interacts with the game to do so. After all, an experience can be more or less engaging based on the player's whims. A bad joke, a left turn in the story, or a break in the immersion can sharply drop a player's engagement with the content of a game. Likewise, there are countless of ways that our engagement can be piqued. But difficulty is related to challenge and interactivity. Both are quantified by the game system, which makes the effort of adjusting difficulty measurable.  

The following is a list of games/levels that engage the senses much in the same way a movie does (ie. a lack of interactivity). The challenge/interactivity increases as the list grows. A key difference is, you can makes these experiences much more challenging/interactive for yourself if you so choose. 


Just considering these examples, we know that the qualities of engagement, challenge, and interactivity can be stressed to different degrees in a video game. With so many ways to shape player experiences, I'm glad developers exercise their options. Recent complaints about the lack of challenge and engaging content in Kirby's Epic Yarn has inspired me to write this article. Surely, a game with something for everyone is ideal from a marketing perspective. But, from an artistic/creators view, perhaps Kirby's Epic Yarn is exactly the game they wanted to make for a very specific kind of gamer. 

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Reader Comments (2)

When one speaks of "bad controls" for a video game, I immediately think of Super Mario World for Gameboy advance played on the Nintendo DS. buttons order have been swapped compared to the SNES version, but mostly, it introduces physical pain because of the way it imposes you to handle the device.

Same goes for playing SSF* with the dual shock controller's DPAD.

I don't see that point taken into account in your analysis, but that may just be my english vocabulary that is too weak.

December 14, 2010 | Unregistered Commentersylvainulg

@ sylvainulg

The being too used to controls of a previous version is mentioned, but not the comfort of physically handling the controller.

Playing SSF4 with the PS3 controller sucks. It's the main reason I didn't play the game very much.
Playing Metroid Prime Hunters on DS or Mario Kart can leave me with cramped hands too.

Good point. I'll add.

December 14, 2010 | Registered CommenterRichard Terrell (KirbyKid)

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