February 29, 2012 by zseawright
Context, Challenge, and Gratification
Recently Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, a columnist and video game critic for The Escapist, posted a short article about what basic components make up a video game, heavily focusing on the purpose of the medium, the experience of playing it. He breaks it down to three: context, challenge, and gratification. He justifies this change of thinking by saying he realized “gameplay was just too broad a concept…”, that people enjoy games in different ways, whether it’s collecting all of some item or just having fun with the physics of the games or exploring a grand story. With these three categories, it gives a much fuller picture of what experience the game offers.
Croshaw goes on to define the three terms. Context is the world the game takes place in, namely story-wise. It’s the depiction of the characters, the area the game takes place in, and the overall story. At its best, this gives the player emotional involvement and gives them a reason to play beyond the mechanical repetition of beating the game. This category also describes aesthetics, such as enemy and level design. A big enemy might have a player running as opposed to smaller one, for example, invoking fear, or a wasteland with desolation in all directions might inspire someone to go exploring. The next category, challenge, refers to the goals of the game and is the simplest and oldest concept of these three. It especially applies to older arcade and Atari 2600 games where a high score was often the only motivation to continue playing a game. This can be extended to games that do have a story arc such as Pokemon, where you can beat the game until the credits or you can collect all 150 of the creatures, or Super Mario 64 where beyond the main story you complete the challenges in every world. Lastly there is gratification, which as Croshaw describes it “is that magical land that lies outside the two kingdoms above. It’s the aspect of a game that speaks directly to the animal part of your brain. It’s about the pure visceral fun one has entirely outside of both context and challenge.” A good way to think about this is in the latest Grand Theft Auto titles, where your context is defined as a gang member, the challenge lies in the missions, but apart from those you can also run over pedestrians and if you so wish fly to the Statue of Liberty and fling yourself out. It’s akin to popping bubble wrap: no purpose, but for some reason very satisfying. Essentially, when a game can strike up a good balance of these three elements, it provides a better game experience.
I agree with this analysis. Anyone who has played a game they couldn’t put down or a game they couldn’t put down fast enough can attest to the importance of all these elements. Croshaw points to Saints Row 2 as a game with a great balance of all three. What he doesn’t comment on are the games that do no have this balance. Games like ET for the Atari 2600 or Superman 64 are infamous for their inferiority because they lack context, have a gravely disproportionate challenge, and the only gratification to be gained is finally being able to do anything. That’s not to say these games can’t be enjoyed for its balance, but it’s very unlikely that people will typically gravitate to these games. This way of analyzing and describing games can do a lot more than pointing out a black and white spectrum of “good and bad”.
Using these three criteria is for the most part independent of elements such as graphics, music, genre and tone and can be used to describe most if not all video games. As Croshaw points out, it’s perfect for rating games because it teaches you a lot about a game’s experience. A graphic novel game can be judged on the same level as an FPS in this way. Of course this system doesn’t describe the technical parts of the game at all, where the two aforementioned genres can get the same scores but for each but achieves them in different ways. As a way to describe the game overall, this lacks information. Not to mention that such elements are entirely subjective. However, both of these criticisms can be made up for by a player knowing what type of games they like and researching titles before buying them just as they would today. No matter a person’s personal tastes, at the end of the day a game is all about the experience, the fun you can have and the way the game can affect your emotions, and I feel these three criteria are perfect for describing that. I agree with Croshaw that a game with a good balance of all three elements would be a very enjoyable one.