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Cole Gleason

Ph.D. candidate at the Human-Computer Interaction Institue at CMU. I work on accesibility technology for people with vision impairments.

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This week we read I Have No Words & I Must Design: Toward a Critical Vocabulary for Games by Greg Costikyan, which lays out the words game designers would use to determine if something is considered as a game. I believe this vocabulary will help me answer a question I have been toying with for the past few weeks: Is a challenge a game?

A challenge, at least the ones I am considering, are things you commit to doing, perhaps repeatedly in a specific timeframe. Or, it could be a single action that someone else challenges you to complete.

Some of the most well-known challenges are completed for charities. The Ice Bucket Challenge was a viral campaign where people challenged others to either 1) pour a bucket of ice water over their heads and film it or 2) make a charitable donation to support ALS research. In either outcome, the goal was to raise awareness about ALS.

The Polar Bear Plunge is a similar charity challenge, where people dive into bodies of freezing cold water to raise money for charity. In Chicago, this plunge was often to raise money for the Special Olympics.

Personal challenges are often setup akin to New Year’s resolutions, but on shorter time-spans. For example, don’t eat chocolate for 30 days or write 750 words every day for a month. They often have the goal of self-improvement.

Let’s go through the criteria outlined by Costikyan to see if a challenge can be considered a game.


Challenges are only marginally interactive. They are not physical things you interact with in the broad sense, but obviously many involve an activity that is interactive. When you dive into Lake Michigan in the winter or pour a bucket of ice water over your head, you are interacting. Similarly, in a personal challenge, you are changing the challenge state every time you move closer to your goal, making it feel worse if you miss a day. Because Costikyan uses interaction broadly, it is safe to say these instances also qualify.


The whole point of a challenge, personal or charity, is to reach some goal. Whether it is increased awareness for a disease or better health for yourself, goals are the nature of challenges. This is clear cut.


Struggle is also the nature of most challenges. If a challenge is easy, why did you participate in the first place? People commit to these challenges because they believe in the goal and the struggle makes it fun. It wouldn’t be hard to write a check to the Special Olympics without having anyone jump in cold water, but the struggle makes it feel like an accomplishment.


Structure is the agreement to submit yourself to the game rules. Obviously the rules in a challenge are typically simple, like “Don’t eat chocolate” or “Write every day”, but they mean something. If you ignore these rules, did you really complete the challenge? Agreeing to abide by the challenge’s structure is criticla to completing it, especially if you have to prove completion to others.

Endogenous Meaning

This is where I think the idea of a challenge as a game falls apart. The things we do in challenges, whether they are for others or ourselves, still have meaning outside the challenge itself. Sure, the specific action of dumping ice water on your head may not, but the donation to ALS research or your diet without chocolate still means something to you or others after the challenge is over. The meaning we ascribe to challenges is not endogenous, and therefore it is not a game.


Challenges are not games, but they are still interesting because of the meaning we ascribe to them. I think game designers can also devise good challenges for other who have goals they wish to achieve.