The Challenge of Challenge: Avoiding and Embracing Difficulty in a Memory Game

Carrie Heeter, Brian Winn, Jillian Winn and Andrea Bozoki


The central prescriptions for using brain games to improve brain health are progressive challenge and brain domain diversification. Exercising a range of cognitive domains is thought to help build a diverse "cognitive reserve." Games that are too easy for a player yield little benefit. Brain games as leisure activities need to be pleasant enough to play to attract and retain players. Designing the appropriate level of challenge is further complicated by vast differences in cognitive abilities between players of different ages and among individual players even if they are the same age.

Theories about mindset and motivation suggest that some individuals welcome hard challenges and others avoid challenge. Challenge avoidance has not been studied in the context of game play. We hypothesized that players who have a predilection toward avoiding challenge are likely to make choices that minimize the challenge in a brain game, reducing or eliminating the expected benefits.

Analysis of the game play data of players showed that about one fifth of players fit the profile of extreme challenge-seekers and another fifth fit the profile of extreme challenge-avoiders. The results reveal a natural tendency on the part of a subset of participants to choose modest challenges and to focus on one or a few brain domains that are easiest for them. The results also reveal a natural tendency on the part of a subset of participants to challenge themselves by selecting the hard difficulty setting and by pushing themselves to play quickly. They are most likely to receive the cognitive benefits that motivated them to play in the first place.