How Games Work: Super Meat Boy


The goal of "How Games Work" is to take a look at games I have played and try to analyse why they are fun to play and what emotions they provoke on people and how.

In order to understand Gamification you have to understand what makes games so appealing to people.

What motivates us and excites us so much that we spend hours playing all kinds of games.

Working in the Gamification industry means that research is actually playing games. The first time I realised that I felt I had the best job in the universe. It was a Friday, a normal working day and I was at a games conference in Brighton trying out various games and participating in a play testing workshop. I was so happy that I could enjoy  playing games and at the same time not feel guilty of 'losing' my time not doing something 'productive'. That day I saw games through a whole other lens. The lens of Gamification.

My goal was not only to enjoy myself playing games, or get immersed in worlds that somebody created. My goal was to also analyse games, understand how they work and why. Look at peoples' faces for that moment of struggle where the game gets hard or that moment of joy where they figured it out and got to the next level.

So to get to the point, the first game I will talk about is Super Meat Boy!

Image taken from Super Meat Boy's Steam Page (

Super Meat Boy is an indie game released in 2010 by Team Meat, a studio of just two people. It's a platform game notoriously difficult to play.  It's a fine example of what we call in Gamification, Hard Fun.  The following video makes a fine point on how difficult the game is. I had very similar reactions to these kids every time I played.

Yes this game is hard. Now take a moment to just think how many fiero moments Super Meat Boy can give to players. The harder the challenge the biggest the feeling of fiero is. You feel you overcome an obstacle so big that you are on top of the world. You managed to pass this level, you can do anything. After the first ten minutes you actually stop counting how many times you died. You just hope that every time you die, it will be a lesson to get a bit further next time. The only plays that matter are the ones where you make it.

You can also see something else in this video other than frustrated people trying to figure a difficult problem out. And that is excellent on-boarding. The game designers are teaching the player all the skills they need in order to survive in this crazy roller coaster they built. And yes their teaching methods are a bit brutal but you do learn how to move Meat Boy around and what he can and can't do.

Super Meat Boy is definitely not for everyone. I have never finished it because I think I will go mad if I do. I will be stuck on my computer screen till I figure out every problem that it throws at me and trust me they are a lot!

Lessons to be learned

There is a valuable lesson to be learned from this game though. Challenges can be rewarding. Hard work can be motivating because we need to feel we can conquer the game, solve all the puzzles. Throw so many things at people that they can be overwhelmed for a moment (or a lot of moments in the case of Super Meat Boy). Just make sure you give your players all the right tools to solve the problems. On-boarding and steep learning curves in software can be very intimidating for people. I still remember the first time I opened Photoshop and just felt I will never learn how to use it as there are so many buttons and choices and so many tutorials teaching you so many different things. But given the time and the effort you can learn anything.

Final bits and pieces

I will keep looking and thinking about games I have played in the past or am currently playing because I think that is the only way to learn and create Gamification content and projects that are true to the idea of Gamification.

Let me know what you think and if there are games you would like me to talk about!

About the author 

Pete Baikins

Pete Baikins is an international authority on gamification, a lifelong gamer, successful entrepreneur and a lecturer. As CEO of Gamification+ Ltd he mentors and trains companies world-wide on the use of gamification to solve business challenges. Gamification+ won the Board of Trade Award from the UK's Department of International Trade in January 2019.

Pete is co-host of the health gamification podcast Health Points and is also Chair of Gamification Europe, the annual conference for Gamification practitioners.

Pete is an Honorary Ambassador for GamFed (International Gamification Confederation), having previously been the Chair from 2014 to February 2019, whose aim is to spread best practices within and support the gamification industry.

After 15 years as a Lecturer on gamification and entrepreneurship at the University of Brighton he now guest lectures on Gamification at King’s College London and at ESCP Europe at post-graduate and under-graduate levels.

Over the past 20 years Pete has built and sold two businesses. One was in security software and the more recent one was a telecoms and internet connectivity business. He is also an Ambassador for Brighton & Hove Chamber of Commerce in the UK.

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