What you need to know about game design if…

You are considering creating a game or using gamification in some way (and you know as little as I did a week ago)

“Games are really powerful learning tools, but that’s not how we tend to build them, we tend to build frivolous or exploitative stuff” Raph Koster

Caveat: this post is based on one week of fairly intensive research, which means it’s probably superficial at best and plain wrong at worst – a little knowledge is  a dangerous thing etc. Continue at your own peril

Game designers are deep in debate about what makes up a great game. Some are even trying to codify this, in ways similar to music so they can identify the key elements required to make a game good. There is a lot of healthy debate, but it’s hard enough to actually agree what a game is and what it isn’t. If you are thinking about using games or gamification then you need to be aware of the arguments and background.

Here are some of their definitions of what a game is

“Games are a series of meaningful choices” – Sid Meier

“A game is a problem-solving activity, approached with a playful attitude” – Jesse Schell

“One or more causally linked series of challenges in a simulated environment” – Ernest Adams and Andrew Rollings

I could go on. But instead let’s look at what constituent parts make up a game. There appears to be more agreement here.


According to Raph Koster there are four core mechanics in games.

1. Solving problems perceived as NP hard using heuristics. That is problems that require a best fit solution, that can’t typically be solved by computer pattern matching
2. Understanding other people and social relationships
3. Mastering your physical reactions
4. Exploiting the brain software bug around probability estimation – in other words gambling games

Narrative is more than story, it’s the entire user experience which should all contribute to the way in which the story is told and felt by the player. So everything from the artwork to the menus and sound.

According to the aesthetics of play, there are 8 (9 according to this video) core aesthetics and you need two or three to create a good game.

1. Sense/pleasure
2. Fantasy
3. Narrative – game as drama
4. Challenge – game as obstacle course, not the same as difficulty
5. Fellowship – work cooperatively as a group to achieve a goal
6. Competition – games as expression of dominance
7. Discovery – act of uncovering the new
8. Expression – we have innate need to express ourselves (games can help overcome inhibitions that suppress this need)
9. Abnegation – games as past times, Skinner box stuff that let’s you zone out

This is just a little taste of the game design world. If you are even considering using games in any way you need to understand this stuff and more.

When people glibly talk about how “gamification is the application of game mechanics and characteristics to non-game situations”, these are just some of the foundations they are alluding to. I wonder how many have even bothered to find out this much?

I’ve meddled with the dark arts of gamification myself and I had no real knowledge of this stuff at the time. Next time I’ll be better prepared. If that sounds like you, you could do a lot worse than spend an afternoon on the following sites:

Sebastian Deterding – http://codingconduct.cc
Andrezj Marczewski – http://marczewski.me.uk/

Penny Arcade


Get a copy of The Art of Game Design (seriously check this out a lot of the ideas can be applied to elearning whether you use games or not)

And of course join us on Wednesday 21st Nov at the next weeLearning 

Post by: Sam Burrough (39 Posts)

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