Basic Game Theory: Core Elements

We'll take a quick look at the four elements that build the core of any game: Fun, Structure, Goals, and Players. Every game has them and by recognizing them, we can better understand the foundation on which all games are built.

When it comes to the creation of video games, there is no precise formula for pumping out a successful title. There is no real way of guaranteeing an idea will not flop as soon as it hits the market. The number of factors that make a game successful are innumerable, and there is no exact science; but that doesn't mean that game theory should be ignored. There are basic rules and concepts games can follow, learned from decades of trial and error and some simple words of wisdom passed down by the veterans in the industry to the new up and coming designers of today. I'll be picking apart the core of game design and answering the question: What is a Game?

Play is a voluntary activity or occupation executed within certain fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy, and the consciousness that it is 'different' from 'ordinary life'.” - Johan Huizinga

There are four elements that all games must have in order to be successful. They must be fun, they must have structure, they must have a goal, and they must have at least one player. These are the fundamental needs every game must have before it can be successful, or even be considered a game for that matter. Understanding how they shape your game, can help a designer keep a healthy perspective on their design and the directions their game can take.

Without fun, replay value diminishes. The length of time a player spends playing could even be decreased to a point that they never even finish the game. Games must offer the player an alternative to their current “reality” through tension and joy; the two emotional components that make up the “fun” experience. The tension to joy ratios can be manipulated to create very different experiences according to the designer’s goals for the game. In the game Animal Crossing, tension is low. There is very little tension given to the player, however the player is consistently engaging in entertaining activities with that stimulate “joy”. Tension is there as you compete with other townsfolk for various objectives but it’s a mild sensation. Conversely a game such as Left 4 Dead, “tension” will be a constant. “Joy” is not entirely eliminated but rather used as the carrot on a stick. It is the motivation that pushes the player to endure.

The second fundamental of game design, would be structure. Different names have been adopted by various disciplines: Rules, Game Mechanics, Limits, etc. As Huizinga mentions, the structure of the game is freely accepted by the players and are absolutely binding. Break the structure, break the game. Something that is often overlooked about the function of game structure is it defines how the game is separated from reality.

Imagine a game of football. The play field is a predefined area in which to play. That is one structure added to the game that separates the game itself, from the audience and the world around it. If a player is outside of the area, it is assumed they are not taking part of the game. While all the players within the area, are actively participating. Benched players although are part of the team, take no active role in meeting the goals of the team and winning the game, and are therefore placed outside of the game game area.

The next necessity of game design is its goal. The goal innately defines the parameters in which the game starts and finishes. The goal in a game of chess is to capture the King of the opposing team member before they can capture yours. So it can be assumed the players starting point is on opposite sides of the board with your own king protected. All in all, the goal tells us that when the game starts, it will not end until one of the kings has been captured.

The goal of the game may also double as a structure, but not always. In baseball the goal of the game is to score the most runs. But this provides no structure to the game, only defines the winning parameter. Adversely in tic-tac-toe the goal is to be the first to score 3 in a row. The goal effectively doubles as a structure limiting the end of the game. A goal will always be present, regardless of whether or not it doubles as a structure.

The final and most often under appreciated element is the presence of a player. Every game requires the participation of a player. This does not mean that the player must perform an active role in the game; but their fundamental goal in all games is to accept the structures of the game as absolutely binding. To explain we’ll examine turtle racing. There is a little a player can do to actively participate in the game directly. They cannot guide, train, encourage, or motivate a turtle to succeed, excluding the placement of food perhaps at the end of the race way. But because the players accept the goal and structures in turtle racing, it can be defined as a valid and even fun game.

Depending on whom you talk with, some elements can be added to the list but never will these elements be omitted. All other “elements” of game design are personal and based on experience and preference. Not that they should be ignored but they are not usually universally applied to all games. Fun, Goal, Structure, and Player, are the four pillars of all games and understanding them can help guide a designer’s path towards building a successful game.

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