Games, play, toys and gamification

Games and play are two separate concepts in the same family. Here I offer my view on their differences.

This is a risky one for me to post here as I know it is stepping into some deep philosphy and study.

Lately I have been thinking about play a lot. This is probably because of watching my children growing up and seeing how play changes into games as they develop. I have written about play before and it does form part of my general Game Thinking framework, but it is lumped with toys and games - rather lazily.

I wanted to give play and my surrounding thoughts on it its own post.


Play is free form and unlike a game does not need to have a point or a goal to it. It exists within a set of rules created by the person or people playing and is born in the imagination.  Often it is a way of exploring the boundaries and extremes of something, in search for new and novel experiences.  It is undertaken for its own sake often for fun and joy.

When my daughters were very young, they used to engage in pure play. They did things because they were novel, a new experience, and judging by their smiles and their laughter - they enjoyed it. I would go so far as to say they found it fun. Play did not need external objects at first, they could just move their foot and find that hilarious. Many say that play is essential for children as it teaches them about their environment and themselves.  I have to agree - they learn essential lessons through play, but I don't think that is why they actually play - they don't think to themselves "I'm going to learn how my foot works now". They play because they can and it entertains them! Like adults, they are seeking novel experiences.

As they developed, their own movements became less interesting (probably because they had discovered the boundaries of what could be done, mastered them if you will), so play needed to have some help. They would pick up things and do things they found entertaining with them. These things became toys.


Toys are an interesting concept when considering games and play. In this context, toys are objects or representation of objects that have their own intrinsic rules, but don't come with extrinsic rules as standard! So a ball, a stick, a transformer etc. You can play with them however you want confined only by the toys own rules – effect of gravity, shape, fragility etc. If you throw a ball, depending on the material the ball is made from it might bounce, it might roll, it might stop dead - that sort of thing. These are not rules that the person playing imposes on the ball. If you throw a Transformer in the same way as a ball, it will obey its own rules. It won't bounce and will probably break when you throw it at a wall!

There is another type of toy worth mentioning - I refer to it as a playground or a toy box. This is an entire environment rather than a single object. Take Gary’s Mod or Minecraft (in creator mode) as examples. You are in a virtual world that has it’s own intrinsic rules for how the world behaves and the constraints that you as the player have within the world (magic circle). With Minecraft this would be things like how far you can dig down, how far you can build up, how certain blocks behave with other blocks and more. However, within those constraints you can do what you want. You can use the world itself as a toy and play with it.  That can include turning the world into the setting for a game!

At first my kids would just play with the toys, they would not create any discernible rules around how they interacted with the toys. After a while though that was no longer enough. It was not fun just to throw bricks at the wall, they started to add rules to the play, stacking as high as they could, lining up the colours. The free form play now had  structure - it had become a simple game.


Play begins to become a game, when you start to add explicit goals to it and rules that are imposed by the system. If I kick the ball through a goal, I get a point and I win (Zero sum). If we work together to get the ball through a series of obstacles, we win (non zero sum). For some this will boil down to competition (with the system or other players) and cooperation. For others, there is much much more to it!.

With my kids, I began to see them turning pure cooperative play into cooperative games as they both matured, individually and together. They would create scenarios such as being a chef and a waiter. They had to work together to get Mummy and Daddy their orders. Whilst it was still very free form, it was starting to have game like elements, rules and goals.

Now of course they play games with each other that are purely competitive as well as playing cooperatively. Either way, it is a joy to watch and try to understand!

Gameful and Playful

In my mind there is also a variation on the Game vs Play conversation. Gameful vs Playful. This is not fully formed in my mind, but from what I have seen there are games that are playful and play that can be gameful. So for example, Minecraft in Creator mode is pure play - it is therefore Playful Play. However, when you start to add game like rules and goals to it (create pac man, or hunger games or even play in the adventure mode) it becomes a Playful Game.

Call of Duty games offer little to no chance to play, they offer a single experience. There are opportunities to do stuff just for fun, but that is forced rather than designed. So Call of Duty is a pure game, a Gameful Game.

Toca Boca create games for children. Some of them have actual goals, create things and do certain things. However they are designed to encourage pure play as well. So for me they represent Gameful Play.

As I say, these are fairly embryonic thoughts!

game vs play

So a quick summary

  • Play is free form and has no extrinsically imposed goals. It is done for fun or joy.
  • Games add defined goals and rules to play (such as challenges)
  • Toys are objects that can be used in play or games.

Games and toys are a subset of play.

  • You play.
  • You play a game.
  • You play with a toy.
  • You play a game with a toy.

Final Thoughts on Playfulness

As a final thought, I wanted to consider playfulness. If play is free form, does not need to adhere to rules and is undertaken just for its own sake, then being playful would require one to submit to those same concepts. To design a system that encourages playfulness you must create an environment that allows people to do things just because they can. You have to create experiences that exist purely for the sake of being novel and enjoyable to the user.

You need to break the rules a little and give the user a chance to do the same.

I am very interested to see your comments on this one!

(originally posted on my blog

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