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As a prelude to a full-on examination of gamification, Badgeville's Tony Ventrice digs deep into what makes games games, using work that's come before as a basis to explore this new tool -- the first of his ongoing series of articles on gamification.

Tony Ventrice, Blogger

November 2, 2011

13 Min Read

[As a prelude to a full-on examination of gamification, Badgeville's Tony Ventrice digs deep into what makes games games, using work that's come before as a basis to explore this new tool -- the first of his ongoing series of articles on gamification.]

A lot has been said about gamification recently, and a lot of circular arguing has gone around what it means to compare an experience to a game.

I have two responses to this discussion:

  1. "Gamification" as a term is indeed opportunistic and vague. While the word seems to imply a land-grab for everything that is great about games, in current practice it only represents points and badges: loyalty and reputation systems.

  2. Games have a lot to offer, and the current form of gamification isn't a bad place to start. There is a lot to be gained from tying loyalty and reputation systems to a website or product and, as the concept evolves, other aspects of gameplay are sure to follow.

What I would like to do is define the full scope of what makes games fun (not a trivial task by any means) and then explore the practical application to real-world businesses. This journey will be made in multiple parts.

  • Part 1 will be to dissect the concept at the intersection of the following words: Game, Fun, Play. The objective will be to end with a list of aspects -- aspects of what make games fun.

  • Each of the following parts will explore how these aspects might be applied to business enterprise.

What Makes a Game Fun?

This question has been asked many times, by both academics and game designers. A common conclusion on the game design side is that games represent choice and learning. I'll let a few of the most prominent experts in game design put it in their words.

Raph Koster says in A Theory of Fun:

Fun is the act of mastering a problem mentally.

Jesse Schell says in The Art of Game Design:

A game is a problem-solving activity, approached with a playful attitude.

I agree wholeheartedly. In fact, I came to basically the same conclusion when I defined gameplay for myself as: interesting decisions (apparently Sid Meier said the same thing -- I may have got it from him.) I came to this conclusion because personally decisions and challenge are what I enjoy about games when I play them.

And this definition is perfectly functional if you're designing games for people like me and Raph and Jesse; games like the video game industry has been designing for the past 30 years, and will go on designing for the next 30 years. A deeper understanding is only really useful if it's your job to deconstruct a game and rebuild the "fun" in a completely new context, like, say, a corporate website.

An Unexpected Truth

Gradually, we've seen examples of games where the learning has been peeled away. FarmVille and Foursquare are evidence that people are willing to call something a "game" even if the decisions are vapid and the learning is simplistic. Defining a game by choices and solutions doesn't seem to be enough anymore.

An argument can be made to defend the old definition. There is learning in FarmVille, if just a little bit. And Foursquare, well, I suppose you learn where you have a chance at maintaining mayor status and where you don't...

But I'm not buying it. The fact is, the learning aspect to these "games" is so thin it hardly counts. Even if you posit that the average FarmVille player is less intelligent than the average "real game" player, it doesn't explain why FarmVille players play for so long -- we're talking about months, more than enough time for even a simpleton to learn everything there is to know in the game.

The truth is, we have only two options: either refuse to call these things "games" or admit that there is more to games than just learning.

But before we move on, we'll give the old definition one more chance. We'll note that Schell and Koster didn't say games were just learning, they said games were learning with a playful or fun attitude. Raph elaborates:

The lesson here is that fun is contextual. The reasons why we are engaging in an activity matter a lot.

So, the definition of a fun game is more than just learning, and neither Koster nor Schell has found it simple enough to condense into a one-sentence definition. Fun, it turns out is a very tricky word.

Once Again: What Makes a Game Fun?

The game designers had their say, and have given us the first aspect of fun for our list: learning. I think it's a suitable first element, and examples of games where the fun is represented almost solely by learning might include pattern-solving puzzles like Rubik's Cube or Mastermind.

I'm sure the designers have a lot more to say on the topic but, in the interests of time, I'd like to give the academics a turn now.

If you've read Salen and Zimmerman's Rules of Play, you've heard of the sociologist Roger Caillois. Caillois posits there are four forms of play:

Competition, Chance, Role Playing and Altered Perception

The list seems rather arbitrary. As a sociologist, Caillois is not a game designer, but you have to appreciate the distance he's given himself in his definition. And I think he's made some rather unique observations.

Competition seems like an obvious addition to our list -- almost any activity that can be measured has been turned into a game at one point or another, from spotting out-of-state license plates to shoveling coal faster than the other guy.

Role Playing also seems obvious -- what other way can you explain children playing house, or firemen, or any other game young children play?

Altered Perception is probably Caillois' most interesting proposal. From recreational drug use to rolling down a grassy hill and then attempting to run in a straight line, altered perception is an undeniable, albeit often over-looked aspect of play.

It even turns up in video games occasionally (some games "mess" with the player by distorting the reality of the game rules unexpectedly, while others bombard the player with lights and sounds, resulting in a "trippy" experience). I'm tempted to include altered perception to our list -- yet, by and large, this is not an aspect of play with many practical applications, particularly in the context of business, so out of the interest of space, I'll omit it.

Finally we have Chance. Chance is a mechanic desirable in competitive play to avoid deterministic outcomes. Given two players of unequal skill, in a game without chance, the outcome is known before the game even begins. Chance is a very important mechanic for game balancing and building suspense (something I'll get to later), but not inherently fun, or a reason, per se, to play a game.

Game designer Marc LeBlanc gives us a slightly longer and more practical list than Caillois. While LeBlanc might find better company in the previous section with the other designers, I've included him here because in his work he's chosen to take a more academic approach (he's even collaborated with academics at Northwestern University).

LeBlanc's list of eight kinds of fun:

Sensation, Fellowship, Fantasy, Narrative, Challenge, Discovery, Expression, Submission

In the interest of time, I'll cut through these quickly, picking out which to keep based on their value to our investigation.

Sensation might include fun things like the plunge of a rollercoaster, a runner's high, or a pleasant massage -- but in the context of gamified experiences, it is probably even less useful than Altered Perception.

Fellowship introduces the idea of a social aspect -- a sense of friendship or belonging. Finding a single game represented purely by fellowship is difficult, but many people choose to play party games solely for this reason.

For example, I find Apples to Apples to be an asinine game -- winners are chosen arbitrarily -- yet I enjoy playing the game. Why? I find that to enjoy the game, I ignore the implied competition and learning, and focus instead on enjoying the social interplay and collective laughing. For me, the only reason to play Apples to Apples is the Fellowship.

Fantasy and Narrative are relevant but quite similar (I'd say they respectively describe the premise and events of a story). I don't know if anyone would call a story a game, but in watching the interplay of a campfire story or a bedtime story you can't help but see the similarities and at least admit the presence of fun.

Many games contain stories, and I have even heard of people playing games that were terrible simply because they wanted to know how the story turned out. I think this is enough evidence of fun to keep these two -- at least as a single shared entry in our list.

Challenge and Discovery are What Koster and Schell were talking about (the player discovers new techniques and applies them to challenging problems) so we'll categorize these with learnign.

Expression is very similar to role playing, and we'll group the two for now and see if we can't come up with a common feature.

Submission is, honestly, a bit unexpected. LeBlanc defines Submission as "game as mindless pastime". Although this is a very tempting addition to our list, it unfortunately says nothing informative. By this inclusion, 3:00 AM television infomercials are fun, and I think anyone can agree that such a stretch results in a definition far too broad for our purposes.

We've made it through Marc's list and retained 6 out of his 8 items, at least in some respect.

Next, I'd like to introduce an academic named Nicole Lazzaro. Nicole's study covers the basics of choice and challenge that we've already talked about, but what she does differently is focus her studies around the emotional state of gamers.

In her own words:

Our results revealed that people play games not so much for the game itself as for the experience the game creates: an adrenaline rush, a vicarious adventure, a mental challenge; or the structure games provide, such as a moment of solitude or the company of friends.

While she seems to view every aspect of a game from the perspective of emotion (and the utility of this perspective may be questionable) she does raise a worthy point: pure emotions most likely have a role in the concept of "fun".

After all, why do people watch scary movies, flirt with their own spouses, play practical jokes on each other, or play Crocodile Dentist? They find surges of emotion like fear, arousal, humor, suspense and surprise to be fun.

I have one more academic who never seems to get integrated properly into these discussions, and his name is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi is the foremost expert in what we know as flow. In his own words, flow is:

Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.

Flow is often used to mean "balanced difficulty", or is just as often dismissed as simply another emotional state. I believe the topic is actually much more interesting than either of these interpretations, and warrants its own entry in our list. For examples of flow that might be called "games", I might cite bouncing a ball repeated off a wall or flinging cards at a hat. While these activities do involve learning a skill, I think the fact that it is a worthless skill might be indicative of something else going on.

What Makes a Game Fun? A Summary

We've heard from some of the most recognized experts on the subject (hopefully I haven't abbreviated their voices unfairly), done some paring for utility, and here's our working list of features that make games fun:

  1. Learning / Challenge / Discovery

  2. Role Playing / Expression

  3. Competition

  4. Fellowship

  5. Fantasy / Narrative

  6. Emotion

  7. Flow

Before moving on, I'd like to do a little editing -- nothing serious, just some renaming and a little shifting of shared similarities. I'll include my reasons below for anyone who cares to argue.

Final List:

  1. Growth

  2. Choice

  3. Competition

  4. Identity

  5. Story

  6. Emotion

  7. Flow

We now have a list of aspects that make games fun. I believe any proposed addition can be categorized under one or more of these seven. If it can't, I'm more than willing to add another entry (or acknowledge and dismiss it, like sensation).

If we take the word "game" to be defined as: an activity engaged in for the pursuit of fun (and this is basically how the dictionary defines it), I think we're ready to move on with our analysis of gamification.

In further articles, I will address each of the aspects on our list, what they might look like independent from the rest and how they might be used in a context outside of traditional gaming. Given the breadth of the content, I won't be able to go into exacting detail, but I hope to cover each enough to set a trajectory towards further constructive thought.

How I Arrived At the List

For our first entry, we already have three proposed names: learning, challenge, and discovery. I would like to propose a fourth to represent them all: growth. Growth conveys an unequivocal sense of going somewhere, improving on a previous state.

What I prefer about "growth" is that it cuts more directly to the center of the desired experience than the others; I might be learning something, but not feeling as if it's progressing towards any useful end. I might be challenged, but resent it as an unnecessary or pointless obstacle. I might discover something, but feel it to be irrelevant. Only growth clearly conveys both personal development and a positive experience.

Once you filter out the concept of story (covered under fantasy and narrative), role playing and expression are actually very similar. They describe an opportunity to assert the values that make you who you are and the freedom to try out new values without judgment. This seems to convey two things: identity and choice. Identity is important, but it's already been covered elsewhere on the list (see below). That leaves us with choice, or autonomy, which is important enough to warrant an entry of its own.

Fellowship is a funny word that can't help but conjure up images of Hobbits. What we're really talking about here is a sense of belonging -- a role, or place, in a social context. Nothing seems to describe it better than identity. I know who I am, and so does everyone else. While fellowship implies a purely friendly social relationship, friendship may be too specific -- it's probably safe to say almost everyone desires a sense of identity, but not everyone craves harmony and alliance.

For fantasy / narrative, as I mentioned earlier, these two respectively describe the premise and events of a Story. "Narrative" is a probably the more inclusive of the two, but yet seems too cold to properly convey the fun feeling of getting wrapped up in an engaging story. The users call it "story", and I feel it makes the most sense to do the same.

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About the Author(s)

Tony Ventrice


Tony Ventrice started out designing games for phones with 128x128 screen resolution. He followed mobile through to the iPhone era (I Am T-Pain) and made the transition to social-games pre-FarmVille, working at both Zynga (Poker) and Playdom (Mobsters 2 / Deep Realms). He sees the next expansion of the industry in bringing games into everyday life and joined Badgeville in early 2011 to help lead that evolution.

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