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Game Thinking - Breaking down gamification and games
by Andrzej Marczewski on 10/24/13 06:03:00 am   Expert Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Ever since I first started considering Game Thinking, I have been trying to come up with a way to break down all of the parts that make it up. The first attempt was my article about the differences between serious games and gamification. This gave me a basic outline of the 4 areas I considered to make up Game Thinking.

Since then, I have been thinking about this a lot. I have been trying to break it down even further. The next step was my article on the term serious games. This broke serious games up into 4 basic types. Teaching Games, Simulations,  Meaningful games and Purposeful games.

This lead to me writing down a basic outline of what would fall under the other headings in my list. After good conversations on Google+ (here and here), I finally came up with an outline of what actually comes under Game Thinking.

Game Thinking 4

Game Inspired Design

This used to be called gameful design, but this now has more gamification like connotations. This is where no actual elements from games are used, just ideas. So user interfaces that mimic those from games, design or artwork that is inspired by games or the way things are written. All of these have links to games, but do not contain anything that you would consider to be part of a game (mechancics, dynamics, tokens etc.)


Gamification is generaly defined along the lines of "The use of game thinking and elements in non game contexts". Here I have split gamification into two distinct types. Intrinsic and Extrinsic. This is very similar to Karl Kapps two types of gamification, where he talks about structural and content gamification.

Extrinsic gamification is the sort that most people are used to, where game elements are added to a system. Things like points, badges, progress bars etc.

Intrinsic gamification is more about using motivation (RAMP) and behavioural design to engage users.

Serious Games

Spoken about here already, this group includes full games that have been created for reasons other than pure entertainment.

  • Teaching Game: Teaches you something using real gameplay.
  • Simulator: A virtual version of something from the real world that allows safe practice and testing.
  • Meaningful Game: Uses gameplay to promote a meaningful message to the player.
  • Purposeful Game: Uses games to create direct real world outcomes.

Games / Play / Toys

Ok, this is a bit more complicated.  I originally started with just games here, but was challenged by a few people including Prof Richard Bartle. The challenge was “Where does play come into this?”.

Now, I have to admit, I was not ready for this and had to think hard, read hard and discuss hard.  For those who don’t know, there is a very academic conversation to be had around what a game is. There is no true single definition, but most accept that it is a type of play. Play, in this context, is confined only by implicit rules. A ball is governed by implicit rules such as gravity. You don’t impose gravity on a ball, it is just there.

Play begins to become a game, when you start to add explicit rules to it. If I kick the ball through a goal, I get a point and 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!.

Toys come into this as another part of play that is important to consider. A toy seems to have two main varieties. An object or representation of an object that obeys implicit rules, but has no explicit rules on it’s own. So a ball, a transformer etc. You can play with them however you want, within the toys own rules – gravity, shape, fragility etc. The other seems to be a playground. Take Gary’s Mod or Minecraft (in creator mode). You are in a virtual world that has it’s own implicit rules for how the world behaves and the restraints 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 dig up, how certain blocks behave with other blocks. However, within those constraints you can do what you want. You can use the world itself as a toy.

There are hundreds of thousands of words dedicated to this conversation, but for me it is important not to forget the importance of play when you look at Game Thinking.

Back to games and I have split them up into 2 basic categories. Entertainment and Art. Entertainment is what most people would consider games. Call of duty, Civilization, World of Warcraft – that sort of thing. Art is more subjective. I would consider a game such as Proteus more art than game, some would not. That can be discussed elsewhere I am sure!

I have added a third type under games, that dotted lines back into serious games – Adver-games. These are proper games that are created to advertise something. The game is real, it plays like a game, but at some stage it is being used to try and sell you something. I have not put this directly under serious games as personally I feel that serious games should serve something resembling a higher purpose – possibly snobbish on my part though.

What now?

This is my take on Game Thinking. For me this represents the majority of things you should have in mind when you hear the word gamification. Limiting yourself to the standard definition is going to reduce how effective your thinking will be when it comes to designing solutions for people. I know that others have other ideas – so I throw this open for you all to interpret, add too and take from.

A huge thanks to everyone in the Gamification Google+ group who helped my thinking here!

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Darren Tomlyn
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(I'm still not sure I should bother replying to any posts here, atm, (considering how the last thread wound up - (on All Games Are Stories)), but because of what I'm writing, (On The Functionality And Identity Of Language), I see a lot of very similar problems, (or similar symptoms of identical deeper problems), appearing with how people perceive, recognise, understand and describe both games and some/all? of the elements that they can or do involve.)

The fundamental mistake you're making, (along with many others), is to perceive, label and even define many different things, as and by a specific activity they merely CAN be used to enable. Unfortunately, since you do not recognise and understand how what game represents in such a manner, exists within a far bigger picture of human behaviour, you fail to understand how and why everything fits together, and is then represented and described within the language as such.

The fact is, is that any activity, and even some states, tend to be the end result of a combination of many different elements - just like many functions can be the result of a combination of lots of different pieces that make up a machine or computer.

There is a VERY good reason why human language in general makes a very precise distinction between THINGS, and THINGS THAT HAPPEN. (We call the category of representations such concepts fall under, within language, noun and verb.)

Any time there is any confusion between these two concepts - something has gone very, very wrong - in this case, defining and labelling things, as and by the thing that happens they can be used to enable, but do not have to.

Although we use game to represent an activity, and a collection of things that can and is intended to enable such an activity - since we only define one as an activity, and one as a collection of things, and ensure they are used in a consistent manner according to such definitions, there is no problem.

This is the equivalent of defining a table as being a table, whether or not it's already built, or as a collection of parts that need assembling to make an identical object - which is not something we have a problem with.

The problem you have, is that you're trying to label the wood, instructions, and what the table is used for, as being a table, if not furniture, all by itself - even though all of these basic elements, in general, can exist completely independently of both furniture and/or wood, when applicable, let alone tables. Of course - there's no reason tables can't be made out of metal or glass, either...

And just because I can use a table as a toy - doesn't mean that's what it must be defined as.

Andrzej Marczewski
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And your opinion is appreciated as always. Whether I agree or disagree will, I fear, make no difference.

Darren Tomlyn
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Well - our perception is either consistent with how things function or it's not - and the reason we have problems, is that it's not - we're confusing cause for effect, (or vice-versa).

This problem isn't just affecting our understanding of games, but also of language itself, and, potentially, communication in general.

With that in mind - having such problems isn't too surprising, but some of them are so basic, it's almost ridiculous - especially when it comes to using labels the English language already has to represent the information we need.

All of the ingredients that matter, need to recognised and understood in relation to:

Game, puzzle, competition/s, art, work, play, (toy and tool), event, state, action and activity, along with the distinction between those that create, those that take part, and those that perceive/watch/witness etc..

But that can only happen, if all of these are recognised and understood not just for what they are in isolation, but also in relation to each other - which is information we currently do not have and know.

Andy Gainey
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Separating play games from serious games is indeed tricky, as you noted with adver-games. One thought I had was that we should perhaps look at what is primarily intended to be the immediate result of playing the game.

For games as play, one could say that the intended immediate result is that the player has an experience, to borrow from Jesse Schell's book The Art of Game Design. This experience could be one of fun or enjoyment (generally falling under your subcategory of entertainment), or perhaps a different emotion like sadness, curiousity, rage, or empathy (moving towards games as art). But the key is that the player is meant to have an experience, and this is the guiding design principle that shaped the game into what it is.

For any other intended immediate result, we can categorize a game as serious. For teaching, the intended result is that the player becomes more proficient at something. A simulator is meant to give the player empirical data for the analysis of hypotheses. A meaningful game is meant to communicate an idea that is difficult to convey. Purposeful games would be a catch-all for everything else, as best I can tell, but could be split out as other specific purposes are identified. In all these cases, the player likely has an experience, but it takes second stage as either a means to an end or a side effect on the way toward achieving the primary purpose.

I personally would put standard adver-games into the purposeful games category, at least if for some particular game, the focus on product/brand awareness in order to drive sales takes precedence over the attempt to produce an experience for the player. Similarly for free-to-play games that have been purposefully and meticulously designed to manipulate people by any means possible into spending money. Those are both more of a business strategy than a game at that point, in my mind.

As a side note, I earlier used the phrase "immediate result" in order to avoid intended indirect results, such as making money. Most commercial games are made to be fun; just because they're also made to generate revenue obviously shouldn't be grounds for calling them purposeful/serious games. But as I suggested, the more aggressive free-to-play games appear to treat revenue generation as the immediate intended outcome of playing the game. Any other experience that the player has is treated as a fortunate (or sometimes unfortunate) side effect.

Darren Tomlyn
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"Separating play games from serious games is indeed tricky"

Only one question needs to be asked and answered by everyone concerned:

Is this activity productive, or not? (I.e. is it play or work, a toy or tool.)

The problem, is that the answer(s) will and must be subjective on behalf of everyone concerned.

Andrzej Marczewski
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@Andy. Agreed. I talk about the design intention or intended purpose. Advergames have a goal of selling something, not a primary goal of entertainment or even experience. That said, they should sit under serious games. As I say in the article, it is more snobbishness on my part that I can't face putting them there lol. Maybe the next version!!