Lesson 2 - Fun and games

What is a video game, the current state of play, and fun in games.

Part 1 - The current state of play

We don’t really know what the first video game ever was, but one of the most interesting early games was Tennis for Two, a game which simulated, you guessed it, a tennis match!

Apart from being technologically impressive for it’s time, Tennis for Two was built to cure the boredom of visitors to the Brookhaven National Laboratory. This is important – rather than just being built as a technological demonstration, the game itself was primarily built for the player’s enjoyment.

Video games have come along way since Tennis for Two was made. Technology has greatly improved and we now have games with incredibly realistic graphics, fully orchestrated sound tracks, interesting characters and emotional narrative.

Gone also are the days where video games were just played by a minority. Video games are now mainstream, big business and incredibly engaging. Don’t believe me? Let’s look at some facts to support this statement…

Video games have become mainstream

When it comes to video games you may think a stereotypical player is a young, nerdy male who plays video games all by himself in his room all day. However, this is far from the truth, in fact…

Almost 50% of Americans play video games.
— Entertainment Software Association, 2015
The average age of players is 35 in America
— Entertainment Software Association, 2015
56% of players are male and 44% of players are female in America
— Entertainment Software Association, 2015

Video games have become big business

We also know that video games have become big business and are a strong engine for economic growth.

In 2014, the US industry sold over 
135 million games and generated more than $22 billion in revenue
— ESA Industry Facts, 2015

Video games are engaging

More importantly though, video games are engaging...

42% of Americans play video games for 3+ hours per week
— Entertainment Software Association, 2015

What about one of the most engaging games out there – World of Warcraft? Can you guess how much time players have collectively sunk into this one game?

50 billion hours

“By one analyst’s calculation, the 11 million or so registered users of the online role-playing fantasy World of Warcraft collectively have spent as much time playing the game since its introduction in 2004 as humanity spent evolving as a species—about 50 billion hours of game time, which adds up to about 5.9 million years.” – Wall Street Journal, 2012

And that’s just one game.

So if some video games can be so engaging, why can’t we make non-game activities just as engaging? Well, funny thing is this is the basic thinking behind gamification. However, to understand gamification further we need to be able to understand what exactly a game is and why some games can be incredibly engaging to play.

Part 2 - What exactly is a video game?

What is a video game? Good question, to answer that we need to ask first what is a game? Many definitions exist for the term game and trying to define it can be difficult (some people argue that it’s not even necessary to define it and in fact, this question limits the medium – a totally valid argument). However, the term game plays a significant role in gamification, therefore it’s important for us to understand at least important elements and qualities of games to help properly influence how we might design gamification (otherwise we run the risk of creating subpar gamification because we don’t understand games in the first place).

In his book, The Art of Game Design, Jesse Schell highlights a number of existing definitions for the term game and from these, creates out a list of ten qualities of games.

  • Q1. Games are entered willfully
  • Q2. Games have goals.
  • Q3. Games have conflict.
  • Q4. Games have rules.
  • Q5. Games can be won and lost.
  • Q6. Games are interactive.
  • Q7. Games have challenge.
  • Q8. Games can create their own internal value.
  • Q9. Games engage players.
  • Q10. Games are closed, formal systems.

In an attempt to address all of these qualities, Jesse Schell proposes a succinct definition for a game:

“A game is a problem-solving activity, approached with a playful attitude.”
— Jesse Schell, 2014

Viewing a game as a problem-solving activity is a great starting point, but it’s the playful attitude part which is incredibly important to consider. As soon as we are obliged to do something, does it cease to be play and become work? And vice versa? According to Mark Twain it does.

“Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do. Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”
— Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Nice quote. We’ll revisit this idea in the next lesson when we talk about motivation and autonomy, but for now… back to defining video games!

If we keep it simple, a video game is a game that uses digital technology. Using technology means we can use digital graphics, video and audio to create new and immersive worlds to play in. However, there is something else as well…

“The most important benefit computers bring to gaming is that the computer relieves the players of the burden of personally implementing the rules. This frees the players to become as deeply immersed in a video game as they can in other forms of entertainment.”
— Adams, 2009

This is important – especially when it comes to understanding why gamification has become so popular as well. These days, technology is able to determine much more about us and what we’re doing. For example, smartphones know our location, can tell how much we’re moving and how fast we’re moving, which opens up the ability to create digital games around our exercise for example. As technology continues to become ‘smarter’ and cheaper we’re seeing more and more possibilities for games to be embedded into our everyday activities. We’ll come back to this in lesson 4 when we talk about designing gamification.

The Elements of a Game

Beyond a definition of the term, it’s useful considering what the basic elements of games are. There are a number of different ways to do this, but Jesse Schell once again provides a very useful way to categorise the elements of games. He calls it the Elemental Tetrad, and it consists of four categories.

The Elemental Tetrad – Adapted from Schell, 2014.

The Elemental Tetrad – Adapted from Schell, 2014.

Schell says that each of these elements are all essential no matter what the game is, and none of the elements is more important than the others. The categories of elements proposed include:

  • Mechanics: The procedures and rules of a game.
  • Story: The sequence of events that unfolds in the game.
  • Aesthetics: How the game looks, sounds, smells, tastes, and feels.
  • Technology: Any materials and interactions that make your game possible (e.g., paper, pencil, computers).

This elemental tetrad is a useful tool when it comes to game design (and gamification design) to help remind us to design for all four elements, consider how our designs could be improved by enhancing elements in one or more of the categories, and make sure all four elements work in harmony and reinforce each other (Schell, 2008).

Now we have an understanding of what a game is and what it’s made up of, it’s time to talk about what makes games so engaging in the first place.

Part 3 - Why are games engaging?

We’ve seen that games are incredibly popular, but why do people play games in the first place? What makes them so engaging? The most recent Digital Australia survey (2016) found that “common reasons people play are to pass time and have fun”.

Fun is a tricky word to unpack, but Raph Koster does a nice job explaining where fun comes from in games. He mentions fun is defined as a “source of enjoyment” and that it is all about our brains feeling good thanks to the release of particular chemicals when we learn something or master a task. This means that…

Fun from games arises out of mastery. It arises out of comprehension. It is the act of solving puzzles that makes games fun. In other words, with games, learning is the drug.
— Raph Koster, 2005

But not all learning is fun right? You might have found some classes at school less than enjoyable, so what’s the difference between this type of learning and that in an engaging game? Well, there’s two things worth considering, the first is that in games, the problem-solving is approached with a playful attitude (remember the definition for games from before?), and secondly, the learning needs to be designed well.

So how do we design interesting challenges? Well, Sebastian Deterding (2011) summarises this nicely using the proposed ‘equation’: Goals + rules = Interesting challenges. Then if we take interesting challenges, add feedback to those interesting challenges, we get experiences of mastery. Let’s break these down a further.

Goals + Rules = Interesting Challenges

Games start by setting goals for us to achieve. Take golf as an example – the goal is to put the ball in the hole. This on it’s own is not that interesting – you could just pick up the ball, walk to the hole and put it in. To make it interesting rules are added – you have to use a club to hit the golf ball, you have to start a certain distance away, obstacles are added. I’ll just let Robin Williams summarise the rest of the rules for you…

These goals and rules now create a range of interesting challenges for the player. Much more interesting than just picking the ball up and putting it in the hole.

Interesting Challenges + Feedback = Meaningful Experiences

Taking these interesting challenges and then having clear feedback (in golf this is provided by the score board, the satisfying thwack when the ball is properly hit, etc.) can then lead to experiences of mastery. Having clear feedback closes the loop – giving players a sense of how they are doing, how they can improve and if they’ve mastered the challenge. This experience can be very satisfying and if we can design to support these in not only games, but gamification as well, then we’re on the right track.

However, Deterding argues that many current gamified systems are designed in a way where they give you lots of feedback but without any real challenge, for example signing up for a website or reading three blog posts. These are bland and pale in comparison to a more meaningful challenge.

So it’s important to support interesting challenges and experiences of mastery when creating games and gamification because this is what makes games so engaging.

Wrapping up

So what have we learnt in this lesson?

  1. Video games are popular, many people play them, they’re big business and they can be incredibly engaging.
  2. A game is a problem-solving activity, approached with a playful attitude and video games are games that use digital technology. There are four elements to games; aesthetics, mechanics, story, and technology.
  3. The act of solving interesting challenges is what makes games fun. Interesting challenges arise out of creating goals and rules. Add clear feedback to interesting challenges and we get meaningful experiences, which are key to good gamification design.

In the next lesson, we’re going to take a brief trip into the field of motivational psychology and look further at some of the underlying theories of motivation to help us understand gamification even further.