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Understanding Game Design Will Make Your Life Better

by Michael Fergusson on 07/30/10 05:01:00 pm   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.


Whats a game and why are games important? I tried to address this question in thetalk I gaveto theInternational Internet Marketing Association.

One good definition of a game is anactivityamong two or more independentdecision-makersseeking to achieve theirobjectivesin somelimiting context. (Serious Games, Clark C. Abt, 1970) As you may have noted to yourself already, this can describe all of manner of human endeavor from finance (sometimes not in a good way) to education to medicine. Airline pilots are required to practice in simulators that look a lot like big console games, and many of our sports such as biathlon, javelin, archery, are based directly or indirectly on survival skills our ancestors developed from necessity. Today, we use those skills for the fun of it. Why is that?

Games and play are abasic survival adaptation. Think ofMaslows hierarchy of needs(basic human needs are represented in the shape of a pyramid, with the largest and lowest levels of needs at the bottom, and the need for self-actualization at the top): at all levels of the pyramid we work within a framework of rules, collaborating with others to reach our goals. Our brain has evolved to encourage our success by rewarding us when were successful, beyond the inherent rewards of survival.

Heres an observation that I hope you will find interesting: When you call something a game, there is generally an implication that youre talking about something that isnt (for lack of a better word)important. And in many cases thats true: the game is not important. But the interesting thing is thatour brain doesnt necessarily know that. Our brain willgive the same sort of dopamine rewardfor a solving ameaningless puzzle gameas it does for learning how to properly tie alife saving knot(shout out to all the cub scouts out there).

This is valuable from an evolutionary perspective because most of our games, like hockey for example, are analogs to things in the real world. Thats why they work as games and thats why we play them. Hockey teaches us about timing and teamwork, and helps us develop useful fine motor skills. These are the same skills and abilities, generally speaking, that we use to navigate our world, so we can survive. Even though we dont truly require all these skills for survival purposes any longer, these same instincts remain, crying out to be satisfied in other ways. This is why we get a dopamine rush when we do well at a complex pattern-matching game, despite the fact that well likely never use those skills to learn which mushrooms make good soup, and which ones are poisonous.

Implications for design

When youre designing a game (or even a customer response form for the corporate website), understanding this mechanism of reward lets you recognize the patterns and use them to your advantage. As Eisenhower said: motivation is getting somebody do something becausetheywant to do it. In coming posts, well talk about how thats done, by looking at examples from a variety of different games.

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