Earlier this year, I spent a week at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. If I could take away just one message from the event, it’s this: playing games is an extremely fulfilling activity. And as a game designer immersed in human-centered design, I found a lot to be excited about. As the game design industry matures, gaming companies are thinking more and more about user-centered issues like empathy, resilience, and the design of complex systems. But as human-centered designers, we can also draw a lot of inspiration from the philosophy and science of game design and apply that knowledge toward making successful products that people love to use.

Leveraging our intrinsic love to play

Let’s start with usability. In a competitive marketplace, usability is simply a must-have for products that want to build brand reputation and customer loyalty. In the context of human-centered design, we often talk about three primary metrics for usability: efficiency, effectiveness, and experience, or the three E’s of usability.

Efficiency refers to the time it takes a user to move through an experience. How fast and efficiently can the user complete the tasks at hand?

The second metric, effectiveness, refers to the experience’s usefulness and relevance. Does the user accomplish what he or she sets out to accomplish? These first two metrics focus on the extrinsic usability of a system, measuring how quickly, clearly, and effectively the user achieves his or her end goals.

Experience, on the other hand, is slightly different. This third metric refers to the intrinsic emotional response of the user: Does the experience feel satisfying and fulfilling?

When a product or system is designed to address all of these, the user’s experience is clear, pertinent, productive, exciting, and rewarding. It’s the sweet spot of design. Your product or service is letting users do things more quickly, with better quality, and in ways that feel more satisfying than they could have without it.

So where do games come in? Games are most relevant to the third metric of usability—experience. Game structures can empower people to venture into complex situations without reservation or hesitation. As users drill into a system’s components and explore things that are relevant or interesting to them, games offer a compelling set of methods to help users remain confident and feel fulfilled.

Making it flow

Good games are satisfying because they establish a psychological state of flow. Flow is a mental state, during which a person is fully immersed in an activity. Essentially, flow is achieved when a person feels completely absorbed in whatever he or she is doing. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term, when he was investigating the psychology of creativity. During flow, distractions, anxieties, and fears dissolve away, leaving only a sense of satisfying progress and clear acceleration toward some future state of mastery. Video games are so exciting, because they put users into this mental state, letting people feel like experts who can overcome hard challenges and achieve something through personal agency, determination, and skill.

As information systems become increasingly complex, there is a lot of opportunity to extend the principles of game design to products and experiences that aren’t necessarily made for play. Games and play structures open new and innovative ways to build loyalty, excitement, knowledge, and satisfaction for customers. As Donald Norman explains in his book Emotional Design, “The real trick—and where most products fail—is in maintaining the relationship after that initial burst of enthusiasm.” The psychology of game design provides a strong methodology for ensuring ongoing satisfaction for users, especially when they are faced with complex functionality and new technologies.

Let users feel creative

Everybody plays games, but I would argue that virtually every individual – at one point or another – has designed games as well. If you’ve ever negotiated the time limit for a round of charades, added house rules to your family’s favorite card game, or established a first-down marker in a pickup game of touch football, then you’ve done some game design.

Microcosms of players add, subtract, and alter games all the time, to improve games, by making them more enjoyable, more competitive, less competitive, simpler for newcomers, etc. Communities of gamers tailor games to their liking. There are many variations of the core Dungeons and Dragons rule set; people play Scrabble with different dictionaries; the rules for professional sports are usually a far cry from those for kids playing the same game, and so on. This ad hoc design behavior is a type of high-level making that enables us to tailor our experiences to fit our own communities and circumstances. It is part of what game designers call meta-gaming, and it is something that is prevalent on the playground, commonly associated with tabletop games, and becoming more and more of a focus for serious exploration by the video game industry.

Game designer Douglas Wilson explains, “The meta-game – the negotiation around the game – can be just as engaging as the game itself, at least when framed in the proper way.” Creator of the Sims, Will Wright extends meta-gaming to include all of the forms of expression that often emerge around a game: “The game in the player’s mind goes from being a specific entertainment experience to becoming a tool for self-expression … It’s almost like playing a musical instrument. At first, you experiment and press buttons. At some point you realize you can compose music. You might even start to perform. Eventually this toy becomes a tool to express one’s self.” Wilson and Wright touch upon Csikszentmihalyi’s earliest conception of flow, which was initially devised, after all, to describe the psychology of creativity. Gamers feel the same deep sense of satisfaction as artists, poets, and musicians, because play feels creative. Playing, competing, make believing, and role-playing are all rooted in our deep human desire for meaningful expression.

The emergent behaviors of meta-games enable players to sculpt experiences to better fit their particular needs and preferences, becoming connoisseur game designers in their own right. If we re-conceptualize play as an inherently creative act, then we can begin to understand the value of building play structures into various experiences and systems.

An architecture of play

Historian and cultural theorist Johan Huizinga noted, “We have to conclude … that civilization is, in its earliest phases, played. It does not come from play … it arises in and as play, and never leaves it.” Huizinga traced the influence of play structures to everything from politics and warfare to art and philosophy. Huizinga’s work was extended in the 1960s by a French sociologist named Roger Caillois, who described all play activities along a continuum from ludus, or structured games with explicit rules, to paidia, or unstructured and spontaneous playfulness.

Caillois observed that games are not static along this continuum, but rather are part of an ongoing process of negotiations that push and pull them from one extreme to the other. “The more that a form of play is repeated, the more likely it is to become more formally expressed – this is the journey from paidia towards ludic play – but paidia can re-exert itself as a temporary escape from the rules at any time.” I’ve always found this assessment to be an eloquent and concise description of what it means to play. Inherently central to all game experiences are processes of creativity, design, and expression.

When implemented wisely, game structures can be powerful tools for building intrigue, confidence, and fulfillment. The psychological, social, and cultural significance of games — which I would call the architecture of play — can greatly influence our approach to complex design problems, especially when considered alongside other fundamental architectures that dictate how users experience systems and products.

When I refer to the value of such an architecture for non-game experiences, I am less interested in ways to infuse explicit, structured game mechanics into existing products – simply adding some achievements or progress bars – but instead refer to the potential for vast and rich possibility spaces, which can be opened when we as designers build systems that encourage users to play and explore. We can figure out how to present the feedback later, but we need to start with the notion that play structures allow us to cultivate intrinsic creativity and encourage the feeling of total immersion and accomplishment. If we recognize early in the design process that our users are going to try to play with our products, whether we like it or not, and we begin to formulate ways to embrace and leverage these playfully generative behaviors, then great and unexpected things will undoubtedly start to happen.

The key is figuring out how an architecture of play can be incorporated into a product, service, or environment in order to produce a fulfilling concert of experience. It’s about understanding the allure of play, and recognizing how to leverage its deeper cultural significance for individual users and communities of users. An architecture of play can embolden users by cultivating intrinsically motivating emotional states, while they use, explore, learn, and extend new technologies and systems. And that’s valuable for users and product developers.

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