Games in the Real World: Some Characteristics We Can Use

Amid all the enthusiasm that has emerged around using games for learning, health, persuasion, and social change, there’s a nagging problem: it’s the persistent cultural bias that games must necessarily be frivolous activities, disconnected from the important business of the real world.

We’re all aware of this prejudice because it’s deeply rooted in the way that we understand games and play. It’s apparent in the way we speak about games. When we say that something “is just a game,” we mean that we cannot consider it to be terribly important. When we warn that something “is not a game,” we’re saying that it must not be so debased. In our collective consciousness, the seemingly artificial nature of games clashes with these new substantive purposes to which they’re being applied.

While user experience designers may be drawn to the power of games to command human attention, the cultural bias can make it difficult to imagine how we can best use games in practical situations. In order to create games that can have meaningful impact in the world, we need a different way of thinking about them.

Characteristics of Games

Top-down approaches to defining games tend to be either so specific that it’s easy to find exceptions, or so vague that they don’t help to inform design. For those reasons, I’ll stay away from a standard dictionary-style definition, and instead build from the bottom up by focusing on the shared characteristics of games.


All games have objectives, some explicit, measurable, and reliable conditions that all players try to meet or maintain. Many games, such as Trivial Pursuit, contain a hierarchy of objectives that culminate in a final challenge that brings the play to an end. Other games have objectives without any winning condition; when people play tag, they just keep meeting the same objective over and over again until no one feels like playing any more.

Environmental constraints

All games contain elements that place physical limits on what the players can and cannot do, including the boundaries and structure of the play space. Chess is played on a grid of 8×8 squares of alternating colors; it wouldn’t work the same way if it were played on a 7×7 grid or a 9×9 grid. Environmental constraints also include the artifacts like dice, playing cards, pawns, balls, and bats. The physical characteristics of these things also shape the gameplay. A deck of cards only has four aces, no matter how much you might need a fifth one.

Formal constraints

Games also constrain people’s actions through rules. These formal constraints perform a job similar to the environmental constraints, but they’re fundamentally different because players are bound to the rules only by mutual agreement. In the absence of hard physical constraints, people must volunteer to place limits on their own freedom. The players who join a game must then see some value in the experience.

These three characteristics represent everything that you need to uniquely describe a particular game. A fourth represents the additional attributes of video games.


This characteristic is specific to a sub-type that includes video games, slot machines, pinball, and pachinko. These games arbitrate achievement of objectives and compliance with the rules, either through some physical mechanism or by computer. This relieves players of the burden of policing one another, sorting out winners from losers, or supporting various mundane bookkeeping functions. It also creates a huge design advantage in video games, because it allows the rules to be much more complex and to be executed much faster than would otherwise be possible.

There are, of course, many other characteristics of games, but they are the qualities that describe the heart of a game, and they cannot be altered without fundamentally changing the game. Chess can be played with a variety of different figures, against a computer, or fully life-sized without changing the fact that you’re still playing chess. But if you were to make any change to the objectives, the environmental constraints, or the formal constraints, it just wouldn’t be chess.

Beyond Games

Taking the common characteristics a step further, any human task that can be defined using the characteristics can be understood as a game, even if it’s a part of what we would normally call real life. Three examples are educational testing, dieting, and charitable fundraising. These activities are not just game-like; nor do they contain some elements of games. They are indistinguishable from games, even though we are unaccustomed to thinking of them that way. Moreover, taking advantage of the principles of game design, we can make these activities more compelling and increase our effectiveness when engaging in them.


Games have long found a place in education, from competitions like spelling bees or debates, to video games like The Oregon Trail and Math Blaster! Their natural fit within the classroom makes abundant sense if we define education itself as a game. Consider how a science test conforms to the characteristics used to define games:

  • Objective: Demonstrate your understanding of the structure of the solar system.
  • Environmental constraints: The set of questions selected for the test, the form of the questions, and the information they provide. For example, multiple 
            choice questions providing insight into possible responses.
  • Formal constraints: You can’t copy other students’ work; you have a specific amount of time in which to complete the test.

Considering that students are usually drawn to game experiences, it’s a shame that testing can be a source of anxiety. Game design can promote a better way of doing things. The wildly successful Professor Layton series for the Nintendo DS presents puzzles that can be similar to SAT questions, but wraps them inside a game narrative that involves solving a mystery. Lee Sheldon, an instructor at Indiana University, structures his game design class as a game itself, with students working in teams called “guilds” to earn “experience points” that they can apply to defeat an ultimate “boss”—the final exam. Approaches that take advantage of the inherent gamefulness of education have the potential to transform our systems of learning.


You have an objective to lose a certain amount of weight by some point in time. You have to do it despite hard physical constraints on how your body metabolizes food, your current level of physical fitness, the foods that are available to you, and your personal tastes in food. There are also formal rules that you follow, eating only foods that are on the diet, maintaining daily exercise, and avoiding shortcuts like weight-loss drugs.

A video game that completely capitalizes on the gamefulness of dieting has yet to be made, but there are some existing designs that address parts of the experience. Zamzee gives players a movement sensor and awards a virtual currency for higher levels of activity, which can be used to purchase virtual or physical rewards. HopeLab, the game’s developer, reports that teens who play Zamzee are thirty percent more active than peers who don’t. My game Fitter Critters tasks players with buying food for a virtual pet to improve its health over time. In the process, players need to weigh the nutritional attributes of different foods, and build a mental database of better and worse food choices.

We can speculate about the form that a video game focused specifically on dieting might take. It could, for example, be conceived as a Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game, featuring an avatar that’s directly based on the height, age, and body mass index of the player. The avatar’s attributes could be affected by the player’s actual physical activity and food choices, leveling up and achieving new goals as the player reaches milestones in the diet. Such a game could encourage adherence to the diet by tying it to success in the game world.


Fundraising comprises all the characteristics of games. The objective is a specific level of funding; the environmental constraints are the means of communication with potential donors and the funds they have to contribute, and the formal constraints are laws protecting nonprofit charitable organizations, as well as the interpersonal norms of asking for donations and expressing gratitude.

Following the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010, the Facebook game FarmVille offered virtual white corn seeds for sale for real money and donated the proceeds to Haitian relief. A special crop granted players a large amount of experience points. It was lucrative. You could harvest it after a short time, and it would never wither and die like other crops if you left it untended. It cost Zynga almost nothing to create white corn, but they were able to use it to raise $1 million in donations in five days.

Players of the related Facebook game CityVille also have the option of getting game-specific city cash by making actual monetary donations to local chapters of United Way. These innovations generate real value from many small donations, tying game-based rewards to desired behaviors. They have the potential to bring in many more donors and to vastly increase the effectiveness of fundraising campaigns.

Games in Vital Contexts

Games are a part of life, often guiding our actions in unrecognized ways. By capitalizing on the inherently gameful attributes of everyday activities, user experience designers have the opportunity to influence human behavior and to create new kinds of interactions. Of course, not everything in life can fit our definition of games, and the approach to design isn’t well-suited to activities that fall outside our defined structure. But this caution should not be an obstacle to applying game design to the right projects.

Let’s get rid of the cultural predisposition that games are inherently frivolous, which only holds us back from exploiting a deep mode of interactivity. Using these techniques, we can create satisfying games that can bring about real change in the real world.

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