Moving Outside the Box: From Game-Centered Interventions to Playful Contexts

In collaboration with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Center for Games & Impact at ASU University has initiated a “National Conversation on Games” and the future of games for impact. To quote, the conversation convenes “a series of brief, incisive, and accessible white papers on specific topics within the field of games for impact with a key goal of highlighting the opportunities, challenges and best practices for harnessing the power of computer and video games to help address the most important social, cultural, scientific and economic challenges we face.”

I’m really, really excited (and fortunate) to be one of the invited white paper authors. Below you will find the text of my paper, which is currently open for public commentary on the site of the conversation – so share your thoughts!

In his seminal book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes: “Mowing the lawn or waiting in a dentist’s office can become enjoyable provided one restructures the activity by providing goals, rules, and the other elements of enjoyment” found in games. This idea – that gameplay holds valuable principles for making even the most mundane activity more engaging – has a long history in human-computer interaction and education, regularly re-emerging under names like funology, ludic design, playful interaction, serious games, or game-based learning. Its most recent iteration has come to be known as “gamification:” using game design elements in non-game contexts.

One may rightfully question whether “gamification” is anything more than a marketing ruse to sell the next digital snake oil. The current field is certainly littered with shallow interpretations and implementations – essentially incentive and customer loyalty programs repackaged with a superficial “gamy” veneer as software services that disregard decades of research on the limited effectiveness and unintended consequences of such systems. (This is one reason why educators have reacted with such mixed feelings to the current Digital Media and Learning Competition, “Badges for Lifelong Learning.”)

However, cases like the Quest to Learn schools, the Just Press Play project, or the health application Health Month show that “gamification” can also be approached thoughtfully. More importantly, even if “gamification” (or gameful design, to use a term I prefer) will ultimately prove to be a fad, I do believe that it helps to move our current thinking on games for impact forward in two crucial ways – regarding how gameplay facilitates learning and engagement, and regarding the scope of what game-based interventions could and should encompass.

Back to Play

What is the first thing you think of when you hear the word “video game”? Likely, it will be a box: Some square screen, some interface tied to a piece of hardware running a piece of software. That is, you are thinking of a game as a designed artifact. There is nothing to say against that; it is a lasting achievement of game research to have demonstrated in detail how the design of games makes and breaks their experience and potential effects, and we are far from understanding these matters fully.

Still, I would argue that this box is what currently most limits our thinking, because it disregards what happens outside of it: the specific way in which people come to frame, experience, and interact with games. Simply put, it ignores that people are usually playing them. For although games certainly uniquely cater to being played, there is no necessary connection of the two. We can do very many things with games – we can build, test, debug, review, analyze and play them, and we can work in them, as gold farming demonstrates. Likewise, there are many things we can play with – our hands, sticks and stones, passing cars on a long highway drive, games, even work assignments.

Is this a trivial point? Well, a small but growing movement in game studies – driven by the likes of Miguel Sicart, T.L. Taylor, Mark Chen, Aaron Chia-Yuan Hung and others – urges us to extend our attention to the many ways games are being played, and to the way both, games and play, interact to create the unique affordances of fun, motivation, learning that we are hoping to make use of.

To be sure, the games and learning community has long been at the forefront of pushing game research “from content to context“, towards the broader “ecology of games“: how participation in the cultures, communities and affinity spaces surrounding games is not only part and parcel of gaming, but also a crucial site of learning. Yet arguably, it has not paid as much attention to the psychology and sociology of what constitutes “playing” as a mode of engagement.

The Troubles of Instrumentalizing Games

For if we start to look more closely into this matter, we immediately notice how the instrumentalization of games for a serious purpose may interfere directly with one essential aspect of play: its voluntariness. Scholars from Johan Huizinga on have stressed voluntariness as a defining feature of play. And this feature is mainly found in the social interactions and interpretations that envelop a game: to what extent others force an individual to do something, and to what extent the individual, in light of such actions of others, comes to define said activity as self-determined or not.

Now a rich literature in psychology has demonstrated that voluntariness – autonomy – is a core part of intrinsic motivation, and that attaching rewards or punishments to an activity may thwart the experience of autonomy, making the activity paradoxically less motivating. Some studies suggest that good video games are engaging precisely because (among other things) they support strong experiences of autonomy: In them, we can choose who to be, what goals to pursue, and how to pursue them. But by the same logic, games should also be engaging because they are played, that is, because they are engaged with voluntarily. In contrast, if a game becomes mandatory and consequential, for instance by being made part of graded homework, it might easily stop being experienced as voluntary, and thus, play. “Gamified“ applications are almost natural experiments in this regard, as they intentionally take game elements into non-playful contexts.

From Games to Playful Contexts

Could it be, then, that the mixed successes of serious games in the past is at least partially also due to the fact that learners often encountered them in such non-playful contexts? Once we grant this possibility (and there is some, though anecdotal, evidence pointing in this direction), we grant that how people encounter games, how they are socially placed and framed, might be as consequential to their impact as how these games are designed.

Therefore, if we want to fully understand and utilize the unique affordances of game play, we need to pay closer attention to play, and how to design the social context of games to support playful engagement. What are the features of play that are conducive to learning and motivation? How do good moderators, teachers, and game masters facilitate a playful atmosphere? Voluntariness and lack of consequence are certainly crucial aspects, but there are many others pointed at in various literatures, like the lack of outer imminent threats, a shared focus and attitude within the co-present group, mutual trust, or lived ethics of fair play and benign mischief, to name a few. Many of them connect to what we already know about the negative impact of stress and fear on learning, but our understanding of these matters is arguably at the beginning.

Beyond Transfer

The second “thinking box” that gameful design pushes us out of is our notion of the object and scope of game-based interventions. The predominant approach in serious games has been to deploy games as interventions within an educational institution or public policy program to convey attitudes, knowledge and skills for later situations. This leads to the familiar question of transfer: How do we ensure that what is learned actually gets applied afterwards? For instance, will a student playing an AIDS prevention game make use of what he experienced in it when he is out for the night? Game-based learning usually tackles this issue by emphasizing situated, participatory, interest-driven learning that involves learners’ interests and life and resembles the context of application as much as possible.

In contrast to this stands a recent line of reasoning in policy and design circles heavily informed by behavioral economics that goes under names like persuasive technology, choice architecture, or design with intent. It argues that traditional measures in health communication, civic engagement, and consumer education have seen only limited success not so much because people don’t learn, or learning doesn’t transfer, but because emotion, habit, cognitive biases and material environments strongly shape and bound our conscious action and decision-making. In other words, we don’t necessarily do better just because we know better. Instead of educating people in the hope that they will later consciously act on what they learned, proponents of persuasive technology and the like argue that we should try to affect decisions and actions directly when and where they are happening, operating on the level of emotions, habits, cognitive biases, and material environments.

From Games to Gameful Contexts

This is exactly what gameful design (or “gamification”) attempts: It implements features of games that are presumably conducive to desired action right where that action occurs. Instead of building a simulation game about personal budgeting to improve financial literacy, say, one creates a personal financial management tool informed by good game design to make it fun and self-explanatory (see Bobber for one example). Thus, gameful design broadens the scope of games for impact from designing games as interventions deployed within certain contexts to designing contexts as interventions, informed by game design.

Again, there are legitimate doubts whether this strategy is ultimately effective and sustainable on its own: Shouldn’t we empower people to reflect on and self-regulate their own conduct, rather than making them ever more dependent on technological environments ‘nudging’ them? There is evidence in the psychological literature that the abundant use of outer measures of control forestalls the development of people’s ability to autonomously self-regulate, for instance.

On the other hand, embodiment and distributed cognition have taught us that thinking, learning and acting always already involve tools – done well, gameful design ‘just’ improves the tools at our disposal (which puts it in neighborhood with transformational objects, ReflectOns, or the Quantified Self movement). As Joseph Heath and Joel Anderson suggest, for us humans to get anything done at all, we always did and always will rely on the “extended will” provided by social and material devices like to-do lists and public commitments. Ideally, good design helps people to develop the skills to self-regulate and enroll the tools their environment provides in the course.

Secondly, even within a narrower focus of facilitating learning, gameful design still opens our eyes to the context of learning as part of our intervention: Are the tools and environments of learning optimally designed – for learning, for motivation, for self-regulation? Why further a particular learning goal with a well-designed game, for instance, only to curb its effectiveness by placing it in a larger structural context of grading, class organization, etc. whose design goes against all the principles of learning and motivation said game embodies?

This broadened approach is currently exemplified by teachers from primary to graduate education who are organizing their classrooms according to principles of game design, following in the footsteps of Lee Sheldon’s “Multiplayer Classroom.” Admittedly, these are often crude beginnings, full of trial and error and slippery slopes into shallow ends. But they also point towards the high mark of what games and game design for impact could become: A marriage of the sciences of learning, motivation, and action with the practice of game design to restructure not just interventions, but tools, environments and institutions in a playful and gameful manner so as to optimally enable the people that live with and in them.


To summarize, I believe that to advance games for learning and change, we need to expand the scope of our attention and ambition beyond deploying games within contexts towards designing the social and material contexts of learning and behavior themselves as our interventions, or at least as a necessary part of them. This strikes me as the logical next step in the exploration and utilization of the ecology of games. Doing so immediately raises important academic and practical questions:

  • What characterizes play as a mode of engagement? How does it support motivation, learning and behavior change in and beyond game-based interventions? How to design game-based interventions and their social contexts to optimally afford playfulness?
  • How might we redesign tools, institutions and environments themselves in a playful and gameful manner to directly support learning, engagement and desired behavior changes?
  • What are the limitations, unintended consequences and side effects of these approaches, and how to best tackle them? Are gaming tropes universally appealing and accessible to all audiences?
  • Finally, how can we best equip educators and change agents to transform the tools and environments they are operating with into playful and gameful ones?

Current proponents of “gamification” have sparked the imagination of many about the potential of games, but turned away an equal amount with troublesome ethics and a disregard for the complexities of design and human motivation. Uniting the momentum of the former with the thoroughness and care of the latter is the big opportunity I see for games for impact today.

6 thoughts on “Moving Outside the Box: From Game-Centered Interventions to Playful Contexts

  1. As always, very smart, Sebastian!
    I’m honored to be listed with Sicart, Taylor, and Hung. 🙂
    Also, I agree very much that we need to consider the whole ecology of gaming. I posted a bullet outline of some of these views here:


    1.  Hi Mark, thanks for the kind words.
      Regarding the ecology of games: Yes! Something like Pickering’s mangle of practice is very much what I have in mind – I’m using Schatzki’s term “social site” in my current drafts, but they pretty much both point at the same thing through slightly different words (with slightly different ontologies in the backend, but that’s negligeable).

      I also whole-heartedly agree with your linked post that gamification strongly normalizes certain kinds of behavior and social capital within the context of a given platform, but – it remains a mangle. E.g. users will hack, cheat, exploit, get creative, and if they find certain badges “douchy,” reframe them so they come to mean and do the opposite of what you as a system designer intended. And if badges/achievements are not connected to a sustained actual effort/achievement that in turn connects to the values and cares of the community, they quickly become “douchy” like being the “employee of the month.”

  2. Great post Sebastian. I’ve been rethinking and rehearsing arguments myself around gamefulness and playfulness based on some mixed-reality theatre ethnography I’ve just done. It seems that a very simple change in the way the experience is framed for the audience at the beginning changes their interaction entirely. In this people have gone from playful to gameful. Autonomy, direction and frustration are coming out as codes.

    BTW. Looking at the “ecology of games” or in other words taking a cultural studies perspective is not new. People such as Helen Kennedy, Seth Giddings, Bart Simon, Jon Dovey have been doing this for the better part of a decade. They’re just not as trendy as the ludologists.

    1. Hi Dan, thanks for your remarks – and very curious to learn more about “direction” and “frustration”: What would be entailed in those codes, and how do you see their dynamic interaction with playful/gameful framings?

      On the “ecology of games” (again ^_^): Yes, I will need to amend this with at least one section on other places where this became a topic of debate before: Starting with the fine folks you mentioned – Seth Giddings work on the
      microethnography of play and games as a technocultural form in specific. But also
      Bernie deKoven’s “Well-Played Game,” the whole framing in roleplaying/LARP/pervasive game discourse, and certainly Pippin Barr, whose work on video game values (ludus vs. paidia) initiated all my thoughts around playful and gameful as different modes of engagement.

      Just in defense of Mark Chen, TL Taylor and Miguel Sicart, I’d say that if anything, what unites them is an ethnographic/theoretical stance well-aligned with Giddings et al., not a formalist stance – if that’s what you mean with “ludologists.”

      I wouldn’t strictly equate “the ecology of games” with cultural studies work on games, though – cultural studies evokes to me a certain normative stance connected with certain epistemologies, methods, and typical angles of study, usually strongly in the cultural, discursive, and power camp, whereas “the ecology of games” merely points towards a certain object of study – the broad social, cultural, material contexts in which games and gameplay are embedded, without presupposing stance, epistemology, or method. But there’s broad material overlap of the two, of course. I pointed to Katie Salen’s collected edition on the “ecology of games” as my main reference because that’s to me the most graspable pointer within the games and learning community for this broadened approach, and the National Conversation on Games very much comes from and happens within that space. Still –– already working on including those other references :).

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