I have been reviewing Game Design Workshop: a playcentric approach to creating innovative games written by Tracy Fullerton in order to support my research about learning potential of games. This is the first part of chapter 5, more content will be added later.

In order to present concepts and avoid oversimplification, Fullerton presents its impact showing examples, increasing complexity from games such tic tac toe, Clue, videogames like God of War, strategy games like Rome Total War and others. So this is essentially a book recommended to people with practice and interest in games at all, even as player.

Fullerton´s view considers games as systems where players engage in a dynamic experience. Thus, games can be understood as systems aimed to offer fun to their player through interaction and are distinguished by the formal traits below:

  • Participants or players: involved in interactive learning, the active role of the student as agent is one of the essential elements of games.
  • Objective: clear objectives acknowledged and accepted by players orient its path towards a game. For example, the main objective, the determinant of victory in Chess is to capture (checkmate) the enemy king
  • Rules: define the game concepts and prescribe participants’ behavior. In Chess, the moves allowed by pawns
  • Procedures: allowed by the rules involve the action and methods of playing resulted from the interaction between game and participant. Chess tactics or moves.
  • Competition: as commented before, the role of competition gives form to games’ concept and can involve other participants or obstacles. The competition acts as motivator and could be seen as the internal conflict of any game. The procedures, rules and eventual competitors limit the participants’ behavior, preventing him of accomplish the goal directly. Thus, to achieve the objectives and win, specific skills and knowledge are demanded from the participant.
  • Outcome: if the objective of a game is defined, in contrast, its outcome is uncertain. As an interactive event the performance of the player against the objective will define the outcome. In chess the behavior and procedures adopted by one player would change according the other player reactions. So the outcome is uncertain.

These formal traits could be combined with Anneta´s (2008) definition of game as a system oriented to accomplish clear goals and based on competitive activities, or a rules-based representation and interaction-oriented system by Bogost (2007). Prensky, Gibson & Aldrich summarize their game’s definition as “a competitive activity that is creative and enjoyable in its essence, which is bounded to certain rules and requires certain skills”. (Prensky, 2007:4).  Furthermore, a game is a system composed by the following elements:

  • Objects: the bricks of this system, all games are groups of interrelated physical or abstract pieces. For instance, peons, queens, horsemen, even the chess board are objects. In a game they are defined by their relationships with other objects, their behavior during the game and their properties.
  • Properties: attributes that define physical or conceptual aspects of objects. In chess the attributes of a piece includes its rank, color and location. The variety or potential for change by rules will make the system more predictable or not, affecting their relationship with other objects. More and (or) changeable traits make the system more complex and (or) unpredictable.
  • Behaviors: the potential actions possibly performed by an object and allowed by the rules. As the properties more potential behaviors make the system more complex as it offer more options of interaction between objects.
  • Relationships:  a key concept, because objects do not work isolated, the relationships between objects defines hierarchy and structure and behavior among objects, changing game dynamics or how a game develops when it puts in motion. It is important to observe that a game as a system is bigger than the sum of its parts.

As related the dynamics involves components and formal elements, so to change any component affects the whole game development. For example, change the amount of randomness of a relationship between objects affect the expectedness of the system, with impact over player role, its tactics when playing, predictability, even game duration and game play can be affected.

Moreover, the game designer need to consider the amount of information offered to players, what are their controls and what type of feedback is presented; hence games are reflexive as the feedback affects player’s behavior. The less information they have less informed his decisions will be. Is important to draw attention to that point because it shows how a game designer or an instructional designer can shape games to improve the decision-taking skills of its players, an asset also important to learning. Situations with full access to information give total revelation of how the game is going on allowing calculation based-strategy; on the other hand if the intent is to make the player count on guessing or unreliable data, to hide information would be a good option. For illustration, military style games use hidden information, sometimes called the “fog of war” to make the user comfortable to take decisions without enough information or to simulate an environment or event close to real. Many games resort to a mix of hidden and open information events during the game, offering a shifting balance between strategy based on knowledge or a strategy based on cunning.

Another important point is to delineate what the game controls are and how they work. Keyboard in computer, joystick in videogames or in table board games are a way to allow players to manipulate, to input information in the system. Affecting player´s experience during game and defining its “mechanic”. Some controls are very realistic in the case of simulations or more abstract, changing according objectives.  Some parameters can be observed to understand a game such as:

  • direct, like a first-person shooter game or
  • indirect, like administration games;
  • real time, with actions applied on-time;
  • turn-based, following an structure of initiative and(or) turns, like tabletop role-playing games;

The third point in this system is feedback, the output returned through the system as consequence of interaction; its outcome promotes divergence or balance in the system. For example, a positive feedback acts to reinforce the player´s behavior and a negative make the player balance it. The reinforcement can be used to create situations of risk and rewarding, and the balance work as the conflict to prevent the player to solve the game too easily, requiring development of skills or knowledge in order to win the game, so balance requires learning. The ability to balance the system or reinforce behavior is one of the key points to allow motivation and engagement through a game.


FULLERTON, Tracy (2008) Game Design Workshop: a playcentric approach to creating innovative games. Burlington: Morgan Kaufmann.

BOGOST, I. (2007) Persuasive Games: the expressive power of videogames. London: MIT Press.

ANNETTA, L. A. (ed.) (2008). Serious educational games: from theory to practice. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.