Well, not everything. Cheese isn’t game design, for example. But most things are.

Everyone has their own definition of what a game is, so I’ll give mine quickly so we can get on with it: a game is a series of rules that mold behavior. This can be railroady, like Super Mario Bros; it can be more of an enticing suggestion, like the End Dragon in Minecraft. When you choose to engage with rules that dictate how you should interact with the world around you, you’re choosing to play a game.

Good Game Design

The mark of good rules— not subjectively good rules, not fun rules, but rules that work— is that the rules guide the players’ behavior in the way that the designer intends. Think of every game as a treasure hunt. If the clues/arrows/rules do not get the player to the big X, then the clues/arrows/rules suck. There are a ton of individual workflows that can lead to a successful game design, but my process always starts with the same two questions:

  • What do I want a session of play to be like for the player?

  • How do I get the player to that place?

You can start with the extensive history of the world, or with your cool dice mechanic if it’s tabletop, or with the sweet mood board you spent all day putting together in the extra conference room if you’re making a video game. But if you don’t tie that stuff to the end experience of the player, you’re not going to have good design.

Bad Game Design

So if all of that is true, it stands to reason that bad rules discourage the behavior the designer wants, or encourages behavior that is not related to the designer’s goals. You’d think this wouldn’t happen often, or if it did, that it wouldn’t make its way into our daily lives often, if at all.

You’d be wrong.

Throwing Bad Design After Bad: the problem with “Gamification”

Earlier today, I said this on Twitter: “Gamification” assumes all games share the same mechanics, which means everything that’s gamified is basically the same shitty game. Using badges and leaderboards and offering toothless points for clearly-commercial activities isn’t a magic formula that will engage anyone at any time. Demographics are different, behavior is different— things that will work to motivate users of product X will not work to motivate users of product Y. And no one is motivated by badges.

The core principle to remember is that game design is everywhere. Instead of trying to stick a crappy, half-formed game onto real life, the real challenge— the one that’s tough, the one that will bring the greatest results— is to fix the bad game design that’s all around us. Abstract points won’t motivate employees who aren’t motivated by a paycheck! Finding the reward structures and the rules that are already in place, and figuring out how to make them more effective, is the key to making life better for everyone— not adding an additional layer of uninspiring mechanics that push us to engage with mechanics that already suck.

Bad Design Is Everywhere

I asked my Twitter followers for examples of bad everyday game design, and they did not disappoint: tenure, the DMV, the American healthcare system, and the stock market were just a few of the responses. Finding bad design is easy, once you know the questions to ask yourself:

  • What’s supposed to be the goal here?

  • Is this experience set up to help or hinder my ability to reach that goal?