UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 788 February 7, 2012

Messification: Why Games Should Be Designed to Be Games First

In 2009, interest in the capacity of games to solve real-world problems spontaneously began to erupt within general culture. This was an idea that a lot of people had been promoting for a some time through initiatives like Serious Games, Games for Health, and Games for Change, but their message had mostly flown under the public’s radar.

As a UX practitioner, I had long been fascinated with exploring how games could effect positive change in people and achieve things that would otherwise be difficult through conventional design. It was clear to me that the UX community could benefit from expanding its toolkit of competencies to include game design, and by gaining greater exposure to the innovative work being done in video games. So at first I was thrilled when a lot of people started to talk games—not moment too soon, I thought.

Then it started getting scary.

The current problem

All of a sudden, products labeled as being “games” have started to appear everywhere. Unfortunately, many of these products have shown an insufficient regard for the quality of the player experience. They’re too often designed first and foremost to serve their designers’ objectives, and not to be enjoyed for their gameplay. They contain none of the joy, fascination, and complexity that make games the beautiful interactions they are. In the worst cases, they demonstrate an impoverished, cynical, and exploitative view of games and of the innate human drive to play.

Take, for example, the McNuggets Saucy Challenge, a Flash game on McDonald’s public website. The challenge in question is to dip your McNugget into six different sauces mirroring a pattern that increments by one sauce for every successful cycle (like Simon). When your memory inevitably falters, you’re invited to post your score—with McAdvertising—to Facebook as a prerequisite to being ranked on a leaderboard. This design is impoverished because it doesn’t offer meaningful play, only a simplistic retread of a game we’ve all seen before. It is cynical because it shows no regard for the legitimacy of play as a human endeavor. It is exploitative because it pursues self-serving ends that are disproportionate to the value of the gameplay experience it offers in return. I wish I could say that this example is an exception, but today it’s much closer to being the norm. It reflects a broader cultural bias that regards games as inherently trite and frivolous.

Then a graceless and overly memorable buzzword crashed into the culture: gamification. The name itself betrays the conceptual flaw of this fad, implying that experiences that are by their natures something other than games should just be dressed up to resemble them. And indeed, many implementations that fall under the gamification banner amount to little more than tacking points and leaderboards onto an underlying system that remains otherwise unchanged. These kinds of approaches will not survive because they do not value gameplay, so players will not value them.

Making matters worse, gamification also has a troublingly imprecise definition that seems to vary by the person using it. It has been applied to any game that attempts to achieve something—anything at all—beyond the boundaries of its own play space. It is terribly misleading to use the same word to characterize the successful work being done by designers like Ian Bogost, Scot Osterweil, and Jane McGonigal as well as the McNuggets game and similar follies. As the reach of the inevitable backlash grows, a mounting cultural skepticism of gamification threatens to stifle other, innovative applications of game design.

It’s all turned into a big mess.

Change is on the way

This ballooning enthusiasm around games closely mirrors Gartner’s hype cycle, which describes the typical pattern of adoption for a new technology. After initially arriving on the scene, its visibility increases quickly until it reaches a peak of inflated expectations, where people rush to the technology without a realistic strategy for putting it to effective use. Then a preponderance of early adopters discovers that, surprise surprise, the technology doesn’t deliver what they thought it would, and the hype collapses into a trough of disillusionment. As of early 2012, I believe that the hype cycle for games has crested and is plunging headlong toward this low point.

Gartner Hype Cycle

The good news is that after bottoming out, the cycle turns upward again. People start to discover and embrace best practices for using the technology, more success stories start to emerge, and it eventually finds productive mainstream adoption. So for games, the best policy at this point is to start moving toward a post-hype discussion of how they can most effectively achieve great things in the real world.

Here’s one of the fundamental insights that I believe will come out of that discussion: designers who are creating games must be centrally concerned with the quality of the player experience. That is, after all, the reason why people are drawn to games in the first place. It’s important to realize that there’s an innate selfishness to gameplay. People don’t play games out of loyalty to a brand or because they want to solve world hunger. They play because they value the experience. Trading off enjoyable gameplay in service of external objectives is always self-defeating.

I believe that UX designers are well positioned to play a significant role in developing more successful implementations of games that are designed first to engage and delight people, while also achieving real-world objectives. User-centered design is closely related to the player-centric thinking that’s common to all good game experiences. I’d love to see a substantial community of UX designers attending conferences like Games for Health, Games for Change and Games, Learning, and Society to learn, connect, and introduce a UX point of view. You could get started today by checking to see whether the International Game Developer’s Association has an active chapter in your area and sitting in on their meetings.

Another insight: to create high-quality player experiences, UX designers must develop a true competency with game design. While we have a lot of other skills that can translate well, game design is a robust practice in its own right, and much of it turns our usual ways of thinking upside down. Operating successfully in the games domain means learning an entirely new set of competencies and gaining experience putting them into practice. My previous article on the elements of player experience can serve as an initial orientation, and I’ve dedicated the largest portion of my upcoming book to the theory, skills, and practices that UX designers need to adopt to design successful game experiences. Critical books on game design that are not specific to UX practitioners include The Art of Game Design by Jesse Schell, Rules of Play by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, and A Theory of Fun for Game Design by Raph Koster.

Game on

Games present great new opportunities to UX designers, the limits of which are set only by the extent of our own imagination and creativity. We can also bring a unique perspective to games that can give rise to fresh approaches. At the same time, we must take on a new set of responsibilities to support experiences that engage, excite, and entertain. Games have an obligation to their players’ sense of active enjoyment that goes beyond what UX designers normally need to deliver. That’s also precisely the thing that makes them so interesting.


User Profile

John is a user experience designer at Vanguard and the creative director of Megazoid Games. He is the author of the new book Playful Design, published by Rosenfeld Media. Feel free to follow him on Twitter at @PlayfulDesign.

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I'm with you on the critique of gamification and in particular its co-optation for the purpose of stamping out silly and pointless experiences justified by their use of a shell of a concept. Empty game are empty games. And a leaderboard that divides little into even smaller increments is no better than a ladder leaning on the wrong wall -- no point in climbing either of them.

But I still think there's a vast amount of complexity in games as a topic. And I think it's important to separate games from game play. (Chess from a game of chess.) User experience can focus on each separately. Games, as the organization of experience, in time, with allocation of resources, rights, roles, rewards, etc. And gameplay as design of an experience playing that game.

Games are to me but a more formally organized and more tightly constrained example of organized social interaction. They can be repeated with different players -- this means they're not just events or situations. They are recognizable -- this means they have socially familiar structure and meaning. But their meaning is still unique and particular -- to players of games and to the players of games in particular.

We work on two levels in UX, always. General and specific. Same with games. We design structure but are interested in (particular) experiences also.

When it comes the experience of game play, there are too many ways in which games are meaningful to conflate the experience to the "here and now" event/situation form of game play.

Commentators of baseball games are part of the game. Commentating is game-like in itself, as narrative, story, tension, and access to meta game content (players, stats, records etc) not to mention inter-personal play (wagers, asides, in jokes made by commentators).

Descriptions of games are game like -- as historic artifacts, tellings, stories, documents, and accounts. They will include quotes, references, observations and other aspects of games that suggest expertise, allegiance and loyalty, investment, hope, and so on.

Fantasy is gaming a game, using media that permit fans to repurpose the role of team manager, loyal fan, statistician, gambler, commentator (using chat etc) and much more. Fantasy games the game by allowing fans to play players, team balance, strategy (trading), negotiation tactics (trading), all more or less anchored in the real NFL season and its teams, or not.

My point being that in each case, any level of access to a game can become the game. That is, to a player.

So as designers of experiences, we should explore the game being played, or the game experience, unless we have tapped into gameplay dimensions and layers of detail and meta.


Thanks for contributing the article. It certainly leaves points that I can take away for future work.


Anyone designing a game actually designs an experience for the player, the game being the medium, but not the experience itself. And though gaming mechanics can sometimes be applied in an efficient way, without a coherent experience design, it often feels artificial or cheap. Designing a game from reality is not an easy task. My startup has spent the last year gamifying flirting, Flirtatious. There are many way to look at what the experience of flirting is or should be, and how it can be translated and expressed meaningfully in a game, and then comes develompent, playtesting, iteration... At this point, I think we have figured something out, but it's still too early to know. If you want to see what I mean by gamifying flirting, the game is still in private beta, but you can check it out on apps.facebook.com/flirtati - password: cool26

Also, the Art of Game Design is absolutely essential for anyone wanting to design games, and what's more it's practical and well written (the same can't be said about rules of play).


I think this is a thoughtful, but extremely misguided, dismissal of "gamification." The entire purpose of the gamification movement is to allow certain valuable and motivational game MECHANICS (not games themselves) to be utilized in many different systems. Its not (necessarily) about making actual games- and its games that need "active enjoyment" to flourish.

Why on Earth would McDonald's invest in a really serious, expensive, cleverly designed game the whole purpose of which is to make people like nuggets? And why would any self-respecting game fan get obsessed with a McDonald's-sponsored game about chicken nuggets? Its a cheap example and doesn't say anything about gamification done right.

Look at some of the classic examples in the field- the plant on the dashboard of hybrid cars "scoring" the user's green-driving behaviors, the progress bars on Linkedin and other sites allowing users to see their progress, letting users "keep score" on their user-generated content, getting badges and other recognition for various accomplishments, etc. - these are NOT games!

(by the way, has anyone here ever actually found "active enjoyment" playing one of McGonigal's games? Just saying...)


Gotta go with Jonathan Anderson's take rather than Zack Mazinger on this one. Isn't it somewhat standard in the course of academic publishing to write/preview/post bits and pieces of a larger work in order to test/validate/refine? If there is any direct correlation between the author's article and his forthcoming book, I suspect it very much falls into that category. My sympathies to Mr. Mazinger who clearly would rather keep the suspense of forthcoming books locked up until publishing.

What I take away from this article revolves around the final note presented above as "great new opportunities." I completely agree with the author that gamification, in my words, has become the flavor of the month in app/product/marketing circles. And in looking back at similar trends that have popped up over the course of my UX career (vector animation and social engagement come to mind as particularly resonant), the Gartner hype-cycle holds a high degree of relevance. Using the cycle's terminology and the author's POV, we can clearly place ourselves at or near the nadir of the trough in the cycle.

What I truly find inspiring about the author's work here is not that he recognizes the glut of gamification that has gotten us to where we are. But rather, the gauntlet he throws down to the UX community to pull the better aspects of game design out of that trough into the next phases of enlightment and productivity.

This article is a call to arms, and I'm ready to sign up for the fight. Thanks John.


@Zack Mazinger: It's fine if you don't think you learned anything from reading this article, and it's fine if you disagree with what the author has written. But what you said in your comment is an attack on the integrity of the author, and on the integrity of this magazine, and I'm not going to stand for it. Don't try to kid us about not meaning to be overly sharp; that was exactly your intent.

The author of this article worked over a period of weeks in collaboration with the editorial team at UX Magazine to develop this article. He put a lot of work and thought into it, and only one sentence in a 1300 word article mentions his book and previous article. What you apparently see as shameless self-promotion, I see as proof of the author's authority to speak to this topic. He isn't just some guy with an opinion about gamification, he's someone whose credentials and authority have been established both by UX Magazine and by Rosenfeld Media, the publisher of the book.

The reality of the publishing industry is that most people are motivated to contribute by PR interests. Agencies want to build their credibility and name recognition, private practitioners want to establish their resumes, and publishers want to sell books. Part of our job at UX Magazine is to screen and edit articles to ensure we only publish material that is substantive and valuable. I probably write those exact words—substantive and valuable—in twenty emails a week, either rejecting manuscripts that are blatant PR, or in pushing authors to make their articles better. During the editing process, we frequently require authors to remove references to their own companies and work that seem overly self-promoting because we know full well that it undermines the credibility of the piece. But what you see here in this article is well within the realm of appropriateness.

If you don't buy any of that, here's your coup de grâce: the part of the article that mentions the author's previous article and his book didn't appear in this article until the third draft. The only reason he included it was because, during the editing process, I expressed concern that the article was pointing out problems without really offering readers concrete information on what to do about it. This goes back to the whole "substantive and valuable" requirement. Here was my exact comment to him:

"This borders on being one of those articles that describes a problem without offering a solution. I realize that giving solutions to the issues identified in the article would require many more words than we've got room for. But we should try to figure out a way of providing a deeper answer to the reader's question, 'Okay, but now what?' You do talk about moving into the uphill part of the hype cycle and about the need for UX pros to learn a new skill set, but the 'how' is missing. You might add to the existing conclusion, or add a new section about the road ahead. To avoid having to go into depth, you can link to other resources, including your earlier article, 'The Elements of Player Experience.'"

So the parts you object to as being ironically self-promotional were only added to try to make the article more valuable. The author did not set out to use this article to promote his book, otherwise he would have had that in the very first draft.

So criticize the content of the article if you want... there's plenty in here that people might reasonably disagree with. But don't impugn the integrity of the author or UX Magazine's commitment to provide valid, valuable content when your only evidence is that he happens to mention two things that prove his authority to speak on this topic. The McDonalds game has no redeeming value as a game and wasn't built by professional game designers; this article has significant value as a resource for the community and was written by someone who *is* a professional in this domain. The analogy and the irony aren't anywhere to be found here.


You do realize that your article is analogous to the McDonald's dipping game, right? This article seeks to primarily serve as a promotion for your book and previous article, like the McD's dipping game primarily seeks to serve as advertising for the brand.

You've not offered a new thought or valuable experience for the readers here. I don't mean to be overly sharp but the irony is too great not to point out. Good luck with your book, I'm actually very curious to see a book about playful design as written by an IA. Having a hard time making the connection.


Brilliant! Satisfying admonishment of the overuse and misuse of 'gameification; uplifting practical optimism about a right way forward. I look forward to the book!


As a veteran of the games industry and now within advertising, I have a unique insight. I agree there is a gross misunderstanding of "gamification" and many clients think it can be retrospectively fitted into any product or campaign regardless of relevance.

However your article, while well thought out, misses a point about games development in it's own right and gaming within advertising. Unfortunately gaming within the context of advertising has to serve a purpose other than just gamer satisfaction, as they are often given free and must achieve certain goals as part of an overall marketing campaign. Commercial games are purchased by consumers, and so the development of the game is effectively being funded by them allowing for scope to cater for the gamers requirements.

Yes of course there are many examples of free games, many of which are web and flash based, but the comparison I make is with hugely successful computer, console and hand-held games. However I do agree that it cost little in considering the users needs as well as the client when designing a good gaming experience.


Great article, John. I agree with you that we're in a messy environment when it comes to implementing game principles into our products and designs. It's complicated by the fact that many clients and business partners hear the term gamification and either a) don't understand it and refuse to explore it as an option or b) think the solution is to add badges and a leaderboard, even if it doesn't make any sense to the product. So not only do UX professionals have to educate themselves on game design, but we also need better ways of introducing the concepts into discussions with clients.

Also, if you haven't seen it yet, check out Dustin DiTommaso's "Beyond Gamification" presentation. Lots of great nuggets in there: http://speakerdeck.com/u/du5tb1n/p/beyond-gamification-ixd12-version


Very informative... Game on, for sure!


This is an excellent article. Well done by the author. This is what a lot of people are thinking, and it could not have been said better. I am looking forward to the plateau of productivity!


Great editorial, I've been thinking some of these things as well. Inspiring! I would love to read more on the subject here. I've just today discussed the impact of games on UX as a whole with a colleague and I strongly agree with the notion that UX designers and game creators may be able to learn a lot from each other.