The Gamification of America, Part 2

The Gamification of America

This is the second part of a presentation I gave at the USC Institute of Multimedia Literacy about my career and recent developments in the game industry. In Part 1, I discussed how indie development and digital distribution now allow for a greater variety of games, much as it was when the game industry was in its infancy.

Of course, this begs the question, “what is a game?”

For me, a game must have many of the following elements:

  • Be fun to play
  • Have goals for the player to reach
  • Have rules for obtaining those goals
  • Provide choices in how the player meets those goals
  • Present conflict that is an obstacle in meeting those goals
  • Gives the player feedback on whether the player is meeting those goals
  • Has a clear “win” or “lose” ending state based on whether the player has achieved those goals or not
  • Let’s look at four activities and examine whether or not each is a game.


    • Fun: For many people, especially the artistic.
    • Goals: Whatever you set for yourself.
    • Rules: None. You don’t even have to use a brush or canvas.
    • Conflict: Your ability to put onto the canvas the picture that’s in your mind.
    • Choices: Infinite.
    • Feedback: What you and others think of your work.
    • Win/Lose: Whether you like how your painting turned out.

    For me, there are too many subjective or ill-defined elements to consider painting to be a game. To turn this activity into a game, I would add in the rules of Pictionary: require the player to paint an image representing a phrase and within a limited amount of time (or with a limited number of guesses) have other players guess what that phrase is from the painting. Thus, I will have added more concrete rules, goals, conflict, feedback and win/lose conditions.

    Slot Machine

    • Fun: For many people, especially grandmothers.
    • Goals: Earn more coins than you put in.
    • Rules: Put in a coin, pull the lever.
    • Conflict: The odds of getting matching objects that pay off.
    • Choices: None.
    • Feedback: Pictures of fruit and other objects that line up in the viewing window; coins that are won.
    • Win/Lose: Coins at end vs. coins at start.

    Where this activity fails as a game for me is the lack of choices given to the player. To make this more of a game, I would allow the player multiple pulls at the lever for each coin put in, but allow the player to push a button to freeze one or more images after each pull. Thus, the player has is provided with choices for improving his or her odds before the final payout occurs.

    Jigsaw Puzzle

    • Fun: For many people, especially kids.
    • Goals: Reassemble puzzle pieces to form a picture.
    • Rules: All pieces must lock into each other correctly.
    • Conflict: Correct orientation and placement of each piece.
    • Choices: Many at start, few at end.
    • Feedback: Visual and tactile clues about piece placement.
    • Win/Lose: Play until you put the puzzle together correctly.

    Where this activity fails as a game for me is that there is no loss condition: you simply play until you achieve the win condition (or give up). To make this activity into more of a game, I would require the player to complete the puzzle within a limited amount of time.


    • Fun: For many people, especially ones who are alone.
    • Goals: Place down all the cards in the deck.
    • Rules: Some cards are placed down in a particular layout; the remaining cards must be placed on a placed card that is precisely one numerically higher value.
    • Conflict: There may not be a placed card that is of the right value.
    • Choices: There may be more than one card that is of the right value.
    • Feedback: The numerical value placed on each card.
    • Win/Lose: Player wins if all his or cards are placed, loses if not all of his cards are placed.

    This is the most game-like of the four activities.

    In Part 3, I will examine each of these elements that make up a game more closely.



About David Mullich

I am a video game producer who has worked at Activision, Disney, Cyberdreams, EduWare, The 3DO Company and the Spin Master toy company. I am currently a game design and production consultant, a game design instructor at ArtCenter College of Design, and co-creator of the Boy Scouts of America Game Design Merit Badge. At the 2014 Gamification World Congress in Barcelona, I was rated the 14th ranking "Gamification Guru" in social media.

Posted on May 6, 2013, in Game Design, Gamification, My Career and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. David, win/lose is a dodgy criterion. RPGs frequently have no win/lose condition. Surely they are games? Perhaps better, there’s a generally-agreed objective, whether in the rules or not. The generally-agreed objective in RPGs is to collect loot and gain capabilities (whether via levels or otherwise). “Generally” because even in games with explicit rules, some people have other objectives than winning.

    Also consider how to differentiate puzzles from games. They ARE fundamentally different. Perhaps puzzles lack conflict? But so do many “parallel games (contests) and multiplayer solitaire.

    • Usually I define games as having some kind out outcome — win, lose, draw and/or some other result. But if an RPG has no end-game, does it fit within a category of a game? One way to think of RPGs is as a series of games (in the form of quests) within a single virtual world. However, game designer Chris Crawford might categorize an RPG within his taxonomy of interactive entertainment as a “toy” rather than a “game” — interactive entertainment in which there is no comprehensive goal to achieve.

      • Toys don’t have (sometimes) hundreds of pages of rules, David. And RPGs do have goals, just not win conditions. If RPGs aren’t games, and certainly aren’t toys, and certainly aren’t puzzles, what are they? Mind you, “Rules of Play” discusses a definition of game for 80 pages and then finds that RPGs and puzzles do not fit.

        Maybe trying to define “game” is a losing proposition?

      • Chris Crawford’s definition of “toy” isn’t dependent on the number of rules; however, other people define “games” or “toys” a bit differently than he does. You can define them however you like, as long as people understand your definition — or don’t define them at all. There are a number of definitions for each term that I’ve gathered for my lectures, but I think its useful to discuss them so that people gain a better understanding of elements used in games, but in practice, I don’t get too worried about which categories things fit into.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: