Experience design and game design are not friends

Zoe Rose
Zoe Rose
Jun 26, 2017 · 4 min read

Short on time? Here’s the punchline:

The goal of experience design is to make tasks easier

The goal of game design is to make tasks harder

Experience design and game design work in tension with each other, not in harmony

Game design makes tasks harder

Getting started with the theory of games and play is a confronting experience. Many of our culture’s established beliefs about games and play are, when examined at a theoretical level, wrong.

The (limited) research we have on the topic is also highly biased (scoot to the end for an appendix on this topic). As a result, there aren’t many things we can say with total confidence about games and play, but we can start with some conceptual frameworks that at the very least haven’t been disproven yet.

Play is work

Or rather, play is work done voluntarily.

This is one of the best current definitions of play. Choice is the key differentiator. Consent is fundamental to play, and to fun — being tickled with consent is a fun experience, being tickled without consent it is a terrible one.

(For what it’s worth, I also like the definition play is free movement within a more rigid structure, from Katie Salen Tekinbaş and Eric Zimmerman, but it lacks the fundamental attribute of voluntary action. I move freely around the more rigid structure of my email inbox, but when I do, it’s not play.)

The activity doesn’t define whether doing it is play or not

In China many people are employed as ‘gold farmers’, playing games like World of Warcraft to generate real-world money. They’re doing the same activities as a player, but they’re not playing — they’re working.

Instinctively, we think of play as the opposite of work. But both have the critical element of being active — the worker is doing something, and the player is too.

So: the opposite of work isn’t play, it’s inactivity.

The game version of any activity is harder than the not-game version

The not-game version of golf is walking up to a hole and dropping a ball in it.

Golf: a nice walk ruined

Every element that isn’t that — having to use a club, having to hit the ball from where it fell — makes the activity harder.

A not-game version of tetris could be arranging the pieces without time constraints. A not-game version of solitaire could be choosing whatever card you like from the deck, rather than relying on the card you just pulled. Neither activity would be likely to result in fun, and neither activity would constitute a game.

Games rely on impediments that the player can choose to overcome — no impediments means no game.

Experience design makes tasks easier

The key goal of experience design is to make tasks easier. Experience design is largely about getting out of the user’s way — making it easier to complete tasks, meet needs, and achieve outcomes. Good designers recognise that the best experience is often having no interaction at all (eg. automatic recharge on pre-pay phones).

Where games create friction, experience design creates smoothness.

Where games create difficulty, experience design creates ease.

Where games demand attention, experience design tries to reduce the mental burden to the smallest increment possible.

…but good games have good UX, right?


At least, I hope so.

Let’s pause to acknowledge that defining a ‘good game’ is incredibly difficult. Because play must always be a free choice, there will always be people who don’t want to play — games loved by millions are always hated by a few, and vice versa.*

Successful games that are played on screens (where we UXers tend to live) usually have good UX . In games that lots of people enjoy, certain patterns are persistent:

  • the affordances are obvious
  • the outcome metrics are readily accessible and easy to understand
  • successful events are clearly differentiated from unsuccessful events
  • starting a play session is frictionless

All these are part of good experience design, but they exist in tension with the game mechanic. More importantly, they are subservient to the mechanic: the mechanic must determine the UX. For those of us who are accustomed to working in the deep end of UX, where we have an explicit role in determining what the service does, this is strange new territory.

Good UX in games serves a paradoxical purpose — it makes it easy for users to do something hard.

I think there’s something quite beautiful about that paradox. When it works, it really does bring out the best of both disciplines.

Appendix — some cultural provisos

Two factors to be aware of when looking at game research:

  • historically, most research on games has been done on children
  • historically, most research on games played by children has been done on boys
  • historically, most research on games played by boys has been done on boys from cultures that are European and/or Anglophone

This has resulted in a body of theory about games that heavily skews to rules and conflict. Jean Piaget (the Big Name in child development since the 1960s) quit studying girls games because when conflict about rules emerged, the girls would tend to prioritise reducing conflict over fighting it out — making their games, in his eyes, inferior interpretations of the more pure games played by boys.

More recent work (like this, these, and this) has gone a long way to improve things, but the ideas have not permeated our culture’s thinking about games as fast as games themselves have.

*Cards against humanity is a terrible game. The mechanic is so bad, there’s a good case to make that it isn’t a game at all. My favourite board game shop only sells it under duress, and the staff will try to talk you out of buying it if you try to. YMMV.

Zoe Rose

Written by

Zoe Rose

IA, UX, education. Five-year-old wrangler. British/Australian. General enthusiast.

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