Can everything be a game?

The newly-formed Association for Learning Technology Special Interest Group on Games and Learning (more on this in a post coming soon) has just started a reading group. I thought I would use this group as an opportunity to write about the books we’re reading – a combination of new releases and old favourites.

The first book chosen was Game Frame by Aaron Dignan, and I have mixed feelings about this book. The premise behind it is that any activity can be made fun and engaging by transforming the activity into what he calls ‘behavioural games’ by utilising certain gaming elements. I fundamentally disagree with this. While I believe that gamification techniques can possibly make boring activities less boring, they are still essentially boring. I am also troubled by the fact that this book doesn’t seem to recognise that not everyone plays games, not everyone finds games engaging, or that different people prefer to play different types of games. Games are not universally motivating.

Having said that, I do think that the book presents some interesting ideas, albeit ones that need to be applied with caution. Dignan is a self-confessed ‘non-academic’ and this is clear in the writing style with simplifications, generalisations and lack of evidence or rigour. However, the book is very accessible to a wide audience, and extremely readable. The idea of the behavioral game is central, described as “a real world activity modified by a system of skills-based play”, and a model is presented containing ten building blocks for creating behavioural games, which is clear and systematic.

An area I don’t agree with, however, is his analysis of motivation. Dignan suggests that there are four psychological drivers that motivate people, and each is presented as a continua:

Achievement of goals – enjoyment of experience
Structure of guidance – freedom to explore
Control of others – acceptance of others
Self-interest in actions – social interest in actions

I would argue that these aren’t continua and aren’t mutually exclusive, for example, it’s quite possible to be motivated by goals and by experience at the same time, one doesn’t preclude the other. I also don’t think these factors are particularly inclusive – how does it cater for people who don’t like to play with others at all?

A highlight of the book of me is the penultimate chapter, which suggests a series of design elements that can be considered when designing behavioural games, which I do feel offers some fresh perspectives. While some – such as targets, competition, chance, time pressure, puzzles, novelty, levels, teamwork, data (or results), progress, points, recognition, status  – are fairly standard fare in terms of game design, others – such as scarcity, social pressure, currency, renewal, forced decisions, sensation – provide new insights. The use of examples for each is also excellent for making the points made absolutely clear.

Overall, I found this book an easy and enjoyable read, and not without merit. I think it makes a useful starting point for considering the value and uses of gamification, but much of the assertions need to be taken with several pinches of salt.


  1. Blair

    What I enjoyed most was the model and example of designing a behavioural game (homework example). While not everyone enjoys playing games, I don’t think that was Aaron’s point.

    I think the application of game design to everyday experiences is more about identifying what makes any experience enjoyable. If I like an experience and I’m prompted to repeat it then I probably will. It just happens that the things that make most enjoyable experiences enjoyable and make people want to repeat them, are the things that make up well designed games.

    Jesse Schell talks about designing enjoyable experience in his book the Art of Game Design.

    I guess is boring work is boring, and can’t be made enjoyable by applying game design principles to it, then perhaps that’s a prompt to a business that either this activity should be automated, or redesigned so it isn’t required or can be changed or made part of something else that is enjoyable.

    Of course game design achieve lots of good things. Maybe it doesn’t have to be the solution to every problem though.

  2. nicola (Post author)

    Hi Blair

    Thanks for your comment (and sorry for taking so long to moderate – I’ve had my hands full with a new baby!)

    You make some very interesting points, particularly those about ‘boring work being boring’. I see Dignan’s arguements being about doing precisely that – and that’s where I think they fall down. I agree with you completely that game design doesn’t have to be the solution to everything!


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