Game Design, Dynamics and the Ripples of Play

The basic idea of this essay is pretty simple: when we design a game, we aren’t making a static thing, a tchotchke that people set on a shelf and forget about. Our games interact with people and culture in ways that ripple out well beyond the play experience. As obvious as this may seem, we all too often ignore the rippling effects of our games on ourselves, our players and those around us.

Systems Dynamics


Jay Forrester is the guy standing there over the shoulder of the seated fellow in this photo. He first conceived of systems dynamics as a field of study back in the later 50s and early 60s as a way to understand the complexities of businesses. He later applied it to the social world, and his students spread its use into all sorts of other domains. Though Jay Forrester isn’t well known in game design and development circles, he was a game designer of sorts.

That’s because game design is systems dynamics. Take a game as seemingly simple as Go. As systems go, it is quite simple: two players take turns placing stones on a gridded board in order to control as much of the board as possible. Yet there are billions and billions of possibilities for how the game plays out. This is where the discipline of systems dynamics come into play: how can we ever know all the possibilities of our games, even in systems as simple as that in Go?

When we design games, we are doing something quite amazing. We design activities for our players, which they enact through their play. They perform their understanding and desires through our games, often in ways that we could never imagine. If you’ve ever designed and play tested a game, you know that feeling of surprise when your players follow the rules of the game, yet it looks nothing like you imagined it would, or what it looked like when you played it yourself. This is the textbook definition of systems dynamics.

A useful model for this comes from Robin Hunicke, Marc Leblanc and  Robert Zubek’s MDA Framework. We design the mechanics of a game—what our players do, the goals they pursue, the spaces within which they do this. The dynamics happen when the game is put into motion through play. The aesthetics emerge from the play experience. This is a formalist perspective on games, wherein the aesthetics, or the thing we care about as game designers, is the experience people have. Instead of thinking of aesthetics as what a painting looks like, or its style, we think of what a game plays like. In less fancy terms, we might call this “fun.”

The challenge and pleasure of game design, for me at least, is the gap between my design and the experience—the fun the players have. We only have so much control of what shape that fun will take. Take the card game The Metagame I worked on with Local No. 12. We designed the two decks—culture cards and opinion cards—and we’ve designed ten different games that people can play with the game. So the rules, the things each game asks the players to do with the two kinds of cards, these are the mechanics of the MDA framework.

What happens when people start to play? That is the dynamics. Players pick which game they want to play, they pick the arguments they want to make, they size up their fellow players to think about what they like and how they think so that they can get their votes, they think about their understanding of the culture cards, and the possible arguments they can make. Sometimes people play it to be funny. Sometimes play to show off their smarts. Sometimes people get serious about it. Sometimes they get naughty. That’s up to them. The rules we designed create the space for a variety of dynamics to emerge. And that they do. These are the aesthetics: the place where our design is activated, and an experience unfolds.

Ripple 1: play + fun
That is the first ripple of game dynamics: what happens when players first encounter your game, and the experiences they have with it. This is that formal “fun,” or aesthetics layer. This is where we stop all too often when we think about the design of our games. But play goes so much farther than just a formal principal. This is treating our work like old musty paintings that hang on a wall of a museum, with no connection to life.

As The Metagame shows, there is no such thing as a purely aesthetic experience, there is no perfect “magic circle” within which gameplay happens. We don’t leave the rest of our experiences behind when we play a game, and we don’t leave our play behind we exit the game. The Metagame would break if this were the case, as we’d have no opinions about Comic Sans, or Lasers, or Journey, or for that matter, gender.

Ripple 2: play styles
Of course, there aren’t just the dynamics that emerge from our designs. There are the dynamics that emerge from how players like to play. We can design for certain play styles, but we can’t make players play our games in a certain way. Dungeons & Dragons is a great example of a game that can support any number of play styles. To John Romero, D&D was a playspace that begged you to battle and adventure. For Rand Miller, D&D was a playspace that invited storytelling and discovery. Both were play styles  were supported by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson’s design.

This is the second ripple of game dynamics: the play expectations people bring to our games. This is still a formal ripple, one that has to do with the aesthetics of the experience, and doesn’t necessarily touch on the real world. People bring their experiences and their desires to bare on our games and the play experiences they can provide. Sometimes these happen to coincide with what we intended, as with D&D, and sometimes, not so much.

Ripple 3: semantics of play
What happens when we think about what our players bring to the creation of play dynamics? This brings us to an important idea for game design: the semantics of play. I’m borrowing this phrase from the artist and game designer Matt Adams of Blast Theory, a group of English artists. The design of games creates meaning which is interpreted through people’s prior experiences and their desires for their play experiences. Because of this, games can take on unexpected meanings that push against your intentions. That’s a complicated thing for many of us in games, imagining how others might interpret and respond to our games. Just because we design a particular set of goals doesn’t mean that will contain or constrain what people want to do with our games. This goes beyond play style, to more complicated ideas.


Let’s look at a Blast Theory game, I’d Hide You. There are three “runners.” The runners moved around Manchester with their camera devices streaming live video feeds back to the game players. Online players track the three runners on a map, and can see what the runners are capturing through their cameras. The online players give advice to the runners about where to go, and how to encounter the other runners. Whenever the runners were in camera shot of one another, the online players could snap shots to “capture” them and score points. Further, the runners can ask passers-by for help, in the process, if only briefly, bringing the public into the game, too. So now we have the runners, the online players, and the general public, each bringing different experiences, different frames of reference and levels of engagement in the game, all at the same time.

The meaning of the play experiences for the three different players all demonstrate the third ripple of dynamics: The often-unintended interpretations of our games. Each mechanic we design into our games is a prompt for action. “This is a thing I get to do. What does it mean? Why do I want to do it? How does it relate to the rest of my life?” The goals of our games focus players attention only so far. We all bring different value systems, which influence what we are drawn to, offended by, feel prompted to respond to, in all sorts of impossible to predict ways. Things start really getting out of the control of the designer at this point.

Ripple 4: games as culture
What happens when games take root in culture? What happens when they become a phenomenon unto themselves? Games like Starcraft, Johann Sebastian Joust, Super Smash Brothers, Cards Against Humanity: they all take on lives of their own, far out of the control of their designers.

Basketball is a great example. These are the original rules of Basketball, written by Joseph Naismith back in 1891:


The original rules did not allow players to run with the ball, so passing was the only way to get the ball closer to the basket for a shot. Naismith’s goal with the game was to keep young men off the streets and keep them occupied during the winter. Within a few years, the basics of the game that we know today were in place: dribbling, passing, the hoop and backboard.  Basketball spread like wildfire, so fast in fact that some thought it was a troubling development. It moved well beyond the keep young men occupied.


Eventually, we end up with something like this, some 100 years later. Dr J finds a new wrinkle in the game no one in the preceding 100 years had realized you could do. The amazing thing about basketball is there isn’t just one version of the game. There are hundreds of basketballs. Once the game becomes part of culture, once it is out of the developer’s hands, the game becomes everyone’s and not just the developers. There’s streetball, HORSE, women’s pro, college ball, old man pick up ball, and on and on. It is a game, it is a spectator sport, it is a way to cheer for your town or school or nation.

This is the fourth ripple of dynamics that emerge from our games: What happens when our games become culture. The moment our games are in the public, they become theirs, not ours. They move from our initial prompts for actions and go in all sorts of directions, imposing their own uses on our games.

Ripple 5: culture reflects back
What happens when culture ripples back onto games? What happens when beliefs and behaviors seep into our games? The very idea that we think of games as systems is an example of this: the most basic framework for designing games is derived from a set of tools designed for understanding and fixing business systems.

One of its more pervasive offshoots of systems dynamics in our culture is Game Theory. Game Theory is the use of mathematics to understand human behavior. It was popularized by John von Neumann as a mathematical tool for analyzing the decision space of zero-sum games. At the crux of game theory is the assumption that “rational actors” will always act in their own best interest. This line of thinking was used to develop U.S. Cold War strategies, including the SAGE computer system developed to monitor Soviet activity. What is interesting here is the desire to imagine humans as rational logic machines, and not as people. There is a lack of empathy deep in the heart of game theory, even a distrust of people. The assumptions of Game Theory are that we want to win, to beat everyone else in a zero-sum, winner-take all game that is life.

John Nash, the mathematician made famous in the movie, A Beautiful Mind, was infamous for designing cruel games that pitted people against one another in zero-sum games that rewarded selfish play—the assumed baseline of game theory. One of his better-known games was So Long Sucker, better known as “Fuck You Buddy,” for reasons that become clear if you’ve ever played it. Game Theory and its views of the world bled into all aspects of life, including games themselves of course.

The culture of games always being about winning and “beating” a game emerges from this zero-sum mindset. We have internalized this thinking, and often take it as a given in the design of our games.  We see similar ideas playing out in games like Shark Tank, where business is treated like a single goal game: extracting profit. There is no value here in providing employment, or having products that enrich lives. Only money, and profit at all costs. Total bottom-line thinking.

Back in the land of video games, we find other values reflected. Like that it is OK to represent women as objects of desire, rather than as sentient creatures. There’s this thing called the Bechdel Test applied to film to see if women are being treated well:


God help us if we applied a similar test to games.

This is the fifth ripple of dynamics that emerge from our games: When culture ripples back onto us, influencing how we make our games, and the meaning produced when players play our games. The assumptions we make and the baggage we bring into creating our games that inevitably end up in the games. And so in turn, influencing the dynamics that ripple out of our games into the lives of our players and into culture as a whole.

It’s never “just a game”
So this is the main thing I want us all to be aware of: We need to be accountable for the dynamics that emerge from our games, and for the assumptions and values that we put into our games. We can’t simultaneously say games are important and a vital art form and say that “it’s just a game” when people challenge the violence and misogyny in games.

We don’t get to have it both ways. Either we own up to the place games occupy—sports, board- and cardgames, and videogames alike—or we accept games’ status as mindless entertainment widgets for emotionally stunted boys. Part of this is taking the design of games seriously, and recognizing their place in life and culture. We tend to want to stop at the abstraction, and delight in the formal and experiential qualities. While those are where the aesthetics lie, it isn’t where things stop. That’s just where the dynamics begin.