What is a game and why does it matter?


In conjunction with developing a gaming program on my campus I’ve been reading-up on games, and how to use them to impact the world around you.  “Reality is Broken” by Jane McGonigal (@avantgame) is a must read book for anyone who wants to use games to make the world better.  In it, McGonigal lays out four traits that define a game.

When you strip away the genere difference and the technological complexities, all games share four defining traits: a goal, rules, a feedback system, and voluntary participation.

The goal is the specific outcome that players will work to achieve. It focuses their attention and continually orients their participation throughout the game.  The goal provides players with a sense of purpose.

The rules place limitation on how players can achieve the goal.  By removing or limiting the obvious ways of getting to the goal, the rules push players to explore previously uncharted possibility spaces.  They unleash creativity and foster strategic thinking.

The feedback system tells players how close they are to achieving the goal.  It can take the form of points, levels, a score, or a progress bar.  Or, in its most basic form, the feedback system can be as simple as the players’ knowledge of an objective outcome: “The game is over when…”   Real-time feedback serves as a promise to the players that the goal is definitely achievable, and it provides motivation to keep playing.

Finally, voluntary participation requires that everyone who is playing the game knowingly and willingly accepts the goal, the rules, and the feedback.  Knowingness establishes common ground for multiple people to play together.  And the freedom to enter or leave a game at will ensures that intentionally stressful and challenging work is experienced as safe and pleasurable activity.

McGonigal also cites Bernard Suits’ definition, “Playing a game is a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”  I can’t help but think that these defining traits and this definition warrant some serious thought from Student Affairs professionals.  If there is a medium out there through which we can help students learn to work with purpose towards a goal, think creatively and strategically (read critically) and tap into their own intrinsic motivation – on common ground with other students – we should be using it.  If there is a way for us to engage students, such that they want to overcome obstacles and build up grit and resiliency (read: traits that contribute to matriculation), we should do it.

The fact is, our students are already playing games.  The question is, how do SA pros leverage games to encourage development?  I have some thoughts about it.  Do you?  Leave a comment.

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