Many of the poorly designed games we play in life, such as work, need us to adapt them. Here’s how to think like a great game designer, not a lazy one.
Is your life an RPG? Is it a first person shooter? Is it Solitaire, or more like Minesweeper?
It doesn’t really matter what you call the game of your life, or any game — just how well it’s been designed. Regardless of genre, all well-designed games have a central set of principles that work to create an engaging experience and help players achieve mastery. But those principles may not be what you think they are — in fact, you may be seeing everything backwards, like I was.
A couple of years ago, I got obsessed with the idea of “gamification.” As a lifelong gamer, I was intrigued by the idea that game principles could be applied to product design, business tactics, and even personal development. Who wouldn’t want to build a product that engaged and brought joy like their favorite games? Who wouldn’t want to achieve the high score in life?
Yet most of my attempts to introduce metrics and accountability — the “points, badges, and leaderboards” system of gamification — were complete disasters. I just ended up with broken products, broken promises, and some very negative scores. It turns out that although games are easy to pick up, many of them are just as easy to put down. People giving up on my products was one thing. But nothing crushed me like giving up on a game that I had designed for myself.
Go to the gym five days a week to earn the Super Strong badge! Nope, didn’t work. +1 to endurance for this long pointless meeting! Didn’t really motivate me. 100 points for taking out the garbage! Uh, it’s still sitting there.
Here’s the critical piece that turned it around: I had to stop thinking like a gamer, and start thinking like a game designer.
I read a paper recently that made this distinction very clear using the MDA model, explained below. I’ve adapted some of the images and points here, because I believe they tell the story well.
The MDA Model of Game Design
The game designer and the game player have a very clear relationship — one creates, and one consumes, like in the picture below.
Within the “blue box” of the game, there is a progression from the design of the game to the play of the game that creates an experience for the player. It can be broken down into MDA: Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics.
Mechanics are the actual actions taken in the game. For example, in chess, this is the movement of the pieces and the rules governing turn-taking and capturing. Bishops are constrained to diagonals, pawns move forward but capture diagonally, and so on. Mechanics can also set the win condition of the game, defining the capture of the opponent’s king as the end state.
Dynamics arise directly from the mechanics of the game as the game is played. In chess, the dynamics of aggressive gambits, defensive pawn structures, or time pressure (in blitz chess) are made possible by mechanics but are not directly codified in the rules. Over time, players learn to account for dynamics and use them to their own advantage. Experienced players are often very aware of complex game dynamics, while novices have just learned the mechanics and are simply struggling to follow the rules.
Aesthetics are the emotional experiences of the players that arise from the dynamics in play. Some common game emotions include surprise, fear, anticipation, jealousy, triumph, suspicion, and joy. Dynamics provide ample opportunity for players to experience positive and negative emotions in rapid succession. If players dwell in negativity too long without hope of triumph, they may give up on the game. But if they only experience success, they will grow frustrated with the lack of challenge.
The key here is that the gamer experiences aesthetics first and foremost when playing. The emotions are what resonate most strongly and what we carry with us after finishing a game, especially if we’re competitive (I am). If we fail, we rarely walk away cursing the rules — we curse our opponents.
But when a game designer fails, they don’t blame the players for not experiencing the right emotions. They blame themselves for not establishing the right rules. Without the right mechanics, complex dynamics don’t arise, and the intended aesthetic experiences are not felt.And usually game designers get very good feedback — if people stop playing or buying their game, they don’t make money. There’s no time to blame the player — only time to go back to the drawing board.
Thus designers and players sitting on the opposite sides of this model see the progression in reverse:
As a player of games, the mechanics are removed from me. I am taught them, but I do not control them. They are taken for granted as constraints on my environment. What I do experience directly are the aesthetics created by the dynamics, and these two things often take my focus.
But in the game of our lives, we are often the designer as well as the player. And if we get frustrated, many times it is the designer who is to blame, not the other players in our game.
A Poorly Designed Game: Work
Sometimes we are not the original designer of the games we play, and they may be very poorly designed. The game of work, especially for new players, might be the best known example: we are often given “badges” and “points” (titles and salaries) that are meant to demonstrate progress and provide a sense of mastery. We are placed in competition with our peers as though on a leaderboard. As we know, these mechanics rarely create dynamics that lead to positive aesthetic experiences for the “players” (real triumphs or surprising learnings). They’re just bad scorekeeping for a lazy game.
We have a few choices when the game of work fails to engage us: we can blame the other players (ugh, coworkers), we can blame the system (dammit, capitalism!), or we can stop playing (I quit my job and moved to Thailand!).
Or maybe we have another choice, one many of us make: we adapt the game. We introduce our own mechanics, constraints on our own behaviors that create new dynamics in the workplace that lead to the aesthetic experiences we crave. We set our own win conditions — “I will become a senior manager by age 30.” “I will lead this working group.” We devise our own rules and codes: “I will get all my work done one day early.” “I will not leave the company for four years.” “I will avoid Gloria.”
This is a healthy habit for creating a sense of autonomy and progression in the workplace, but sometimes we think like players, not designers. We generalize from positive aesthetic experiences without thinking about how they arose. “I just got a rush from thinking about my next promotion. Now it’s my new win condition.” “I just had a great meeting with Bill—now I’m going to try and join his department.” These can be dangerous rules setting us down paths that don’t actually lead to the emotions and achievements we want.
Instead, in adapting our game of work, we must think like game designers. What rules could reliably create the dynamics that lead to the emotions we want? One example:
“Okay, if I’m not allowed to backstab anyone at work or talk behind their back, then I eliminate the dynamics of gossip and politicization that create a toxic work environment that I don’t enjoy. I imagine others also do not prefer this environment. If I could somehow encourage everyone to play by this rule, we could eliminate these dynamics and establish a better aesthetic experience.”
In fact, this is exactly what good culture officers do at great companies — they design the game of work. They come up with the codes of conduct and manifestos that lead to the right dynamics that create the correct aesthetic experiences for workers. And if workers are unhappy, good culture officers don’t blame the workers — they blame themselves.
Once I realized I was thinking too much like a gamer and not enough like a game designer, I couldn’t stop seeing the parallels. I saw how my family life, my health, my friendships were all affected by my failure of perspective. Thinking critically about mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics — and how each arise — will help you improve the design of your life.
Mechanics: Which rules of my life are actually unbreakable rules? Which can be changed or adjusted? Which mechanics should I create because they give rise to the dynamics I enjoy, and should I ignore because they do not? Given this thinking, do I really need to maximize salary or achieve this title? (It could be yes.)
Dynamics: How do the dynamics I perceive in my life arise from the mechanics? How do the constraints I place on myself affect the way I interact with others? How do these dynamics create emotional experiences, such as stress or joy or fear?
Aesthetics: Which experiences do I truly enjoy and find valuable? What does achievement or mastery really feel like? Are others experiencing different emotions while seemingly playing the same games as me? How are their mechanics or dynamics different from mine?
We can all be better game players — learning mechanics and mastering dynamics — but we can also all be better game designers. In fact, the two skill sets are extremely related. Some of the best game players I know are the ones who have spent years creating their own games and generalizing their skills. And many of them also seem to be the happiest people I know.
So whenever you’re designing the game of your life or someone else’s — maybe as a parent, or as a boss — remember to think like the best game designers, not the laziest ones. Don’t just use points, badges and leaderboards to motivate. Remember mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics — and remember how you want yourself and others to feel.