20 Oct

The Power of Systems

Forest ecosystem


In a previous post, I discussed the question of game mechanics and how they can be used to support certain design intentions. Today I would like to share some thoughts about systems, the underlying and often invisible structure behind interactive experiences.

In the current context I am referring to “systems” in a broad sense, as a flow of interactions happening within boundaries and following certain rules. Note that when we are interacting with a system, we don’t have to know the rules to abide by them – think of the laws of physics for instance. For a game designer, however, the trick is to create rules knowingly to encourage certain interactions.

Constraints make us feel free

If you look at a game, what you will see is a well-engineered system where the designer intentionally added restrictions in order to create a sensation of control. Take a famous video game like Tetris: It is comprised of a very limited set of shapes, with which you can only interact through a small amount of pre-defined actions – rotating the shapes, putting them down faster. Yet this game in extremely fun because you know exactly what you can control in this confined environment.

It makes us comfortable to think that we have control over things; having too much freedom can actually be a daunting experience. Research on consumer behaviours shows for instance that having access to too much information or too many products can create an uncomfortable choice overload (1).

“We don’t always have to give the player true freedom — we only have to give the player the feeling of freedom. For (..) all that’s real is what you feel.” -Jesse Schell, The Art of Game Design

 The agency that we have in the micro-world of a game makes us feel in control, often compensating for the frustration of our everyday lives. However, agency is not liberty.

I would like to suggest a little activity that I enjoy playing myself: Next time you see a game or gamified experience, try and guess the intention of the designer that can be traced in the “methods of indirect control”, as Schell would put it (constraints, goals, interfaces, etc.). Like every system, the teleology of game systems can be perceived when we take a close look at the rules that guide interactions.


(1) See for example the work of Sheena Iyengar on the notion of choice.

This article was originally published on Gamification World Netherlands

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