Meaningful play in Interactive Entertainment, Marketing, and Education

“In all honesty, if I had this book when I was producing creative at Coca-Cola, I could have achieved more for consumers. I read key learnings that I could have written them down myself right after our brand campaigns. This is a wonderfully organized textbook for creatively marrying real life to game theory in order to achieve and measure results.”

Stafford Green
Founder, The Coca-Cola Content Factory

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Designing Gamified Systems is a fundamental guide for building essential skills in game and interaction design to revitalize and re-imagine real-world systems—from cities and corporations to schools and the military. Brought together here for the first time, leaders in the field like Katie Salen, Nicole Lazzaro, Ken Eklund, Rajat Paharia and Sebastian Deterding explain how they are redefining the job of the game designer. Author Sari Gilbert develops a set of core principles and tools for using game thinking and interactive design to build motivation, explain hard concepts, broaden audiences, deepen commitments and enhance human relationships.

Contributions from and Interviews with Thought Leaders and Practitioners in the Emerging Field of Gamified System Design

Topics covered: gamified system design, game design fundamentals, interactive design fundamentals, behavioral psychology, marketing, branding, business strategy, learning theory and instructional design.

This book is for: game designers, UX designers, instructional designers, teachers and educational administrators, museum curators and exhibition designers, themed entertainment designers, media and entertainment professionals, branding, marketing and advertising professionals.


While the term “gamification” has been used for this complex, emerging and varied field, and though this terminology may continue—especially for corporate marketing projects it has become too limited a concept to encompass the whole of what is happening right now. For those in the game industry, it too often suggests easy solutions—let’s create a points system with badges and rewards! For those outside the game industry, it suggests games-lite—ooh it could be like a game….

But suppose the game was not something merely tacked on to a company’s marketing system to build audience but was integral to the success of a task and could change the way people and objects interact. For example, programmers using Agile development play a version of poker (Planning Poker) to collectively estimate how large a feature (or user story is) and how long a programming task will take. The card game is a unique and effective approach for initiating conversations, revealing insights, exposing potential issues and solutions, redefining problems and eventually achieving consensus. Isn’t this what an advertiser, educator or manager really wants to do? They want their system to work better.

This book uses the term “gamified systems” for the purpose of building critical analysis around frameworks employing game elements to accomplish goals outside of the context of games. Such structures like Planning Poker are ‘real world,’ so that the virtual play of the game when connected with a non-play elements or components creates new ways of achieving tasks and solving problems. This is what gamified system (GS) design does.



Gamified System: A system that incorporates game methodologies

to generate data by utilizing inputs and outputs related to a non-game context.


Paths of progression like story arcs, badge collection, obstacles and quests provide clearly defined objectives. These in turn drive interactions supported by on-going feedback, including rewards, support from friends and community members, and guides and cues at the interface level. Interactions initiate the generation of data, like GPS locations or number of check-ins, which can then be utilized in a variety of ways to meet target goals or tasks external to the user or play experience. This structure—paths, interactions, feedback, data, and goals—in many ways defines gamified systems, applying to digital and non-digital experiences alike. Historically, the most successful gamified systems have kept all of these aspects in mind.

Introducing the Gamified System Spectrum

gs_spectrum2Designing Gamified Systems introduces the spectrum of gamified systems,which is an approach for defining categories of experiences ranging between the real world, gamified systems, and games meant for pure entertainment. The book introduces three primary categories within the spectrum include systems that are: 1) game-like,  2) game layer, and 3) Alternate Purpose Games (APGs). 

Sitting between the two poles of “not-games” and “games for pure entertainment.” are the three forms of gamified systems, organized according to how much or how little the structure resembles a game. Sitting in the center of the spectrum are systems that fit in the game layer category. Game layer systems represent the majority of gamified systems. They are recognized through their patterns, which marry real world tasks to game elements. Game-like systems sit closest to the “not games” area of the spectrum. While they may promote a sense or experience of play, game-like systems do not depend on actual game components. The third category, Alternate Purpose Games (APGs) are games in which a particular set of external goals has been substituted for the more generic “entertainment.” Consequently, they are closest on the spectrum to “games for pure entertainment.”

The GS Design Discipline

What is the practice of gamified system design?


While gamified systems use concepts or entities from the game world, what really sets them apart are the goals, articulated throughout the design process. These extend beyond the specific interaction that the player experiences during play. Gamified system design (or GS design) meets these articulated goals using elements and concepts associated with games and play. It also involves defining the mechanisms for incorporating and generating data to support and measure these goals. As a practice, gamified system design brings together the fields of game design and interaction design. Given how new the practice is, most designers today are likely to be have been trained in either the field of game design or in the field of Human Computer Interaction (HCI). Although game and interaction design tend to be separated in the academy and in industry, they actually both fall under the larger category of user experience (UX) design, which can be understood as the design of content and form to meet a certain set of human behaviors. With the public’s overwhelming receptivity to social media gaming, casual gaming and now gamified system designs, it seems inevitable that the lines between these two disciplines will continue to intersect. Through this evolution, gamified system design will continue to benefit from the confluence of skills related to creating interactivity and game play.

Designing Gamified Systems, chapter 5 “Introducing Gamified System Design.”




Sari Gilbert is a professor in the Interactive and Game Design department at the Savannah College of Art and Design, where she teaches courses and workshops introducing students and professionals to the practice of gamified system design. Gilbert’s twenty years of experience in interactive entertainment include designing and producing the top-selling JumpStart titles and serving as a Senior Producer at Disney Online. She has founded three companies, each innovating in the field of interactive entertainment and technology. Gilbert has an MA in Educational Technology from Columbia University’s Teachers College, and an MFA in Digital Media from the Savannah College of Art and Design.

Find out more about Sari Gilbert’s projects and professional career

Sari Gilbert’s Curricula Vitae


While the book provides several design activities to develop your skills as a GS designer, some tools and additional skills were merely touched on. For this reason, I have provided some additional resources to help you along your way.  I encourage you to use these as you move through the reading and exercises in the book.

Chapter 1: An online resource filled with gamified system designs developed by the controversial “gamification” proponent, Gabe Zichermann.

Chapter 2: – An excellent database containing a range of Alternate Purpose Games commonly referred to as “serious games.”

Watch Jane McGonigal’s seminal TED talk from 2010 – “Gaming can make a better world.” In the talk she introduces the Alternate Reality Game “World Without Oil,” which was created by game designer Ken Eklund, who discusses this project and other similar projects in his interview in chapter 2.

Find out more about the projects Ken introduces in the book:  Future CoastWorld Without Oil


Chapter 3:

Watch some excellent TED talks about positive psychology and motivation, given by thought leaders introduced in this chapter.

Martin Seligman talks about positive psychology

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi shares his groundbreaking ideas about flow and happiness.

Dan Pink shares insights into the keys to motivation.

Chapter 4:

Watch a video from 1983 about the constructivist educational theorist, practitioner and Artificial Intelligence expert Seymour Papert. Though it is old, it covers important threads leading to today’s educational game and technology endeavors.

Take a look at Raph Koster’s GDC talk “A theory of fun 10 years later.”


Chapter 5:

A Persona Template for the research and ideation phase of your project.

An excellent article from UXbooth, where author Eeva Ilama details the insights of designer Alan Cooper’s workshop about creating personas.

An article from Entrepreneur provides an introduction to the critical process of conducting market research.

Learn more about the Agile framework Scrum


Chapter 6:

Take a look at “MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research” written and presented by  Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, and Robert Zubek for the Game Developers Conference.

Stay abreast of current developments happening in the business and practice of game design at the go-to site Gamasutra.


Chapter 7:

In this TED talk, human factors guru Donald Norman describes three ways that good design makes us happy.


Tools for sketching user experiences is a great introduction about getting into the practice of sketching for ideation.

If you have access to a digital tablet consider taking a look at some of the sketching tools available, like:


Sketch’em (Free)

Adobe Comp CC


Chapter 8:

Some things to consider when picking a prototyping tool:

Time to create prototype: Consider how long it will take you to learn to use the tool and to produce something that is minimally functional.

Usability testing: If you are going to be conducting usability testing with potential users or players, you will need to determine which features or functions will need to be demonstrated, and how they will be assessed.

Fidelity: You will need to think about what level of interactivity you will want to demonstrate. Will there be pop ups, animation, page transitions, or scrolling? Will you want to have gesture-specific interactivity?

Collaboration/sharing: If you are working with a group or getting feedback from a supervisor you are going to want to look for a tool that has collaboration functions so that you can quickly share your ideas and receive feedback.

Support: Are there good tutorials and documentation to help you? Are there libraries with elements you may utilize (like buttons or icons)?

Device testing: Consider if the tool enable you to test on the target device you are planning on using?


Some prototyping tools to consider:

InVision – Very easy to learn, but limited interactivity. You can set up one project for free.

Marvel – Easy to learn, and seems to offer the most functionality for free.

Flinto – Very easy to learn. Meant for mobile apps.

Axure - A professional tool for experienced designers. It has a bit of a learning curve because it is so robust. – Great for mobile apps with built in component libraries.

Justinmind – Intended for multiple device designs.

Solidify – Designed for usability testing.


Chapter 9: 

Watch usability expert Steven Krug walk through a videotaped demonstration of a usability test.

Download the script that Krug has made available on his web site.

Optimal Workshop provides a range of online tools to conduct usability testing.


Questions? Comments? Tell us what you think!