What Makes Game Design Unique?

I want to test a pair of assertions: I’ve said for a long time that there are two main things that make games different from anything else that’s “designed.”

The first is that no one has to play a game.

The second is that unlike any other device or software, games are entirely autotelic: the goal of a game is the goal set within the game (or within the player’s head). Games don’t exist to extend, assist, or support some external goal.

Those may not seem like much, but they create conditions that set games wholly apart from any other kind of human creation, and game design apart from any other kind of design. I think this leads in useful directions, but first I want to explore and test these assertions.

First, no one has to play a game. By contrast, if your company adopts new software for accounting or travel, you pretty much have to use it. If your bank changes how their ATMs work, you’re going to get used to it (or switch banks). But with a game, if you don’t like it or don’t get it, you can drop it — the game is entirely optional.

This means that game designers are constantly on the knife-edge in ways that other designers aren’t. Games have to attract a potential player’s attention. They have to draw the player in, help them build a mental model of what the game presents, and make that engaging enough that the player will stick with it and want to put in the energy needed to gain some level of mastery. This means that games are under immense pressure to evolve as fast as possible. There are always other games (now, hundreds of new ones appearing every day for mobile devices) that players can turn to, aside from anything in the player’s life that they have to do.

As a result, game designers spend a lot of time playing games designed by others to learn from them and apply their lessons to their own games. It’s no wonder that games change so rapidly and continuously, or that they consistently lead other forms of technology in the use of graphics, hardware, engagement, narrative, and interaction design.

The second point may be even more important: games are autotelic. Spreadsheets and word processors exist to support an external goal; so do paint programs, flight and process control software, etc. Even in the physical world, hammers, saws, drills, backhoes, scalpels, door handles and everything else you interact with on a daily basis that has been designed exists to further some goal that is external to the artifact themselves. Art, in the sense of paintings, literature, and sculpture, are, like games, concerned only with the goal that the artist sets for them. But unlike games they stand on their own; they are not truly interactive (a statement some will take issue with, but this is a different and longer argument). An artwork may engage someone mentally and emotionally, but it does not create a set of goals and tasks for the viewer. Since only games are both autotelic and interactive, only they enable the player to fulfill some set of goals, changing as the player changes, continually leading them to new internally defined goals.

In the realm of software in particular, only games (and toy-like games in which the player sets their own goals) escape serving some external and pre-existing set of goals and tasks. As a result, there is no “task analysis” that can yield a set of requirements for a game; part of the game designer’s job is to create the player’s tasks and goals out of thin air. Sometimes these may refer to some approximation of the real world (as in a flight simulator), but in some of the most charming examples they have only a tenuous connection to anything like our world, as in Ida’s curious journey in Monument Valley.

If these assertions are accurate, they have huge consequences for how we think about and practice game design, and for the place of game design in the overall sphere of design as practice and as a way of thinking. Games may, I believe, provide us a window into a kind of pure design, unencumbered by pre-defined external goals and tasks. If so, they also illuminate some important aspects of design and how we structure our thinking far beyond games and about the world in general. This is a point I’ll pick up later.

What do you think? Are these assertions accurate? Are there examples of non-game artifacts that are optional and autotelic? Are there other important differences between games and non-game artifacts, or between game design and other kinds of design? Or, are these statements correct as far as they go, but they miss something essential?

I look forward to hearing others’ thoughts on this.

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5 Comments on “What Makes Game Design Unique?”

  1. Jeremy Gibson Bond Says:

    I think these are both great points, though I differ from you in the use of the word “autotelic” as it relates to goals in gameplay. I more often use “intrinsic” for the goals that you’re describing: those that are wholly internal to the game system. For example, the intrinsic goal of leveling up or solving a specific puzzle as opposed to the extrinsic goals of exercising in order to be healthy later or studying in order to pass a test.

    In games, I tend to use “autotelic” the same way that it is used by Richard Lemarchand. He defines autotelic goals as those created by the player rather than by the game. For example, many goals in games are dictated to the player by the game like when an NPC in WoW gives you a quest to collect a certain number of a specific item. On the other hand, an example of an autotelic goal would be a player of MineCraft deciding to build a floating castle or her design.


  2. Mike Sellers Says:

    Intrinsic works too. I was using “autotelic” as a parallel to the way Lemarchand does: essentially, it’s the goal the designer creates on their own, rather than modeling an external task.

    You may be right that using autotelic here is potentially confusing with the notion of players being able to set their own goals within the game world.


  3. […] What separates game design from other branches of design? is a question that Mike Sellers tried to answer in his What Makes Game Design Unique? […]


  4. Re: Autotelic: Greg Costikyan’s “endogenous” systems of value works for this concept as well.

    Re: Other activities: Two human activities that come to mind that fit these two rules:
    – Math
    – Religion

    Both are voluntary and self contained. Pythagoreans even managed to mix the two.

    Re: Games as culture: Now to play devil’s advocate (which I never do), many formal games can be seen as formalized human processes valued highly by the culture within which the person operates. They are systemized culture and you participate or suffer.

    A sport such a basketball is not something one idly forgoes in some communities. It is a group activity that determines tribal affiliation, status, shared experiences, and even mating opportunities. There’s very little ‘leisurely’ or voluntary about sports no matter what Mr. Suits might state.


  5. Mike Sellers Says:

    Endogenous is good too. Though neither that or intrinsic gets to the goal-directed nature, the *telos* of a game (and of many, possibly all systems — another topic).

    And *thank you* for the inclusion of math and religion! I need to consider both of those deeply in this context (I wonder if the Pythagoreans played games with their icosahedrons? 🙂 ) You’ve given me a lot to think about there, which is why I wrote this post!

    Re: games as culture. This is another deep area. I think I’d say though that games become a focal point around which social and cultural ritual emerge, and that this agglomeration is exogenous to the game itself. The game itself is still treated as being in a separate space (ref the magic circle), but the social/cultural context itself isn’t.

    Oddly, your comment takes me back to the moment in the 1975 movie “Rollerball” where the team coach exclaims, “Game!?? This was never meant to be a game!” So much social commentary for a James Caan film. Or maybe I just like bad movies. 🙂

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