Game Theory: What Makes Play Effective?

By Sarah Brockett

2015-Nashville-Program-CoverBam! You just captured the wizard and stole all of his powers. Thwack! That ball rolling through the maze—the one that represents your life as a Sicilian immigrant in tenement-era New York—just fell through the cholera hole. Game won, game over.

Games have the power to draw us into content, to make us curious, and to make us just want to keep hitting that damned button. This isn’t necessarily new news, but workshop panelists at the recent National Council on Public History Conference in Nashville, TN discussed just what it is that makes games and other means of play so addictive, and how can we use that to make sure we’re creating the most effective play experiences.

First, what is play? We all know some relevant key words…fun, engaging, stimulating, social. Scenarios, simulations, storyworlds. There are rules that set the parameters for a world of play, for a game. Some of those rules were made to be broken, and all of those challenges were made to be overcome. That seems to be part of human nature—we’re hard-wired to understand our world by rules, and to try to push those boundaries.


The original Monopoly, called “The Landlord’s Game,” taught players real-world economics in a personalized scenario full of rules, challenges, and opportunities. And the paper money didn’t hurt.


Here’s how the panel defined play as a concept that can be applied to the kinds of digital and interpretive projects we do: play is a process of discovery. It looks something like this:

Anticipation → surprise → pleasure → understanding*

* Panelist Scott Eberle of The Strong, National Museum of Play discusses two additional stages, strength and poise, in a full article, “The Elements of Play,” here.

In other words, effective play leads to understanding. That means it’s a great way to give an abstract idea meaning, to make distant ideas tangible and relatable, to tame intimidating concepts, and to encourage empathy. Educators and interpreters face the challenge of making tough concepts digestible for visitors all the time, so play is a great way to get there. Here are some practical considerations:

  • A game has to be voluntary: it’s not fun if you’re forced to do it. So give them a reason to want to play!
  • Give ‘em a challenge: this is a great way to keep players going without getting bored or distracted. Just make sure it’s an achievable challenge, and not too complicated.
  • Give feedback: this provides encouragement, reinforces learning, and allows the player to decide what to do next, or how to navigate. Scoring points or amassing tools or powers are examples of giving feedback. In a learning game, feedback should reinforce the concept. For kids, step-by-step feedback helps them know that they are improving and motivates them.
  • Effective forms of play are inquiry-based (curiosity is a powerful thing) and often are hands-on
  • People respond well to memory triggers: These tend to be universal, and can help make connections across generations.

These are just a few helpful hints to help you shape your game concept into an effective learning experience. And there are a wealth of resources out there if you’d like to learn more. Ready, set, game!

Resources and Other Opinions:

Make games effective.

Games as educational tools.

Elements of play.

Games and motivation.

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