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What Is a Game?

It seems like a simple question: What is a game? But when you think about it, there are many variations of what is called a game: Simple activities like tic-tac-toe, card games like Go Fish or poker, and board games like Monopoly and Stratego. Mobile games like Angry Birds and console games like the Assassin’s Creed series. Even large-scale, complicated computer-generated game worlds like World of Warcraft or EVE Online and live sports games like soccer or lacrosse.

So the answer to “What is a game?” isn’t so simple.

When you dig deeper, games of all kinds tend to have certain elements in common. The commonalities among different types of games can be studied and used for designing a learning game. 

Learning the lingo of games

Learning certain lingo in the field of game design will help you effectively communicate with your teammates because you will have a common language to express ideas. It will also help you communicate with vendors and others in the field who will be using terms and concepts related to game design and development, especially if you create a game that requires help to design and develop. And finally, learning the lingo helps you when reading other game design books or articles, because this terminology is common to game design.

Game goal

The game goal is the win state. It’s the objective of the game. It’s any achievement or activity that ends the game. Without a game goal, you’d have no game. In a running race, for example, the game goal is to be the first one to cross the finish line. In Monopoly, it is to finish with the most property and cash. In Risk, it is to achieve world domination. In a learning game, it might be to sell more than a million dollars of product, successfully navigate a compliance maze, or correctly identify and eliminate incorrect

Core dynamic

The core dynamic is what players must do to achieve the win state or accomplish the goal; it is tightly linked to the game goal. The core dynamic answers the question, “What do I need to do to win?” When you tell someone about a game, you typically describe it in a sentence or two: “In Risk, you try to take over the most territories and achieve world domination.” The core dynamic of Risk, therefore, is territory acquisition. Players’ enjoyment of the core dynamic contributes hugely to their evaluation of how engaging the game is to play. People play a game because they like its core dynamic. Some people like a game for one reason, and others like it for another. Some people like the core dynamic of alignment found in games such as Candy Crush, Timeline, or Bejeweled. Others like a core dynamic of outwitting an opponent, such as in chess or Stratego.

Choosing the right core dynamic is critical to the success of the game. Most games have one to two core dynamics. If you are first starting to design learning games, it’s easiest to select one core dynamic and design your game around it. As you add dynamics, you add complexity, and the game can become confusing to the players. They will not understand what they are supposed to do to achieve the game goal. Any learning game you design will likely use one or more of these dynamics. Some games have only one, while others may use two or more.

Game mechanics


Game mechanics are rules. In some games, the rules are specifically for the players. In other games, mostly online games, there are rules that govern the game system. The game mechanics define how people achieve the game goal.

Game mechanics interact to determine the complexity and flow of the game. A mechanic might be how turns are taken, how players move pieces across the game board, or how much damage players can take before they lose a life. Mechanics are important in players’ perception of the game. A game may have a great game goal but crummy rules, so the game won’t be engaging. When you play a game, evaluate how the rules contribute to your engagement with the game and how those rules are structured to make it harder or easier to accomplish the game goal.
Game elements

Game elements are the features or components that enhance the game play experience and help immerse players in the game. Elements can range from the visual aesthetics of the game to the weight of the pieces or the arrangement of the cards. The consistency and alignment of the game elements help create its theme and “look and feel.”

What kinds of games to play?

You have many choices about what kinds of games to play. By playing different types, you can evaluate the pros and cons of each and become more knowledgeable about your own capabilities to produce each kind of game. You’ll find that each type differs in how it explains the rules, incorporates story and aesthetics, and manages scoring and complexity. Compare and contrast how game designers handle these game design decisions.

Do you design learning games or have something to share? Leave a Comment, below.

This article is excerpted from Play To Learn by Sharon Boller and Karl Kapp.


© 2017 ATD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.


About the Author

Sharon Boller is president and chief product officer of Bottom-Line Performance, Inc. (BLP), a learning solutions firm she founded in 1995. Sharon has grown BLP from a single-woman sole proprietorship to a $3M+ company with 30 team members. Under Sharon’s direction, BLP created the Knowledge Guru™ learning game platform. Knowledge Guru is the recipient of numerous industry awards, including the coveted Brandon Hall Gold award for best innovation in gaming and technology (2014). BLP has also produced a wide array of other award-winning learning solutions. They earned Brandon Hall awards for best advance in sales training, best use of games and simulations for learning in 2014. They've earned numerous Horizon Awards as well. 

Sharon frequently speaks on game-based learning and learning design topics at the local and international level for eLearning Guild, ATD, CLO, Training Magazine, and other industry groups. She is also the author of numerous articles on game-based learning, learning science, and instructional design, as well as a book featuring team building simulations and games, Team Training. She also has an authoring credit for one of the chapter’s in Dr. Karl Kapp’s book, The Gamification of Learning and Instruction Field Book.

About the Author

Karl Kapp is a professor of instructional technology at Bloomsburg University in Bloomsburg, PA and is the author behind the widely read “Kapp Notes” blog and a regular contributor to ATD’s “Learning Circuits” blog. Karl has written or co-authored six books on the convergence of learning and technology including the bestselling book “The Gamification of Learning and Instruction.” In that book, Karl explores the research and theoretical foundations behind effective game-based learning. He examines everything from variable reward schedules to the use of avatars to the use of games to teach pro-social behaviors. Karl’s latest book is a fieldbook which takes the ideas from the Gamification book and provides instructions for implementing those ideas. It’s called “The Gamification of Learning and Instruction Fieldbook: Ideas into Practice.” Karl is committed to helping organization’s develop a strategic, enterprisewide approach to organizational learning. He believes that effective education and training are the keys to increased productivity and profitability. He can be reached at

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