What Makes a Good Game?

Initial Publication Date: June 2, 2004
"We also often discuss the desire for games to be art-for them to be puzzles with more than one right answer, puzzles that lend themselves to interpretation... both [art and game design] entail posing questions - tough ones even, ethical ones, even. And games will never be mature as long as the designers create them with complete answers to their own puzzles in mind."
Raph Koster 'A Theory of Fun,' Keynote Address to the Austin Game Conference, 2003)

Amory et al., 1999 found that first- and second-year university students preferred strategy and adventure games to shooters and simulations, but that the lowest rating went to the only educational game on the list (SimIsle, one of the few that have been commercially successful). Students complained that the interface was hard to use; that it was difficult to input and understand information with it. Many educational games are poorly constructed and simply not fun. On the other hand, most games, even some intended to be educational, do not involve useful learning. Learning goals have to be essential for winning or the material is likely to be ignored (Lepper and Cordova, 1992 ).

Continuous Challenge

A good game designer gives his players continuous challenges, each of which leads to another challenge, to keep them "hooked" on playing a game. This can be done by setting clear, short-term goals appropriate to the level of the player and the context within the game. Each challenge should satisfy some kind of learning objective. For example, answering a question, identifying a sample or completing a measurement or a portion of a map could be a challenge, part of a larger game.

Interesting Storyline

This isn't essential to every kind of game (for example, not for a scavenger hunt), especially when players are competing against each other. In that case, the excitement of the competition is likely to engage them. However, a good storyline can liven up a competition still further (look at pro wrestling!).

In various Internet forums and game-magazine columns about video and board games, a good plot or storyline is cited as essential to a good game. Oddly enough, a fantasy context makes players more motivated to succeed at a game. So instead of having students memorize types of ores, have them play as miners prospecting for minerals and needing to identify profitable sources. Rather than using games to escape from their studies, encourage students to use games to escape into their studies.


Make sure that there are many different ways to accomplish each goal. Simply plotting out a step-by-step progression through the goals can be stifling. As much as possible, let each player (or team) work out their own strategy to the endpoint while still keeping the game challenging and achieving the learning objectives.

Immediate, useful rewards.

Instead of just points towards victory, successful players (or the pieces or characters they're in charge of) can be rewarded with new capabilities, a new part of the board to explore or even a new task. These are surprisingly motivating, as the point of the game is not just to win it, but to keep playing.

Combining Fun and Realism

Many so-called games are actually simulations without goals and challenges. Excessive realistim can also be boring. But even good games often incorporate incorrect assumptions (i.e. Sim City favors public transportation) or reward unrealistic behaviors, such as giving players too much time to make decisions (Prensky, 2002b ).