Playful Design Cover

Playful Design

Creating Game Experiences in Everyday Interfaces

By John Ferrara

Published: June 2012
Paperback: 245 pages
ISBN: 978-1933820-14-9
Digital ISBN: 978-1933820-99-6

Game design is a sibling discipline to software and Web design, but they’re siblings that grew up in different houses.  They have much more in common than their perceived distinction typically suggests, and user experience practitioners can realize enormous benefit by exploiting the solutions that games have found to the real problems of design.  This book will show you how.

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More about Playful Design


For UX designers eager to go beyond simple points and badges, it’s been hard to find resources that truly bridge the worlds of UX and game design. John Ferrara’s thorough, thoughtful, and practical book is just what we’ve been waiting for.

Jesse James Garrett, Author, The Elements of User Experience

The hype around games and gamification for learning, social change, and impact has hit warp speed. Playful Design is a brilliant beyond-the-hype book that truly sifts the gold from the dross. It is a must read for anyone interested not just in games, but in designing engaging and meaningful human experiences.

James Paul Gee, Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies, Arizona State University, Author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy

This book couldn’t be more timely: Playful Design delivers a concise introduction to the theory, experience, and design of games for nongame designers, blended with fresh personal takes. Trust John Ferrara to get you started building games for learning, persuasion, or real-world action in one small, handy volume.

Sebastian Deterding, designer and game researcher, coding conduct

John Ferrara cuts through the hype and provides a concise, practical, and insightful summary of issues every designer needs to consider in venturing into this challenging yet promising field.

Scot Osterweil, Creative Director, MIT Education Arcade

A central challenge in the field of UX is learning to adapt to the ever-changing world in which UX is practiced. One of the most important megatrends in the world is the increasing use of serious games to solve complex problems. John Ferrara’s book provides a useful reference to help UX designers expand their repertoire by learning the basics of game design and how to apply these skills to create engaging and compelling experiences.

Luke Hohmann, Founder and CEO, The Innovation Games® Company

What can the field of UX learn from game design? To answer this question, John Ferrara examines the underlying mechanics behind some familiar (and less familiar) games. But be prepared, you’ll come away with more than a few new tools and ideas added to your design toolbox!

Stephen P. Anderson, Author, Seductive Interaction Design

Table of Contents

Part 1: Playful Thinking

  • Chapter 1: Why We Should Care about Games
  • Chapter 2: Understanding Games
  • Chapter 3: The Elements of Player Experience
  • Chapter 4: Player Motivations

Part II: Designing Game Experiences

  • Chapter 5: Ten Tips for Building a Better Game
  • Chapter 6: Developing a Game Concept
  • Chapter 7: Creating Game Prototypes
  • Chapter 8: Playtesting
  • Chapter 9: Behavioral Tools
  • Chapter 10: Rewards in Games

Part III: Playful Design in User Experience

  • Chapter 11: Games for Action
  • Chapter 12: Games for Learning
  • Chapter 13: Games for Persuasion
  • Chapter 14: How Games Are Changing


These common questions about video games and design and their short answers are taken from John Ferrara’s book Playful Design. You can find longer answers to each in your copy of the book, either printed or digital version.

  1. What do you mean when you refer to “video games”?
    Throughout this book, I use the phrase “video games” to refer to computer-mediated games of all types, from World of Warcraft to Words with Friends. This may be a more general usage than a purist would select, but I use it because it’s a conventional and recognizable way to distinguish this subtype of games from other forms. I use the term “games” to refer to the broader class of experiences that includes video games as well as board games, sports, card games, gambling, and so on.
    A more robust discussion of what it means for something to be a game or a video game is found in Chapter 2.
  2. Are you suggesting that UX designers should become game designers?
    I’m proposing that UX designers adopt game design as a competency that they can enlist, alongside our existing competencies, to solve real problems. I argue that, to do this effectively, it is critical for us to acquire the theory, skills, and processes that will allow us to build truly rewarding game experiences. This book is intended to lay the groundwork for UX practitioners to begin developing this capability in earnest. So, no, I’m not suggesting that we should rethink our careers, but rather that we should grow within them.
    For more about why we should, see Chapter 1.
  3. Are video games really that important?
    This depends on what they’re doing, but they absolutely can be. Today, video games are being designed that forge connections between people, teach subjects in schools, encourage healthier living, support charitable giving, fight world hunger, and promote the cause of peace. I believe that games are up to these tasks and can offer fresh approaches to making the world a better place. See Chapters 11-13 to read more about such real-world examples.More generally, I would argue that play is an essential part of living. It’s the process by which great discoveries are made, industries are built, and people fall in love. The instinctive human drive toward play continuously pushes us to find new ways to understand and influence the world around us.
  4. Isn’t this just another way to say that we should try to make things more fun to use?
    Designers can’t just set about designing fun, for at least two reasons. First, it’s a very subjective and cultural quality, carrying a lot of different meanings for a lot of different people. The type of fun you might engineer for one person might be boring, irritating, or offensive to many others. Second, fun is an effect of a well-designed game, rather than something that can be molded directly out of clay. So it’s better to focus on creating a high-quality player experience and allow fun to emerge from the player’s interaction with it.
    I talk more about the motivations that drive people to play games in Chapter 4. See page 36.
    Apart from fun, games also have a lot of other positive effects that shouldn’t be overlooked. UX designers will find great value in exploring how they can make life more intuitive, more engaging, more memorable, more meaningful, more rewarding, more productive, more effective, and more successful.
  5. Are you saying that everything people do should be turned into a game?
    No. In this book I show how UX designers can find great opportunity in building on the innate gamefulness residing in everyday experiences to create better ways for people to interact with computers than would otherwise be available. However, this approach is not appropriate in every situation, and pursuing game strategies where there is no game to be found will result in projects that are doomed to failure. For an explanation of such pitfalls, I encourage you to read the Introduction.
    See page xv.
    But I also believe that it’s simply a good idea for UX designers to have a sense of what’s going on in games, because other kinds of benefits can be drawn from them that are relevant to our profession. Many games have amazing user interfaces, which can be a great source of inspiration in our own work. Whether it’s discovering new design patterns or getting a fresh perspective on mediated collaboration, there’s much to learn from the great design work being done in games. So the message of this book is certainly not “turn everything into a game.”
  6. How can I get involved with the best communities that are doing work in this area?
    There are a few conferences I recommend attending. Each year the Game Developers Conference (San Francisco, hosts a rotating set of smaller summits dedicated to games in real-world contexts, and the general conference is a great opportunity to learn practices and methods of the established game design industry. More specialized conferences include Games for Health (Boston,, dedicated to games that improve wellness and healthcare; Games for Change (New York City,, which showcases games that promote social causes; and Games, Learning and Society (Madison, Wisconsin,, which is largely devoted to educational games. I would love to see substantial numbers of UX designers attend these conferences. All of these groups also have very active e-mail discussion communities, which you can join on their websites. Finally, I would encourage you to find a local chapter of the International Game Developers’ Association ( and attend their meanings to learn, connect, and even introduce a UX perspective.



The word “game” conjures up numerous meanings for people. We think of fun, of playing, of winning and losing; we think of competition. But we often miss the depth of discovery and reward that games provide. We don’t always recognize the high level of cognitive functionality that games can bring to the table. And, before this book, most of us haven’t paid attention to the variety of environments in which games can work serious mojo.

In this age of explosive information and the inevitable rise in architecting that information, John Ferrara’s theory that game design should be combined with user experience is not only creative but prescient. We’re seeing games move toward a social crescendo in so many areas—health, education, innovation, scenario planning—that the opportunity for the UX community is enormous. If a fundamental goal of user experience is to elevate human-computer interaction, what better way to up-level that interaction than by infusing games? Because make no mistake: games have a long and profound relationship with human beings. They appeal to our fundamental need to surprise and be surprised, to learn and teach, to discover and connect, to analyze and intuit.

But to echo the author’s perspective, it behooves UX designers to distinguish between trendy gamification—really all lipstick and no sex—and robust, compelling game design that ignites our systems of pleasure. Points and “Likes” are a decent first step, but feedback loops and small, surmountable obstacles are better. Make the user experience “seductive” (to borrow an expression from Kathy Sierra). Design it so it talks to and tickles human psychology. Think of the value intrinsic in a worthwhile transaction and leverage what lies beneath. That’s where your design can inspire loyalty, evangelism, and excitement. That’s where you can create an “epic win” for everyone.

The UX field has made ongoing and significant improvements in the way users navigate online space, and it’s only a matter of time before it starts to show a prowess in game space. What an exciting time for all of us! So go forth, apply the knowledge of game design John offers, and play with all your might.

Sunni Brown
Expert meeting gamer and coauthor of Gamestorming


I owe enormous thanks to my publisher, Lou Rosenfeld, not only for championing this book but also for the tremendous support he’s provided to me over the years. He’s been an inspiring force in my life, and his belief in me has made all the difference in who I am today.

A lot of people have generously lent their expertise and viewpoints to this book, and I sincerely hope that I’ve managed to cite all of them here. Ian Bogost, Jim Gee, Stone Librande, Jamie Madigan, and Jesse Schell not only contributed the sidebars in this book, but were kind enough to give personal guidance and review chapters as they were in progress.

My wonderful editor was JoAnn Simony, and the technical reviewers were Stephen Anderson, Mathias Crawford, and Nathan Verrill. This is a much better book as a result of their careful attention and thoughtful input. Other people who made critical contributions of time and expertise include Mike Ambinder of Valve Software; Nate Bolt of Bolt|Peters; Luis Von Ahn of Carnegie Mellon; Seth Cooper of Foldit; Dennis Crowley of Foursquare; Scott Rigby of Immersyve; Jason Haas, Eric Klopfer, and Scot Osterweil of MIT’s Education Arcade; Anna Johnson and Sooin Lee of Project Injini; Richard Marks and Eric Matthews of Sony Computer Entertainment; and Seann Dikkers and Ben Shapiro from the University of Wisconsin. Additional reviews were provided by Catriona Cornett, Jim Kalbach, Julie Price, and Kyle Soucy. Thank you all so much for your help!

People who made pertinent impacts in my professional life include David Wright, who first provided a platform for me to start designing games; Todd Horning, Rob Patey, and Mike Rosario, with whom I collaborated on those projects; Richard Dalton and Gina Puzo, who pushed me hard to start talking about games; and James “Chip” Chiponis, Andrew Karetas, and Bri Lance, who each made a leap of faith to pursue game projects with me. I sincerely hope that I’ve lived up to the confidence they’ve all invested in me.

I would certainly be remiss if I didn’t thank my parents, Margie and Charlie, who have made so many sacrifices on my behalf and to whom I can never be sufficiently grateful, and my siblings Steve, Chris, and Cath. You are each, in your own way, a part of this book.

I opened the book with a dedication to my wife Amanda, and I must close with a note of gratitude to her. She’s put up with so much over the course of this project, above and beyond what could ever be reasonably asked. I will always be thankful for the support she has given me, not only during this period, but throughout our time together.

John Ferrara, Philadelphia, April 2012