Design Gaming considers the value of 'design' games - variously described as imaginative play, role-playing games/ activities, adventure games, story games, interactive fiction and solo adventures.

Design Gaming


Design Game Theory #1
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Design Games
Design Games and Learning
RPG and Design Game Research - Bibliographic Sources

Design Gaming explores how we look at the psychology of games and in particular games involving co-design, imaginative gameplay, critical thinking exercises and role-playing activities.

The original articles are presented as a bridge between current mainstream scientific evidence and the use of scientific approaches to studying and applying design gaming; whether recreationally, in learning or in therapeutic contexts. At this stage the content is largely uncorrected - to convey the material and its arguments as first written.

At the point when the original RPG was first being developed the game was, for the most part, a movable feast of continual co-design and invention. This was hardly surprising, as the game’s designers and GMs had to rely as much on their own imaginations as on the short, moving-target of a rule set available to them.
The process of doing so fostered open-ended, flexible gameplay, which reflected the thoughts and actions of the designers and co-designers caught-up in the shared dynamics of the development of the game.

In other words, the gameplay tapped into the imaginative and creative input of those caught-up in shaping and scaffolding the game itself. This enterprising and seemingly intuitive process relied on, and fostered, improvisation.

The intuitive or improvisational side of RPG gaming thrived on the gaps where the rules broke down, as this left room for players to co-design the gameplay through storytelling, trying their luck, patching the rules and dreaming-up novel solutions.
Inevitably, as the rules became more complete, more fixed and more regimented both the design and the gameplay became increasingly top-down and less improvisational. At this stage players were largely relegated from free-wheeling co-designers to passive consumers.

This wasn’t a matter of fault or blame, but rather a consequence of the well-intentioned, on-going development of the game reaching a saturation point where the rules became so complete as to leave little room for players’ own imaginations to shape the gameplay.

There was no longer any need for or great expectation of GMs and players presenting imaginative or intuitive input. Instead the GM followed the rules and formulae governing familiar and not so familiar situations; while the PCs sought solutions to the challenges defined by the rules through referencing the rules.
The early, intuitive game had, in effect, consumed itself and – without the imagination and improvisation that made RPGs distinct from countless other rule-driven pastimes, (including boardgames and wargames) – become another largely fixed narrative format.

Under the circumstances it is hardly surprising that those seeking the original, more improvisational form of RPG co-design and gameplay took a turn somewhere along the highway. Some moved to games with storytelling mechanics aimed at switching-on improvised drama; others followed the rules path to ever more elaborate attempts to nail down every possible situation – while a further section of the player base went back to earlier, more intuitive rule sets.

Familiar educational taxonomies connect to the skills involved in design gaming.
* – Thanks to Samantha Penney for the Creative Commons taxonomy poster.

So far, the last of these, the open-ended,  'theatre of the mind' approach, has proved most successful at re-capturing the sense of on-going exploration, novelty and improvisation that characterised the original RPG in its early years.

However, this cloning of rule sets, (or the trimming of larger rule sets), often presents the same central contradiction as before, i.e. a lot of GMs and players want or need more complete material to help them to run more improvisational games, but they often find that such support involves sacrificing elements of player choice and improvisation.

It may appear to follow that a perpetual tug-of-war is inescapable – except that it seems clear that supporting intuitive gaming through counter-intuitive approaches was always going to be problematic. Instead of trying to reconcile the irreconcilable it seems more practical to look to foster improvisation, imagination and intuition through embedding support within the game – and the gameplay – that is in itself improvisational, imaginative and intuitive.

However, embedding support in this way calls for some means of identifying the circumstances, rule sets, expansions and gameplay most likely to induce on-going improvisation. Some likely starting points are suggested by the characteristics of the development of early RPGs in terms of creativity, enterprise and intuitive decision-making.

From there, (and in broadly the same manner as applied to videogames on the poster shown below), it becomes possible to look to the psychologies of creativity, enterprise and intuition to help to identify approaches to games design and gameplay which are more likely to encourage and sustain improvisational gaming.

Neurology of Gaming Infographic - Online Universities Blog

RPGs might then be open to being designed or adapted to both enable improvisation and to remove potential situational or psychological blocks to intuitive gaming.
The second part of this post will look at the theory behind enabling intuitive and creative behaviours in the context of delivering more improvisational games and gameplay. It seems helpful to precede this by trying to describe or encapsulate a key quality or property of persistent improvisation that easily bridges the language gap between science and gaming.

Personally, as a GM and player looking to encourage improvisational play, the phrase, description and dynamic that most readily comes to mind during play is grace under pressure.

Using the phrase grace under pressure to begin to define the intuitive, improvisational skills and actions often associated with free-flowing, open-ended gameplay calls for some further explanation. In particular, it immediately becomes necessary to situate these intuitive or improvisational skills alongside, rather than in opposition to, other valuable and essential cognitive skills.

This can, perhaps, be done by looking at the use of roleplaying as a widely adopted form of training for professional roles involving having to think on your feet aka creative improvisation.

Surprisingly to some, these roleplaying activities are most often encountered in professional contexts, where those learning to demonstrate improvisation use roleplaying to prepare for having to work in situations that often involve facing too many hazards, uncertainties and/ or limited windows of opportunity to allow time for step-by-step, analytical thinking.
Emergency workers, air traffic controllers, business leaders and medical doctors are typical of those presented with such circumstances. They are given expensive training through roleplaying to equip them to carry-out production-based improvisation, i.e. creative improvisation.

Psychology Today: 'Intuition: Heads in the Clouds'

This type of very spontaneous improvisation is often associated with intuition and referenced through terms such as thinking outside the box or miraculous escape rather than grace under pressure. However, while it may be tempting to see the improvised and intuitive as spur-of-the-moment processes, somehow different or apart from more familiar cognitive processes, that’s not consistent with the available evidence.

If we take the example of air traffic controllers, it is possible to note that collisions may be prevented both through the tight, rational focus on what’s ‘in front’ of a controller, and through intuitive understanding of the global system at the periphery of their attention. Fire officers take similarly urgent decisions, when they may well lack access to all of the relevant information, but act highly effectively through rapidly matching their knowledge of how fires spread to what they know of the situation.

In these instances it seems possible to observe that access to important information is restricted and that these professionals have to improvise using all the cognitive options open to them. Under such circumstances intuition is working alongside memory and language – and cannot, therefore, be overriding or disregarding other processes.

Instead the improvisation and its intuitive element appear to combine the context, prior experience and a range of cognitive skills involved in mediating the critical thinking, social-perspective-taking and self-evaluation of decision-making processes. These inter-related skills are often described in terms of higher executive skills.
NASA Flash animation of modular Flight Center

In other words, though we may be able to identify a specific region of the brain associated with epiphany, (and express surprise or even amazement at reports of successful use of intuitive thinking), intuition appears to be more accurately defined as a cognitive sub-system which, perhaps, kicks-in when conditions make the cognitive alternatives seem likely to be less effective or in need of additional support.
This seems a key point, as an isolated cognitive capacity for intuition, (set aside from reasoning, context and prior knowledge), is unlikely to be either reliable or successful, because relying on largely unsupported or untrained intuition crosses over into areas like guess work or hunches.

Instead, intuition and improvisation appear to operate as part of an integrated range of higher executive skills linked to creativity, production and effective communication. For much of the time this module or sub-routine within our higher executive functions operates discretely – until brought, or pressed, into action.
It seems to follow that in practical terms improvisation and intuitive creativity can be described quite effectively as part of a taxonomy of cognitive skills, which knits together to select the best options under the circumstances. The functions and modules underlying effective improvisation and intuitive creativity may often remain in the background, but they are clearly connected to our memories, language and emotions in the manner of other higher executive skills.

Consequently, designing and delivering games and gameplay which are demonstrably improvisational and creative is probably more about enabling skills and striking a balance that allows reasoning, improvisation and creativity to collaborate. Not so much thinking outside the box as putting a Jack-in-the-Box.

This is certainly consistent with the types of roleplaying used to train firefighters, hostage negotiators or astronauts, as the training or education is all about allowing the personnel to get used to matching their skills to the types of roles and situations they are going to be dealing with. With such experience these professional should be better able to make the most appropriate decisions, including subconsciously evaluating whether or not a situation calls for more or less analytical reasoning and intuitive reasoning.

If the conditions contributing to improvisation and creative intuition are found in some types of RPG play and these can be mapped against known science, (which may suggest a taxonomy and new methodologies), does it follow that science puts in place a right or best way to design or play RPGs?

Not really. There’s no suggestion or implication that players have to apply any conditions to their entertainment. One of the benefits of measurement and consistency lies in isolating which elements of design and gameplay predict particular outcomes. This opens up rather than shutting-down choice, as players looking for particular styles of play can then map different features or elements of play to construct situations that are likely to deliver the chosen style.

Overall, considering tabletop RPGs in terms of psychology and learning isn’t about seeking to arrive at any one true way or trying to nail down concepts as subjective as enjoyment and fun. However, it does offer a framework for promoting and making effective use of roleplaying in contexts such as schools, libraries and adult learning centres – where RPGs can, perhaps, feed back into better understanding of how to steer clear of the edutainment trap, i.e. putting the skills cart in front of the fun/ entertainment horse.

Having looked at links between improvisation, creative intuition and RPGs the next step/ post will – finally – attempt to suggest specific practical approaches to delivering improvisational play and creative productions based on a wider pool of evidence than when relying solely on opinion. This might be seen in part as trying to recapture the early, improvisational days of tabletop RPGs but does, hopefully, go beyond that in terms of looking to identify and build on the factors that contributed to what some players see as a lost Golden Age.

These are a few of examples of the use of role-playing to train or educate skilled staff. The links offer a fair indication of the types of use being made. There are many more examples available to if you have or can find someone with access to digital academic libraries:

FBI Crisis Negotiation Skills Training

Medical Training

NASA Training


Linking improvisation and intuition to a cluster of inter-connected skills – towards the top of a pyramid of cognitive and learning skills - suggests a straightforward, but key, distinction between concepts like rules v’s imagination and a very different model involving balancing rules and imagination.

Boiling down the early stage sciences of intuition and creativity to such a framework is, inevitably, a considerable oversimplification as, for example, games are not necessarily directly comparable to learning, studies of creativity have focused on artistic creativity, (rather than say entrepreneurial creativity), and there’s a long way to go before all of the possible levels of interaction that might be involved are understood.

Nevertheless, moving from rules v’s imagination, consistency v’s variety, and procedure v’s improvisation seems to cast a different light on the features of games and gameplay that are likely to involve intuitive and improvisational creativity. This systemic model is much more concerned with achieving a balance based on encouraging system-wide communication than on pushing either elaborate rules or boundless imagination.

The type of balance that comes to mind is, perhaps unsurprisingly, familiar from the early days of tabletop RPGs, when the rules served as the dynamic, cutting-edge of a light blade – effortlessly cutting the cloth of the imaginative tapestry driving player choice and story-building.

It appears to follow that the journey from the early RPGs to some of today’s more complex, mechanical rule sets exposes a clear shift in balance from providing an improvisational middle ground to promoting a predominantly analytically and procedural form of play.

Experienced designers and players may become better able to balance more complex rule sets alongside more complex imaginative constructs. However, for new players the capacity to deliver balance as a GM or player appears to be undermined by the need to master procedures – often leaving the skills associated with a more creative balance to develop in the background over years. (For example, if a new player or GM is presented with an on-going competency test defined by knowledge of the rules it is fairly like that imagination is going to fall by the wayside).
Lighter rules, or different rules, may help but these can prove less satisfying to more experienced players who know the rules, are used to improvising and are looking for a foundation that provides a solid platform for ambitious projects. That in turn leads in the direction of looking at the practicalities of trying to make more intuitive, improvisational gaming readily-accessible. In the case of encouraging new players, the search for balance appears likely to be assisted by scaffolding both rules and improvisation. This might be done by making rules more scaleable in terms of gradually unfolding options and choices; by GMs building opportunities for improvisation into gameplay and by presenting imaginative content alongside the cut and thrust of rules-based strategies.

That is just one example of the type of approaches that may follow from seeking to strike-up a balance between the imaginative or intuitive and the procedural or analytic. Plenty of others are suggested by the material on creativity and improvisation that has been reviewed in recent posts.

The following examples don’t set-out to extend the basic model involving a search for balance beyond theory. Nevertheless, they may suggest where further research could begin to look for more answers and outline a few practical approaches to try-out at the table.

That said there has been, and remains, no reason or need for RPGs to look to add more improvisation and creative productivity to games and/ or gameplay. If a group enjoys expansive rule sets, procedural combats and finds it convenient to play shrink-wrapped adventures – why not. Fun means different things to different people and whatever is gained or lost in terms of improvisation, the fun defined by players at the table has to come first to ensure that the player choice horse remains in front of any number of carts.

So, here are a few options which may or may not be helpful:

1. Displaying creativity isn’t actually that popular. It often rocks the boat and demands attention. Trying to be creative in a group where creativity and improvisation are rare is all the worse, as groups tend to conform to the norm – and a norm that finds creativity and improvisation unsettling is hard to work with. Consequently, those looking for more creativity and improvisation may have to address how to reach a consensus that makes analysis and creativity equally welcome at the table. Which suggests that some forms of creativity may have to be negotiated, (and others set aside), while mapping-out a group’s creative common ground.

2. Games which are packed with measurement, calculations, procedures and a rule for everything leave very few gaps for the imagination to fill. If we add super-realist images, a game designer’s broadly appealing scenario pack and lavishly detailed scenery – well, there isn’t a lot left for players’ imaginations to flesh-out for themselves, including areas which they may prefer to leave bare. Crisp descriptions, diagrams, looser artwork, animation, infographics and storyboarding are possible options here; as a less is more approach can look to make some information less explicit, while offering a balancing sense of authenticity through selective use of consistency, props and procedures.

3. The shared expectations that may arise from balancing improvisation alongside verisimilitude, (rather than simulation), may allow a group to
Design Game Theory - Thistle Games (c) 2012 - Page 16
develop further shared expectations – and internal consistency – through gameplay which relies as much on the group’s combined understanding of what they want from the game as on any rule set. Building-in players’ and GMs’ preferences before a campaign or adventure starts with some lightweight planning or discussion may, therefore, be seen as allowing a group to shaping the game instead of allowing the game to shape the group.

4. Just as imaginative gaps are papered over by rules sets, so too are workspace options. If all the focus is on finding solutions within the rules and resolving outcomes there’s not much attention or awareness free to work on imaginative input. Under these circumstances the table – or worse, some of the table – can be so busy calculating, optimising and grandstanding that the relatively fragile states of improvisation and creativity never get off the ground. It might be practical to introduce more balance through devising rules that reward improvisation, through designing encounters that signpost improvisational options and through, generally, paying as much attention to fostering improvisation as goes into swallowing rule sets.

5. Numerous social, emotional and biological factors can influence the likelihood of regularly arriving at points in play where the rules fall into the background and free-flowing, improvisational gameplay takes hold. These range from simply being too upset or exhausted to engage in the levels of critical thinking and intuitive thought required to sustain improvisation; through to never taking breaks involving a different activity that allows the subconscious to chew over challenges and solutions in the background. Designers, GMs and players have limited control over ‘exhaustion’, but it should be possible to make it easier for improvisation to emerge from procedure by choosing which kind of encounters to use where and when. This might be as simple as keeping an on-the-way encounter or sub-quest handy to slot in ahead of the complicated battle that was coming up. Then, when the group meets again, there might more chance of a battle that is part outcomes and part story, rather than slightly weary button-pushing.

The topic is likely to return at some point, but for now the three posts present a rough theory or outline model of RPGs and roleplaying as part of the wider fields of gaming and learning. Taking this approach situates RPG gameplay within the scientific fold, where it becomes open to being tested against findings from across a variety of disciplines.

Psychological studies of creativity and improvisation offer an example of how such testing and comparison might be used to gain practical insights that could benefit gamers, potential gamers and, perhaps, learners. Clearly, some research won’t generalise to tabletop RPGs. However, in this instance there does appear to be enough relevant material to suggest that improvisation and creativity within RPGs can be compared to other forms of intuitive and/ or creative behaviours.

From there science appears to be able to sketch-out a systemic taxonomy of skills associated with design gaming/ tabletop RPGs, which suggests ways of exploring the effects of balancing gameplay across such systems to arrive at situations likely to deliver improvisation. The same might apply to other aspects of play, but it seems foremost that the system operates as a mesh of inter-connected components and that the more it’s connected-up the easier it will be to take what you want from it.

Examples of the scale/ effects of meaningful gamification through examples available from

And examples of where this is heading at - plus the developers' blog at

All of which connects to the earlier discussion of improvisation and intuitive thinking and what might be described as a gameplay ‘state of balance’ or, as Wikipedia has it, ‘a place where a combination of factors results in a maximum response for a given amount of effort.’. . . and, (while repeating that gaming and learning are not entirely the same thing), 7:30m in this video goes a long way towards describing being improvisational or in the moment in terms that seem very relevant to the intuitive, improvisational forms of RPG gameplay that have filled-up a few posts already – RSA Animate - Changing Education Paradigms.

Those who view the whole film will, perhaps, see parallels between what might be described as the industrialisation of commercial RPGs and the beginnings of a post-industrial, intuitive model emphasising player choice. I.e. some RPG companies/ designers are now going in search of the improvisational; the ‘in the moment’.

Design games set out to help players to go beyond following the rules and gameplay presented by game designers. Most games can offer some level of design gaming in terms of making it easy to adjust or adapt the basic format of a game, e.g. minor changes to the rules when playing a boardgame or designing your own simple card game.

However, many games are presented to us in the form of fixed rules and narratives, which encourage players to soak-up designers’ gameplay without using much of their own creativity or imagination to customise or shape gameplay. Obvious examples of games which concentrate on delivering a largely shrink-wrapped experience include many recent videogame titles, multi-volume tabletop RPGs, tabletop wargames and so-called Choose Your Own Adventure gamebooks.
These games are produced to a high standard and can offer a lot of enjoyment. At the same time, they’re designed to walk or ‘railroad’ players through the content without presenting players with meaningful choices. There may be some optional extras on offer to extend play, but these are typically limited to additional content and/ or ‘fan’ purchases, (such as the recent Final Fantasy iPhone App, which, remarkably, simply repackages screenshots from the game).

There is nothing ‘wrong’ with swallowing down easily digested chunks of other peoples’ imaginative content. After all, many players simply may not wish to get involved in designing and redesigning their own gameplay. (Though one has to wonder whether or not that’s because we’ve become accustomed to marketing and game formats which discourage design gaming).

For those who do want to use games as platforms to support their own imaginative input design gaming has a lot to offer. Lego serves as a good example, because purchasers are immediately presented with two options. Many Lego products are packaged as kits, which are, at least initially, intended to allow the construction of a particular model, e.g. the Eiffel Tower or a fortress from Prince of Persia. The same bricks can, however, be re-used and re-mixed to make any number of models. From there, the models can be used to play all manner of games based around players’ designs.

Lego, therefore, presents as a procedural, instruction-based exercise, but can easily become an open-ended design platform, which players can use to construct whatever their imaginations find appealing. (Procedures and instructions may be important, but there are plenty of opportunities to develop such methods. Imaginative play and design gaming are less readily available and seem better able to access learning rather than just training).

It’s difficult to draw hard and fast lines here, as pretty much any game can be used for design gaming on some level. It’s more a case of how easy a game makes the process of introducing design gaming and, in particular, how it supports ‘springboarding’ from viewing the rules and content as fixed, to treating the rules and content as a framework for design gaming.

Design gaming is up-and-running when it delivers a qualitative difference, which can, perhaps, be described through analogy. With fixed gaming players basically take the rules or skeleton and dress it in extra garments from the manufacturer’s wardrobe. With design gaming players take the skeleton, put flesh on the bones and design any clothing.

There are four obvious ways in which games may deliver design gaming:


Games which allow players to easily auto-style the format, configure gameplay, skin environments, design avatars and select personal, narrative and gameplay characteristics contribute to design gaming. Sims 3 and Sims 3 Ambitions are ‘stand outs’ for allowing players to customise, construct and re-mix gameplay.

Design Activities

Sims titles offer plenty of ‘construction’ options, but designing interactive experiences within games went a step further when Neverwinter Nights appeared with a relatively straightforward level design ‘kit’. Players could design their own adventures and much of the resultant gameplay from the ground up. Doing so can be a pretty demanding task, but the now dated game still remains popular as a result of its design kit.

Some recent games, including Dante’s Inferno and Dragon Age: Origins, have similar adventure or level design options, but these tend to be either fairly complex to learn to use or a bit short on features.

Gameplay can be designed to project players into particular types of interactions and challenges, which involve designing solutions to fairly complex problems. For example, a traditional counter wargame focuses on resource management, poker involves a social dimension to play and a boardgame design, (like Catan), asks players to occupy a gamespace combining resource management, social interactions and rapid decision making. (Ideally, the gamespace can be extended or modified using straightforward variations, such as with the many versions of poker or Catan’s add-on packs).


Tabletop RPGs offer personalisation, design activities and design gameplay opportunities as a matter of course. Some tabletop RPG games also act as ‘springboards’ to creative, imaginative roleplaying, involving high levels of player choice, open-ended storylines, house rules, depth of characterisation and the construction of shared, imaginative narratives.

Ideally, an on-going interplay between rules treated as guidelines and gameplay makes it easier to move or ‘spring’ beyond the confines of fixed gaming to a flexible or fluid gamespace where the guidelines fade into the background during play, (leaving design gaming to focus on communication, creativity and critical thinking).
Most tabletop RPGs have the potential to act as springboards to design game roleplaying. However, leading publishers have adapted many of the original tabletop RPGs to offer easily consumed fixed narratives and procedural rule sets.
The resulting pre-packaged pastime only offers limited design gaming and most multi-volume systems require extensive modifications to make it easier to deliver creative roleplaying. The sure route to design gaming, including springboarding, is to start with a set of guidelines designed to serve as a platform or framework for helping players to access imaginative roleplaying.

‘Rules light’ tabletop RPGs are often well-equipped to enable design gaming. Games with enough clear guidelines to sketch out player characters, set challenges and outline a setting tend to fill less than 250 pages, use modular game designs to make it easier to integrate new content and, ideally, leave room for ‘in-game’ interpretation and expansion of the underlying framework. Typical examples that have come up on other occasions include the Traveller SRD, Swords and Wizardry or Corruption. The recent 5E D&D also moves in this direction, but needs a bit of hacking to enable greater player agency over, for example, automatic skill checks.

If you’re a Pathfinder or an AD&D enthusiast the route to springboarding into ‘cinematic’, ‘freeform’ and ‘sandbox’ play is always open. Though it seems necessary to take a step back from the combat-focused rule sets and mechanics to consciously lead play in the direction of design gaming.

These multi-volume, combative games can support player choice, but doing so involves mixing exploration, characterisation, discovery, mysteries, investigations and purposeful missions into the gameplay. It also requires a willingness to interpret the rules as guidelines and place the rules ‘cart’ behind the gameplay ‘horse’.
Though tabletop RPGs offer a unique medium involving social gaming and are capable of supporting design gaming on various levels, tabletop RPG publishers are in some danger of being completely overtaken by videogame design games. Sims 3: Medieval allows players an almost unprecedented level of choice within the fantasy genre. It does do so by providing readily accessible design game kits or modules for building medieval gameworlds and gamespaces. Simply learning to building a ‘scene’ in Dragon Age’s design kit is time-consuming. With Sims 3: Medieval constructing an entire castle, populating it and running a series of ‘missions’ becomes quick and easy.

Players of Sims 3: Medieval and design game-focused tabletop RPGs will not be getting the same qualitative experience, but tabletop RPGs can expect to have, (further), difficulty ‘competing’, or perhaps, integrating unless they become more accessible and emphasise the unique appeal/ selling point mapped to design gaming.

Games, and RPGs in particular, are, rather obviously, about having fun. Consequently, discussions about topics like design gaming and possible links between learning skills, psychological processes and psychological constructs, (such as enjoyment), can seem a long way removed from the gaming table or console. Nevertheless, without understanding how games operate, and how to design games that deliver particular outcomes, it remains difficult to see or to move beyond current approaches to gameplay and game design.

For a long time games that offer opportunities for co-design and present challenges based around higher executive skills, (e.g. decision-making, critical thinking and collaborative co-design), have been largely divorced from learning, (and psychological models of learning), at the point when children start formal schooling.
However, studies of active learning, and the widespread use of role-playing strategies in higher education and vocational contexts, now present considerable evidence that much of the more imaginative and creative gameplay, (so often set aside as ‘make believe’ or ‘childish’), offers access to a range of valuable skills and, possibly, enjoyment, which is otherwise elusive. This, perhaps, suggests that it is worth looking at links between games and learning in the interests of allowing games as a whole, and design games in particular, to play a greater role in formal and informal learning.

As discussed in earlier posts, there seems to be a clear distinction between procedural, rules-focused gameplay and flexible, mediated gameplay. This can be illustrated through a game design like Lego, which presents as either a fixed challenge or any number of opened-ended challenges. Both the procedural and the flexible approaches ask players to construct and use enjoyable skill sets through gameplay based around player choice, i.e. a player may choose a Lego set that re-constructs the Eiffel Tower or use a collection of Lego to build any number of co-designed towers. At the same time, the gameplay clearly differs in terms of the types and range of, (necessarily), cognitive skills and constructs used by players.
Unlike Lego, Top Trumps card games are usually played to the rules and, initially, offer what appears to be a valuable training in ad hoc goal directed conceptual categorisation, (a process thought to underlie many of our cognitive decision-making functions). In other words, the cards’ content and the straightforward rules seem to combine to scaffold players’ learning, (as described by Bruner), and enjoyment of a specific cognitive skill or process.

However, before long players know all the options and play becomes predictable. There is no longer any ad hoc or ‘on the fly’ categorisation involved. A deck with a different theme may extend the game’s ‘lifespan’ with added content, but there are few new or extended skills to develop in revisiting the same procedures. Essentially, gameplay becomes fixed inside the zone or gamespace formed by the rule set.
It seems possible to re-introduce novelty, spontaneity and, perhaps, enjoyment by re-instating the scaffolding of cognitive skills through co-design. As soon as a players start to make their own cards, revise the content of the decks and extend or revisit the rule set, the gameplay and the game’s re-design becomes part of play and more complex categorisations and re-categorisations can be introduced through, for example, ‘wildcards’ or ‘jokers’.

Inevitably, changing and varying the range and complexity of gameplay through design gaming introduces more elaborate, and taxing, cognitive tasks. These may offer rewarding challenges and enjoyment, but many players are accustomed to both passive learning and passive entertainment. It may, therefore, be helpful to try to identify and to map the skills and enjoyment open to being associated with co-design, (and higher executive skills), in terms of relevant cognitive skills, processes and constructs. Ideally, this might suggest approaches to making it easier for players to move from procedural gameplay to design gaming.

Mapping higher executive skills, (such as effective decision-making skills, critical thinking skills and collaborative planning), to the gameplay associated with design gaming, (such as challenge-focused play and co-design), is already familiar from curriculum design and active learning. Mapping possible correlations to various processes and constructs, (on various levels), should, therefore, be practical. For example, through isolating and identifying any positive outcomes, such as a construct like ‘enjoyment’, when decisions are used to shape or construct play.
Mapping skills, gameplay and constructs to specific cognitive processes is more problematic, as the operation of psychological constructs through cognition is hard to model. However, it is possible to simulate cognitive learning processes through neural networks, which take relatively simple rules or instructions and connect them in parallel to realise, or, perhaps, scaffold, emergent properties. These emergent properties are associated with properties of cognition such as categorisation, graceful degradation, scaffolding and, possibly, the formation of ‘situation models’, (broadly analogous to transferable socio-cognitive schema or dynamic blueprints).
(It is necessary to be cautious when basing any proposals on emergent properties, as they currently only present a theoretical description of cognitive processes and constructs on one level. That said they offer an accessible approach to studying processes which appear broadly comparable to a range of cognitive processes and constructs).

Emergent properties involve a self-ordering of simple components to produce behaviours or outcomes which weren’t built in at the outset. They appear to occur as a function of complexity in everything from economies and evolution to flocking, swarming and gameplay. For example, it has been suggested that Poker remains ‘fresh’, (and open to co-design), as a result of emergent properties, including the common practice of folding, which is not required by the rules. Equally, Poker’s many variants are, essentially, emergent meta-gaming.

Consequently, when a game and its gameplay reaches a certain level of structure, diversity and connectivity emergent properties should in theory ‘kick-in’. If the structure, diversity and connectivity are sufficient the emergent properties should, perhaps, demonstrate the emergent properties of learning systems, which might involve such processes as categorisation, the scaffolding of situation models and other processes, perhaps, capable of driving co-design, offering novel challenges and, taken together, constructing knowledge and understanding.

Following from that, games which model or exploit features and processes associated with neural networks and cognition may be suited to entraining complex and enjoyable emergent gameplay. This might operate by putting relatively simple components into players’ ‘hands’ and, gradually, helping to scaffold increasingly varied, novel and spontaneous design gaming.

Settlers of Catan can appear to offer an example of a game which uses straightforward components to deliver gameplay focused around finding creative, co-designed solutions that, possibly, involve emergent properties. The game is zonal, ‘connected’ and attenuated or tuned through resource management and negotiation.

Tabletop RPGs should be ideally suited to generating emergent behaviours encouraging or even entraining the scaffolding of executive skills, co-design and player choice during play. That is providing the game is designed and run to enable design gaming rather than to limit options by trying to proceduralise most or all aspects of gameplay.

As a result, it is, perhaps, likely that a game which offers plenty of emergent properties and scaffolds design gaming and gameplay will share some of the properties of complex neural networks. Equally, the type of network most likely to deliver emergent properties is potentially comparable to the neural networking thought to model human cognitive networks, i.e. neuronal, modular, parallel, open to attenuation, and open to semantic and visual language and meaning.
It may seem counter-intuitive to simplify, streamline and standardise game elements to encourage and support play involving more elaborate cognitive skills and varied forms of enjoyment. However, under these conditions, the desired gameplay is contingent upon crossing thresholds mediated by structure, diversity and connectivity rather than the number of rules and procedures.

RPG systems like Classic Traveller and White Box D&D may offer suitable frameworks, as their modularity, straightforward mechanics and coherent design seem to leave room for, and encourage, fine-tuning, player choice and co-design. Treasure sets out to follow this approach through modelling other common features of cognitive and connective learning systems, including visual and semantic language systems, hierarchical categorisation, scaffolding campaign and scenario design, encouraging fine-tuning of the rule set and rewarding collaborative gameplay.

If the proposed links between executive skills, design gaming processes, (including the enjoyment of design gaming), cognitive processes and psychological constructs are present, gameplay within the learning system should, perhaps, demonstrate emergent properties. For example, it might be easy to take rules in and out, to modify rules and to add new game elements without problematic, system wide knock-on effects. Play might also, for example, foster player choice, reward interaction across all game elements and offer support for on-going co-design.

For instance, examples of building characterisation through typography and images instead of scores and descriptions, rapid visual design of campaigns and scenarios, rapid visual conversion or translation across visual genres and spontaneous freeform play all appear to emerge quite consistently.

Emergent properties can, perhaps, be seen as underlying the socio-cognitive learning processes and psychological constructs scaffolding gameplay in all games. However, where elaborate rule sets take precedence over player choice and co-design, it appears that gameplay may engage a limited spectrum of emergent properties, possibly resulting in less sophisticated psychological constructs elaborating fewer ‘executive’ functions.

Fortunately, it should become increasingly easy to match gameplay, skills, processes and constructs through reliable imaging technologies. Researchers are already isolating and then looking to integrate specific processes and constructs such as the processing of lies and decision-making. As such mapping develops games designers are probably going to be able to study game design, and gameplay, to deliver games that maximise enjoyment and motivation while scaffolding specific transferable skill sets.

Much of the scientific content presented is drawn from mainstream psychology and education, where it has already become part of a broad scientific consensus, i.e. accepted as fact. Clearly, accepted fact is not usually referenced. However, a number of sources within the text and some material from within studies of roleplaying and roleplaying games (RPGs) may assist consideration of the material.
The author is happy to suggest sources and resources that may act as an introduction to the broad range of research and practice incorporated within Design Game Theory.

The links below cover a selection of the background material used to prepare posts. Most articles are freely available for download but a few require an academic journals account. The links are not presented in a particular order.

Academic Accounts

Open Access