Motivational Design

Lenses and Patterns for Motivational Game Design

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Sometimes video games transcend “Fun” and have a relevance to the player outside of its entertainment value. A game can be considered meaningful when it has some sort of impact on the player's life outside the game.

The player can take away a large variety of things from video games. Games can facilitate a strong understanding of something through mechanics, or convey a topic through story. Games can initiate friendships and socialization. Meaningful games often fall under the category, Serious Games, or Educational Games.

Alternate Definition for meaningfulness: (derived from Terror Management Theory)

Meaning in broad sense represents purpose. Terror Management Theory states that human capacity for self awareness and that of the inevitability of death, plays a major role in daily life. It causes us to subjectively appraise meaningfulness of entities and their relevance in our lives. Thus, cursed with this unique and sophisticated mental ability, every player walk into the game with a different mindset, and different expectations.

Existential awareness is a strong motivation of our play, more so in some people than others. Though this quest for meaningful experiences is common in all humans, it is highly subjective and is often influenced by factors, not only cultural and social, but also personal. Thus, while designing with the intent of making an experience meaningful, it would be beneficial to identify the audience to whom you wish to appeal, and strengthen the experience based on features relevant to their personalities, circumstances and cultures. Though, this concept is complicated and hard to integrate into design directly, the one thing that all meaningful experiences have in common is they evoke a strong lasting emotion in the person.

Lens of Meaning

Meaningful game experiences are created using gameplay elements cleverly and metaphorically to represent something larger than themselves, within or beyond the scope of the game.

The yin-yang symbol, though simple in its geometry, philosophically represents the interdependence of many natural Dualities (Such as Light and Darkness, Hot and Cold, Life and Death)

Focusing Questions

It is possible for games to have an impact on player's lives outside of the game. (Understanding new perspective, gaining a new skill, facilitating socialization, etc.) Here are some questions to consider if you aim to have some sort of impact on your player after they have completed the gaming experience:

  • What is the most important thing that you want players to take away from your game?
    • (The answer to this could just be a fun experience. Not everything has to have a deep meaning.)
  • Who is your target audience and would they find your idea appealing?
  • If the intent is to invoke an experience through mechanics:
    • Do the mechanics in your game correlate to real-world emotions and/or skills?
    • Do all components in your game align with this goal?
  • If the intent is to convey a strong message:
    • Does your game strongly contextualize that element in real life?
  • If the intent is to deliver a moving story:
    • Does your game have strong narrative?
    • Does the narrative expose the player to a new perspective or concept?
  • If the intent is to promote social interactions:
    • Does your game facilitate real world relationships?
    • See also: Relatedness

Can be instantiated by:




The Plan

The Plan is a short F2P game on steam, that offers less than ten minutes of gameplay. In the game you control a fly that is constantly ascending from the ground. The player's job is to steer it across winds and avoid the falling leaves. After a very short gameplay, the player finally encounters the climax. But as soon as the player notices the bright light and the zapper, waiting to kill the fly, the controls are partially withdrawn. Through the climax, the designers intended to describe the pointlessness in the journey. Alternatively players may interpret it multiple ways. In the flies last moments, some players face the desperate struggle between temptation and abstinence, between the meaning of living and the pointlessness of it, between life and death!

Papo & Yo

Papo & Yo is the story of young boy, who is tormented by his alcoholic father. He uses him imagination to escape the harsh reality of alcohol addiction and the violence that comes with it. Through metaphorical representation of these real life entities in the child's imagination, the designers intend to enlighten the audience about the dangers of alcohol abuse and its impact on families.


Making your intended meaningful element fairly obvious to the audience. (I don't think this strategy would work for everyone) - Bob

Create mechanics support and / or don't contradict this intent.


Each person has a complex vocabulary of symbols

Each Person has a vocabulary of symbols that they acquire throughout their lives. Much of this vocabulary is culturally specific, and one symbol can have multiple connotations across cultures. Designers employ symbols when creating media for many reasons. They are a form of shorthand, they can evoke powerful responses, people enjoy recognizing symbols, and they enjoy having a story or idea conveyed to them in a novel way. As a designer, it is essential that you cultivate an awareness of symbols, particularly the connotations of the symbols you are interested in invoking. (Bob)

Some people want to be told, some people want to figure it out

Everybody has a different aesthetic preference for how literal a piece of media is as opposed to how symbolic or metaphorical it is. They also have a preference for how clear cut the symbols are as opposed to how ambiguous they appear. Within one person, this preference will vary depending on their mood, and on their views on the subject matter being depicted. There is no right answer to these concerns. All a designer can do is decide which audience they are speaking to, and weigh that against how they want to depict the subject matter.(Bob)

Mechanics are meaningful

“Mechanics as metaphor” is a concept that is emerging in the discourse. It points to the fact that the mechanics or gameplay actions themselves are significant or can represent an idea, like visual, auditory or narrative devices. Just like with other symbols, it is important to employ mechanics intentionally. In general designers want to avoid including mechanics that accidentally contradict the narrative/aesthetic of the game, although perhaps this dissonance can be strategically employed for a particular effect.




This lens is empirically validated.





Robert Lumsden

motivations/meaning.txt · Last modified: 2014/05/20 03:10 by arunabraham