game vs play

Play, games, toys, playfulness and gamification

Reading Time: 5 minutes (ish)

Lately I have been thinking about play a lot. This is probably because of watching my children growing up and seeing how play changes into games as they develop. I have written about play before and it does form part of my general Game Thinking framework, but it is lumped with toys and games – rather lazily.

I wanted to give play and my surrounding thoughts on it its own post.


Play is free form and unlike a game does not need to have a point or a goal to it. It exists within a set of rules created by the person or people playing and is born in the imagination.  Often it is a way of exploring the boundaries and extremes of something, in search for new and novel experiences.  It is undertaken for its own sake often for fun and joy.

When my daughters were very young, they used to engage in pure play. They did things because they were novel, a new experience, and judging by their smiles and their laughter – they enjoyed it. I would go so far as to say they found it fun. Play did not need external objects at first, they could just move their foot and find that hilarious. Many say that play is essential for children as it teaches them about their environment and themselves.  I have to agree – they learn essential lessons through play, but I don’t think that is why they actually play – they don’t think to themselves “I’m going to learn how my foot works now”. They play because they can and it entertains them! Like adults, they are seeking novel experiences.

As they developed, their own movements became less interesting (probably because they had discovered the boundaries of what could be done, mastered them if you will), so play needed to have some help. They would pick up things and do things they found entertaining with them. These things became toys.


Toys are an interesting concept when considering games and play. In this context, toys are objects or representation of objects that have their own intrinsic rules, but don’t come with extrinsic rules as standard! So a ball, a stick, a transformer etc. You can play with them however you want confined only by the toys own rules – effect of gravity, shape, fragility etc. If you throw a ball, depending on the material the ball is made from it might bounce, it might roll, it might stop dead – that sort of thing. These are not rules that the person playing imposes on the ball. If you throw a Transformer in the same way as a ball, it will obey its own rules. It won’t bounce and will probably break when you throw it at a wall!

There is another type of toy worth mentioning – I refer to it as a playground or a toy box. This is an entire environment rather than a single object. Take Gary’s Mod or Minecraft (in creator mode) as examples. You are in a virtual world that has it’s own intrinsic rules for how the world behaves and the constraints that you as the player have within the world (magic circle). With Minecraft this would be things like how far you can dig down, how far you can build up, how certain blocks behave with other blocks and more. However, within those constraints you can do what you want. You can use the world itself as a toy and play with it.  That can include turning the world into the setting for a game!

At first my kids would just play with the toys, they would not create any discernible rules around how they interacted with the toys. After a while though that was no longer enough. It was not fun just to throw bricks at the wall, they started to add rules to the play, stacking as high as they could, lining up the colours. The free form play now had  structure – it had become a simple game.


Play begins to become a game, when you start to add explicit goals to it and rules that are imposed by the system. If I kick the ball through a goal, I get a point and I win (Zero sum). If we work together to get the ball through a series of obstacles, we win (non zero sum). For some this will boil down to competition (with the system or other players) and cooperation. For others, there is much much more to it!.

With my kids, I began to see them turning pure cooperative play into cooperative games as they both matured, individually and together. They would create scenarios such as being a chef and a waiter. They had to work together to get Mummy and Daddy their orders. Whilst it was still very free form, it was starting to have game like elements, rules and goals.

Now of course they play games with each other that are purely competitive as well as playing cooperatively. Either way, it is a joy to watch and try to understand!

Gameful and Playful

In my mind there is also a variation on the Game vs Play conversation. Gameful vs Playful. This is not fully formed in my mind, but from what I have seen there are games that are playful and play that can be gameful. So for example, Minecraft in Creator mode is pure play – it is therefore Playful Play. However, when you start to add game like rules and goals to it (create pac man, or hunger games or even play in the adventure mode) it becomes a Playful Game.

Call of Duty games offer little to no chance to play, they offer a single experience. There are opportunities to do stuff just for fun, but that is forced rather than designed. So Call of Duty is a pure game, a Gameful Game.

Toca Boca create games for children. Some of them have actual goals, create things and do certain things. However they are designed to encourage pure play as well. So for me they represent Gameful Play.

As I say, these are fairly embryonic thoughts!

game vs play

So a quick summary

  • Play is free form and has no extrinsically imposed goals. It is done for fun or joy.
  • Games add defined goals and rules to play (such as challenges)
  • Toys are objects that can be used in play or games.

Games and toys are a subset of play.

  • You play.
  • You play a game.
  • You play with a toy.
  • You play a game with a toy.

Final Thoughts on Playfulness

As a final thought, I wanted to consider playfulness. If play is free form, does not need to adhere to rules and is undertaken just for its own sake, then being playful would require one to submit to those same concepts. To design a system that encourages playfulness you must create an environment that allows people to do things just because they can. You have to create experiences that exist purely for the sake of being novel and enjoyable to the user.

You need to break the rules a little and give the user a chance to do the same.

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10 Responses

  1. Marcelo Augusto da Silva Costa Marcelo Augusto da Silva Costa says:

    The use of game elements to improve the experience of the user, for example, use an image to inform the user of a page not found (404) instead of showing a boring message would fit in Playful Design?

  2. steve steve says:

    I would like to add to the comments and conversation on body parts. One area of research I have examined is reward mechanisms based upon behaviour patterns. This came about when working on an idea about the gamification of human behaviour and that we as humans have been gamified over thousands of years. Our bodies have been designed to respond to chemical inputs through the endocrine system and which is probably why the brain is so large and adaptable based on the premise that it is far easier to change a path way or receptor in the brain and make a new connection than it is to grow and extra limb or foot to take advantage of an event or external influence. For example if you were out in woods and met a bear you can do one of two things Fight or Flight (Run) but how were these two options of behaviour created. If you stayed and fought you would get a reward of adrenaline and possibly if male also testosterone to make you aggressive. These chemicals are reward mechanisms if enough adrenaline was provided and you survived you were more likely to pass on your genes to your offspring ( a bit like levelling up). If you decided to run, your body would give the same chemicals, if you survived the chase you would be rewarded with survival which again would mean you had offspring with the same abilities. The rules are if you fail you die and therefore your genes die with you. If your brain make the connection that instead of fighting use adrenaline to run away and that gives you a better chance of survival rather than those who just fight, you win and your offspring win. The same is with reward mechanisms such as the application of skill. You see a mango in a tree you climb up and get it that’s is quite a risk, time consuming and uses up energy (you can’t climb down the tree with many mangoes). Imagine if you got rewarded with a buzz and warm feeling from trying to hit the mango out of the tree with a stone. Each time you missed you wanted to get another stone and when you knocked it from the tree not only did you get a bigger buzz you also got the mango and could eat it with the risk of falling out of a tree and throwing a few stones is less energetic than climbing. Those who developed repetitive behaviors that improved skills were rewarded more, with better chances of survival and this may also explain why randomly generated reward structures (Like Gambling) are so addictive as the behaviour tempts you to keep trying even when you have failed.
    These are just a few ideas to throw around and I am sure you can point out the areas that might appear a little weak so lets talk.

    • Nice. All of the reactions to these types of stimuli help us learn. Bear hit me, it hurt. I ran. I survived. Yay. Let’s just run next time. Now, the likelihood is that this individual would then teach their children and “friends” that running from a bear was better than punching it in the face. So his line and their friends thrived – until spears were invented. Then one discovered they could kill the bear if a few of them went at it with spears. Then the reward was greater – fur, food and they survived. That then gets taught. The neurochemical “rewards” all help to reinforce the learned experience. An interesting area to explore for sure!

  3. Hello Andrzej and thanks a lot for you grear article. Play and Game (that is quite difficult for spanish speakers) is one of the most hard and discussed concepts in Game Studies. Caillois pointed up this in his Ludus and Paidea theory and after other theorist like Frasca adapted it to digitalized games. I can remember also almos the same quadrant in Deterdings’ paper about the topic which he added gamification too.

    For me as a researcher on Games topic I think the main difference between Play and Games is parameterization, that is: if you use rules of some kind of numbers/math behind to measure/asses how nice you are “playing”. Why do I say that? Because rules are everywhere. For example in mimicry games (paidea according to Caillois) you have very particular rules for role play acting the proper way, but… Can you parameterized them without cutting the playing’s flow?

    By other hand, when you are speaking about toys, Could we consider our own body as a toy itself? Therefore when we are speaking about play and toy maybe we have to consider our own body as an object (or a group of objects) which we could use to play every kid of games…

    Thanks a lot and keep in touch!

    Flavio Escribano from

    • Thanks for the great comment. It is tough to give a definitive definition – there will always be arguments in areas like this where it basically philosophy! These are just observations that have helped me describe differences. I had considered mentioning body parts in the toy part of the article, but thought it could be confusing in the general scheme of things!! I wonder on the rules thing – is it explicit goals that make the game? Mimicry has specific goals – match the movements of the it other person. We don’t emphasise that failing to do so is “losing” but really it is!

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Andrzej Marczewski
About Andrzej Marczewski twitter facebook    
Gamification thought leader and evangelist, I love to write about it, talk about it and bore people to death with it! If you really want to get to know me, check out the About page.

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