The 8 Pillars of Playful Design

8 pillars of playful design banner The 8 Pillars of Playful Design

I’ve messed around with formalising a way to introduce play into experiences in the past, but this is the first time I have tried to plot out the key features of playful experiences in a way that becomes replicable in some way.

First, it is really important to understand what I mean by Play and Playful!


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 of new and novel experiences.  It is undertaken for its own sake often for fun and joy. To quote myself (!!) Read More ...

Play in Context

Play in context e1474889485746 Play in Context

As you may know, the concept of play is very important to me. I feel that it is one of the true keys to engagement in adults, but as I was speaking about recently, adults often have no idea how to play. They have the intrinsic desire to play battered out of them by the “real” world. Unlike children, they don’t see the potential for play in the world around them. Some blame work for this – they often say that the opposite of play is work. However, I prefer to go with Dr. Stuart Brown’s (founder of the National Institute of Play)  analysis in this case, that the opposite of play is actually depression.

Work is actually very similar to play and even more similar to games. The main difference is perception. I spoke about lusory attitude a while back, this is where you approach a non-play situation with a playful attitude. Just this change in attitude can change your perception of a situation. So with the right attitude, work can seem much more playful or gameful (note – these are not the same thing!!!)

Playfulness vs Gamefulness

Playfulness and Gamefulness both need a safe environment first and foremost. Playfulness requires a great deal of freedom and a lack of explicit rules imposed by the system or environment. Gamefulness is a little less freeform, there are explicit rules that are maintained by the system. A small example to give some context.

A child builds a tower because it is enjoyable to see what happens when you stack one block on top of another. It is also pleasant to feel the texture of the block in their hand. It makes them chuckle if they knock the tower down by mistake. This is playful. There is no deliberate aim, the child is just letting curiosity lead them. Even without any structure, they are learning a great deal. Their dexterity is better, they learn the best way to stack the bricks and they learn how many they can stack before it gets unstable.

As their skills at stacking blocks increases, this simple and playful act will get less interesting. They know how to stack them, can stack all the bricks they have without them falling down and have even added some other bits. They have mastered stacking. They need more to entertain them now. So they add some rules and create a challenge for themselves. Now they have to create a few shorter towers and see how many blocks they need to throw to knock them all down. They have taken the playful activity and made it into a game. The addition of these explicit rules and challenges has made it gameful.

Play Sits Between Chaos and Control

I have spent a great deal of time thinking about play. It occupies my mind on long trips, quiet moments of reflection and when I should be asleep. I have come to the conclusion that it sits between chaos and control in the context of the world. It is not totally without rules, but it is also not totally beholden to them.

This conclusion got me thinking about where play actually sits in our understanding of the world and how we react to it. I realised that it is not quite as simple as chaos and control, it also had a lot to do with intent. Did we explicitly mean to do something or is it more implicit in nature. It occurred to me that play also sits between implicit and explicit desires and actions. We play at a conscious and subconscious level. This lead to the old faithful 2×2 grid of doom 🙂

I mapped out a few other concepts to give this more context. I see anarchy as a deliberate act that leads to chaos for instance. Art is implicit to the artist, that is it comes from the soul. However, it has to have a level of control from the artist. They have to get their ideas down in a way that fits their vision – that takes control.

Fear is an internal emotion that often comes from a lack of control – from chaos, not understanding what is happening around us. And we all know what fear leads to (puts on a Yoda Voice) “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” At the far end of this, we find depression. A complete loss of all control in every way.

Ahem. Self-expression is also internal but sits between chaos and control. Think of an artist who covers themselves in paint and rolls around on a sheet of paper. Whilst they have an idea and have some level of control – there is a random, chaotic nature to it as well.

Up the other end of the scale, we have games. They have a much more explicit control of the player’s experience. The reason this is not to the far top right, is because there the player still has some freedom in most if not all games. However, with work this is much less the case – especially in more “traditional” jobs. Explicit Control rules!

As you can finally see, Play sits somewhere in the middle of all of this. It is implicit, explicit, chaotic and controlled all at once. Hey, I didn’t say it was simple!

So What?

This is all very philosophical, but there is actually a useful point to this. To get the best out of people you need to allow them a level of autonomy, but not so much that it descends into chaos, but also a level of control, but stop before they are unable to make decisions for themselves. This balance helps to give them the freedom they need, within a framework that supports them.

And don’t forget to register for the Product Gamification Summit 🙂