Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Games and Meaningful Play

Posted on | June 30, 2016 | No Comments

What is a game? What makes it fun? How can you design a game to provide a meaningful and rewarding experience? Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals by Katie Salen Tekinba and Eric Zimmerman is a great blend of theory and practical application and helps us understand the importance of “gameplay” – the emotional relationship between player actions and game outcomes. The book helps explain what makes games, from baseball to virtual reality games, effective and meaningful. In this post, I look at some of the key ideas involved in understanding games, using baseball as a primary example.

A game is a structured form of playing and involves choices of action. It invokes an organized way of making choices, taking action, and experiencing some kind of feedback. In other words, game players take some visible action and the game responds with information that provides feedback to the player and subsequently changes the status of the game. Below is a picture of my daughter playing a virtual reality game of baseball.

Baseball VR Game

The actions and subsequent outcomes need to be discernible – understandable and visible. And they need to be integrated into the game. In baseball, for example, a batter makes a decision to swing at a ball thrown by the pitcher. Several things can happen based on the trajectory of the pitch and the way the batter swings. She can swing and miss, or hit the ball for one of several results: foul ball, base hit, home run, pop out, etc.

The result of the action needs to be evident and contribute to the game. The foul ball is registered as a strike; a base hit can move runners or at least get the batter on base. A home run is an ultimate action in baseball as it adds immediately to the final score of the game.

The many recognizable actions of a game is one of the reasons “datatainment” is a prominent part of baseball. Hits, home runs, ERA, strikeouts are all significant acts that can be distinguished and statistically registered on a baseball scoreboard or the season “stats” of a player. Not only are players evaluated based on these measures, fans of professional sports often take a keen interest in these numbers as part of an identification process with players. Sports teams look to deepen fan engagement by going beyond box scores to digitally-enabled fantasy sports and other forms of social involvement and entertainment.

baseball scoreboard

Choices and actions change the game and create new meanings. They move the game forward. Strikes end batters; outs end innings. As the game moves forward, new meanings are created. Heroes emerge, a team pulls ahead, a team comes from behind. A good game drives emotional and psychological interest, either through a tribal allegiance to a team, an interest in a player, or a recognition of the stakes of a game, as in a championship such as the World Series. But in every case, the game must have discernible actions that have a meaningful impact on the progress and result of the game.



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY, he taught at Hannam University in South Korea and from 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, Marist College in New York, and Victoria University in New Zealand. He has also spent time as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.


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    Professor at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea since 2016. Moved to Austin, Texas in August 2012 to join the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University. Spent the previous decade on the faculty at New York University teaching and researching information systems, digital economics, and strategic communications.

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