May 8 2022 (a 11 minutes read)

The Design Games Framework

This is a condensed abstract of the introduction to the Design Games Framework I shared at the beginning of my workshop on Rules! Drama! Space! A design games approach to exploring experiences at UXLX 2022 in Lisbon, Portugal.
For more on the DGF, check also out It’s pitch black. You’re likely to be eaten by a grue, the transcript of my World IA Day 2014 Bristol keynote.

Games have been around forever. The oldest documented game that can still be played today is the Royal Game of Ur, dating to 2600-2400 BC. We know about other, older games for which we have unfortunately lost the manual: we have all of the remaining pieces, but we don’t know how to play them. Games were played in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Ancient China, all across the Roman Empire, by the Huns, in the forests of Congo and in the jungles of Central and South America. Their constant presence in human societies clearly highlights a fundamental social role.

Which is, in hindsight, not so particularly surprising. After all, according to Clark C. Abt’s famous definition, once “reduced to its formal essence”

a game is an activity among two or more independent decision-makers seeking to achieve their objectives in some limiting context

Abt wasn’t particularly happy with his definition, and considered it too broad, since everything, from elections to running a business, from healthcare to competing for someone’ attention then qualifies as a game or as game material. But then again, isn’t it there where the genius of his intuition lies? That all human activities can be interpreted as “games” and that, conversely, (all) games are or can be “serious”? A few years before, Suits had written that

to play a game is to engage in activity directed towards bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by rules (and) less efficient means.

That “less efficient means” is a key aspect of games. Constraints are put in place to both hinder the players and to craftfully keep the system on the brink of chaos, perfectly unbalanced so that, as Fullerton says, the game “resolves its uncertainties in unequal outcomes”.

Games have a rather long history as educational tools. Games are fun to play, of course, but most interestingly, games imply conflict, only in a safe, milder, more playful form than what we can experience in the world. They are widely used in education as play-then-reflect tools to be experienced in groups: play a game, then discuss it, so that external, extrinsic perspectives can be brought to fruition inside the game’s context. While tabletop games have been the preferred type of games for use in educational contexts, video games have often been the preferred object of reflection, with one famous example investigating the rather problematic relationship between ludic gameplay and narrative fiction in “Grand Theft Auto” as a way to discuss in-game actions and behavior from an ethics standpoint (Walther 2019).

Fig. 1. Working with the design games framework at UX LX 2022

Games are considered an extremely efficient experiential learning tool. Very generally, experiential learning is the process of learning something by doing it: learning how to swim or how to ride a bicycle are typical examples. The interesting thing with games is that what they allow people to do is immerse themselves in the reality of a complex systems. Games are closed formal systems: they are complete and self-sufficient, don’t reference agents outside of the game, obey explicit rules, and their parts interact with each other in complex ways. Since they simulate complexity within a bounded, safe, explicitly regulated and self-sufficient environment, games allow players to directly engage with the cause and effect webwork of the subset of reality they simulate.

As such, engaging with games can provide insights that otherwise would be difficult to obtain, and that can then be thoroughly scrutinized and analyzed thanks to a long tradition in game design studies and to well-established theoretical foundations covering a multiplicity of disciplinary points of view (Abt, 1970; Fullerton, 2008; Salen & Zimmerman, 2004).

Games simultaneously offer representation, interaction, conflict, and safety (Crawford, 1984). Representation means that a game subjectively and deliberately creates a simplified representation of reality. Interaction points to how, by allowing players to actively generate causes and observe effects through play, a game produces effective learning. Conflict is an intrinsic element that arises naturally as players actively pursue their goals and obstacles prevent them from easily achieving them. But where conflict in real life implies danger or risk of harm, games afford players the psychological experience of conflict and danger without compromising their safety, excluding any physical realization of harm. Through such an artifice, players can engage and empathize with situations that might be distant from their own day-to-day experience. Including being part of the democratic process that led to Hitler’s rise to power in 1930s Germany.

Fig. 2. Aiding or resisting Hitler's rise to power in “Secret Hitler”

Work on what is now called the “Design Games Framework”, or DGF, started between 2011 and 2012 as an offshoot of the research work I was carrying out in public transport at the time, which I brought in part to Interaction ‘12 in Dublin, and of the Game Design courses I was teaching at the University of Borâs. It drew and draws primarily from work by Abt, Fullerton, Crawford, Norberg-Schulz, and was conceptualized as an experiential learning and critical play framework resting on the importance that games have in 21st century culture, especially for for the late Millennials, Gen Z and Gen Alpha generational cohorts. At its heart, the DGF is primarily a tool for understanding, formalizing, and prototyping complex digital / physical experiences using concepts and methodologies adapted from game design theory.

From 2014, when I first discussed in public the seminal idea of extending and revising Traci Fullerton's magistral work on formal and dramatic elements, and all through 2020, the DGF has gone through a series of iterations and progressive formalizations of its three element sets and of the play, remix, and design process, and has been presented at conferences, applied in graduate courses, and taught in workshops around Europe. From 2020 onwards, Bertil Lindenfalk has joined the effort and contributed substantially to its more recent developments.

At its heart, the DGF is a structured approach to the co-creation and reflective use of design games, which is simply a way to describe a type of serious games aimed at design problems. That is, games that are not meant to be simply played for fun, or generically educational, but that intend to contribute to the understanding of the systemic entanglement represented by the specific problem space the game centers on. For example, the multiple flows of customer care operations, or how unremarkable day-to-day activities greatly contribute to wasting water, invisbly impacting sustainability policies.

Fig. 3. Remixing customer care as a Fluxx-based game, European IA Summit 2019, Riga

While design games can take the form of tabletop games, video games, or mixed reality games, the DGF primarily centers on the creation and reflective use of tabletop games. The reasons are twofold: on one hand, tabletop games allow quick, low-fi prototyping using pen and paper; on the other, the physical components act as material anchors for the more abstract components of the game, improving the experiential learning process.

The DGF has two distinct purposes: that of a framework for the creation of design games meant to provide a prototype, or a provocatype, for simulating and directly experiencing complex environments while presenting players with a closed system explicitly regulated and devoid of external influences; and that of a tool to analyze, describe, and explain experiences by breaking them down into their formal, dramatic, and spatial elements. In design terms, these respectively address the “rules” they follow, the narratives they weave, and the environment they create and that players inhabit.


The DGF is usually applied first reflectively, to analyze, and then generatively, to design, in a process that consists of three distinct phases:

in which selected games are played and then systematically analyzed. This phase favors reflection over generation;

in which new games are designed that purposefully modify existing games by recasting selected formal, dramatic, or spatial elements. This phase balances reflection and generation;

in which entirely novel games are designed that introduce different formal, dramatic, and spatial elements. This phase favors generation over reflection.

Fig. 4. The DGF process

Element sets

These sets of elements work as a system, so their reciprocal relationships are also an important part of what constitutes first the design and then the play experience, mirroring the way current digital / physical experiences act systemically and are affected by constraints (formal), emotions (dramatic), and location-related (spatial) affordances.

Fig. 5. Formal, dramatic, and spatial elements

Formal elements

The number of individuals who can engage with the game simultaneously and their mutual relationships (unilateral or multilateral competition, cooperation, etc)

What game objects are and what actions are allowed during gameplay. Rules can be further differentiate into implicit, constitutional, and operational

Methods of play and actions players can perform to achieve the game's goals. Special game moments, such as closing, often require specific procedures

Formalized, building-block interactions between players and the game

All in-game assets, such as lives, currency, cards, time

All obstacles, opponents, or dilemmas the game presents to players

A game’s goal or goals. A number of high-level objectives have been formalized in game design theory, including build, capture, solve, or avoid

How is the winning or losing state determined at end of game

In “Monopoly”, 2 to 8 players engage in multilateral competition. One of the rules of the game establishes that to acquire land (a resource) and build houses (another resource), player pay variable amounts of game currency (another resource). The development cycle for real estate is one of the game’s core procedures: playing in turns is one of its core mechanics. The game’s objective is to remain the last solvent player, with outcomes related to assets possessed and liabilities incurred. Players represent a challenge to one another.

Dramatic elements

The narrative that led to the game initial setup

The role the players play in the game and all non-player personas.

The narrative evolving through game play

All narrative elements besides story and characters

In “Monopoly”, the premise is that of early 20th century urban development in the United States: the players play as capitalist real estate developers (characters), while the bank is a non-player persona. The story chronicles the rising or falling fortunes of the individual players as they try to establish their empires. The settings include urban elements of prototypical American cities such as streets, parks, or utility companies.

Spatial elements

The game establishes and (or) simulates mono-, bi-, and three-dimensional space

The distances between all or some game elements are a constitutive element of game play

Game space is either continuous or discontinuous (divided in areas, cells, or other spatial units)

Game space fences out special areas for play purposes

Game play requires or sets up game elements to be in one or more sequences

Parts of game space are fully contained within other parts of game space

Monopoly uses three-dimensional game elements (for example houses and hotels) on a bi-dimensional board on which a mono-dimensional sequence of cells is laid out head-to-tail (sequence). The distance between individual cells (proximity) is a major element in the game, as players roll a die and count cells to move. Special places are provided on the board for special game cards (enclosures). Monopoly does not make use of nesting, which is more typical of video games and of the variable-scale maps used in tabletop role playing games.

Two of the most challenging activities in any practice that engages with any sort of wicked problems are the placing of boundaries and the capturing and representation of the interplay between the different elements that belong to the system: the DGF provides a way to break down the problem space into a playable system structured around its formal, spatial, and dramatic elements, introducing a manageable way to express the structure of an experience by means of a design game. Not only this provides an initial structured approach to figuring out the architecture of a given problem space and the systemic interplay of the participating elements, but the finished game or prototype lets players interactively experience how their actions influence the competing goals of the actors, what these goals actually are and depend upon, which rules or resources might favor or hinder them, and what “winning” and “losing” mean and imply in the context of that specific experience.


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