This article discusses about design games. What is the definition? Why they are appealing and intriguing method for sustainable transformation?  What makes a good design game?
Design games as a method to explore the alternative sustainable futures
Let’s defining few essential terms:

In a PLAYFUL DESIGN there are no formal rules or pre-defined goals. In general, the term play can be used to describe a wide range of experiences and can be defined as “a free movement within a more rigid structure”1.

A PURE GAME, in turn, can be defined as “a system in which the players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by the rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome” 2.

GAMIFICATION is all about “the use of game design elements in non-game context“ 3. Or more broadly “as the use of any kind of elements that result in gameful experiences” 4.

SERIOUS GAMES are full-fledged games that are designed for the non-recreational environments and for educational purposes. The serious games are dealing often with the economics, the health, the military or the politics by simulating the real world situations aiming to engage the players in order to create a behaviour change through the motivation 5, 6.

Last one, DESIGN GAMES, belongs into the category of Serious Games and  the definition is a tricky one. There actually isn’t one definition that all scholars would agree on. Instead the current definition is flexible and very much content related. Most descriptions of design games, however, agree that design games are about participation, that there is seldom a competition over who wins the game and that there are rules and tangible game pieces that guide the design moves.

To me the most appealing definition is long and lingering one, formulated by Kirsikka Vaajakallio, who has written a dissertation titled “Design games as a tool, a mindset and a structure” (2012). “Design games are tools for co-design that purposefully emphasises play qualities such as playful mindset and structure, which are supported by tangible game materials and rules. The qualities of the design games are: firstly they create a common design language, secondly they promote a creative and explorative attitude, and thirdly they facilitate the players in envisioning and enacting what could be.” 7

To sum up, it’s good to acknowledge if you are aiming for a playful activity, a design game that includes gamified elements or a full gamelike game, that actually is a game.

Games are a method that supports the sustainable transformation

IMAGE: Buckminster Fuller & World pease game

When talking about games as a method for futures visioning it’s worth to understand what actually is this thing called futures studies; it is the study of possible, probable, and preferable futures along world views and myths underlining them 8. Games and gamification are actually established methods within futures studies.

One of the earliest examples of the gamified future visioning, dating back to 1960’s, is the Buckminster Fuller’s World Peace Game that was designed as a tool to facilitate dealing with the issues around the global problems.

Another early example is a Future Workshop that is a futures technique – particularly suitable for the participants who have little experience with the processes of the creative decision-making – designed in the 1970’s by Robert Jungk, Ruediger Lutz and Norbert R. Muellert. This game enables a group of people to develop new ideas and solutions to the social problems through four different phases: the preparatory, the critique, the fantasy and the implementation.

Since, numerous games have been designed within the disciplines of futures research, design and science. (See Games4Sustainability.) Sohail Inayatullah, who’s experienced in combining the gamification to futures studies states that games, in whatever form, as something that can help making the particular futures more real and alternative futures more legitimate 9Games and foresight fit nicely together also because foresight methods provide the basis on top of which games can elaborate on and create meaningful experiences. To continue, this experience can be seen as what the laboratory experiments are to the natural sciences, some kind of a living lab or simulation. 

Within a game, there lies also a possibility to address wicked, complex and frustrating topics like the climate crisis or the biodiversity loss in a safe environment where players are free of the present day’s human made laws and restrictions and are able to spent time on comprehending, discussing and envisioning what kind of futures they see ahed.

Using gaming in futures ensures that the approach:

  1. Makes the possibility of understanding futures more likely,
  2. Leads to a greater insight,
  3. Allows for whole brain-body-spirit learning, i.e. all ways of learning are included,
  4. Allows cognitive faculties to be suspended while “body” catches up with futures information and
  5. Enhances the possibility of a more robust future. 10
What makes a good game?

To move towards practice, let’s conclude with framework, created by Kenan Degirmenci, Lecturer in Information systems in Queensland university of technology who has studied the serious games of the eco-effective transformations. The framework describes how the desired outcomes are incremental and life changing. It’s worth mentioning that the path form the actual game with all its objects, mechanics and gameplay towards a meaningful engagement is everything but easy, but still worth pursuing. But how to ensure that the game under creation will be a good one?

According the qualities of good game goals are:

  1. Concrete, so that the players understand what they are supposed to do in the game.
  2. Achievable, so that the players get the feeling that they have the possibility to achieve the goals and
  3. Rewarding, so that the players are motivated in achieving the goals.
  4. Collaborative, so that the players can achieve the goals together. The reasoning behind is that collaborative spirit is also in a key role in achieving sustainability goals in real life.

As the future is yet to emerge, the multiple ways of knowing and the concomitant methods and tools are required. Games are one method that can help making the particular futures more real and alternative futures more legitimate 12. Naturally we need a wholesome approach, including new alternative economic models, new way to practice politics, new laws and global goals along with the new innovations nudging us to a regenerative futures and so forth… but games as tool are one of the many tools worth considering when creating this transformation.


1, 2 
Salen, K., & Zimmerman, E. (2010). Rules of play: game design fundamentals. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Detering, et al. (2011) Conference: Proceedings of the 15th International Academic MindTrek Conference: Envisioning Future Media Environments.

Hamari, J., Koivisto, J., & Sarsa, H. (2014). Does gamification work? – A literature review of empirical studies on gamification. In Proceedings of the 47th Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, HICSS 2014.

Borges, S. D. S., Durelli, V. H. S., Reis, H. M., & Isotani, S. (2014). A systematic mapping on gamification applied to education. Proceedings of the 29th Annual ACM Symposium on Applied Computing – SAC 14.

Degirmenci, K. (2017). Serious Games for Eco-Effective Transformations. Retrieved from https:// www.researchgate.net/publication/319953517_Serious_Games_for_Eco-Effective_ Transformations

Vaajakallio, K. 2021. Design games as a tool, a mindset and a structure. Aalto University.

Amara 1974, 1981; Bell 1997, and many others

9, 10, 12
Inayatullah, S. (2017). Gaming, Ways of Knowing, and Futures. Journal of Futures Studies, 22(2), 101–106.

Schell, J. (2008). The Art of Game Design. A Book of Lenses. Carnegie Mellon University. MA: Morgan Kaufmann Publishers is an imprint of Elsevier.

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