Game Systems as Engines

In a video I did recently, I talked a bit about these system-types that I originally posited in my book – the four “forms” of Toy, Puzzle, Contest and Game. This is not a breakdown of how I see things in the current state of game design, but rather a vision for what I think game design should be.

Before we go on – prescriptive definition warning. I use common words to refer to very specific things, so if you see the chart and think “what the hell is this guy talking about” – simply read below. I elaborate in detail about what I mean.

The main reason that this system is useful is because it gives game designers an abstract gameplay purpose to start with. It answers the question of “what should I be trying to do” at the most basic level.

This might sound arbitrary to some – I’ll address that quickly before going in more detail on this new chart.


It’s Abitrary!

Why are the systems Toy, Puzzle, Contest and Game, and not some other kinds of systems? What were these based on?

As far as I can tell, these are the four things that a person can be doing when interacting with a system. I suppose that my evidence for this would basically be inductive – I cannot “prove without a shadow of a doubt” that these are the systems, but I have observed it, and I continue to observe it. In other words, every example of play I can think of fits well into this system. Secondly, even if it is not “the true four ways” in some absolute sense, it is a very useful way to divide things up.

Of course, some existing systems use a combination of two or more of these types of interaction, but I have yet to find a fifth type of interaction that is unique from these.  If anyone can think of one, or argue that one of the types of interaction that I have listed here is not appropriate, or that two of the types of interaction I’ve listed as different are actually the same, please let me know.


Systems As Engines

Late last night, I figured that it might be helpful to see the four engine types laid out in this way:


Let me clarify these a bit, because some of these words might have connotations that I don’t mean, but they’re as close as I could get with the words I could find.

Toy – A Toy is any interactive system without a goal / problem to solve.  This is not meant to imply any kind of correlation with “childishness” or anything.  You can also call this a Bare Interactive System.  Many simulators fall into this category.

Play – I mean “play” as in the expression “to play with”, or “to mess with”.  This isn’t to say that this work is necessarily trivial, but rather that it’s exploratory.

Mapping – This is the result of the play I was talking about.  With play, we are finding edges, figuring out how a thing will respond.  Eventually we end up with some kind of mapping of how this thing works.  Interestingly, you could say that the object of a toy is to discover its rules.

HOW CAN WE USE THIS?  A good toy will have a vast amount of rules to discover.  Think Legos, or Minecraft, or a ball.


Puzzle – Don’t think about the normal colloquial (and very messy) “puzzle” word.  I simply mean anything with a goal / answer / problem.  So, a math problem counts as a puzzle.

Work – Work has a bad connotation, but think along the lines of a math problem when people say “show your work”.  Essentially, some effort and process towards uncovering the answer must be the input of a puzzle.  (Do not think that this means that solving a puzzle can’t be fun!)

Answer – This is the objective we were searching for.   Once the answer is found, the puzzle is no longer of value to us, because the search for the answer was where the value was.

HOW CAN WE USE THIS?  A good puzzle will have a difficult-to-find answer.  Obvious to most people, yes – but it’s still true.


Contest – Thankfully, this definition lines up pretty closely with the colloquial definition, so not much explanation needed here.

Test – Think “stress test”.  We are attempting to find the limits of something.  Note that this is unlike the wide, lateral exploration of “play”.  This is a vertical, straight test of one specific resource.

Measurement – Measurements are inherently relative and can have no meaning without something to measure up TO.  Therefore, all contests compare the measurement (result) to another result, and determine a winner and a loser.

HOW CAN WE USE THIS?  Good contests don’t have a low “cap” on that vertical skill possibility space.


Game – This is the most controversial word I use in my system.  Some prefer “decision-contest” and some have suggested “strategy game”.  Either way, the point is that this system, as I define it, is a “contest of decision-making”.  The concept is what’s important here.

Decide – The nature of a decision is very interesting and not trivial.  People have argued to me before that button-inputs in Guitar Hero are “decisions”.  I disagree with this characterization;  I think it would then follow that if you were walking and tripped, that you decided to trip.  “Why did you decide to trip”, only a jerk would ask, because obviously you did not decide this.  To help understand this aspect, perhaps think of decisions, in this context, as conscious decisions.

Games present choices that are ambiguous.  Ambiguous choices are choices that live somewhere between a guess and an answer.  A “guess” would be that you have 0% of the information you need to make a decision, like if I asked you whether I was thinking of the number 1 or 2 right now and you had to make that choice, based on no other information.  An answer would be if I asked you to decide which answer to the following problem is correct:

1+1 = ?

a). 2

b). 9999

The answer is “a”; there’s no ambiguity here, so this does not qualify as what I refer to as a decision.

Understanding – What we gain from a game is a holistic understanding of a set of rules and their ramifications, synergies, and connections.  This is not the same as what we gain from a toy, which is a list of rules.  Instead, this is an understanding of rule relationships, and how to manipulate the system to our benefit.  Obtaining new bits of understanding is of value to us, but once there’s no more understanding to gain, the game is dead.

HOW CAN WE USE THIS?  A game should have a very vast and deep set of rule relationships that we can explore for as long as possible.


Anyway, I hope this is helpful for people in understanding my work.  Let me know if anything doesn’t add up!

  • Dasick

    The idea that these forms have a bleed-through into one another is an important point. Sometimes the best way to map out a toy is to make up an objective to use it for, to measure it’s ability. Sometimes getting better at a digital games means exploring the rules through pure play, testing out if this or that combination works and how. I know that developing builds to use in Starcraft follows the process of play to develop it, and measurement to make it as lean as possible.

  • mattdunnam

    (TL;DR: You should stop apologizing for or attempting to justify your way of defining games and interactive systems)

    [being the nature of blog-comments, this is somewhat rambly. I apologize in advance]

    To preempt any of the inevitable arguments about your writing I wanted to bring up something.

    I often see a lot of people argue with you on your definitions of “game,” “toy,” etc.and honestly I would be surprised if that argument doesn’t crop up again. I also see you spend an inordinate amount of time creating “caveats” about your definitions and qualifying why they are correct.

    I think neither of these things are necessary. What you propose (and defend) is a framework – a paradigm – for understanding the systems we call games. You’re creating a taxonomy and using that taxonomy to develop insights about the process of creating games.

    Being an artistic discipline, I think it’s safe to argue that there is no Truth or Right when it comes to what a game is, how to approach it, or how, even, to make a good game. Even defining good can be onerous. But this doesn’t mean that efforts to codify that art are useless.

    You are creating a school of thought, and defending it with thoughtful, incisive arguments as to how and why you came to it. One could liken it to “Impressionist” or “baroque” in the world of music. A reader should take from your work the things they find useful and discard the rest. And if someone wants to argue or discuss the points mentioned here, I think it’s only appropriate to argue them within the framework you’ve created – or at least along those lines. To argue that “your definition of game is wrong” is to argument the fundamental axioms of the philosophy.

    While people have a right to disagree with these axioms (again – it’s a humanity, not a science), one may find it easier to simply not engage your philosophy at all. As a painter, its nonsensical to try to convince a cubist that cubism is wrong, just go study impressionism if that’s the kind of games you want to make.

    In summary, I think it’s off topic here (and in most of your posts where you repeat these defenses of your framework) to explain how you came across the idea of types of interactive systems. You have no need to defend this axiom every time you state it. If you’re worried about defining them, simply write a post defining these types of interaction (which I know you already have) and link to it in the article. This article is about the desired outcomes of these systems and could easily expand about that issue. Instead you spend paragraphs defending their existence.

  • Dasick

    I think these posts of Keith are partially a response to the discussions taking place in the forums, particularly the game design sub-forum. There are a lot of smart, strong-voiced people there who are giving Kieth a lot of grief for his system of thought.

    Even though this kind of understanding is “contained” within the initial statement (these are the defining attributes of the forms, and they must be protected at all costs), it’s still useful to “spell it out”, or to build upon that framework.

  • keithburgun

    I totally agree with you, Matt. Like Dasick says, though, a lot of people do give me grief. And while I don’t really care about that, specifically, I do want to be *clear*. I think you should remember that you’ve already had a good amount of exposure to my ideas. Keep in mind that there are people who have no idea what I’m talking about, and they might just see “PUZZLE = WORK? WHAT? FUCK THIS GUY”. And yeah, they might be being sorta ignorant and jumping to conclusions, but I guess I figure, if you can lead people more smoothly to what you’re really trying to say, it’s a positive thing.

    Anyway, I appreciate the sentiment. Communication is hard.

  • keithburgun

    Yeah. The system is arbitrarily drawn, for a useful purpose.

  • Paul Spooner

    I really enjoyed this article. Further clarified your presentation of interactive systems. Have you noticed that the output of each level is the fuel for the next? The Contest level consumes “test” is quite similar to the “answer” output of the Puzzle level. Looked at in this way, a Contest consumes the outputs of one or more Puzzles, and so forth up the chain. Each level is built on the former, and relies on the former.

    Have you considered adding more terms? I’ve always found the pure “layer” nesting of your system rather stark and un-exhaustive. Obviously, you’re not trying to create a dictionary, but it might be helpful to add a few terms beside the primary “game” definition chain which demonstrate what you do NOT mean by “game” as well as what you do mean, and by what name you refer to such things. You use “art installation” often enough that it might be useful to formalize the term, at least for your own use.

    Here’s my own take on the matter:

    An Art Installation is a non-interactive system. It is designed to be experienced, but not significantly altered. It resides next to Toy, since an Art Installation is not interactive. Myst could be considered an Art Installation which contains several Puzzles. An Art Installation is fueled by Expressions and outputs Beauty (or some other sufficiently nebulous product).

    A Canvas is a Toy designed to accommodate expression. It resides next to Puzzle, since a Canvas does not have a goal, or a solution, but does accept interaction. Minecraft could be considered a Canvas that contains several Puzzles. A Canvas is fueled by Creativity, and outputs Expressions. Because it is designed to facilitate a broad range of expressions, the Canvas is another good example of the Toy. However, because it has no goal, the Canvas is ill suited for a platform for constructing Games.

    A Vision is a Puzzle designed to produce many “correct” paths to a solution. It resides next to Contest, since a Vision does not compare or measure. Most fiction “genere” categories are Visions by this definition. A Vision is fueled by understanding, and outputs Creativity.

    (note that the resource chain is backwards here! “art” flows from “game” out to a “static system”. This inversion of movement may explain the repulsion you feel toward “artists” and the like, since they are actively moving away from games, where you are actively moving toward games.)

  • keithburgun

    A non-interactive system wouldn’t be part of my chart of interactive systems 😀 Any other examples? Or are you just saying in general, things can be classified?

  • Paul Spooner

    Well, mostly I’m saying that, in order for people to understand what something is, it helps to explain a few things that it is not. This is especially true when the things are often confused with each-other.

    Imagine I was trying to teach someone what a “snow leopard” was, and I made a chart with “cat” “big cat” “leopard” “snow leopard” on it. Then imagine that people keep saying “Oh, so it’s a lion?”. I would be well served to add “lion” to the chart at the level where they share common ground (under “big cat”), and draw attention to where the similarities diverge.

    I think you would be well served in communicating your definition of “game” if you put “art installation” on your chart wherever it fits. I’ve made a few suggestions, but put it wherever you think it fits. That way you can point to it and say “Look, this is what you’re talking about, and here is how I classify it” and then you can have a profitable discussion. The same goes for whatever other non-game-but-people-think-of-it-when-they-hear-game systems come up a lot in your discussion of the topic.

  • keithburgun

    I see – sure, that makes sense, yeah. But I also kinda think that at a certain point, there are things that you shouldn’t have to explain, and I think that “a non-interactive system doesn’t fit into a chart of interactive systems” falls into that category. No?

  • Paul Spooner

    It would be nice if we didn’t have to explain terminology at all. Yet you spend a lot of effort to communicate precisely; You wrote a whole book!
    Some people still seem confused about what you mean, and in the same ways as before. I’m suggesting that you offer to address these misconceptions directly. Saying “I’m not going to explain this.” in response to a question (whether genuine or not) is poor communication, both as instruction and as insult.

  • ContinueSaga

    You’re not accounting for “Metagame”, and though the conventional understanding and definition of it, would pseudo-fall under all 4 systems (mostly as a result of “purpose”), would you consider an amendment adding both information a game feeds to the player as fuel for a system, and one which in definition, attempts to break and surpass designated design goals as an all encompassing “Metagame” category?

    Even though it is something which seems to be breading bad design decisions this unreasonable desire to make easy access to game maths directly to the player is what facilitates metagames. This is seen in any game, with any type of play, not just competitive games. For example, speed-running games often requires metagame understanding and information to master your goals.

  • I like this framework although I’m not sure how useful it is to attach the four types of interactive system onto the left side. I guess there are “pure” examples, but the problem is that there are so many mixed examples (and not necessarily in a concentric way, glad you didn’t use that again) that get labeled as being one or the other of these things. Plus, if you gave this to students they would have to be warned against just trying to “pick only one” and devote themselves to a type (except maybe as a learning example). I really like the idea of trying to classify “what’s going on” inside of interactive systems, though.

    I guess play is a little bit like “explore,” right — exploring a possibility space. I think pure (un-goaled) exploration of a virtual space has this quality too. And makes perfect sense with “mapping.” I suppose I’m suggesting this since I think of “play” as a global verb for “game.” I guess I’d call work “deduce” or “solve” since it may actually not involve much work, nor do I think the quality of a puzzle is tied to an amount of work. If you are confronted with a puzzle, have a flash of lateral insight, and solve it rapidly because of your flash, that’s an incredibly satisfying “AHA!” experience that is not contingent on “work done” or “effort.” Maybe if “solve” was used then “problem” makes sense as in math problem, etc? That’s pretty clear: problem-solving!

    The one place you still haven’t eliminated the concentricity — and which is now a bit of an inconsistent standout — is in saying that “deciding” still requires a “contest.” Where these other three areas can possibly have “pure” examples, you’re negating that possibility for “decide.” I suspect that’s because you still kiiinnndaaa like the idea that “game” (or “game of strategy,” as I’d say) is a kind of master gesamkunstwerk category pizza-with-everything.

    What’s super interesting to me is that if you eliminate the requirement for “contest” or “puzzle” aspects to be part of it then pure “decide” is actually very close to pure “play.” Like, you have some decisions to make in a system; they are ambiguous, you don’t know what will result. Oh you make one and see what happens: that’s very similar to exploration. Isn’t all of the “play” exploration also ambiguous decisions because you don’t KNOW the whole map yet? Mapping a system and understanding the system may be identical! Of course some toylike-games or some decision-games cannot be fully mapped by ordinary human brains, because they are emergently unpredictable or highly complex.

    I have been working on a game that I’ve been attempting to make with nothing but ambiguous decisions, which the player makes on the basis of available information (and information, even opinions, brought from outside the game as well). You can “complete” the game but it cannot be “won”; although your decisions change the game state and outcomes, no state or outcome is valorized or declared “correct.” It’s rather toylike/exploratory but it does have an ending, so it’s not much like traditional concepts of toys (or sims, etc). I’ll let you know how it turns out.

  • Oh, how annoying! I somehow missed the toy/game distinction about list of rules vs. ramifications, synergies, connections. Are there really toys that just result in lists of rules upon exploration, where there aren’t understandings of interlaced rule relationships and larger systems? I mean, LEGO bricks have a pretty complex system of relationships that can’t simply be listed.

  • I do think people are best off “picking a type” of engine and doing it as best they can. The reason that I think people should do this is because these engines have conflicting values.

    > If you are confronted with a puzzle, have a flash of lateral insight,
    and solve it rapidly because of your flash, that’s an incredibly
    satisfying “AHA!” experience that is not contingent on “work done” or

    Yeah, but I don’t think that that’s how puzzles are designed to work. I think puzzles are designed to be “solved”, to be worked through, not just “AHA” finished in an instant. I agree that it’s satisfying but it’s kind of like winning in 3 turns in Chess or something – it’s cool as a freak thing, but if it happened all the time that would be bad, so it’s not the design intention of the engine.

    >…is in saying that “deciding” still requires a “contest.”

    Yeah, the problem is that there isn’t a better word than “decide” for what I am trying to point to. The “ambiguous decision” in games (as I define the term) is a pretty special kind of thing, quite different than “play” *because* you’re competing for a goal. That alone makes the nature of the decisions really, really different. Unfortunately, the English language doesn’t have two different words to refer to these two kinds of decisions. This is why we are going to NEED prescriptive language when diving into these problems.

    >Mapping a system and understanding the system may be identical!

    Yeah all four of my engine types have a “solution-state” where you have the optimal amount of information and interacting with it is no longer worthwhile.

    I’d love to check out your game. You said at PRACTICE that it was slightly AURO inspired, which is cool!

  • In all systems rules have relationships, absolutely. But here’s the clarifying line:

    > Instead, this is an understanding of rule relationships, and how to manipulate the system to our benefit.

    “To our benefit” doesn’t really make sense in a toy, since it lacks a goal.

    I really appreciate the questions and prodding and reading, Naomi, thank you!

  • Interesting post. I Have Been wondering about this issue, so thanks for posting. Pretty cool post.It ‘s really very nice and Useful post.Thanks

  • Rickard Elimää


    I just found this site out from a comment from the Psychology in Video Games site. I have been reading a lot (and I mean -a lot-) game theory this year but this is the first one I found that actually gives a model for what a game is. Theories are good, but they are just results of analyses and you can’t actually do anything with them up until you actually created your game. A method is much easier to apply on your own game while creating that, even if it’s as vague as yours. So kudos for that!

    I thought this way of explaining your definition was easier to understand. I didn’t get it first when I read System of Forms on this site. I’m coming from a roleplaying game background, and I didn’t really see contest as something that needs to be in a storytelling game where you all, in a collaborative form, is creating a story together. I do agree that measurement is important, not to see if one is winning over another, but to compare the result with other experiences to determine if what we played out is a good story or not. Play is to narrate the story but what is “contest”?

    Or is storytelling not a game?

  • Guest

    After much pondering, I’ve come up with an alternate definition of “game” based on your work. Let me know how this looks!

  • Dora Games – top free online you can play and share for your friends on facebook and G+ !

  • Spam Keith Burgun | Lead Designer at Dinofarm Games
    Author of Game Design Theory

  • Scott Sheppard

    I feel like metagames are player created puzzles, and therefore don’t require a special category of their own. This is also looking at it from a player perspective and not a designer angle, which has always been one of Keith’s caveats.

    From a designer angle though, I think that the metagame could be incorporated as a secondary mechanic of a strategy game assuming there was enough ambiguity to carry over from the original game into a second layer of ambiguity… but in general I feel like metagames are really added as a way to justify “wide” puzzle games.

    Not to diminish the value of a good wide puzzle game in any way of course. But in the context of prescriptive definitions, that’s not good game design, that’s a clever way to extend the utility of puzzle design. Inelegant for sure, but still a heck of a lot of fun. Lots of work with minimal effort.

  • Scott Sheppard

    What I’ve secretly wanted was a user created list of games that do and don’t fall into these categories currently. But since there are very few pure examples (other than toys/puzzles perhaps), it might be better to create a list of current games and how each mechanic could be classified independently in these systems, then a higher level meta analysis of how these systems support of conflict with each other… and of course why they support or conflict is where the beauty of prescriptive definitions will come in.