< Back to Blog

GBL Luminary Guest Post: Designing Play Through Interactives, Toys and Games

Filament Games stays connected to the scholarly side of game-based learning (GBL) through our GBL Luminaries Program. Academics in the Luminaries program work with our staff to maintain a healthy dialogue between game-based learning theory and practice through all-staff lectures and guest blog posts. Today’s GBL Luminary guest post is from Lindsay Grace, Knight Chair of Interactive Media and Professor at the University of Miami School of Communication. The 2019 recipient of the Games for Change Vanguard award, Lindsay has extensive experience across games research, teaching, design, and development, currently serving as Vice President of the Higher Education Video Game Alliance.

There are many ways to understand the ways in which games are made. There are many ways to understand the methods and approaches to creating what we often call meaningful play or social impact games. In my years of teaching and designing such games I’ve come up with a succinct way to describe the elements of a game design. These are interactives, toys and games. You can think of them as part of a spectrum, steps in a process or building blocks. The following outlines some of the basics of these design topics, as they are outlined in my latest book, Doing Things with Games, Social Impact through Play

Interactives, Toys and Games

On the one end is interactives. Interactives are simply experiences that provide feedback. Unsurprisingly, they allow us to interact. Some input goes in, and some output comes out. Interactives can be played with, but they aren’t necessarily playful. A calculator is one of the simplest examples. You can play with a calculator, spelling words or tapping with no intent but to hear its keys. Interactives can be played with, but they aren’t designed to be. You can kick a calculator across the room for fun, but it wasn’t designed for that.

In the digital world, interactives include all sorts of tools that aim to give useful information or feedback. The New York Times buy/rent calculator is one of my favorite examples of an online interactive. It can be played with to understand different scenarios, but generally has the non-playful goal of providing an interactive tool to determine when someone should buy or rent a home. Consider a flight search engine like Kayak. It might be used playfully, to imagine all the options if you had $3500 to spend on a trip anywhere. But ultimately, Kayak wasn’t designed to be played with; it was designed to be an interactive tool to deliver useful information and facilitate purchases. 

Further along the spectrum are toys. Toys are designed to be interacted with, like interactives Yet, they are also designed to support playfulness. A ball is not only designed to be kicked, thrown, or bounced; it’s designed to be done so not seriously, but playfully. Toys, in the digital world, work the same way. They encourage players to be playful, a distinct state that’s specifically identified by psychologists Stuart Brown (2009). Toys are play state inducing. So, while any interactive can be played with, toys are explicitly designed for play. They do this in part by optimizing their use for the play experience. A basketball is distinct from a tennis ball which is distinct from a beach volleyball. Each is optimized for the distinct type of play. While you can certainly try to throw or kick a pogo ball, that pogo ball is better designed and intentioned for hopping. 

What’s interesting about toys is that toys are often intentioned for use with specific games. A basketball is optimized for the balance of challenge and skill required for its sport, in the same fashion as a tennis ball. What games do is dictate how their toys should be used. They also tell us what’s important and what’s not. Games tell us getting points is good (volleyball), earning points or strokes is bad (golf), handling a ball with your foot is more important than your hand (soccer), being fastest is most important (racing), collecting Pokémon is good (Pokémon Go) and so on. 

This is how we differentiate toys from games. Games not only facilitate play, they structure it. They tell the player what’s important. While some degree of structure may be implied by a toy, it is not dictated by it. One can attempt to play baseball with a beach volleyball or basketball. This does not make the toy any less of a toy. However, playing a game with a different toy likely makes it a different game. Playing baseball with a basketball is not baseball – it’s something else. Throw-catch volleyball with a medicine ball is not volleyball, it’s Hooverball. Digital platformers structure play in the same basic way, making players traverse a space, but the toys of Super Mario Brothers, Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Meat Boy are all very different.

Games, Values and Meaning

Games facilitate play because they are structured play. Their structure tells players how to play. A toy doesn’t direct its use, it simply invites or encourages it. This is why it’s much easier to make something a toy than it is to make it a game. You can attempt to kick a calculator into a goal, turning the interactive into a toy and designing a sort of game derived from soccer. Very quickly however, it will become evident that there are many things that must be decided to make the game enjoyable.

Because games structure play, they also tell players what’s important and what’s not. Toys do this to a lesser degree, but their claims about value are less apparent. These values come through design decisions. The design of a basketball, with its dimpled surface, encourages a distinct tactility that is not apparent in volleyball. But, when these toys are placed in a game, the values become even more apparent. That’s in part because to design a game, there are 3 design domains. There is the core design of interaction, the design of the toy with which we play and the design of the game itself. Thorough game design is thinking about all three.

Meaningful play is not only aware of these, it uses these masterfully. It recognizes that feedback in interactions allows players to know when they are doing well and when they are doing poorly. It recognizes that the ways that toys invite play facilitates our framing of challenge and skill. It notes that the game structures these into a concert of interactions and play, and in so doing, helps the player conceptualize what’s important and what’s not. 

In the years that I’ve been creating critical gameplay, for example, I have aimed to help players understand the many ways that the games they play are packed with assumptions about how the world worked and what’s valuable. I later took these concepts and integrated them into a variety of educational and social impact games, seeking to employ the balance of meaning that starts from the interaction and is facilitated by play and accentuated through games. 

Putting this in Practice

How does this work? Consider designing a traditional platformer game. There are some base interactions that are part of navigating a platform world. Players will need to go left, right, up and down. This is a common set of assumptions, that have fundamental meaning. They are analogous to the way the real world generally works. You are free to move about. However, as an interaction there’s an opportunity to explain something else. What if the interaction is designed to help people understand the challenges of being disabled? Then perhaps one direction is not always as easy as the others. Or perhaps the way the player moves is not well-fitted for the world in which the player interacts. These are obvious opportunities for the interaction to make claims about certain situations, but they are also an opportunity to make an interaction meaningful. 

These decisions could easily be applied to other themes while maintaining the analogy. As in life, the player could have a limited set of moves, analogous to the limited amount of time and decisions each of us has in our own lives. Or it could be a combination of cost trade-offs, where the player can collect medicine to be able to move normally, but in so doing, there are side effects. There are obviously a multitude of options for such an example. That’s all to say that there are many decisions to be made around meaning and intention, before the experience is even playful.

Making it Playful and Engaging

Once the fundamentals of interactions have been decided, you’ll quickly recognize that the experience may not be particularly playful. This is where some educational and meaningful play falls short. They’ve designed an interaction that has all the accoutrements of a playful experience, but still fails to be playful. That’s in part because interactions do not in themselves inspire playfulness. Play is a psychological state. While it’s true people can be induced into a playful state without any outside encouragement (e.g. telling a joke out of the blue), game designers can’t rely on people’s interest in making an interactive playful. Instead, designers must design toward play. The old markers of playfulness were to decorate such interactions in playful symbols. To make a calculator more fun, by coloring it yellow and putting a clown on it for example (which might make it scarier too). This is a pretty archaic approach to play design. It’s what for a long time we called the chocolate-covered broccoli problem. The truth is, there’s far too much good play in the world for such tricks to work. Instead, I suggest trying to find the toy in an interaction.

In the aforementioned hypothetical, what’s interesting about the interactions that might solicit playfulness? Perhaps it’s more playful to support creative problem solving, allowing the player as much time and effort as they want, but encouraging them to be creative in the process. This is how the drawing toy, Crayon Physics, turns the mundane interaction of drawing in crayon into something much more meaningful and playful. Perhaps it’s more playful to emphasize the contest, limiting the player’s moves but rewarding them for getting to the end of the level under time or under a par number of moves. This is how many games encourage people toward mental fun, as they evaluate a game in much the way you’d evaluate a chess board, optimizing, strategizing and divining a solution. 

Toys are often best designed through play. There’s a reason that games are so often made through an interactive process. We learn what’s playful often by playing with it. We also learn to go in a new direction with the play, starting in one and moving to the other. This is one of the reasons game jams are so effective at creating new ideas, if not reliable code. Iteration is really playing and evaluating. As such there are lots of different game design models that encourage this, including Tracy Fullerton’s Play-centric model. Remember that even the world’s most popular sports have been designed this way. There iterations take years to execute, but all started with a basic set of rules. In American Football, for example, once the flying wedge (a military formation) was employed to ridiculous success it was invalidated by the rules of play. Such a structure was antithetical to the play of the game. 

Once the toy is designed, it may or may not need to be formalized into a game. The interesting thing about human behavior is that unlike animals, we tend to bias toward a game. Animals play, for example. Practicing hunter and hunted, just as we practice it through the game tag. But humanity formalizes games to the complexity of chess or Call of Duty. This formalization offers a few benefits. First it allows for a level playing field, which is often why games structure play. They also support the need for a player to get a sense of their progress.

We formalize toys into games through what I call the 5 elements of games; rules, inventory, territory, implements, and competition. Without all 5 of these elements the play typical remains play. With these 5 elements it becomes a game. 

To understand more about toys, interactives and games, the 5 elements of games, and how to design meaningful play, I suggest grabbing a copy of my book. In Doing Things with Games, Social Impact through Play I explain the ways in which these core concepts can be applied across a myriad of aims from social engagement, behavior change, and generally appealing games.


Brown, Stuart L. Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. Penguin, 2009.

© 2024 Filament games. All rights reserved.