Week Three

Week Three

Breaking Bad?

Where we explore how game/play emerges “in the wild”, and how players are themselves, for good and bad, co-creator of your game/playful experience. This Week you will:

Reflect on the tension between process (playing) and outcome (winning!)

Think of how your creation could be appropriated and changed by its users

Consider how breaking or removing rules can improve the experience

This Week we finally find ourselves at the intersection of our discussions of play, games, design and audience, to discuss and explore the messy reality of actual play, when our “2nd Order design” finally falls into the hands of its intended users, and they are free to appropriate it and twist it however they want.

This is also a very hard week to put in words, as the kind of phenomena that we are discussing are naturally processual and emergent, arising from the loops that we discussed last weeks in ways that are not easy to foresee or convey. However, one of the easiest ways to do this is to discuss them by way of cheating. This because, by definition, cheating is not something that is discussed in the rules. But also because the experience of unfairness when being cheated at a game, or the satisfaction in winning fairly, are also not something that is written in the rules themselves, but something that we still need to actively design for.

When embarking in this exploration, we all know that there are indeed very good reasons why cheating is considered unsavoury (which have to do with empathy, as discussed in Week One, and which will consider in Mission 3), however, let’s also keep in mind this excerpt from Bernie DeKoven’s seminal “The Well Played Game”:

“…and inscribed in gold on our flag is the motto IF YOU CAN’T PLAY IT CHANGE IT, and woven into our banner are the words IF IT HELPS, CHEAT.” 

We’ll soon realise what he means by this statement.

What will you need?


At least one friend who is not already a member of #gchangers (spreading the love!)


A rough outline of your intended game/playful experience


Some social media space to share your thoughts in using #gchangers


Stuff we Recommend to Watch/Read/Play

Mission One

So, cheating. Of course the most known and widespread way of cheating is cheating to win, that is, when one of the rules of the game (the one which defines who wins) takes precedence over everything else. Let’s start by considering one of the simplest game of all: Tic-tac-toe, as it is described by its (two) formal rules:

  • Two players, Xand O, who take turns marking the spaces in a 3×3 grid.
  • The player who succeeds in placing three of their marks in a horizontal, vertical, or diagonal row wins the game.

Such a simple game, and one that Cheating1actually gets boring really fast. There are only 26,830 possible games, and our “computational power” as humans is enough to envision them and make into an endless draw, if both participants give proper thought and attention. The “core loop” is too constraining, and not many different behaviours or experiences can emerge from it.

Now, how can you possibly cheat at that? There are only two rules, one defines the victor, and it’s quite hard to bend or break the other one, at least without your opponent noticing.

And this is one the possible avenues for cheating:”Without your opponent noticing”. What if you distract your opponent and change the grid? Notice that it is not explicitly forbidden by the rules. It’s just a part of the specific type of social contract (or “magic circle”) that uphelds the game, the unsaid, and contextualised rules that allow for it to exist.


Indeed, to successfully cheat at such a simple game (without the “magic circle” dissolving in accusations) you will have to get really creative, and to fully consider the context you are playing in: are there ways you can distract your opponent? Are there ways you can fiddle with the materials beforehand? It’s a similar exercise to last week’s divergent thinking, in a way, but possibly much harder. It is no coincidence that if you search online for “cheating at Tic-tac-toe” the only blatant attempts are made by robots, “intelligences” with not true sense of context.

Do try to play Tic-Tac-Toe with an innocent, unknowing friend, and try to come up with ways to cheat at it, be it by diverting their attention, by tampering with the game material, by prestidigitation, by gaslighting. Try to not get caught! When you do get caught, explain them what you are trying to do and share the tale of your attempts on #gchangers (also, remember to welcome your friend to the #gchangers community!)

Mission Two

Let’s now move up an order of complexity, and let’s consider a different kind of cheating, one which is not aimed at achieving the objective at all costs, but instead at achieving a different experience. This is very widespread in digital games, and can constitute a different way of exploring the possibility space of the game, without impacting anyone else’s experience.

But, for the sake of simplicity, let’s also keep playing Tic-tac-toe (at least in our example. If you and your friend can think of any games that you both know and that would be more interesting for you to cheat at, please do feel free). What if you both were actively, knowingly trying to cheat each other? What if we explicitly added a 3rd (unwritten, until now) rule, something to this effect:


  • Two players, Xand O, who take turns marking the spaces in a 3×3 grid.
  • The player who succeeds in placing three of their marks in a horizontal, vertical, or diagonal row wins the game.
  • You can cheat in any way, but you lose if you get caught in the act.

So, if there’s an agreement, if it’s enshrined in rules, are we still cheating? Or are we, maybe, playing an entirely new game based on bending and breaking the very same rules?  And when we speak of Tic-Tac-Toe, this is definitely much more challenging, and possibly much more fun than the original game itself. Again, do share your most daring ways to cheat on #gchangers, looking forward to seeing the most overly complicated ways to win a Tic-Tac-Toe match!

And this is all just with Tic-Tac-Toe. When we move to more complex games, we also have another direction where to go: ignoring rules. A silly example: what if, in Chess, you did not have to wait for your opponents move, but just play in real time as fast as you can? Or what if, by moving fast enough, you could “dodge” captures by moving your pieces? That is, what if both players “cheat” and ignore the turn-taking rules? Or (even sillier) what if, in basketball people cheated and bounced the ball on the floor and pass it to themselves? “But hey, that’s how it is actually played”, you might say. Yes, but that was not the original  intent of the designer, James Naismith: the intent was for players to stand still and pass the ball, but nothing in the rules prohibited them from actually passing the ball to themselves. That is, one might say everyone has been cheating at basket for more than a century (though Naismith itself was appreciative of this innovation). Now try and go tell the NBA that they are playing wrong.

Following from this examples, we must keep in mind that as (2nd Order) designers, we are at a deep risk of being all too often focused on designing a material product (be it software, cardboard or even just a set of rules), while what we need to keep in mind all the time is player behaviour and experience, and how it is enabled and/or constrained by the rules. This what, in designer jargon, is called “game dynamics” and “game aesthetics”

So try to think of what could happen if everyone “cheated” at the same time and in the same way at one of your favourite games. What would change? How different would it feel? Would it make sense? Would it actually be even more fun maybe? Think about it, and share your thoughts on #gchangers!

Mission Three

Now that we broke a few games (and possibly came up with new and more interesting ones), let’s have a look back at the introductory quote by Bernie and reflect on it. “If it helps cheat”, yes, but if it helps what? The answer is: if it helps us playing well together.

In our examples above, we’ve seen how breaking some rules actually made for better and more interesting games. But there’s a key distinction: cheating (that is, bending and breaking the rules) can be alright when it is done in the interest of achieving the “Well-Played Game”, the most engaging experience for everyone involved. If cheating happens for this reason, and not just because we want to win,

We must not therefore design our games/playful experiences in such a way that cheating is completely unfeasible. To design in a way that fully, inherently disallows cheating can only lead to two undesirable outcomes:

  • The game/playful experience is so exceedingly simple that is unfun, and borderline unplayable (think of Tic-tac-toe).
  • The game/playful experience is so rigid that players can’t make it their own, even if to make it better for their needs (think of basketball).

What we can do, as game/play designers, and especially as designers of experiences that we want to have a real world impact, and we do not want our creations to be twisted and gamed to achieve victory (that is, once again, product at the expense of process), is to de-emphasise winning conditions in favour of play itself.


Let’s express this more practically: if we agree on cheating together for the sake of play, we can also cheat to ignore those rules that decide victors and losers, that is, those rules that put an end to the game. So try and think of a few games that you like, and just take away the win condition: would they still be meaningful? Would they still be fun, in their moment to moment interaction? If so, you might find people actually cheating to prolong the experience, playing “the infinite game”! Share your thoughts, and the new games that come out of this exercise, on #gchangers!

Now, for the final exercise this Week, let’s (finally!) try and ask ourselves a few question as related to the playful/gameful experience that we are designing throughout this course. We already did this with Tic-Tac-Toe, but let me go slightly more in-depth.

How does it feel to play it by the rules? (this does not necessarily need to be “fun”)

How could I cheat? How could an ill-intentioned player twist the game? How different would it feel? (people might seek “fun” when that’s not the intended experience, or at the expense of other players. Try to make this path less interesting. For example…)

Would the experience be more interesting if I were to break some rules myself?  (if so, consider removing them)

Would the experience still be interesting without any way to determine a winner? (if so, you are probably onto something good)

As always, please do share your answers and thoughts on #gchangers!

Now we finally have everything we need to finalise the creation of our gameful/playful experience: after today’s Missions, you should have clear idea not only of the audience, the theme, the rules, but of the actual experience of playing with your creation.

What you might be missing, however, are the technical tools through which to better implement it. It might work well as a paper prototype, but what happens when we move to the digital? Or could your idea for a digital game might actually work best as a public performance? Different media offer different design opportunities and constraints, that we will need to discuss and take into account for.

So come back for Week Four, The Tool Box, where we will discuss all this, and help you choosing the most appropriate tools, and how to best make your creation ready to be put out there!