Game Thinking, Explained

You’ve probably heard the term “Game Thinking” floating around. What does it mean? Is this like Gamification? Or is Game Thinking something different — something bigger and more powerful?

Just like every term, it depends on how you define it. Here’s my definition: Game Thinking is the art and science of engaging customers on a compelling path to mastery. This approach combines game design, systems thinking, Agile/Lean UX and design thinking to help you build deeply engaging experiences and accelerate your path to product/market fit.

passionate, high-need early customers.

Paul Buchheit, who runs Y-Combinator, likes to say “create something that just a few people love, even if most people don’t get it right away.”

To bring a product to life, you need to find and leverage your passionate early customers first, then expand from that base.

Start with your core learning loop

Ralph Koster, a brilliant and accomplished game designer, says that fun is just another word for learning. In gaming, when we bring an experience to life we call it “finding the fun.” And what that really means is to build engagement from the inside out. You don’t start with your onboarding flow, or your mastery systems; you start with the core bit of value. For example, we started development on the Sims by running small experiments based around finding that core bit of fun — that’s how the game you know and love today first came to life.

The smartest MVP is is built around your Core Learning Loop — your Day 21 experience — that repeatable, pleasurable activity that people are going to spend time on. If you build something simple that people can get better at, you’re on the path to driving long term engagement.

small, high-learning experiments

This is based on a well known theory of corporate innovation called stage gate theory. And all the hits I’ve ever worked on, whether they were aware of it or not, followed this basic principle. Linus Pauling, a Nobel Award winning scientist, likes to say that the best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.

This scientific attitude is a cornerstone of our game thinking approach. Make sure you’re not falling in love with any one idea but instead fall in love with solving a problem and learning from your customers, starting with your early high-need, passionate customers and moving out from there.

In practice, what does this look like when you’re play testing your idea to life? Who do you listen to at what stage? Well, the typical play testing progression starts with a team and department, then goes to friends and family, you’re probably familiar with this, perhaps you’re going that right now. After that, you might run a closed beta and an open beta and then, when you launch, you’re hopefully reaching your early majority. The problem here is that many people stumble along the way, because they never learn what their passionate, early customers truly want and need.

In contrast, a super fan play testing progression starts with a high-need super fan community. The smartest developers leverage that community as a resource so as they’re then reaching out and testing people later as they’re about to cross the chasm, they have a much better chance of success.

The point of this is to follow Frank Lloyd Wright’s advice and use “an eraser on the drafting table, not a sledgehammer on the construction site.” It’s what we all want. These techniques will help you validate your ideas faster and smarter and with a better chance of driving long term engagement.

What Game Thinking can do for you

Game Thinking can 10X your ability to run small, smart high learning experiments and test your most important high risk assumptions. The game and product creators who actually produce breakthrough hits follow this approach — and now you can too.

These powerful tools, you can dramatically accelerate and focus your early product development — what could take a year can be accomplished in a few months. You can surface key insights from exactly the right customers right when you need them — and create a simple yet compelling MVP to test these assumptions on the right customers.

Starting innovating smarter — learn more at



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