Introduction to Game Thinking

What do the teams behind break-out products have in common? How can we follow in their footsteps?

Amy Jo Kim
9 min readJun 7, 2018


This year, many innovative new products and services will launch, but only a handful will earn long-term success. Most will fail before they even get the chance.

Why is that? What do the teams that produce break-out products have in common? Can we follow in their footsteps, and reliably increase our odds of doing the same?

I say yes.

Let me take you back to a beautiful September day in Half Moon Bay, California. I was sitting in my living room, listening to the brilliant CEO of a hot gaming startup pitch me his idea for a social game where people with no musical talent would play plastic instruments and feel as if they were playing in a band. I joined the team — and that crazy idea turned into Rock Band, a genre-defining worldwide hit.

Later, I worked on The Sims with Will Wright, a visionary game designer with some unorthodox methods for unlocking creativity. That project almost got cancelled a few weeks before shipping — and then went on to become the biggest-selling PC game franchise of all time.

A few years later, I worked on Covet Fashion, an innovative mobile game that incorporates high-fashion clothes from real-world brands. What we built was different than our original idea — and we weren’t sure how it would work out.

That game became an hit franchise that enables millions of players to create fabulous outfits from designer fashions and purchase those clothes in real life.

Lessons from Gaming

How do hit games grab people’s attention and keep them coming back? What makes an experience truly engaging over time?

I’ve worked on massive hit games that reached millions of people. Yet none of these games appeals to everyone. Stylistically, people seek out a wide variety of experiences. I enjoy Rock Band and Covet Fashion; my son prefers adrenaline-pumping shooters, and my best friend is addicted to candy-coated puzzlers.

One person’s beloved game is another’s worst nightmare.

Setup the Conditions for Flow

Successful games all have something in common: the intrinsic joy of skill-building. It feels good to engage our brains, improve our skills, and make progress along a path toward mastery. Games, sports, and education are particularly good at laying out this path — but every product leader can learn to harness the underlying power of skill-building and challenge.

Structured activities like games, sports, office work, and fund-raising all revolve around developing and using a skill. If the level of challenge increases to match your evolving skill, you’ve got a setup for flow — the ultimate goal of every game and product designer.

Flow is not about making things easy, or “gamifed.” Flow takes effort. Without learning, practice, and challenge, there is no flow.

At their core, games are pleasurable learning engines that deliver an experience that’s deeply, intrinsically motivating. Over time, you absorb the rules, build your skills, tackle ever-greater challenges — and in the process, you’re transformed in some way that’s meaningful to YOU.

Forget Points, Think Character Transformation

Just as character transformation is the backbone of great drama, personal transformation is the backbone of great gameplay. In games, we are the protagonist — the person with agency, facing a series of choices and challenges along our journey towards mastery.

Progress metrics like points, badges, levels, leaderboards, and reputation systems are icing on this learning/mastery cake. These markers help you gauge where you stand, and how far you’ve come — but they’re meaningless as a stand-alone system without something to master.

If you want to build a compelling product experience, forget points — think character transformation.

Blend Intrinsic Pleasure with Extrinsic Scaffolding

Games are built from systems and rules that engage you in a micro-world, a “magic circle” that’s shared by everyone playing the game. In a magic circle, ordinary activities take on special meaning — throwing a ball into a net becomes scoring a goal.

Well-crafted games are an artful blend of intrinsic pleasure and extrinsic scaffolding. They invite you to take a mini-break from daily life, and spend time (together) in an alternate, simplified reality. Pleasurable activities are the beating heart of this micro-world, and progress scaffolding (points, levels, badges, power-ups) serves to support and amplify these core activities.

The Trinity of Intrinsic Motivation

To create a truly compelling experience, tap into the trinity of Intrinsic Motivation: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. This framework emerged during the 1970s as self-determination theory, and was re-popularized in Dan Pink’s book, Drive, on workplace motivation.

To avoid the trap of short-term engagement, use these three universal drives as a starting point when you’re designing feedback and rewards for your experience.

Autonomy: Self-Determination and Meaningful Choice

Autonomy is the feeling of controlling your own destiny. In a game, app, or service, this boils down to your choice architecture. Great games offer meaningful choices with interesting constraints. Think of Settlers of Catan, World of Warcraft, Minecraft, even Kickstarter — all systems that can be explored and mastered by making a series of increasingly interesting choices.

Mastery: Skill-Building, Feedback and Challenge

Mastery taps into the universal urge to get better at something. Games offer us a set of actions and choices within a rule-based environment. In a well-designed game, mastering the rule-set is deeply pleasurable. The lack of something to master is often why simple gamification fails. Points, badges and leaderboards aren’t compelling unless you’re improving along a personally meaningful dimension.

Purpose: Connect with Something Greater than Yourself

Purpose is about connectedness and relatedness — with other people, with a shared cause, with something bigger than yourself. We know from numerous scientific studies that people who cultivate meaningful relationships report higher levels of happiness.

Purpose is often communicated through storytelling — and you know what? The most powerful story is happening inside your customer’s head, a personal narrative of how engaging with your product will transform them into a more powerful, more skillful, more connected version of themselves.

Game Design ≠ Loyalty Marketing

Digging into intrinsic motivation will help you design compelling experiences and avoid some common pitfalls of gamifcation. Progress metrics like points, badges, and levels are easy to see and tempting to use. But that’s not where the magic is.

People who come from a marketing background look at games and see a set of extrinsic motivators and reward schedules that can be lifted out and plunked down elsewhere. That’s understandable, as because points, levels, status, and rewards are the atomic units of loyalty programs, a staple in the marketer’s playbook.

Although loyalty programs are superficially similar to games, they look very different when viewed through the lens of intrinsic motivation. Trying to drive long-term engagement with extrinsic rewards is a fool’s errand. If metrics and rewards are your main event, you’ve got a shallow and/or manipulative product that won’t hold people’s interest over time. Even worse, you might be dampening their creativity and enthusiasm without knowing it.

Extrinsic Rewards Can Devalue Pleasurable Activities

In his book on workplace motivation, Dan Pink summarizes three decades of research into one compelling punchline: Extrinsic rewards are effective at getting people to complete simple, short-term tasks, but decrease effectiveness at creative tasks that require out-of-the-box thinking.

Numerous studies show that extrinsic rewards can devalue otherwise pleasurable tasks like reading or drawing. For example, in one study,
kids who loved reading were rewarded with points and money for completing chapters. Guess what happened? The kids completely stopped reading for pleasure.

Unintended side-effects can be brutal. It’s easier than you think to kill off intrinsic motivation with external rewards.

From Game Design to Product Design

The principles behind game thinking led to such breakthrough hit games as Rock Band, The Sims, and Covet Fashion. But if you’re building a product, don’t worry. These same principles led to products and services like Slack, Kickstarter, and Happify.

Game thinking puts the skill-building power of games into the hands of product leaders. After helping innovative hits like Rock Band, The Sims, and Covet Fashion come to life, I now work with entrepreneurs worldwide, helping them use game thinking to innovate faster and smarter.

Entrepreneurs like Megan Mahdavi, CEO of Sunreach, who used game thinking to validate her idea for leveraging young talent in developing countries. While working a full-time job, Megan tested her idea and got some disheartening early feedback from her intended customers. Digging deeper, she found an adjacent high-need group who appreciated and embraced her model. Armed with this early validation, Megan quit her job and now runs a successful, high-growth SAAS consulting company that trains young people in Haiti and Palestine to become Salesforce engineers.

Game thinking also helped Ofer Leidner and Tomer Ben-kiki, serial entrepreneurs who’d sold a casual gaming company and were ready for their next challenge. They’d developed a game idea around the science of happiness, which we tested with several groups of high-need customers. We found a pocket of superfans to help in tune our early systems. Happify is now the market leader in mental health and well-being services.

Then there’s Ranan Lachman, CEO of Pley. Ranan and his team utilized game thinking to validate their idea for a community extension to their fast-growing toy rental service. We discovered that Pley customers wanted educational video content, so we built an MVP video community and avoided spending resources on what people didn’t want.

Embrace and Extend: Lean Startup and Design Thinking

Through these experiences, I’ve learned first-hand that the same thing which makes a game successful can also make a product successful. YOUR product.

Game thinking embraces and extends existing product development methods.

If you’re a fan of lean/agile methods, you know how to refine and test your idea using the build-measure-learn cycle.

If you’re familiar with design thinking, you know how to empathize with customers, and use what you learn to prototype solutions that target real customer needs.

What game thinking adds to these methods is an innovation framework for finding early hot-core customers, and taking them on a journey toward mastery.

The best products don’t just fill a need. They help people get better at something they care about.

Game thinking is a framework for building products that make your customers more powerful, knowledgeable, and connected. Like learn startup, game thinking is grounded in testing assumptions. And like design thinking, we start out in a problem space (an unmet need) and end in a solution space (how your product fills that need).

Game Thinking extends these approaches with a disciplined, proven methodology for driving engagement by upgrading your customers — one of the most powerful and positive way to keep people coming back.

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Amy Jo Kim

Game designer, startup coach, author, entrepreneur