Part II | Defining Games

Part II | Defining Games

Part II of Dissertation Research Series

Since there has not been a consensus on the characteristics of games, Garris, Ahlers, and Driskell (2002) conducted a review of the literature to synthesize the key features. They concluded that the features could be categorized among six main dimensions: fantasy, sensory stimuli, rules/goals, challenge, mystery, and control.



Fantasy means that games include imaginary settings and environments and that the activities within that world does not impact the real world (Garris et al., 2002). To many researchers, this is one of the strengths of games in that video games present the information situated within a context so that as individuals learn they are often not aware they are learning, or how difficult it is (Gee, 2007).

Sensory Stimuli

Sensory Stimuli are used to convey the fantasy that is portrayed in the game (Garris et al., 2002).

Rules / Goals

Rules/Goals define the gameplay, with rules leading to the goals in the game (Garris et al., 2002). By setting clear rules and goals, the game encourages motivation, attention, and strategic thinking as players work towards the goal (Garris et al., 2002; McGonigal, 2011).


Challenge is a motivating factor for users engaged with a game as they work to solve a problem presented by the game (Garris et al., 2002; Prensky, 2001). The MIT Media Lab, which creates educational games, terms this “hard fun,” based on a comment by a third grader reflecting on an experience engaging in this type of learning (Prensky, 2001).


Mystery can be provoked through complexity, novelty, surprise, and needing to make sense of conflicting or incomplete information (Garris et al., 2002). Mystery leads to curiosity in an individual as they seek the answers to the mystery. Curiosity, according to Malone (1981), is intrinsically motivating when the game can evoke and then satisfy an individual’s curiosity.


Control is one’s ability to make decisions in directing or commanding the game (Garris et al., 2002). This sense of control is present in games when individuals are able to choose a strategy or the next action and make decisions in the game environment when pursuing their goals (Garris et al., 2002).


The motivating experience games create can be explained by the concept of flow, a term coined by Csikszentmihalyi to describe a state in which an individual experiences a challenge that stretch their skills without being overly difficult or too easy (engaging in an appropriate level of challenges for one’s abilities) and having clear goals and immediate feedback on progress (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002). This state has certain characteristics, such as intensive, focused concentration, merging action and awareness, lack of social self-awareness, sense of control over one’s actions, distorted experience of time (generally passing very quickly), and being intrinsically rewarding. An individual in flow is operating at their full capacity, working towards a goal right above their average level of both challenge and skill (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002).



Garris, R., Ahlers, R., & Driskell, J. E. (2002). Games, Motivation, and Learning: A Research and Practice Model. Simulation & Gaming, 33(4), 441–467. doi:10.1177/1046878102238607

Gee, J. P. (2007). What Video Games Have to Teach us About Learning and Literacy. New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan.

Malone, T. W. (1981). Toward a theory of intrinsically motivating instruction. Cognitive Science, 5(4), 333–369. Retrieved from

McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. New York: The Penguin Press.

Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). The concept of flow. Handbook of Positive Psychology, 89–105.

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital game-based learning. New York : McGraw-Hill.


Lindsey Tropf

Lindsey Tropf

Founder & CEO of @immersedgames // School psychology doctoral candidate interested in #edtech, game-based learning, and using data.

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