Game design research: An overview

Petri Lankoski and Jussi Holopainen

In: Lankoski, P. and Holopainen, J., eds., 2017. Game design research. An introduction to theory & practice. ETC Press, pp.1-24. Available at (Printed book, e-pub, or free PDF)

Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Game design aims to solve a design problem of “how do we create this specific game?” The main goal of this process is a game; new understanding about game development and game design is merely a by-product of that process. In game design research the aim is to uncover new facts and insight about game design, design processes, or games as designed objects; that is, to gain new knowledge and understanding about game design. Game research, on the other hand, is an umbrella term for all kinds of research studying games (as artifacts), play, or players (cf. Lankoski and Björk, 2015b)Design research, or design studies as it is also called, has been gaining momentum since the beginning of 20th century, although its history can be traced back millennia (e.g., Aristotle’s Poetics, circa 335 BCE and Vitruvius’ De architectura circa 15 BCE). While the history of games is long, little is known about the design of early games. Some information about evolution of certain games exists (e.g., Parker, 2006). Elizabeth Magie’s Landlord’s game (1903) is one of the early examples where there is data about its design, such as that the game is designed based on an economical theory by Henry George.

The first well-known publication about computer game design was in the 1980s when Chris Crawford (1984) published his seminal The art of game design. However, Simulation & Gaming journal has been publishing about using games in research and education from the early 1970s (for example, Nagazawa, 1970). The history of business simulation games is even longer (cf. Faria et al., 2009). Game developer magazine (1994–2013) published postmortems of game development, quality control, design, game art and musics, and programming. Game development came into the spotlight in the 2000s when multiple books about game design were published (e.g., Salen and Zimmerman, 2003) and Digital Game Research Association (DiGRA) conferences provided a venue for game research and began publishing design research (e.g., Lankoski and Heliö, 2002; Martin et al., 2003; Björk, Lundgren and Holopainen, 2003).

For the purpose of the following discussion, Nigel Cross’ (1999) definition of design research as “development, articulation and communication of design knowledge” (p.5) is used. However, one needs to remember that a key aspect of research is that research is a systematic practice.  Cross argues further that the design knowledge resides in people, processes, and artifacts resulting in three different domains of design knowledge: design epistemology (the study of designerly ways of knowing), design praxiologypy (the study of practices and processes of design) and design phenomenology (the study of the form and function of the resulting artifacts).

The studies in game design research can be positioned accordingly. The game design epistemology is concerned with what kinds of knowledge game designers have and employ in their design practice. Investigations of explicit and implicit conceptual design frameworks and studies of how designers use examples from existing games to frame design situations are part of game design epistemology (cf. Chiapello, this volume). The design practices and processes, both actual and prescribed, are the focus of design praxiology. How designers work, what kinds of methods and design tools they use, and how game design is situated in the larger game development are examples of these studies. The design phenomenology has, perhaps, been the most prevalent form of game design research and covers many issues in the more general game research field such as analyses and impact studies of games.

Another useful way to make sense of the complex field of design research is to categorize it according to the goals and approaches used in the studies. Forlizzi, et al. (2009; cf. Frayling, 1993; Coulton and Hook, this volume) propose three categories: research on (or about) design, research for design, and research through design. Research on design aims to understand design as a specific human activity, including aspects such as design cognition, the role of specific activities such as sketching in design, and creativity (e.g., Holopainen, Nummenmaa and Kuittinen, 2010). The goals in research for design are to develop theories and knowledge which can be applied in the practical design work. Forlizzi, et al. (2009) list conceptual frameworks, guiding philosophies, and design implications as examples of research for design (cf. Chiapello, this volume; Dormans and Holopainen, this volume; Back and Waern, this volume). Research through design, on the other hand, is an approach to produce different kinds of design knowledge, including conceptual frameworks and design theories. As the name implies the outputs are developed through actively engaging in producing designed artifacts.

A persistent form of game design research is aiming to understand design practices or improve those practices, in other words, research for design. Game design research, however, is not only about improving existing design practices as is evident from the historical overview of game design research below. What we provide in the following discussion is not a systematic review of history of game design research, but rather an overview reflecting our histories as game design research practitioners.

Autobiographical approaches

Initial takes on game design research were typically informal or ad hoc. The driving force at the beginning was the designers’ need to better understand what they were doing and to learn from their previous work. Data about development was typically not gathered systematically and autobiographical design experiences were an important part of analytical reflections.

The roots of game design research are in informal (1) inquiries where designers started to ask how to design better games. Early examples of theorising about design include Jackson and Schuessler’ (1981) work on board game design in Game design: Volume 1: Theory & practice and Crawford’s (1984) description on development process along with design techniques and design norms in his The art of computer game design. Notably, Schuessler (in Jackson and Schuessler, 1981) uses game theory in his approach to board game design.

The discussion focussed on what is a good game and how to design those kinds of games. Design approaches are driven by norms. The following quote is an example of norms and assumptions in game design derived from an implicit understanding of what makes a good game:

Because game players become their characters, game writers should confine themselves to single-person, limited point of view. This means that the player should never be shown or told anything that the character has not experienced directly. (Laramée, 2002, p.266)

Norms and heuristics, as Niiniluoto (1993) points out, are essential for design work. The norms are (at least to some degree) a matter of taste. Norms for a game appealing to children may be quite different from the norms of a game appealing to adults. Changing the norms of a good game leads to a different set of design recommendations. For example, Witcher 3: Wild hunt (CD Project RED, 2015) was a very successful and popular game even though it breaks Laramée’s aforementioned design principles when the game switches between Geralt and Ciri. It is worth to emphasize that immersion as a design norm is not wrong, but the norm tends to promote certain design directions and demote other types of design solutions.

Designers and developers actively publish about different approaches to game development. Game developer conference, Game developer magazine (1994–2013), and Gamasutra (1997–) magazine have been prominent venues for sharing experiences of design processes (called Postmortems following Crawford’s, 1984, terminology) and advices for best practice. More practice informed design theory and method approaches started to surface in the 2000s (e.g., Rouse, 2001; Schell, 2008). Some works are creating connections to different areas of design: Sheldon (2004) draws from dramatic writing and Totten (2014) from architecture.

Non-digital entertainment games have also been discussed by practitioners. For example, Knizia’s (2010) Dice games properly explained discusses mainly dice games from the player perspective (e.g., good strategies), but also covers design of dice games. There are vibrant hobby communities around board and roleplaying games such as Boardgame geek (, Board game designer forum (, RPGNet (, and the LARP focused Knutepunkt/Solmukohta (2). The design oriented discussions within these communities are often based on the designers’ own reflections on their design work and sometimes lack the analytical rigour. There are, however, exceptions, especially in the books published from Knutepunkt/Solmukohta conference series.

Comparative and conceptual approaches

The next shift happened at 1990s when to focus moved from postmortems to developing approaches to describe games. In these approaches playing games produces the data that is analysed (cf. Cross, 1999, design epistemology, praxiology, and phenomenology) to develop models, concepts, and definitions of games. Researchers and practitioners also took up the quest of defining a language to describe games. The lack of language to discuss and describe game design has been an issue for a long time. Greg Costikyan (1994) tackles the issue that game designers do not have a language to discuss and describe game design in the essay I have no words & I must design in the context of table-top roleplaying games

In his essay, Costikyan (1994) discusses what a game is and what makes a good game based on the criteria of his definition. His definition is meant to highlight the designable aspects and provide some criteria to evaluate different design decisions against the criteria of a good game. This descriptive approach along with earlier ones (Crawford, 1984, provides a definition and a taxonomy of games) are based on the needs of game designers to understand what they are designing.

As noted above, game designers have been concerning themselves with the question what is game and language to discuss game design. This form of game design research is closely connected, or indistinguishable, from game research that is looking at the questions about what games are. Elliot M. Avedon and Brian Sutton-Smith’s (1971) The study of games from 1971 is an early example where (sport, gambling) games and children’s play are regarded as artifacts, not merely as an abstract cultural category.

Salen and Zimmerman (2003), in Rules of play, Hunicke, et al. (2004) in MDA, and Elias, et al. (2012), in Characteristics of games, take a more theoretically driven approach when describing different kinds of theories and their applications to game design. Notably, Elias, et al., are focusing on board and card games in their work. Salen and Zimmerman look at games as information systems, cybernetic systems, and so on whereas Elias, et al., draw much from game theory. Hunicke, et al. present a formal analysis framework breaking games to mechanic, dynamic and aesthetic components. Salen and Zimmerman, Hunicke, et al., and Elias, et al., also provide analyses of games and play behaviors in order to provide tools to think about game design in more structured ways. In a similarly structured manner, Klabbers (2008) presents principles of the design and use of games where he connects simulation game design, a scientific tradition set-up by the Simulation & Gaming journal (1970–), to the various other domains of game design.

Björk and Holopainen(Björk, Lundgren and Holopainen, 2003; Björk and Holopainen, 2005) introduced their game design patterns approach for describing formal structures of games. They based the pattern language on the architectural design patterns by Alexander et al. (1977). Lankoski and Björk (2015a) draw on formal art analysis to provide concepts and a method to describe and analyse games. Zagal’s, et al. (2005) game ontology project aimed to provide tools for describing and analysing games using Lakoff (1987) prototype theory as a premise to build their ontology. Aki Järvinen (2008) and Joris Dormans (2012) present detailed theories on game systems and sketch theories for the relation of game system and play experience in their doctoral theses.

Totten (in this volume) traces game design via looking at games, applying historical approach from the architectural research. Bateman and Zagal (2017) track the evolution of game design features such as inventory systems.

The above review of conceptual approaches reveal a range of different approaches for describing games systems. The plurality of frameworks indicates that there is still little agreement on how to conceptualize game systems.

Research through design

Research through design has been an eminent approach in game design research beginning from the early days of Simulation & Gaming journal through Thomas Malone’s (1981; 1982) seminal work in early 1980s and Brenda Laurel’s (1986) influential doctoral dissertation Toward the design of a computer-based interactive fantasy system, although only a few of the more recent studies have identified themselves as such. In a typical research through design project the researchers design and usually implement a game or games in order to pursue a further research aim, such as developing guiding principles and conceptual frameworks (Guardiola and Natkin, this volume; Back and Waern, this volume), validating a certain design approach in serious games studies (Quinten, et al., this volume), or understanding game design as an activity (Holopainen, et al., 2010). Coulton and Hook (this volume) provide a more thorough game design practice oriented discussion, while the rest of this section highlights some of the prominent examples of research through game design.

The 1990s and early 2000s saw a rise in both academic and industry based research teams engaging in research through game design. Many of these initiatives explored the potential of (then) upcoming technologies for game development. For example, Interactive Institute’s PLAY Studio (1999–2004) in Gothenburg, Sweden, worked on location-aware (Falk, et al., 2001) and ubiquitous computing games (Björk, et al., 2002) while Mixed reality lab at University of Nottingham together the artist group Blast Theory focused on exploring mixed reality with games such as Desert rain (1999) and Can you see me now? (2001) (see Benford, et al., 2002). Finland around the same time was active in shaping the international game research community. Game research lab at University of Tampere used design-based approach in multiple projects and developed games such as The footprints of power in 2002 (cf. Ekman and Lankoski, 2004) to explore games and storytelling in interactive television and The songs of north in 2003–2004 (cf. Lankoski, et al., 2004) to understand the potential of location-aware mobile games. Nokia Research Center, also in Tampere, had several research through game design projects from 1999 onwards, often collaborating with academic research teams (e.g., Falk, et al., 2001; Suomela, et al., 2004; Holopainen, Nummenmaa and Kuittinen, 2010; Koivisto and Eladhari, 2006). Lankoski, et al. in Aalto University developed Lies and Seductions (Lankoski, et al., 2009) in order to explore character-driven game design methodology and further develop it. In addition the game aimed to study possibilities of social conflict -based gameplay (cf. Lankoski, 2010).

In 2004, the Integrated project on pervasive games (IPeRG), collected researchers from University of Nottingham’s Mixed reality lab, University of Tampere’s Game research lab, Interactive Institute’s Play studio (later Game studio), and Nokia Research Center’s Game design team. The backbone of the project was formed by the design and development of game showcases: for example, Epidemic menace (cf. Lindt, et al., 2007) and Day of figurines (cf. Flintham et al., 2007). The showcases were used to advance the understanding of pervasive game design and development and the results, including design guidelines and frameworks, are collected in Montola, et al. (2007).

Similar North-American approaches include, for example, Regan Mandryk’s and Kori Inkpen’s (2001) work on computer supported cooperative play and Carnegie Mellon’s Oz-project on interactive drama (Bates, 1992). Michael Mateas translated his expertise on believable characters built in Oz-project to games with Façade (cf. Mateas and Stern, 2003). The trend has since grown stronger with several research teams and centers engaging in research through design.

Academic conferences, such as ISAGA, SIGGRAPH and SIGCHI, had already published research through game design studies for a long time but several new academic venues emerged in the early 2000s. The first international conference on entertainment computing (ICEC) was held in 2001 followed by the first Advances in computer entertainment technology (ACE) conference in 2004. In addition to ICEC and ACE, newer conferences such as CHI PLAY (from 2014) and Foundations of Digital Games (from 2009) contain a substantial amount of research through design studies, though the authors may not explicitly identify their work as such.

Designing games for a purpose of gaining new knowledge, in other words research through game design, has been an integral, although often implicit, part of game research.  Discussing and criticizing research through design as an approach has made researchers more aware of their methodology in fields such as HCI (Zimmerman, Stolterman and Forlizzi, 2010; cf. Gaver, 2012). Coulton and Hook (in this volume) and Back and Waern (in this volume) discuss challenges in using research through game design later in this book.

Design and evaluation methods research

Design methods have been an integral part of general design research (Vries, Cross and Grant, 1993).  Game designers have been working on design and evaluation methods for a long time starting with autobiographical works that provide important insights for understanding game design practices within game industry. There are numerous textbooks on game design advocating different methods and techniques and there is a growing body of systematic work on game design methodology (cf., Dormans and Holopainen, this volume).  Moreover, understanding norms and assumptions behind different methods and approached is one emerging line of study (see, for example, Marcotte and Khaled, this volume).

Microsoft has been active in game design and evaluation methods from early 2000. For example, Pagulayan, et al., (2003) present user-centric design approach for games and Lazarre and Keeker (2004) described an approach for evaluating games.

Fullerton, Swain and Hoffman (2004) in their Game design workshop textbook, outline design methodology based on prototyping, iteration, and playtesting. Sweetser and Wyeth (2005) provide heuristic model based on Csikszentmihalyi’s (1990) flow theory for evaluating game enjoyment. Dorman’s (2012, 2017) Machinations design approach and tool allows simulation based fine-tuning of game systems. The design of serious games has been a hot topic and there are multiple design frameworks for them (e.g., Quinten, Malliet and Coninx, in this volume; Gunter, Kenny and Vick, 2006; Yusoff, et al., 2009; Annetta, 2010).

In addition for general game design approaches, there are also more specific methods for designing, for example, character-based games, pervasive games and education games. Lankoski (2010; cf. Lankoski, Heliö and Ekman, 2003) suggest a character-driven game design approach that draws from Egri’s (1960) method for theatre script-writing (3) and Isbister (2006) focuses on design of believable game characters based on psychological theories.

All heuristic evaluation methods and many design methods are normative: they are based on a specific norm of a good game or playing experience. These approaches promote norms such as immersion or believable game characters. Methods focusing on the design or development process do not necessarily take similar normative stances, as their focus is on the process, not in the artifacts produced. Notably, Jones (1981), writing on design methods in general, argues that changing a design method can give a new perspective to a design problem and thereby help solve it. Jones’ argument applies to game design methods: they provide a perspective intended to help to solve a design problem.

Nacke and Lindley (2008) show an approach to compare player experiences using psychophysiology and psychometrics, Pedersen, et al. (2009) describe a study about modeling play experience in relation to design features and Mourato and Santos (2010) do statistical modelling on the difficulty of platform games using play data. Cowley, et al. (2014) present an empirical study where they look at play patterns based on play data and connect that data to design patterns analysis of the game, aiming to bridge the gap between analytical design studies and empirical player studies.

Evaluation methods also have application in the research for design area. Weber, et al. (2011) exemplifies a focused look at the relationship between retention of players and game design choices. El-Nasr, Drachen and Canossa’s (2013) provide an extensive look at using game analytics to support game design.

Studio and developers at work studies

The main feature of the empirical phase is that the data of player behaviour or development practices is gathered using various methods such as interviews, observations and questionnaires; the data is not generated by researchers playing games by themselves or by designers reflecting their on own development experiences. An early example of an interview-based study of hobby game production is Laukkanen’s (2005) study on game modding and modders.

From the late 2000s onward multiple researchers have been examining projects within commercial game companies. Hagen (Hagen, 2009; 2011) interviewed designers and analysed material from various early design phase in order to understand the ideation process at the early stage of game development. Based on a year of ethnographic work, Malaby (2009) presents a study about how Linden Lab approaches their development work on Second Life (2003–). Peltoniemi (2009) and Kultima (2010) look at the development cultures within game companies. O’Donnell (2014) has been conducting ethnographic studies about design practices in studios covering both the pre-production phase and the production phase and extending his analysis to how market forces shape design and development work. Koleva, et al. (2015) provides another study looking at actual development processes using ethnomethodology and a questionnaire.

Developers have been interviewed in multiple studies to develop understanding various aspects of development process. Kultima has studied innovation in companies (Kultima, 2010) and the role of iteration in game development (Kultima, 2015) by interviewing developers. Tschang (2007) has looked at how developers balance between creativity and different types of constraints (such as resources, increasing complexity, and coherence within a game) in game development. Sandovar (in this volume) and Marcotte and Khaled (in this volume) provide two additional perspectives to study indie developers’ practices.

Game jams have been providing an alternative channel for looking at development processes. For example, Zook and Riedl (2013) studied conceptualisation and Kultima, Alha, and Nummenmaa (2016) analyzed the role of constraints in development processes in game jams.

Where are we now; what next

Our historical look at game design research divides work into the headings of: conceptual approaches; research through design; design and evaluation methods; and studies of studios and developers at work.  Many research cases focus on these aspects but extend into other directions as well. However, our review of game design research builds on our own histories as researchers. Systematic review of the area would be needed for building better understanding what is happening in the field. Nevertheless, we have shown that game design research consists of various different approaches with the common aim of gaining insight by looking as games as design processes or systems, including how the systems shape play and experience. This means that a large body of game research is not game design research: for example, MMO studies that look at play in MMOs, but do not consider how game systems modulate and regulate play. There the focus is understanding play as play without intention to gain knowledge on (game) design of MMOs.

Conceptual approaches have centered around the definition of a game (or gameplay) relate to philosophy of design (cf. Galle, 2002) and analytical philosophy. Tavinor (2009) illustrates in The art of videogames how game studies in general would benefit from better philosophical rigour when developing definitions (pp.15–33). His argument is relevant also to game design research.  The areas of philosophy of science in game design research and the ethics of game design are rarely studied. Kultima (in this volume) reflects on the ontology of game design research and Chiapello (in this volume) discusses the epistemology of game design research. Sicart (2009, pp.207–221) in his The ethics of computer games looks at the ethics of game design as a part of his project to understand ethics of games and play in a more general sense. We hope to see more research in the future into the area of philosophy of design.

Many modern 3D games model urban and rural spaces. Totten (in this volume) shows how a historical research approach (cf. Wang and Groat, 2013) drawn from architecture can used in game design research. Architectural research and research in urban design has a long tradition (e.g., the Journal of Urban Planning has been running from 1996 and Architectural Research Quarterly from 1995) in topics relating to game spaces. While the research and research approaches in architecture and urban planning might not be directly applicable to research of game spaces and the use of game spaces, game design research still can learn from the approaches used in those areas.

As we have illustrated above game design research provides theories (4) that are fundamentally normative; these theories make claims about the qualities of good games and how to design good games. However, scientific design theories are not purely normative, but rather build on descriptive theories of games, the relation between play and game, or play experience. (cf. Wang and Groat, 2013, pp.109–122; Niiniluoto, 1993; Chiapello, this volume.) The nature, role and construction of these game design theories remains largely unexplored (Dormans and Holopainen, this volume). Friedman (2003) and Redström (2017), for example, have argued that constructing or making design theories is essential for advancing the knowledge in the field, ultimately leading to better practices and products. We hope that this book contributes to the exploration and articulation of how and why to make game design theories.

Above we have outlined and categorized types of game design research. We presented autobiographical approaches, comparative and conceptual approaches, research through design, design and evaluation methods research, and studio and developers at work studies. Each of these have a different focus on what kind of knowledge the researchers are interested in. Moreover, different research types complement each other providing understanding relating game design, its products and processes. The following chapters continue in describing game design research in more detail from various point of views.


  1. Informal is used to denote approaches where the presented results are not a result based on systematic investigation of a topic using a method to study the topic.
  2. Knutepunk/Solmukohta is a yearly conference for live-action role-players and designers.
  3. Egri’s approach has been utilized, at least, in more autobiographical works of Sheldon (2004) and Krawczyk and Novak (2006).
  4. Following Mautner’s (2005, p.426) simple definition of a theory: “a set of propositions which provides principles of analysis or explanation of a subject matter. Even a single proposition can be called a theory.”


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