Many years ago I read an interview of one of the game designers of World of Warcraft, a very popular massively multiplayer online role-playing game. It was a great interview; I was most struck by the way the designer thought about the construction of the game world. I’ve tried to find the interview, to no avail. Here is my recollection of this response:

When you’re designing a game like World of Warcraft, you need to realize that you’re not designing a single game, but rather many games, one nested inside the other like a set of Russian dolls. At the top level, you have the main narrative: Arthas the Lich King is bent on destroying Azeroth, and you as the player must become strong to defeat him.

Beneath that, there is the game of becoming a strong hero. You go on adventures and fight monsters and advance your skills and acquire powerful, enchanted items.

Beneath that, there is the actual dungeon raid: you must fight through the dungeon (or mountain, or fortress) and defeat the dragon (or necromancer, or baron) who guards the treasure.

Beneath that, there is combat with a single monster: casting spells, swinging swords, pressing “heal” every sixty seconds.

Each one of these levels is a game, and each one of these games has to be fun. Character development must be fun. Dungeon crawls must be fun. Combat must be fun. If the game world is compelling and richly realized, but combat mechanics are tedious, then the game will not be fun to play. Conversely, if combat mechanics are well-executed, but the game world is flat and boring, then the game will lose its appeal. For a game to have staying power, each of the multiple layers of the game needs to be fun.

I loved this description, and what it revealed about the nature of games, experience, and meaning. The top-level game (defeat Arthas!) provides the main structure of the story: a single loop, after which the whole game ends. This top-level loop provides meaning to the levels of gameplay which support it: you are developing your hero, fighting monsters, etc in order to defeat Arthas. Without Arthas, the other games would have no meaning.

Looking at it from the other direction, we see how the top-level game (defeat Arthas!) is realized, or implemented, by the levels beneath it. To defeat Arthas, we must strengthen our character, confront dangers, and defeat monsters. The top-level game is realized via the lower-level games, which provide the substance of the game experience. If these lower level games are poorly realized, then the process of defeating Arthas will be unrewarding.

Notice also how the top-level games consist of longer narrative loops which cycle less frequently, while the low-level games are short cycles which repeat frequently.

These relationships exist in miniature between any subset of these games. The desire to “clear” a dungeon provides meaning to individual fights with monsters; the individual fights with monsters consists of the experience of clearing the dungeon.

By the time we get to the simplest of games, that of “pressing the heal button every sixty seconds,” that simple action has been imbued with meaning from the multiple games stacked upon it.


More than a handful of careers have been made in Silicon Valley selling foolproof formulas for creating “addictive” products, doling out “dopamine hits” at irregular intervals.

As an exercise, lets analyze a selection of products from the perspective of hierarchichal levels of gameplay and attempt to understand their appeal, with a mind to meaning coming top-down and substance coming bottom-up.

Along the way, we will discuss the various forms which these games can take. For example, we will see how meaning can come from real-world social relationships, as much as from in-game narratives.

Pokemon Go

Pokemon Go made waves when it was released in Summer 2016, notable for the way it incorporated real-world location into gameplay. Players would walk around the real world and encounter Pokemon via a google maps-style game screen. The game soared to the top of the charts, and that summer the streets were full of people playing the game.

As summer turned to fall, however, players started to drop off. The core game mechanics had lost their lustre, and with no support for duels and trading, players found little reason to keep catching pokemon.

Here, we see how a well-executed (in fact, groundbreaking) low-level game mechanic (walk around and catch pokemon) became unappealing after time, as there was no higher-level narrative to provide meaning to the game. The original Game Boy games pioneered the walk-and-catch mechanic (albeit without the real-world link), and made that mechanic the foundation for a larger narrative involving personal rivalry, evil organizations, and a league of fellow trainers to fight. Pokemon Go upgraded the core mechanic but failed to include any higher-level structure, such as a narrative or any type of peer-to-peer gameplay.

What is remarkable is how Niantic, the maker of Pokemon Go, failed to implement any of these levels of gameplay in the year following the game’s release. They spent the months following the release working to make the hugely popular game more stable (the weeks following the release were plagued with crashes), which was the right thing to do. After that, though, they chose to add additional nuances to the core catch mechanic (which was fine as-is) rather than implement any higher-level mechanics. As the game is now, it is incomplete.

The huge phenomenon the game became in the initial months suggest that there is an appetite for an augmented-reality Pokemon game; if they were ever to complete the game, it is likely that users would return.


At first glance, Facebook might not appear to be game. But as an application which millions of people interact with regularly during their leisure time, it is worth considering it as such.

With Facebook, the low-level loop comes via participation in the history feed. We post updates and share media, and our contributions are acknowledged via likes and comments. The “game” is that of contributing content which is the most appealing to our network.

One might observe that this “low-level” game loop is the entirety of the platform; where then are the higher-level game loops seemingly necessary for long-term appeal? The answer to that is that for Facebook, the higher-level game loop is our social life itself, which exists outside of the network, and is augmented by it. The genius of Facebook is that it embeds itself within an existing narrative structure, and makes itself indispensible to it.

Donkey Kong

A classic arcade game, in which the iconic characters of Mario and Donkey Kong make their debut. This game consists of manouvering Mario up a series of platforms and ladders, while avoiding the rolling barrels that Donkey Kong continualy throws down. Donkey Kong has kidnapped a princess, and Mario is trying to reach her to rescue her.

The game features a handful of levels, each level being completed when Mario has reached the top of the screen. The game ends when Mario reaches the top of the last level and rescues the princess.

Although the game is simple, it has stood the test of time, even becoming the subject of a documentary. As with the example of Facebook, one might wonder as to the source of the game’s long-term appeal. The low-level loops are evident: jump over barrels and climb up ladders. What is it about this game which brings players back, year after year?

The answer, as with Facebook, is the social embeddedness, in the form of the high score board. While an individual play through Donkey Kong takes place in isolation and with minimal narrative, the opportunity to earn a high score and add one’s initials to the public board (marking one’s territory as a reigning champion) gives meaning to what would otherwise become a fairly rote game.


Swarm is a social life-logging app developed by my company (Foursquare). In it, users “check in” to places they go in the real world, unlocking badges, earning coins, and competing for mayorships. Checking in to venues comprises the game’s low-level loop. The game’s initial design tried to create three higher-level loops: one for single players (badges), multiple players (mayorships), and social networks (leaderboards).

This design was effective for a period, and the app (then known as Foursquare) grew quickly in popularity. Over time, however, adoption leveled and the app failed to achieve the popularity of Facebook. With fewer users, the app failed to achieve the network effects of Facebook, and the leaderboards were not compelling for many users. The single-player badge loop and multi-player mayorship loop are engaging, and serve well as mid-level game loops, but do not go far enough in constructing a top-level narrative to provide meaning to the basic check-in.

One idea for Swarm would be to extend the idea of badges and create a hierarchy of “Explorer’s Clubs,” encompassing increasingly large geographies. As a resident of Bushwick, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, I can join the Bushwick Explorer’s Club by checking in at least 50 times, to 10 different venues, in 5 categories. I can join the Crown Heights Explorer’s Club by meeting the same criteria in that neighborhood. The Brooklyn Explorer’s Club (corresponding to a larger geography) can be entered by joining the Explorer’s Clubs of at least four constituent neighborhoods. The New York City club is joined analagously, after gaining entry to the clubs of at least three boroughs. We can envision state and national level clubs following the same structure.

The Explorer’s Club mechanic provides a top-level narrative by furnishing the implicit goal of gaining entry to the elite “World Explorer’s Club,” at which point the user has “won” Swarm. In the same stroke, it creates additional mid-level loops via the more accessible neighborhood and city clubs. It creates an incentive for users to check in to a variety of places as they visit new cities, as joining local clubs helps the user gain access to regional and national clubs.

Foursquare could enhance this mechanic further by providing in-app (or even real-world) benefits to the members of these myriad clubs (who by definition are power users of the app). These benefits, if implemented well, would add to the meaning of these Explorer’s Clubs, and consequently imbue the core check-in mechanic with even more meaning.