Book Review: Playful Design by John Ferrara

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I love books“. Wow, that is two blog posts in a row now in which I mention this. My girlfriend is glad that I have switched to eBooks as my collection of work related books is starting to get the upper-hand in our bookcases. Since last week, I have added another book to my e-collection, John Ferrara’s Playful Design published by the friendly people over at Rosenfeld Media.

Wait, hold it right there mister… Playful Design, but you are not a designer, what will this book have to teach you? John Ferrara’s book is for anyone involved in the UX world as a matter of fact. John’s goal with his book is, as he states in the introduction:

‘to let UX designers adopt game design as a competency that they can enlist’

but he still says that the book is also for anyone who wants to learn more about how games can achieve great things in the real world.

You say potato…

Game design, gamification, aren’t these two peas in a pod? Well, not exactly. Sunni Brown, who co-authored Gamestorming, tells in her foreword that their needs to be a clear distinction among UX designers between the two. Between the ‘all lipstick and no sex’ and the ‘compelling game design that ignites our systems of pleasure’. From basic Likes to point systems, UX designers need to be able to create seductive user experiences with feedback loops and small, surmountable obstacles.

If you are more visually, than textually, inclined like myself, it can be a little hard to grasp the meaning of game design and how it pertains to this specific book. On YouTube, the are some good examples, here is one of my favorites, the Piano Staircase by the team over at

I can’t help myself, I need to show you one more, the Bottle Bank Arcade, also by the

Why so serious?

John Ferrara, in the first few chapters, argues why UX designers need to look into game design and he asks the question why serious applications can’t include game elements.

Playful Design - Drag & Drop

Did you know, card games in Microsoft Windows were used to teach people how to 'drag & drop'?

According to John, games solve real problems. Games have effect, both positive and negative, if meant for a serious purpose or as a leisurely time filler. From gambling to games that help improve social awareness, donations to charity, games can educate at levels that keep players engaged. More importantly, game can effect human behavior.

Past, Present, and the Future

In Playful Design, the metaphor is made that UX design and Video Game design are like siblings that were raised in separate homes. For the ‘past’ this was definitely the case, but the author (and I think anyone who surfs the web regularly) can agree that this is no longer so.

There is a clear overlap starting to emerge with respect to both fields of expertise. Both sides are starting to learn from each other, where John states that:

‘UX design creates experiences that help people meet their real-world needs, whereas game design is about the experience, for the sake of the experience’

With current developments, practitioners on both side of the spectrum will come to see both fields as fundamentally related as best practices afford successful new approaches to design.

Living Games

In Chapter 2 ‘Understanding Games’ John makes a case that a common set of characteristics defines all games. Based on that premise, as described in the book, almost anything can be considered a game, even it is part of our real life.

Placing Bids on Ebay

From a buyer's perspective bidding is the game at Ebay.

Towards the end of the chapter a great example is given on how Ebay can seriously be considered to be a game. John splits the example up into 4 parts, parts that can define a game:

  1. Objectives
  2. Environmental Constraints
  3. Formal Constraints
  4. Machine-Based Arbitration

On Ebay the Objectives are defined by your role on the website. Are you selling or are you buying? If you are selling, your objective will be to sell your item at the highest price. If you are the latter, your objective is to ‘win’ by buying an item (naturally with the highest bid).

Functionalities, in games rules you might say, are called Environmental Constraints. How long may an auction last? Can sellers reserve a minimum price to protect themselves to sub-prime bids? To make sure sellers and buys play nice, Ebay has put rules in place by which they must abide, these are called the Formal Constraints.

Machine-Based Arbitration is nothing more than an automated way of checking that there are not cheaters, that only one person can be identified as the ‘winner’ etc. Automation.

The extra features such as reward systems, user levels and seller review systems just strengthen the gamification of online auctioning, binding sellers and buyers to Ebay’s services.

Diving Deeper

With a clear explanation of the fundamentals, definitions set, the author continues his book by diving deeper into individual elements of game design. From Game Concept to Prototype. Many different, and many new (at least to me), facets of game design are discussed.

Games are not only for action and not only for learning, the direction you take your game design is only limited by your personal drive for creativity and how you imagine it to effect human behavior. John winds down his discussion on game design in what is possibly my favorite chapter, Games for Persuasion.

Procedural Rhetoric

Monopoly Man

Monopoly's Messages

When designing games for persuasion, it is all about messaging. John teaches us about Ian Bogost’s ‘Procedural Rhetoric’ theory. Games, according to Bogost, can influence people and can be just as effective as a form of communication as ‘public oratory, written language, and visual media’. All these methods can be used to communicate persuasively.

For example, the game of Monopoly, contains 3 messages:

  1. Own a lot of a few things and a little of many things
  2. Be willing to make big sacrifices to obtain the things you need the most
  3. Owning all the railroads provides the most reliable source income

Even though these messages are not written in the manual, they are clearly the best strategies to win the game. These strategies can only be adopted (learned) by playing the game. Everyone who plays the game will eventually arrive at the same conclusion.


Reading the book was definitely worth my time, even if I am not a UX designer myself. Many of the topics covered were very new to myself and have really served as an eye-opener. John Ferrara helped me discover how everyday websites, serious and more leisurely, can literally contain game elements to make the use of it by visitors very pleasurable. It is down to the UX designer to make these websites playful and help enhance the overall user experience, this book is in my opinion a great place to start learning about the subject or tweak what you already know.

Playful Design will be available from June 1st, 2012 at Rosenfeld Media. You can sign up to receive a notification of when the book is released, I really recommend doing this! Happy reading!

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About Matthew Niederberger

Matthew works as Conversion Optimisation Manager at Ziggo BV. In his free time he enjoys family life as well as digging into online user research material whilst frequently generating some of his own, which he freely shares here on


  1. […] if I got people’s hopes up, I have to admit that Rosenfeld Media’s publication of John Ferrara’s Playful Design was a welcome one and one that I forgot to […]

  2. […] The new book Playful Design by John Ferrara is about to come out and our friend Matthew Niederberger was lucky enough to get a sneak peek at one of the first copies. Here is a very brief summary of what he thinks about it. For the full book review, please visit the actualinsights blog. […]

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