Keeping the Player Smart

Group playing board game

“Your game should be a journey full of thinking of solutions and keeping the player smart.”

-Tim Eckert, How Games Motivate Players

‘Keeping the player smart’ is a great way to think about learning as a core motivator in game play. I had this in mind a few nights ago when I turned on the fireplace, cleared the round table and put the Whoonu game tin in the middle to play with guests. Whoonu, from Cranium, is described as “the fun-filled ‘what’s your favorite thing?’ game.” It lives up to its claim and much more, as some of you may know. How? By keeping players smart. Even in a party game where your slightly silly task is to rank your most-to-least favorite things from six random cards chosen by other players like doing laundry, popsicles, road trips, little dogs, getting up early, cuddling.

To me, ‘keeping the player’ smart in Whoonu breaks down like this:

  • Feeling smart at the start. ‘I know he’s a night owl so ‘getting up early’ won’t be his favorite thing.’
  • Getting smarter as you go. ‘She said she loved big dogs when someone else got that card earlier.’
  • Being smarter at the end. ‘Whoonu she liked doing laundry more than taking road trips.’

Every moment of Whoonu is engineered to keep players smart.

  • Smart about playing. Learning why players favor one thing over another gives you clues to earn points.
  • Smart about scoring. Learning that a ‘he won’t like any of these’ or ‘she will love these’ hand of cards doesn’t always result in earning points.
  • Smart about winning. Learning more and more about each player to steadily earn points or surge ahead to win.

Even party games are about learning

In Whoonu, no matter how surprising and revealing people’s favorite things are, the game environment is positive and accepting. Whoonu?, everyone says. (Even when someone’s partner admits favoring ‘little dogs’ over ‘cuddling’.)  Fortunately, it’s just a party game. Or, is it?

“In games, learning is the drug.”

– Ralph Koster, A Theory of Fun for Game Design

 “Everyone likes learning,” Tim Eckert points out. “No, wait. It’s not the process of learning we love, but the feeling of being smarter now than we were just a few moments ago.” For those of us who design games to help people do new things and behave in new ways, ‘keeping the player smart’ encompasses all the elements needed to motivate individuals. Elements like competition, achievement, relatedness, competence and significance.

Woamn with lightbulb drawing
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels with thanks

Next time you play a game, consider how learning keeps you smart from start to finish. And, when you’re making a game, ‘keeping the player smart’ is a great way to consider learning as the motivating force.

“Play is the highest form of research.”

– Albert Einstein

Feeling smart motivates continued play

Back to the game Whoonu, and the fire and our guests. To our surprise, they asked if we could play again the next night. Even though it was late and we’d been out all day. Why? Because they were learning interesting things about each other and they wanted to play a little smarter than they did the night before.

So, there you have it. Keeping the player smart.

  • Feeling smart at the start.
  • Getting smarter as you go.
  • Being smarter at the end.

And, for fun, here’s how I ranked that random little group of Whoonu things with #6 being my most favorite.

6 Getting up early

5 Road trips

4 Doing laundry

3 Cuddling

2 Little dogs

1 Popsicles


Founder /CEO at Originaliti
Sue Baechler is the founder and CEO of Originaliti Media, Inc. Originaliti’s games, simulations and interactive experiences help people solve strategic and educational challenges in companies like Deloitte, Hilton, Hallmark, CVS Health, Genentech, H&R Block, Xerox and GE. Originaliti’s products for global brands have been featured in Forbes, Fast Company, CNN, Huffington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. Before Originaliti, Sue led Lens Crafters California operations, directed communications and education for Osco Drug’s US operations, US corporate education for Melville, and MBA content design for two Internet start-ups in San Francisco. Sue was awarded a BA in Communication and Education Design for Adults & Children from Buckminster Fuller’s School of Design at Southern Illinois University.
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