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Player Interaction

Player Interaction

Player Interaction

Player interaction is an important characteristic to consider when designing games. The designer has to answer the questions “How is the player going to interact with the game? How will the player interact with other players? what kind of decisions can the player make?” All of these questions should be answered when designing for player interaction.

What specific role does player interaction play in game design?

Games with “no” player interaction

Of course there are games that have “player interaction,” but not the kind of player interaction that you would expect.  I like to call these types of games “strategic bingo” where there are decisions to be made, but they affect only individual players

For an example, think about the classic game Bingo.  Bingo is a game where players take actions, but those actions only affect their own personal game board. Gil Hova likess to call this an aspect of “personal scale.” It’s how a player’s actions affect their just their experience – outside of other players’ experiences.

A modern day adaptation of this is with roll-and-write games where specific actions affect individual players and nothing else. These types of games are all about personal scale: where the entirety of actions are limited to a player’s specific sheet or player board.

But outside of these types of strategic bingo games, there are other types of games that have different types of player interactions. Accompanying those actions are other strategies and incentives for taking those types of actions.

Types of interaction

Different types of actions hold different meanings for players and for the whole game play experience.  Those types of actions inform players on how they may perform and take actions. One of the identifiable types of player interactions are those in zero-sum games.

Zero-sum is a concept where there is no wasted action or resource. That means that if a player takes an action where they are in a better position or “winning” then another player has lost their position and now they are “losing.” The opposite is also true.

There are certain actions that players can make in these conditions that allow them to improve and affect their positions in the game. They are:

1.     Attacking The Leader

2.     Attacking The Loser

3.     Winning vs. Highest Placing

4.     Helping vs. Hindering

Zero-sum games

In zero-sum games, your success has to come at the cost of someone else. That is what make the game “zero-sum.” There is no additional actions ore resources added to the economy of the game. Instead, someone else’s loss is your gain.

Attacking the leader

One of the most popular actions for player to take in these types of games is to attack the leader. Or at least the attacking the person whose standing is perceived to be the one who is winning. This is done often because this person has more resources, better position, or other advantages that make them a ripe target. Otherwise, there are the subjective reasons of attacking the player who has the most to lose by being attacked.

One of the most obvious examples of this in classic board games is in Risk. Here, attacking the strongest player often makes the most sense since they are in a better position to win the game. By attacking the strongest player (as in many war games); you weaken their position and make it more difficult for them to win.

Attacking the loser

Likewise, attacking the loser can also be a feasible strategy given the design of the game. Attacking the loser is something that can be done if a player’s loss of position or resources would gain the attacking player their position or resources. Attacking the loser – or a weakened player – could be advantageous because they are a player who cannot mount an effective defense against you.

An example of this would be in a real-time strategy game Starcraft where attacking the losing or weakest player can be advantageous. That is because they are unable to successfully defend against your attack. A successful attack and elimination of this player would earn you access to their resources which would improve your position.

Winning vs. highest placing

No matter if a player decides to attack the winning player for subjective purposes or the losing player for the strategic purposes; the main motivation for the player is to continue to play in order to win. However, there are certain circumstances in which the player cannot overcome the leading player in the game.  In these cases it means that the player can improve their position, but not enough to win the game.

That is when the concept of “playing for position” comes into play. Here, players take actions to perform better than other players. Subjectively this means that they won’t finish last or they will outperform another rival in the game.  This type of decision gives the player agency to re-define their position. They may not be able to win, but at least they can do better than other players.

Helping vs. hindering

Helping vs. hindering actions are determined by the nature of player actions.  Some players can take actions (particularly in euro table top games) that will help their position; gain them resources; or build an engine that will help them later in the game. Otherwise, they might have to take a contentious action and hurt another player in the game.

The former action gives them the tools necessary to improve their position in the game through their own personal scale. Whereas the latter relies on contention (and zero-sum game play) to hurt another player’s position.

However, in certain games you can take the ultimate position of resolving actions that simultaneously help you while hurting someone else. A good table top example of this is in the two player game Jaipur. At the end of each round one player may win the Camel Token which grants them an additional five points. That camel token is going to go to one of the two players at the end of the round. So by taking winning it I earn 5 points. But that also means that my opponent loses 5 points. In effect, winning that Camel Token is a 10 point swing in my favor. Wining it is an action that both helps me while also hurting my opponent.

Player interaction in team games

Team games are especially important for player interaction. In these games, players are engaged in cooperative play with members of their own team. That means that while they make contention part of their play against their opponents, they must also take into account how they can help and support their teammates.

Interaction is an incredibly critical element of game play in team games.  As in these cases, players need to be able to coordinate and cooperate in order to position their team to win.

A great and fun example of team play in player interaction is in the table top game Captain Sonar. In this game, players play as two teams of 4 players. Each team represents the crew of one submarine that is hunting the opposing submarine. The real time nature of the game makes communication and interaction between teammates challenging, but rewarding. This is especially evident when players must compete against the other team for focus and attention.

Player interaction in cooperative games

Cooperatives games are like the kind of player interaction in team games. However, in cooperatives games, players must work with each other in order to defeat the common opponent: the game.

Games like Pandemic set the players up to collaborate, cooperate, and share knowledge and resources. However, considerations have to be made for how that type of cooperation is achieved. Many cooperatives games with open information fall into the trap of quarterbacking.  This is where one player - who has a dominant position and understanding of the game, can exercise their will over the other players in the game.  The game now becomes a single player endeavor since one person is making the decisions for everyone.

In addition, there are cooperatives games with limited personal information such as The Mind and Hanabi where players must cooperate, but can only share limited information. In this case, that means that the player who is the weakest link has an adverse effect on everyone else.

Player interaction in games-based learning

Games-based learning’s player interaction comes originates between players as well as with the instructional material.  This means that formats for cooperative learning and narrative based learning have the greatest impact on player interaction.

In games-based learning, players gain by interacting and cooperating with one another similar to team games and cooperative games. In addition, there are opportunities for players to cooperate together against “the game” through challenges where learning outcomes are prioritized.

This could take the form of designers creating games-based learning environments where students must pool their knowledge and cooperate to surmount a challenge in the class related to the subject material. Otherwise students could attempt the challenge on their own, but with much less likely chance for success.

Closing thoughts

Player interaction is a critical element of game-design and games-based learning. For traditional entertainment games, player interaction can take on a more contentious format. That is when players are motivated to defeat each other. In games-based learning, players are incentivized to collaborate, cooperate, and work together to surmount challenges from the instructional material.

In either case, player interaction is prioritized as mode for players to engage with the game, class, or game-based learning environment.

This article covered player interaction in games-based learning. For more information on how player interaction affects gamification design, check out the free course on Gamification Explained.

Dave Eng, EdD

Managing Partner


Aleknevicus, G. (2003, March). Player Interaction. Retrieved from

Hova, G. (March, 2019) Why Indirect or Zero Player Interaction. Presented at the Game Developers Conference GDC. San Francisco

Avtalion, O. (2016, September 5). Roll and Write games. Retrieved from

What is quarterbacking in co-op games? (and how to not do it). (2018, March 8). Retrieved from