Puzzle Mechanics Are Better Than Game Mechanics

Posted on January 5, 2012


I am becoming obsessed with the idea that puzzles may be one of the greatest motivational tools available to us, especially for learning, but also for many other things as well. I’m going to work my way through this thinking in this post, but it’s not particularly organized or pretty. Just a warning.

Some thoughts:

First of all, how would you define a puzzle?

The dictionary defines it as:

A game, toy, or problem designed to test ingenuity or knowledge.

Personally I think that’s a limiting definition. I would define a puzzle as anything that meets two requirements:

  1. Ability to take multiple paths (even if there is only one correct path)
  2. Feedback providing sense of progress (am I on a/the correct path)
  3. There is some goal (it may be specific or vague, known or unknown, but there is a sense of a destination or at least a way to determine that you are making progress in the correct direction)

It’s funny how the first two things boil down to essentially autonomy and progress, which seem to be the two most important factors in intrinsic motivation (check out The Progress Principle). The third is kind of just the definition of the activity. What are you trying to achieve?

This represents a very basic definition of a puzzle, but as far as I would like to use the word “puzzle”, this is what I am trying to imply.

In this way many things are puzzles:

  1. A puzzle
  2. A maze (the dead ends give you feedback on progress)
  3. Learning a new skill (if done well)
  4. Programming
  5. Managing a business
  6. etc. etc.

People talk about “Game Mechanics” as a way of motivating and engaging people in their products (it’s a phrase that’s tossed around startups all the time). Game mechanics generally refers to things like having a user level up or earn a badge or become mayor or something. These are classic examples of extrinsic motivators. You are engaging with the product or activity in order to earn something that is presented by someone else.

Research shows that intrinsic motivators are generally more effective and longer lasting with fewer side effects than extrinsic motivators. I think that “Puzzle Mechanics” – as in environments that are set up to meet the three requirements described above – are potentially more effective than game mechanics.

I’m not sure whether every situation can be approached from game mechanics and puzzle mechanics. For example I can’t really think of how you would approach FourSquare from the perspective of a puzzle when it seems to work very well with game mechanics.

I do think, though that some problems like education, would be far more effective if puzzle mechanics were applied vs. game mechanics. For example we can try to teach math by giving someone a badge for solving 10 problems, or we can create puzzles that can not be solved without understanding the math but where you can move closer to the goal of understanding the math by piecing it together yourself (I know this is a bad description, I just can’t figure out how to describe it better right now). If the puzzles are done well I would argue that the resulting motivation will be far greater.

Here is a talk about some good examples of math learning using puzzle mechanics:

Teaching Math Without Words, A Visual Approach to learning Math from MIND Research Institute

In the end my gut says that puzzle mechanics represent intrinsic motivation, while game mechanics represent extrinsic motivation. Unfortunately I think puzzle mechanics are harder to apply (it’s a lot easier to just give someone a badge than to create the environment that allows them autonomy and a sense of progress toward a goal without laying out the path for them).