The Beauty of Games by Frank Lantz

A Book Review with Games-based Learning in Mind

Terry Pearce
6 min readMay 9, 2024

It’s amazing to me that Frank Lantz’s book ‘The Beauty of Games’ is only 160 pages long. In those 160 pages, the business he’s about is convincing us that games are not only an art form but potentially the defining art form of the 20th century. On the journey to landing that conclusion, he takes in how:

  • Games focus us on how we think and act
  • Meaning and beauty emerge from games
  • Go and Poker showcase the depth and all-embracing nature of games
  • Games work on the level of society and society’s challenges
  • Games elevate our systems literacy and how important that is

And plenty more, including a credible claim that Poker may just have saved the world.

Wisely, the book moves away from the term ‘art form’, focusing on the wider category of ‘aesthetic experience’, which is what painting, literature and classical music offer but also what rock music and graphic novels offer.

This handily sidesteps arguments of the ‘but is it really art, darling?’ type. Really, Lantz is presenting games to us as systems that we explore and co-create an experience from, all of which make games a window into how we think and act. Games, the book says, are a way to examine and elevate how we interact with the world.

Games are micro-systems where we play at the real world

The book takes in a dizzying amount of examples and viewpoints to support this thesis. For example, it draws out the ways that even Poker — an abstract game — teaches us about the value of probabilistics over black-and-white thinking, empathy and how people think about problems. It simplifies and streamlines thoughts I’d already been mulling over: for example, how games create self-contained microcosms where designers define goals and obstacles, drawing players into expressing and exploring themselves by how they work within that magic circle.

The book returns again and again to how games help us grow and develop. In particular, Lantz talks about how systems thinking is the key skill for navigating the modern world and about how games are in a unique position to help us develop our systems literacy in the ways we need.

If this were purely a traditional book review, the TL;DR would be: if you have the slightest interest in games, I strongly recommend you buy and read this short, accessible masterpiece. But ‘The Beauty of Games’ isn’t specifically a book about learning games, despite the focus on developing skills for the modern world. So, I’d like to focus on how the book speaks to me in terms of using games to help people learn.

As aesthetic experiences, games have the potential for transformative learning

In separating games from ‘just entertainment’ and placing them as art or aesthetic experiences, Lantz does a great job of listing the aesthetic dimensions of games. Players participate and interact. They explore possibilities. They solve problems and seek outcomes, and have an experience framed by their actions.

This echoes — but builds on — ideas about agency and games that I already found compelling in the work of C Thi Nguyen. It helps us to focus on the fact that it is the experience, the exercise of agency, that defines a game. This means that, when you create learning games, you’re in the business of creating the setting for a player to have an experience that they control and influence.

This experience can build skills. It can prompt emotions. It can provide a fertile ground for reflection and discussion afterwards. It can change attitudes and approaches, just like any other experience has the potential to. This viewpoint helps elevate games to their rightful place in learning — they are the perfect tool for deep, sticky, behaviour-changing learning.

The experience of a game is a meeting of minds: designer and player

Another message here is this: “Beauty and meaning, are not simply qualities contained in a game, but qualities players and designers work together to construct and discover and preserve”. For learning games, this means that you can’t fully control the experience the player has — and you shouldn’t try.

As soon as you let go of trying to control the exact experience, and leave the part of the player to the player, something magic happens. The player starts to own their part in the game. They bring things you might never have imagined. They think of the game as theirs, and it becomes more than the sum of its parts. It acquires personal meaning for them, and they want to tell and relive the story of their game.

This can be scary to work with when creating learning games. The chaos you risk, though, is easily worth the deep connection you stand to make. Where possible, think of what freedoms you can extend. Push branching choices further, towards sandboxes and open worlds. Think of our players as co-creators.

You don’t need a theme to create meaning or learning

One of the easiest go-tos for immersion and learning is theme. If you want to create a game about board-level decision-making, then make that the setting. Or if you want something exciting, make the theme about exploring new worlds or ancient civilisations.

But Lantz does an amazing job of showing the things that abstract, almost themeless games like Go and Poker can teach us — how games like this can be transformative and deeply meaningful. As well as the issues listed earlier for Poker, he shows how Go teaches emergence, ideas around profit versus potential and comparisons of local versus global.

By thinking about games helping players to craft an experience, you can focus on the skills involved in that experience, without having to lean heavily on theme to recreate a certain place or time. How do you present players with choices that will make them exercise the creative and decision-making muscles that link to our learning objectives?

Games are ‘thought made visible to itself’

A phrase the book returns to again and again is ‘thought made visible to itself’. Whether talking about Go or Poker, or a learning game like Culturallye or Colourblind: you are asking players to step away from the rules — spoken and not — of everyday life.

In their place, you’re putting a set of aims, obstacles and an environment that focuses the players on the specifics: how do they get A, in spite of B, while C is the context? This necessarily simplifies and reduces but when using games in learning, this is a feature, not a bug. Any time we try to talk about what we can learn from part of life, we’re stymied by the complexity of it. We’re juggling multiple aims on multiple levels, with accidental and deliberate obstacles and contexts coming from all sides.

There’s so much noise, it’s very tough to isolate anything and say, ‘X happened because…’, or ‘I did X: why?’, or any number of other useful questions, which in games suddenly become more plausible. Of course, the reductionism means you them need an extra step of saying, ‘how does that relate back to real life — but this is true of any learning that doesn’t happen on the job, in situ. And in a game, a debrief asking ‘what happened?’, ‘so what?’ and ‘what now?’ is expected and practised.

Again, the gift here is the sharp focus thrown on this way of thinking. Why use a game in learning? Because you can get players to reflect on how they think and act. How should we use games in learning? Maybe by thinking about how you want players to act, and then creating the context where they have the opportunity to do so.



Terry Pearce

A consultant and designer in game-based learning and gamification for learning. Go to for more.