Saturday, 29 August 2009

Games design and learning design

This isn't one of those blog posts about how learning could be much better if it was more like a computer game. It's a blog post about how learning DESIGN could be much better if it was more like computer games DESIGN.

I have long seen an analogy between designing games and desgning learning materials. In both cases, your goal is to give your user a good experience - yet you have no direct control over what they actually do with your materials. This analogy is particularly strong with "adventure games", which are based more on puzzles and exploration than on fast reactions and accuracy of hand-eye coordination.

I was reminded of this again through an article by Aaron Connors, the co-author of the highly-respected Tex Avery series of games and a strong proponent of story-centric gaming. Just try substituting "learning" for "game" in these extracts to see how well the analogy applies.

"When you boil game design down to the atomic level ... it’s pretty basic: Create an obstacle for the player. Give them the means to overcome it. Repeat. That’s it."
"[During the 1990s] too much focus was put on the technology. Often, some new innovation was enough to sell an otherwise miserable game."

"The two things casual gamers hate are frustration and confusion. And many of the “classic” adventure games were not only frustrating and confusing, they banked on it to extend gameplay. It may be an oversimplification, but in some respects, casual games could be adventure games with the frustration and confusion removed. In other words, take out the aimless wandering with no idea what (if anything) there is to find; always try to make certain the player knows what the current objective is."

"Better pacing, less navel-gazing, and I also think it’s a great idea to reduce frustration and confusion. We don’t have to get rid of them altogether – that’s what multiple levels of difficulty are for – but we can’t make games that rely on obscurity and repetition to pad game length. Some of you may love games where you’re free to get lost, stuck, annoyed, etc. – but you’re in the vast minority. Most people want games that are accessible, scalable to their skill level, intuitive, and fun. They want to be able to get in and out easily and do something satisfying without making a huge time commitment."
Convinced? I hope so. I don't know how useful this analogy will be in practice though, except to those of us used to thinking about games design, because the sad fact - often overlooked by those who want to make their course materials more like computer games - is that designing a good game is no easier than designing a good course. As Aaron Connors comments: "Have you noticed how seldom you hear well-known game designers criticizing other designers’ work? It’s because we know how tough it is to make a really great game."


  1. 'The Art of Game Design' by Jesse Schell is well worth reading if you haven't. I'm talking in a symposium at ALT-C about games and learning in fact and a couple of the points I wanted to make were the same as yours. I'll write my talk up as a blog post afterwards, anyhow.

  2. Thanks Juliette. I knew the classic Salen / Zimmerman "Rules of Play", but Schell is new to me. I particularly like this passage from the publisher's description: "the same basic principles of psychology that work for board games, card games and athletic games also are the keys to making top-quality videogames." This is a wonderful thought for those of us who believe that the same applies to learning / e-learning!

    I've made a note of your Alt-C symposium - hadn't got that far in the programme yet!