Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Everything is Game?

The idea has always been lurking, but I've recently been bombarded by it actively, so let's talk about the idea of games as things other than entertainment.

I hear a lot of people saying things like "learning should be a game!" I use learning arbitrarily - there's loads of other things people also think should be a game, such as working, finance reform, engineering, watching TV... anything and everything is a fair target for the "should be a game!" folks.


"Game" is a hopelessly vague term that carries an awful lot of baggage. When someone says "learning should be a game!", what they actually mean could be any number of things.

It could be "learning should be fun!" or "students would learn faster with a progression of tasks and rewards" or "learning would benefit from a strong set of social interactions with other students such that students are exposed to many possible view points while they learn" or "this is an algorithm which can be represented in a computer program, and the students can learn it by simply making the inputs and outputs clear."

These are all great ideas, and I'm sure there are loads more. However, these are not games. When someone says "game", they often end up meaning "something that teaches so I don't have to". And that's not something you normally want to mean.

Games use a wide variety of techniques to entrain players in many different ways. What techniques are used vary from game to game. Some techniques are great ideas nearly all of the time, others have significant drawbacks. Simply saying "game" is vague enough that it isn't very helpful, especially since when people think of a "game" they usually think of something that includes techniques that aren't suitable for most non-game purposes.

For example, most games have a feedback system that trains players to become good at the game. Good at the game, not at what the game is trying to teach. This is so common it rears its head in non-games, and we call it "gaming the system". How easy will the system be to game when it is a game?

It is possible to design a game that keeps players carefully on task, but this has many drawbacks. For starters, it's normally a deadly dull game.

Instead of saying that "such-and-such should be a game!", think about it a bit more. Which techniques do you actually want to use? Make sure you understand the potential drawbacks. Once you understand what you want, just do that. There's no need to make a real "game" out of it: just take what you need, drop the baggage you don't need. Call it a game if you like, but don't take the baggage that normally comes with the title.

Let's say you want to teach children math. But children are notoriously uninterested in math, so you want it to be a game! Well, what you actually want is for the children to want to learn math. "Game" is irrelevant.

What common game-related techniques would be useful to you? Well, that depends on the age bracket. If these are young children, they might benefit from simple aesthetic rewards, such as being told the problems and results in a fun way, or given balloons or stars for getting right answers.

Sound familiar? Yeah, these techniques are common. Because we're not idiots: we already use a lot of these techniques commonly, without calling them "games".

But we can learn from games in more advanced cases. For example, if you're teaching algebra to high school students, giving out stars and talking in a squeaky voice is going to do the opposite of make them want to learn.

Fortunately, games have figured out some good formulas for appealing to high schoolers. It's somewhat difficult to create a challenge/reward progression, since it's difficult to find rewards that will be even vaguely universally appealing. Time off, passes on homework, and fragments of upcoming tests are the only ones I can think of off the top of my head, but they might be especially good if you allow students to trade or upgrade them.

Getting the students to work together and teach each other can be extremely valuable if you can get them to do it right. Game techniques can be used here - techniques pioneered by multi-player games since time began use a combination of competition and cooperation (often only meta-game cooperation) to drive both the teaching of gameplay and the pioneering of new gameplay. This same technique could theoretically be replicated by mixed teams of two or three where the members are periodically required to do individual tasks that affect the grade of the group. Alternately, "gating" such that advanced students have to bring up the grade of a weaker student before they can get a particularly nice reward.

Obviously, there are a lot of logistical problems, but that's one of the reasons you don't just say "game". "Game" brings with it a bunch of solutions to completely different logistical problems. Such as the logistical problem of not having a teacher.

One thing you can inherit, if you choose to, is the way that games often have a variety of tasks types and understand that any given player will only be interested in a few of them. While this may be difficult to do in a structured classroom environment, I did mention that "learning" was an arbitrary choice. Having many interactive threads that appeal to many different kinds of people will allow a wide variety of people to participate together in their own way.

Scheduling is another factor you can steal from games. Games use a variety of reward scheduling tactics that are suitable for many situations, although you need to be careful not to seem arbitrary or erratic if you're an actual person handing out rewards. One key is having multiple concurrent threads for each person, such that they can receive a reward for an accomplishment in one thread while they continue to work on another thread. This eases the long gaps between rewards in any particular thread. However, you need to keep the threads carefully interlocked, or the participant may simply speed ahead on one particular thread while leaving the boring or less easy ones behind. Again, a kind of "gating" is a fine solution. Something like "you can't work on the next task in this thread until everyone in the group has accomplished that other task in that thread". Classic CRPG stuff.

Creative play can be rewarded in the same style that open market games such as SecondLife or 3D chatrooms use. Creating fun expressions of whatever you're working on and sharing it with the rest of the players is rewarding, fun, and leads to a lot more involvement from everyone involved. Structuring this can be quite difficult since it is so context-dependent and you need to make sure nobody feels afraid to submit creations. But, done carefully, you can easily find the players forging ahead far past where you expected any of them to go.

What I'm trying to say is that talk like this, regardless of how thorough or slapdash, is hugely more effective and useful than saying "should be a game". Take the parts of games that seem to work for you and drop the rest.

Because it shouldn't be a game: it should be whatever it is, but better.

This make any sense?


Anonymous said...

Jesse Schell said something similar to this recently, not sure if you've had a chance to read that:

This second-wave look at "gamification" is really important to me. I'm working on a research project that was defined early on as a "college-course-as-game." It was easier to explain than my initial term, "game-like motivational systems" ( We've backed off describing it as a game since then, realizing that what we're really talking about are integrating specific mechanics (types of feedback, representations of progress, interface elements) which are reminiscent of games.

I think that to some extent, this is a semantic argument: you want people to define their terms more clearly. That's good, because it forces them to think more clearly as well. But I also sense the beginnings of a shift away from the enthusiasm for game-like designed experiences. That's natural: not everything people are trying will work. We need to try things in different ways in different contexts and refine our models. Nothing is a panacea, but sometimes those initial bursts of energy and optimism are helpful in convincing entrenched interests to let you try new things.

Anyhow, big fan of the blog.

Craig Perko said...

I'll read your articles soon, but before I get sucked into my business day for keeps:

I wanted to steer away from a core problem with talking about games, simply because it's somewhat ephemeral at the moment. That problem is that games are built to entertain.

These days, we make a lot of sacrifices to make our games more entertaining. Many of the games we see on the market have almost zero depth - we traded it out in favor of instant pickup time and ten thousand accomplishments.

Moreover, many games are built not to share space with other games and hobbies, but to be the primary hobby. Even if they are theoretically built to share space with the rest of your life, that often translates to *intruding* on the rest of your life.

These factors are largely business decisions that influence gameplay, and neither of them is suitable for a serious or teaching game of any sort.

So, I want to avoid the term "game" because the games most people are most familiar with are the ones that are most successful at being entertainment - and they are frequently the ones which go the furthest from being useful as templates for serious games.

I would like to avoid the term "game" so that we can avoid accidentally and automatically thinking of whatever the most popular games are. Those games are almost certainly poor examples of how to make a serious or teaching game.

Anonymous said...

There are two ways in which I'd like to see games evolve away from "fun."

One is pretty straightforward, because we already have a model for it in other entertainment media: games designed to entertain, but in ways that are different than mere "fun." Movies can be sad, novels can be intellectually challenging, etc., and all these things are rewarding and engaging in ways that games rarely (but not never!) aspire to or achieve.

This is easy to imagine, but hard to achieve. Games are difficult to describe without reference to systems and mechanics, and it's hard to ask a player to complete variations on the same task repeatedly when that task isn't enjoyable in an immediately accessible way. Which is why we get the kinds of sacrifices you refer to. It's also one of the reasons why some of the more innovative stuff out there is short. People are more willing to put in 15 minutes to play "Today I Die" or 3 hours for "The Path."

The second direction things can take is what Schell calls "gamification." These are really just well-designed experiences. They have as much to do with user interface and user-centered design as they do with games: game mechanics are just one tool in the toolbox for the people creating these experiences. That's where I see myself at the moment.

I agree with you that neither of these things are games in the same sense as traditional video games, and that calling them games can be misleading or even counterproductive. But there's marketing even in academia, and it's much easier to explain something by analogy to an existing medium than by making up some new phrase, however much more accurate. I used to call things like Second Life or The Path "game-like experiences" or "virtual worlds," but even I'm getting lazy in my terminology for the sake of being more quickly understood.

Craig Perko said...

I understand, but these are poisonous terms. Especially "gamification". It's better to be more precise, in my opinion.