Theories of Games and Interaction for Design (2: 3 Responses)

Approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes

These are public postings of my writings for the first course of the Graduate Certificate Program in Serious Game Design and Research at Michigan State University.

Each week, we are required to post three responses/reactions to queries posted by other members of the class in the previous week. These are mine.

I have paraphrased the queries to preserve my classmates’ privacy.

Please note: these posts are not intended as any kind of commentary on or assessment of the course I’m taking, or its instructor, or my classmates, OR of Michigan State University or the College of Communication Arts and Sciences, or the Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies and Media. They are solely my thoughts and reactions that stem from the readings.

Feel free to comment, disagree, or what have you.

Week 2

1. Do All Games Include a Conflict?

My response to this one is: Yes. And: No. It depends on how we define things.

First, I think it’s important to distinguish between digital games and non-digital or ‘analog’ games in these discussions. Few can agree on a precise definition for ‘game’ and there has been much discussion about it over the years (Wittgenstein, 1953, McLuhan, 1964, Sutton-Smith, 1997, Salen & Zimmerman, 2004, Juul, 2005, Egenfeldt-Nielsen et. al., 2008). Given that, we stand a better chance of getting to meaningful discussions of we can constrain the domain a bit. So, I am excluding non-digital games from my response.

Having established the domain, the answer to this question is completely dependent on how one defines “conflict”.  If we define “conflict” to be some sort of challenge, then yes, all games must have this. If they don’t then they are toys rather than games. The word “conflict” has negative connotations for me as well as others, and I personally tend to avoid games that have the kind of conflict that pits people against each other – even virtual ones. I’m not a fan of shooters, fighting games, or war games.

Given that, it should be no surprise that my favorite genre is puzzle games, and I would say that while puzzles can have considerable challenge, they tend not to have much in the way of conflict. On the other hand, games with a narrative, often do involve some identifiable conflict: Phoenix Wright is about finding out who committed the crime, and Professor Layton has a mystery to solve that usually includes some villain and very clear conflict.

Thiagarajan is a well-respected training specialist and designer who specializes in in-class and paper-based learning and development activities. He identifies five critical characteristics of training simulation games that I’ve found quite useful (Thiagarajan & Stolovitch, 1978):

  1. conflict (which can also be described as challenge) – I prefer the term ‘challenge’.
  2. constraints (on players’ behaviors; = rules)
  3. closure (the game must come to an end)
  4. contrivance – all games are contrived situations
  5. correspondence – designed to respond to some selected aspects of reality (It turns out that the degree to which people insist on this connection lies at the heart of many arguments over whether or not some learning and development activity constitutes a game or a simulation. This is a judgment call and highly subjective.)
  • Egenfeldt-Nielsen, S., Smith, J. H., & Tosca, S. P. (2008). Understanding video games : the essential introduction. New York: Routledge.
  • Juul, J. (2005). Half-real : video games between real rules and fictional worlds. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  • McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media : the extensions of man (1st ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Salen, K., & Zimmerman, E. (2004). Rules of play: game design fundamentals. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  • Sutton-Smith, B. (1997). The ambiguity of play. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  • Thiagarajan, S., & Stolovitch, H. D. (1978). Instructional simulation games. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Educational Technology Publications.
  • Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical investigations. New York,: Macmillan.


2. How Can GBL Succeed in Traditional High Schools?

Through Baby Steps.

Telling the “Powers that Be” they are doing it all wrong and need to do things your way has rarely, if ever, succeeded. The only way that games will make serious and lasting inroads into traditional schooling is if they are clearly shown to be useful. That means it is essential that we connect all the dots.

There are many things that all have to be perceived as good enough for game based learning to succeed in traditional settings. First off, the games actually have to be good. Many, if not most educational games still aren’t very good, but more on that later. In order to gain acceptance in a traditional classroom, GBL ‘objects’ need to be “canned”, meaning they need to include everything a teacher might need to take it in to the classroom and use it right away. Over the years I have become quite convinced that most games will never even get a second look in a traditional setting without the following three things (I consider them 3 of the 4 essential pillars – the 4th being a good game):

  1. Curricular Ties: Teachers are often under tremendous pressure to make “good” use of their class time. If they can’t show that this game can meet a required curricular objective, their principal is likely to tell them they can’t use it.
  2. Assessment Connections: The forms of assessment provided by the game must align with the assessment currently being used in the class. If it doesn’t, then the designers need to make explicit connections between the in-game assessment (scoring, leveling up, etc.) and the assessment being used in the class.
  3. Teacher Support: Teachers don’t have a lot of time to explore games and figure out where and how they might connect with what they have to teach. If this information is not supplied with the game, most teachers won’t give the game a second look. If we expect them to use the game in class, then we need to provide lesson plans and other materials.

If we have these three things, the game stands a chance. In order to succeed, of course, it also needs to be a good game, and in education, a good game is one that delivers on its learning objectives. This is ultimately more important than having a game that is fun (although a game that isn’t engaging is unlikely to deliver on its learning objectives).

3. What Gaming Experience in Your Past is the Most Memorable?

My most memorable gaming experience actually involves watching my son play. He was born in the 80’s and I was teaching Computer Science at a university at the time. I was quite anti-games at the time, having bought in to the arch typical complaints: anti-social, don’t teach you anything, frivolous, etc. We would not allow our kids to have a gaming console, but did allow them to play various computer games, the justification being that computers are useful for more than games, while game consoles are not.

In the early-mid 90’s, my son played various games on our PC: Carmen Sandiego, Myst, and a host of “educational games”. One of these games was a math game whose name I don’t recall, but one part involved answering math drill questions to help your character climb a rope. Correct answers helped him climb higher, and incorrect ones made him slide. The problem was that the end of the rope was burning and got shorter as time passed. The memory that sticks in my mind to this day is that this game had a profound negative impact on my son. He would get more and more flustered as the rope got shorter, whereupon he would get more and more incorrect answers (of course). It upset him so that he would invariably end up in tears.

While it is clear that not all kids would have been bothered by this game this way, I realized that educational games must be designed much more carefully than entertainment games. Entertainment games are played voluntarily, and although the designers probably hope everyone will want to play this game, most realize that most games will draw a particular type of player. Educational games are typically designed for a demographic characterized by age, discipline, or some characteristic unrelated to the type of game being played. Furthermore, players are often not playing voluntarily, and that changes everything.

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