Theories of Games and Interaction for Design (3: 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 3

These were the readings from week 2:

1. If the label ‘serious’ games can have a negative connotation and ‘fun’ is essential to a successful game, why isn’t this category relabeled to edutainment games (since it is still in a formative stage)?

While the term “Serious Games” is one some people don’t like, it is the one used by most people producing and researching such games. It is also recognized by many others, so I think it’s the one we have, like it or not. It includes educational games, but it also includes a much broader set of games (see Ben’s taxonomy in my week 2 reflection).

Understanding how to make good serious games is absolutely still a developing discipline, but the term is not.

As for the term edutainment, it has a history that makes it problematic.

The early 1980’s was when formal education first embraced the notion of using the computer as a personal learning technology – when PC’s hit the scene. Computer Aided Instruction became the technology of the day and there seemed to be nothing that computers could not do to enhance learning, and that included computer games. This is when the term ‘edutainment’ first stared to be used  (Egenfeldt-Nielsen, Smith, & Tosca, 2008) and the prospects for games in education seemed bright indeed.

During the edutainment era, lots of educators as well as non-profit and for-profit companies began building educational computer games and it was thought that one could wrap any instruction inside a game and create instant learning success. We now know that this doesn’t work but at the time many designers and developers of these educational entertainments (hence the name ‘edutainment’) treid to cash in by producing these games without bothering to learn how. Instructional designers didn’t know enough about game design to make a good game, and game designers didn’t know enough about instructional design to create sound instruction. The result was that most of games designed by either group were absolutely awful.

Predictably, at least in hindsight, the vast majority of the educational games of the time failed to live up to expectations and the backlash that resulted still affects games to this day. ‘Edutainment’ became a loathsome word in the game industry (even worse than the terrible ‘L’-word, namely ‘Learning’).


  • Egenfeldt-Nielsen, S., Smith, J. H., & Tosca, S. P. (2008). Understanding video games : the essential introduction. New York: Routledge.

2. How specific should we be when determining a certain target audience?

Do you take into account the certain groups that my never be interested in the game, or should you take more time and attempt to be more inclusive?

The answer to this question is vastly different for an educational or other serious game than it is for an entertainment game. Entertainment games are usually designed with the broadest possible audience in mind, given the genre. So the ideal target audience for a shooter would be the entire world. Designers know that is unrealistic though so they design for a specific kind of player – novice / expert, male / female, certain age, etc. I would even go so far as to say most AAA games are designed primarily for an American audience.

If we are talking about serious games, then the target audience depends completely on your message and trying to reach too broad an audience will almost inevitably mean that you end up compromising on parts of your design that work for your primary audience.  A game designed to help diabetics manage their condition shouldn’t have to consider people who have no interest in diabetes. Similarly, a game designed to help kids learn geometric shapes probably shouldn’t design for teenagers or adults. On the other hand, in the Games for Change arena ( ) you are probably trying for as broad and inclusive an audience as you can get because you are often trying to change attitudes or opinions.

If you try to attract too broad an audience you risk making a game that can’t deliver the message it was designed to deliver. Trying to attract everyone may end up pleasing no-one.


3. Does Greater Complexity in a Game Equal More Fun?

Nope. Certainly not always; I would even go so far as to say that there is a point of diminishing return. At some point a game can become so complex that it becomes too much.

Looking at complexity with respect to ‘realism’, it is fairly well known in the design of simulators for training that novices have trouble attending to the task if the simulated environment is too complex. Too many distractions interfere with learning, so they start off with a fairly simple environment which becomes more complex as they become more experienced. If we look at it in terms of fun, people tend not to have fun when things are too hard.

In entertainment games, especially RPGs, complexity of environment can definitely make a game more fun – Skyrim is an excellent example. Visual complexity can also add to the fun – it is one of the things I like about both Machinarium and Tiny Bang Story, but I don’t think visual complexity can compensate for poor functionality or gameplay.

However, the opposite can also be true. Games can be fun precisely because of their simplicity. One of the games I like to play is Flow Free and part of the appeal is its simplicity of play as well as its visual simplicity.

If we are talking about educational games, I think we have to be very careful about adding anything that does not directly support our instructional goals. That’s not to say we should avoid it, but we should always ask how this adds to our objectives. Sometimes, making it more fun by adding extra options can be a good thing, but I think it all depends on how it is designed. Adding complexity per se does not, in and of itself, make anything more fun.

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