Theories of Games and Interaction for Design (5: 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 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 5

These are the readings we had last week:

  • Van Eck, R. (2008). Building Artificially Intelligent Learning Games Intelligent Information Technologies: Concepts, Methodologies, Tools, and Applications (pp. 793-825): IGI Global.
  • Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77, 81-112.
  • Bogost, I. (2008). The rhetoric of video games. In K. Salen (Eds.), The ecology of games: Connecting youth, games, and learning (pp. 117-140). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

These are the Games:

Response 1: How important are common entertainment game design elements to serious game design? [Week 5 KB dialog 1/3]

In his chapter on Building Artificially Intelligent Learning Games, on page 22, Van Eck describes playing the game Mysterious Island, and knowing that his inventory items would be useful at some point in the game. And it’s true; games rarely, if ever, provide extra or useless items to players as distractions since such items would be a waste of program and inventory space. When designing games, how important is it to be aware of common design elements and problem-solving skills that player-learners may have already developed in their problem-solving domain for games? Would it ever be useful to go against the grain or reverse common design elements?

I think the common design elements speak to games literacy, and there’s a very big chance that going against the grain here would backfire.

When I was still in computer science, it used to amuse me when the HCI (human computer interface) guys kept doing studies and publishing papers on “new and improved” game interfaces. In the industry, it was accepted that most of the time, designers have very little flexibility when it comes to the design of the game controls. The HCI guys kept publishing papers about new game controls (and controllers) and the industry just ignored them. At some point in the development of any device or interface things start to become standardized, and changing it becomes very risky. Imagine what would happen if someone decided that the break and accelerator in a car should be in different places? Or if every car manufacturer designed their own seatbelt latch.

Players expect the controls in certain kinds of games to be a certain way. It’s still possible to do things differently (witness, Portal) but if too many of the elements you could add to your inventory were useless, people would get frustrated, unless perhaps you had an unlimited inventory space, AND an easy way to search through it. In a way, Scribblenauts does that. There you have a huge inventory of items you can ask for and only some of them are going to be useful in any given situation. To their credit, the designers made it so you could use the oddest things and they might still work. In that way they actually encourage and reward you for trying out whacky items. Need to get across the river? Well, you COULD use a boat, OR, you might be able to stuff a dinosaur in the river and walk across its back.

If it’s well designed, you can get away with quite a lot if it’s funny. Grim Fandango had a lot of dialog choices that were no good for anything expect making you laugh, and a lot of people played through every single option just to make sure they didn’t miss any of them. Humor is tricky though, and my experience is that educational games don’t usually do a good job of that.

I suspect it might be best to stick with the “standard” design elements and try to make the game distinctive in other ways.

Response 2: Can serious games encourage persistent behaviors? [Week 5 KB dialog 2/3]

In this week’s lecture, it was mentioned that studies on the use of reinforcement have shown that unpredictable reinforcement schedules lead to behavior changes that persist the longest.  Since games are driven by cycles of player actions and corresponding feedback, is it possible to provide unpredictable reinforcement in a serious game? Are there other ways a serious game might encourage lasting behavioral change?

The first part of the answer to this is, it depends. I think unpredictability in the game’s behavior can be good, but I would think unpredictable reinforcement is something you would have to design very carefully. I suspect Tetris would not be as much fun if the levels of blocks disappeared for no reason or failed to disappear when they were completed. I also think I’d be quite annoyed with a game that only gave me the points I had earned sometimes.

Unpredictability is different. Some games make use of unpredictability as part of what makes them fun.

One of the ways that “unpredictability” is implemented is through random actions – most card games start off by shuffling the deck, for instance. It is part of why gambling is so attractive to many people. In classic behavioral training, intermittent reinforcement elicits a far stronger reaction than if that reinforcement is guaranteed. Some degree of randomness can have a very strong positive effect. Too much and the player feels they have no control at all; too little and it can become too predictable and that can lead to boredom. Like so many other things in game design (and educational design too for that matter), it’s the Goldilocks Problem.

Henry Jenkins said “Games, like other media, are most powerful when they reinforce our existing beliefs, least effective when they challenge our values.” (Henry Jenkins, 2006) What that tells me is that we are fighting an uphill battle. That’s not to say we shouldn’t try, but I think it would be overly optimistic to think we can move mountains with a single game.

Henry Jenkins, I. (2006). The war between effects and meaning: Rethinking the video game violence debate. . In D. Buckingham & R. Willett (Eds.), Digital generations : children, young people, and new media (pp. 19-31). Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Response 3: Is there a responsibility or absolute requirement for the design team to make sure that the educational curriculum is still there? What if it just has no place for it any more, is it okay to modify the instructional curriculum? [Week 5 KB dialog 3/3]

When in the software development cycle, do you think that the design team should pinpoint the learning objectives and the methodology to get them? Does it differ depending on the type of game?

Is there a responsibility or absolute requirement for the design team to make sure that the educational curriculum is still there? What if it just has no place for it any more, is it okay to modify the instructional curriculum?

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that there is an absolute requirement, but the whole point of making a serious game is to deliver some kind of message. If you lose sight of that, then it’s no longer serious; it’s just a game.


In an educational game, the instructional goals are the reason for the game. I can’t think of any situation where it would be OK to ignore the reason the game is being built.

Last year, I developed a model for designing and building serious games that combines three different design models, all of which I think are important in this context: game design, instructional design, and simulation design. The last one is one that most people leave out, but it is especially important (and useful) in serious games.

This is it:

The parts in yellow are the places where the educational pieces need to be – this is where the instructional designers need to be part of the conversation.

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