Theories of Games and Interaction for Design (7: 3 Responses)

Approximate Reading Time: 6 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 7

These are the readings from last week (Topics: Theories of Behavior Part 1: Health Belief, Model, Stage of Change, Theory of Planned, Behavior, Social Cognitive Theory):

  • Kelly, H., Howell, K., Glinert, E., Holding, L., Swain, C., Burrowbridge, A., & Roper, M. (2007). How to build serious games. Communications of the ACM, 50(7), 44-49.
  • NIH Theory at a glance (pg. 9-21 – USE PAGE NUMBERS IN DOCUMENT, NOT THE ONES IN ACROBAT) National Institutes of Health (2005). Theory at a glance: A guide for health promotion practice. Retrieved August 15, 2010 from
  • Lieberman, D. (2012). Designing digital games, social media, and mobile technologies to motivate and support health behavior change. In R. E. Rice & C. K. Atkin (Eds.), Public Communication Campaigns (pp. 273-287). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • GAME: Immune Attack

Response 1: [Week 7 KB dialog 1/3] Digital Games?

Lieberman goes over a number of digital games but what makes them digital? They all (with exception of mobile) existed before computer games, so is digital just something you can play on a computer or a computer like device? Or are there other things that make them digital?


I have long thought that ‘going digital’ changes things on a fundamental level. It is true that we can trace the history of digital games from traditional (non-digital, or analog) games to modern videogames, but that only tells a part of the story – maybe not even the most significant part. When we consider digital games we must also consider the other significant influence, namely computer simulations.

All (digital) games are simulations. The reverse is not true – i.e. not all simulations are games, but the history and development of digital games can’t be examined with any kind of completeness unless we look at digital simulations. When you “look under the hood” (i.e. at the algorithms and code) of any modern videogame, you will find that they use the same algorithms. Computer simulations are far more pervasive than most people realize – there is hardly a single thing built today that has not benefited from extensive simulations. The main impetus to develop computers in the first place was so that we could run simulations. Remember the Manhattan Project?

I have always made a distinction between “pure” digital games, in other words, games that have no physical, non-digital counterpart. Tetris is one of those, as are most MMOs (sure there are traditional pre-cursors to many of the MMOs, but they are NOT the same). The other kind of digital game is the computer-mediated game. These are games that are simply computer versions of traditional games, such as Chess and Solitaire. Both are simulations: computer-mediated games are simulations of pre-existing games, whereas ‘pure’ digital games are themselves simulations. They all simulate something – at the very least, they simulate time, but most simulate a great many other processes too.

Below is a table that lays out some of the key distinctions between analog and digital games:

Table 3-1: Digital vs Non-Digital Simulations and Games



Digital Simulations and Games (ALL)

Board & Card Games

Analog Simulation Games

Analog Role-Playing Games

Live Action Role-Play (including cosplay)

Model of Original System Painstakingly and precisely defined Many details taken for granted and never made explicit
Rule Enforcement hard-coded uses ‘honor system’ on the fly
Rule Structures Pre-determined Negotiable
Roles accurate placement into context Imagined, personally mediated Determined by game rules Imagined, personally mediated
Environment Dynamic – same for all players Static – unchanging Combined static physical artifacts (boards & pieces) AND imagined Imagined:
Environment Resolution dynamic static
relatively static relatively static Individually mediated
Game Objects can be autonomous either inert or mechanical imagined ( can include props)
Game Interaction (what people can do with / to the game) consistent across all instantiations of the game consistent only if the rules are followed each instantiation can be different
Participants there need only be one human participant All participants are human


Reference: Katrin Becker & J.R.Parker (2011), The Guide to Computer Simulations and Games, Wiley Publishing, Inc. Book Site

Response 2: [Week 7 KB dialog 2/3] Proteus Effect threshold?

How lifelike need an avatar be in order for the Proteus Effect to be significant?  Would a genderless stick figure in a game with fantastic narrative and strategy still invite my identification with the avatar?  Would an avatar of a different gender or ethnicity or body type still affect me?  Do I need to see an avatar that is an exact 3-D rendering of myself in order to identify?

I believe there’s some sort of continuum between an avatar that does nothing for me and an avatar that is exactly me (which is probably impossible).  So what is the threshold for useful application of the Proteus Effect?


Like most things, the answer depends of course. It depends not only on the capabilities of the game (and its designers), but it also depends on the purpose of the game as well as the players.

The Players:

I’m sure it is no coincidence that avatars in games for children are almost exclusively cartoonish – I suspect they will be less interesting to the target audience. Kids like to customize their characters, but it seems to me that customization for kids is more about outfits, accessories (including ears, tails, hair, etc.) than it is about making the character look like the self. An adult audience is likely to be more interested in creating some reasonable facsimile, so for them the ability to create a character that is effectively a caricature of themselves would hold more appeal.

The Purpose:

Here I would suggest that the more ‘serious’ the message, the more realistic the avatar, as a general rule. At least, a more serious message should probably exclude silly kinds of customization. If you allow customization, then a game about obesity probably shouldn’t include clown makeup or clothes. It might work, but I would want to do some extensive user testing before I tried it. Most of the time our budgets are limited when we build serious games, so why take the risk?

The Technology:

There is an interesting article that came out some years ago that looked at what an effect called the “uncanny valley”. It talks about characters in general, but I’m sure the same ideas apply to avatars as well. The author observes that our association with various characters increases as the characters become more “human”. Pixar has done a fantastic job of that – they managed to create mother and child characters out of lamps – and they don’t even have faces, yet we still feel for them. Put eyes on almost anything and we find ways to identify with it. This connection increases as the character becomes more and more realistic, but as we get really close to ‘real’, something happens, and it suddenly becomes quite disturbing. The author postulates that this is why we are bothered by zombies. The author called this disconnection the ‘uncanny valley’. The same thing applies to avatars – I think it’s important to know about this effect and to make sure that avatar customization can’t create characters that fall into the uncanny valley or it will interfere with our ability to deliver on the message of the game.

Bryant, D. (2005). The Uncanny Valley:  Why are monster-movie zombies so horrifying and talking animals so fascinating?  Retrieved Jan 1, 2005, from


Response 3: [Week 7 KB dialog 3/3] Rate games by basis in theory and research?

Several of the authors we have read, including Lieberman (2012), make a persuasive argument in favor of basing health-promoting games on solid theories and research evidence. There is also an implication that some current games were not designed accordingly.

Do we need a rating system for games (especially serious games) to indicate how well-based they are in theory and empirical research? If so, who should be in charge of it? How likely would it be to affect consumer choice?

Interesting question!

A rating system would be great. The ESRB already has a rating system for videogames generally, and it seems to me that patterning it after that might work. Any system that attempts to identify the theories used to inform the design of a game would by necessity have to be quite subjective, unless of course the designers themselves provided that information. Even then it’s not guaranteed that the designers would have succeeded in embodying the intended theories in a way that actually operationalizes them.

Also, we already know that many games are designed without the benefit of grounding in theory, so there would have to be a way to append that information for games designed using other approaches. Perhaps a crowdsourcing approach might work to overlay possible theories onto games where the information isn’t provided by the designers.

I wouldn’t like to see any single group be in charge of it though – there is too much room for abuse and false advertising. Some of that happens anyways – back of the box claims on many educational games imply results that are rarely supported by real data.

In order to have an effect on consumer choice, I would think that a rating system would have to provide simple, easy to understand explanations of the theories. While I would not want to imply that people can’t understand them, generally speaking, if it’s too complicated, people are unlikely to want to invest the time required to learn. I wonder if it might help to try and group theories into just a few categories and then try that so see what kind of feedback it generates.

I wonder if there would be any interest in this class to start a list or table of theories. I’m not sure I would want to do this publicly, at least not at the start. How about a GoogleDoc that is shared among members of the class?

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