Theories of Games and Interaction for Design (10: 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 10

These are the readings we had last week (Topics: Topics: Evaluation plan (feasibility, acceptability, usability, effectiveness; IRB and logistics):

  • Pinelle, D., Wong, N., & Stach, T. (2008). Heuristic evaluation for games: Usability principle for video game design. Paper presented at the The 26th ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’06).
  • Baranowski, T., Baranowski, J., Thompson, D. I., Buday, R., Jago, R., Griffith, M. J., et al. (2011). Video game play, child diet, and physical activity behavior change: A randomized clinical trial. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 40, 33-38.
  • Baranowski, T., Baranowski, J., Thompson, D. I., & Buday, R. (2011). Behavioral science in video games for children’s diet and physical activity change: Key research needs. Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology, 5, 229-233.
  • Optional: Isbister, K., Flanagan, M., & Hash, C. (2010). Designing games for learning: Insights from conversations with designers. Paper presented at the 28th ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI’10)

Response 1:? [Week 10 KB dialog 1/3] Is educational research on gaming hard to find or being ignored?

I could not help but wonder as I was reading the study by Pinelle and colleagues this week that there are several resources available that game designers appear to have ignored.  I conjure up memories of playing Darfur is Dying and I wonder how the gamers couldn’t have done a quick Google search to come up with some better tips to improve usability.  I understand that no research is perfect, but even studying the number of works we have thus far in the class, we can detect a number of patterns and, at the very least, create a checklist of things to consider in our designs.

Is educational research on serious games that hard to find or are industry innovators in this space more prone to winging it?  Or is the educational research not convincing enough that it is being ignored?

I think the problem goes both ways. They tend to ignore each other. Industry has a general mistrust of academia as not having anything practical to contribute, and academia tends to dismiss industry as not having the formal research to back up what it’s doing. There is a grain of truth to both of course, though neither is completely right.

This kind of parochialism also happens within academia where each discipline has a tendency to insulate itself from the others (think ‘silos’). Each discipline considers its own sources superior to those of other disciplines, but there are a few fields where this seems to be pathological: Education, and Information Technology. Both seem quite confident that no-one else has anything useful to contribute to their body of knowledge, so they don’t even look. I’ve always found this odd because I think they are among the MOST applied disciplines there are: the whole point of education is to teach something, and tech is really only interesting for what you can do with it.

The disrespect that ‘outside’ faculty have for Education is well known within Education, but those same people who complain about how their own discipline doesn’t get the respect it deserves do exactly the same thing to Informatics by depreciating the body of knowledge that underlies the technology they use. I’m sure this is a factor in why industry tends to ignore them.

Response 2:? [Week 10 KB dialog 2/3] Who do we need to know in the gaming industry?

In a follow-up post to last week’s inquiry on serious game conferences, I thought it would also be useful to come up with a Who’s Who in the gaming industry list.  Please submit your votes on who should be added to the list of gaming superstars we should know about.

Perhaps we can have also this list in a central place and make it available to future students.

I came across this this morning:

I would agree that all of these people belong on a list of influential game scholars. Not sure I agree with the order necessarily, and it is rather US-centric. All but three are in the U.S.: Sara (UK), Pamela (Currently Netherlands, but US educated), and Espen (Denmark). Also, all but Marc are academics. That having been said, most of the ones below are also currently in the US. At the end I’ve listed some additional names of people that were influential to me when I first started looking at games)

Here are a few additional ones that have been influential for me:

  • Clark Aldrich ( the international team that created SimuLearn’s Virtual Leader; Aldrich speaks, writes, and does consulting work on e-learning issues. Published numerous books on simulations and games.
  • Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen ( ) Has written articles on computer games, children, education, and learning since 1997. He is the author of two Danish books on computer games, and an English one (in its second edition) and regularly gives talk on the subject both nationally and internationally. Board member of Digital Game Research Association, co-founder of, editor of Ivory tower column, and a founding member of Center for Computer Games Research Copenhagen. Co-creator of Global Conflicts
  • David Gibson, oversees all phases and aspects of the simSchool project: professional development, planning and implementation, educational research and evaluation, application development and deployment, budgeting, staff-performance and project-performance monitoring, communications, dissemination, and sustainability. At the Vermont Institutes, Gibson is director of research and development, concentrating on partnership development and new programs, systems analysis, evaluation, higher-education reform, and statewide professional-development planning
  • Carrie Heeter ( Director of the Communication Technology Laboratory and Creative Director for Michigan State University’s Virtual University Design and Technology group. Professor of Digital Media Arts in the Department of Telecommunication where she teaches online design and design research courses. Lives in San Francisco, using communication technologies to “telerelate” with colleagues, students, and friends in Michigan and elsewhere.
  • Ben Sawyer ( Serious Games Initiative The Serious Games Initiative is focused on uses for games in exploring management and leadership challenges facing the public sector. Part of its overall charter is to help forge productive links between the electronic game industry and projects involving the use of games in education, training, health, and public policy.
  • Ernest W. Adams Author, Consultant, Games Designer

Also: Amy Bruckman, David Buckingham, Gonzalo Frasca, Yasmin Kafai, John Kirriemuir, Angela McFarlane, Seymour Papert, Andy Phelps, Clark Quinn, Mitch Resnick, Lloyd P. Rieber, Suzanne Seggerman, Richard N. Van Eck, Chris Crawford, Frans Ilkka Mäyrä, Peter Molyneux, Miguel Sicart, T.LTaylor, Will Wright

Response 3:? [Week 10 KB dialog 3/3]  Where is the line between good instructions and hand-holding?

Problem category 9 in the Pinelle reading touched on a particularly important and controversial area (although, I may be biased, having worked as a technical writer). It’s clear that some form of user assistance is necessary for a good gaming experience, whether it be instructions, in-game tutorials, or a help system. The current trend seems to be to integrate help and tutorial information into gameplay as much as possible. I’m wondering if there is a way to tell how much tutorial is too much; at what point does a design start to keep a player from feeling autonomous because it’s too helpful?

I think the answer to this is going to be different for entertainment games than for serious games, and there is probably variation even within serious games. Games that try to change your attitude, for example, will likely need to be much more cautious about forcing people to spend time in a tutorial than a game trying to teach math. It also depends a great deal on the complexity of the game as well as the complexity of the subject matter.

Personally, I think people should have access to tutorials and other help but there is very little they should be forced to do.

A game like Machinarium has a very short intro tutorial that gets you started. I think it is very well designed. Its “help” pages are incredibly cryptic, on purpose, in keeping with the whole spirit of the game. You even have to do a mini-challenge before you can even look at the help pages.

Earlier this year, we were asked to design a game to teach concepts in machine learning to middle schoolers. This one presented a huge challenge – there is nothing insightful about watching a machine while it’s learning – without an idea of how it’s doing what it’s doing, you really can’t get any idea of what this is all about – all you see is that the machine (or program) just gets better at what it does. Also, machine learning is not part of any normal middle school curriculum. It’s a fairly advanced topic and assumes a fair bit of background in probability, statistics, and CS. We ended up making a game where the player is the one who is asked to learn the way a machine does. The player is to create a program for a probe to be launched to Europa. It was not designed to be easy, but the intent was to give kids a feel for how machine learning works, without all the math and CS. The publisher kept asking us to make it easier. They wanted us to add all kinds of hints and pop-ups telling players what to do next. We got into a lot of trouble for resisting. In the end we created a fairly substantial ‘manual’ that players could access whenever they wanted. We had offered to do far more (video tutorials, lesson plans, etc.) but the publisher didn’t want to pay for them.

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