Recent research has challenged the traditional assumption that games are the antithesis of serious work (see the References at the end of this article). Some characteristics of games can be used creatively to close a knowledge gap, deliver skill training, or create a change of attitude by means of contextualized practice, invitation to action, and self-assessment of decisions. Therefore, games emerge as an interesting alternative to offer more meaningful and engaging learning experiences.
It’s all about creating experiences
The ultimate goal of a game designer is to deliver an experience. When people play video games, they experience different feelings; they attain different goals by facing challenges. They overcome conflicts in order to solve the problems posed by the game. In doing so, they can defeat their opponents or be defeated. Of course, this happens in an artificial world, but when comparing the type of experiences shaped by video games, I find that some of them can faithfully emulate real-life situations and that is what can make these alternative realities so powerful.
In his book The Art of Game Design. A Book of Lenses, Jesse Schell maintains that every game designer should try to build in the essence of the experience they want to create. In order to identify those essential features, Schell proposes that designers attempt to view games from different perspectives, that is, through different lenses. Some of these lenses could also help instructional designers create their next educational experience by incorporating some interesting ingredients from the gaming world.
What makes an experience memorable, special, and unique?
Every memorable experience is defined by key features. As architects of experiences, we need to recreate those features in our design in order to arouse feelings of joy and tension, a sense of curiosity and fun, surprises and challenges. But how do you effectively recreate those key features in order to maximize the impact of the experience? First, you need to consider your audience’s characteristics: their likes, motivations, needs, and expectations. That information will help you to identify the endogenous value of your design, i.e., what your audience might find within the game that is important to them. Once you know why your audience may care about that experience, you can think of a definite goal and a problem challenging enough to keep their interest and, eventually, to lead them to a change of attitude or a higher level of knowledge, expertise, or skill.
What does it take to create an experience?
According to Schell, games are constructed by the interrelation of four basic elements: mechanics, story, aesthetics, and technology.
Build the structure: conceive the mechanics
Mechanics are the directions and procedures that will enliven your experience. Mechanics include space, objects, attributes, states, actions, rules, and skills.
- Space, objects, attributes, and states. These elements constitute the world your audience will interact with and the artifacts they can manipulate within that space. To add dynamics and interest to your experience, think about the objects, their attributes (characteristics), possible states for each attribute, and what could trigger state changes. For example, what types of progress indicators are you going to use? Tokens? Scoreboards? How are they going to change as the levels of challenge increase?
- Actions. What can the learners do? What can’t they do? Why? Can the goal(s) be achieved in more than one way? These questions define the actions that the learners need to take in order to attain the ultimate goal of the experience you are designing.
- Rules. Rules govern the actions of the players. Rules are really the most fundamental mechanic, according to Schell, since they “make possible all the other mechanics and add the crucial thing that makes a game a game—goals.” Having concrete, achievable, and rewarding goals will help you define your rules. For example, the learner should answer questions of growing complexity to find different tokens and collect as many power tokens as possible by the end of the game (the ultimate goal).
- Skills. This mechanic shifts the focus from the game to the learners because it is their dexterity, coordination, memory, or puzzle-solving ability that we want to challenge, improve, and test. Schell suggests that you ask yourself these questions: What skills does my game require to create the experience I want? Does my game demand the right level of skills? Can learners improve their skills with practice? How does the level of challenge increase? What is the maximum level of challenge? Does my game give a fair measurement of learner’s skills?
Fill up the structure: compose the story
“A good game is like a story machine—generating sequences of events that are very interesting indeed,” according to Schell. Eloquent events can weave an enjoyable and unforgettable experience. To make this happen, give your audience the opportunity to experience different choices, challenges, and conflicts as they try to achieve goals so that new stories can arise.
Follow these tips to compose the story:
- Tip 1: Give your story unity—the problem that is presented in the first five minutes of the story is a driving force that has meaning all the way until the end.
- Tip 2: When you define the goal that the character will have to achieve, also define the obstacles that he will try to overcome in order to reach that goal.
- Tip 3: Decide on what exactly you would like the learners to do in order to have an ideal experience. Set constraints and goals to get them to do it.
- Tip 4: Define and use characters’ traits to help the audience personalize the story. Use avatars with iconic qualities that let learners project themselves into the character. Ask yourself the following questions that Schell offers when creating your characters: What are the roles I need the characters to fill (mentor, assistant, tutor, etc.)? What types of characters would map well to which roles? Do I need to change the characters to better fit the roles?
- Tip 5: Remember that powerful stories transform characters. How will each of your characters change throughout the game? How will you communicate those changes to the learner? Is there a grand change or finale, more interesting than anything else? Remember that the changes need to be well thought-out to keep the balance; they also need to be surprising yet believable to keep the interest.
Beautify the structure: enhance the aesthetics
“Aesthetics are an incredibly important aspect of game design since they have the most direct relationship to a learner’s experience,” Schell says. The truth is that we love to experience things of great beauty because they attract our attention and they make the whole experience more delightful.
The interface is where learner and game come together; it is an encounter point. For this reason, if you design a poor interface instead of enhancing the experience, you’ll be creating a wall that will prevent the learner from becoming immersed in the world you have created.
Consider some of these tips to design the look and feel of your experience.
- Tip one: Theme your interface. Skeuomorphism principles are great to reach unification. You need to think about what you would like your interface to feel like if it were real, and then you have to decide which elements will best create that experience.
- Tip two: In order to keep the right balance between simplicity and complexity, Schell suggests that you ask yourself: What is the purpose of each element? Can these elements serve more purposes? Can I combine elements that serve only one purpose?
- Tip three: Once you have selected the most relevant interface elements, start designing each activity or puzzle. Remember that learners should be able to clearly visualize the first steps they need to take in order solve it.
- Tip four: Spot the best places and instances to display the information the learners need. The key question here is: What types of interface elements are best suited to my design and purposes (pop-up menus, progress bar, etc.)?
- Tip five: Schell says, “The ideal interface becomes invisible to the learner, letting the learner’s imagination be completely immersed in the game world.” In order to ensure the invisibility of the game UI, Schell offers the lens of transparency, and some of his questions could be reframed as: Does the interface let the learners do what they need to do? Is the interface simple enough that with practice, learners will be able to use is without thinking? Do new learners find the interface intuitive? If not, can it be made more intuitive? Would allowing learners to customize the controls help or hurt? Does the interface work well in all situations, or are there cases when it behaves in ways that will confuse the learner? Does something confuse learners about the interface?
- Tip six: One of the main purposes of an interface is to communicate a message. That message can be an instruction, a reward, or a challenge that will allow the learners understand and enjoy the experience you have created. In order to assess how and when you need to provide meaningful feedback through the interface, here are some of Schell’s questions that you can use as guidance: What do learners need or want to know at this moment? What do you want learners to feel at this moment? How can you give feedback that creates that feeling? What is the learner’s goal at this moment? What feedback will help them toward that goal? Is my interface giving the learner continuous and relevant feedback for their actions?
Bring the structure to life: choose the right technology
If you have already built, filled up, and beautified the structure of your experience, selecting the right technology to make it happen should be an easy task. But technology does not only refer to the latest advancements; it can be any material or interaction that makes the experience possible, such as paper, markers, and so on.
“The technology is essentially the medium in which the aesthetics take place, in which the mechanics will occur, and through which story will be told,” Schell notes. The technology supports the objects, actions, and rules that define the experience in order to amplify and reinforce the story and aesthetics that come out of the game.
At this stage, you’ll need to analyze which technologies will help deliver the experience you want to create. The most important issue highlighted by Schell in this regard has to do with those technologies that are used with mere decorative rather than foundational purposes: If you are using technologies in ways that are not foundational, should you be using them at all? Remember that our ultimate goal as architects of experiences is to create meaningful games or courses in no way confined or hampered by constraints of the medium (i.e., technologies) that delivers them.
I think that the lens or considerations that Schell thoroughly describes in his book could be used to analyze a broader spectrum of applications—not just games—and could be the foundation to define the structure of your next project, either an educational game or a course. His guidelines can be very useful as a way to assure that your product delivers the experience for which you designed it.
Li, Zhuo, Feng Liu, and Jeff Boyer. ”Amusing Minds for Joyful Learning through e-gaming.” Handbook of Research on e-Learning Methodologies for Language Acquisition, by Rita de Cassia, Veiga Marriot, and Patricia Lupion Torres. Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference, 2009.
Rice, John (2007). “Assessing Higher Order Thinking in Video Games.” Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 15(1), 93. The Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE), 2007.
Schell, Jesse (2008). The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses. Burlington, MA: Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, 2009.