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Entries in game design (5)


Why You Should Think Twice Before Putting a Sticker Page in Your Educational Game

"Learning is fun. We don't make it that way," is what Daren Carstens reminded attendees of the 2010 Dust or Magic AppCamp. "It's possible to wreck it," he continued, "It's possible to make it not fun. But learning itself really is fun."

When crafted well, games create an experience that can make the player go "Oh, wow!" They feel a balance of both competence and challenge, familiarity and wonder. When that occurs, engagement should naturally follow. But these days, it isn't uncommon to see extrinsic motivators being used in kids games. The player completes an activity, and is rewarded with a sticker, or other virtual item. But why? Can't we let kids just enjoy the game? If the game is good, wouldn't the child already be motivated to play it?

Some people believe that motivation is something we have to give a child. Take a look at this parent review of the iOS app First Words: Animals:

Good interface... My 23 month old loves it. My only suggestion would be to add a reward every five or so words. Like a sticker or show those animals playing or something like that. Just to break up the cycle and give motivation. Otherwise, great app.

If the child "loves it," why is it necessary to provide additional motivation? And what effect would that have? 

Extrinsic motivation’s effect on behavior has been studied for decades. Chris Hecker discussed this at length in his 2010 GDC presentation, "Achievements Considered Harmful?" Video of the talk is behind a pay wall, but you can read a summary and see slides on his blog. Hecker cited meta-analysis that reviewed hundreds of these studies. (Deci, Koestner & Ryan, 1999) The findings they agreed on were:

  • Expected rewards decrease a person's intrinsic motivation.  
  • Verbal, unexpected, informational feedback increases intrinsic motivation.  

Preschool children in particular have been the subject of several studies. Turns out, you can wreck a child's love for drawing, if you tell him you'll give him money for each drawing he completes. Suddenly it becomes all about the money, and when that incentive is gone, what is the point? 

What about those sticker reward pages we see in kids apps and web games? Sure, preschoolers love stickers, and virtual stickers are no exception. But when you offer a reward for doing a task, you send a message that the task isn't worth doing for its own sake. You've created a situation where the reason to do the task is to receive the reward. The focus has been shifted away from any joy or satisfaction that might have been in the activity itself. 

It isn't enough to say "Well, some kids like the stickers. If a player doesn't like the sticker, that kid can ignore it." You've established the dynamic of the whole interaction. Educational games that hook players with real learning and real discovery don't need no stinkin' badges, to borrow a phrase from Jane McGonigal. Your sticker still draws attention away from the inherent satisfaction of the activity.

Of course, extrinsic motivation isn't always a bad thing. It can provide incentive for dull, but necessary tasks. If the goal of a program is to get players to do the chore of memorizing vocabulary words or multiplication facts, or perhaps to practice forming a letter of the alphabet, then sticker rewards or achievement badges might be highly effective. But these aren't really learning games. They're mastery or practice games. It's rare to see something accomplished in these types of games that hasn't been done before, or couldn't be done more efficiently with traditional classroom supplies, like index cards.
If you're designing a game that incorporates stickers or achievement badges, take a close look at the second bullet point above and see if they could be made more effective by placing them in unexpected places, or writing them to be directly relevant to the subject matter at hand.

In designing educational games, we should create experiences that bring out the natural fun of learning, and carve away anything that stands in the way of that. This is why design is difficult. It's all about determining where that balance of player confidence and challenge lies.

"Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Photo credit: Paul Mayne. Shared via Creative Commons license.


New Girl Scout Badges for Fall 2011 Include 'Making Games' and 'Game Visionary'

'Games For Life' badge, © 1997 GSUSA I was taken aback a year ago when the Boy Scouts of America introduced a set of video game related merit badges, and it made headlines. The Girl Scouts have had a game badge available for grades 7 through 12 since at least 1997. It's called 'Games For Life' and includes activities on video games, as well as board games, card games, and games you play with a group of people and few or no supplies. The requirements to earn the badge are a fairly even balance of playing games, critiquing games, and planning games.  

According to the press coverage, the Boy Scouts' game badges introduced in 2010 are for grades 1 through 5. The requirements include studying ESRB ratings, making sure time spent gaming doesn't take away from chores and homework, and game console system installation. No activities regarding game planning or design. 

It's always frustrating when one group gets credit for being innovative when in fact, another group has already been doing the so-called new thing for years.

But that's all last year's news.  

I'm a Girl Scout troop leader, and a supply catalog arrived in my mailbox this week that includes a section for the new badges being introduced in Fall 2011. Requirements to earn the badges will be published in the new handbooks that aren't available until September. But these pages in the catalog show what they look like, and what the titles are. There are many that look great, but I'm most pleased to see these badges related to media literacy and technology, including two about game design:

BROWNIES (Grades 2-3): 'Computer Expert' and 'Making Games'
JUNIORS (Grades 4-5): 'Entertainment Technology' and 'Product Designer'
CADETTES (Grades 6-8): 'Digital Movie Maker,' 'Screenwriter', 'Netiquette', and 'Comic Artist'
SENIORS (Grades 9-10): 'Game Visionary' and 'Website Designer'

More details to come! In the meantime, you can see the new badges on the catalog pages below. Click on a page to see it larger.

New Brownie and Junior Girl Scout Badges - Fall 2011 New Cadette, Senior and Ambassador Girl Scout Badges - Fall 2011


STEM Game Challenge

For the past several months, I have been concentrating on producing the iPhone game I designed, and job hunting.  I haven’t been doing much work on new designs.  But in late November, President Obama announced a STEM Game Challenge.  It’s part of a larger effort to step up Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics education in public schools.  In recent decades, the United States has not scored well in international tests of science and math abilities.  We need to change that if we’re going to continue to be a successful nation.

President Obama’s live webcast got the design fires cooking again on the back burner of my mind.  Designing a STEM intensive video game is a truly challenging problem.  I recently came across this really excellent article that outlines all of the things one must consider in educational game design.  One line that rang particularly true for me was "Topics should not be forced--games should be one medium among many for learning in and out of the classroom." There are many attempts at games about topics like photosynthesis, but most of what results is not a game at all, but a more typical rote classroom activity.

For a game to succeed in a school environment, it has to fit the constraints of the school realities.  In most schools, that means limited internet access, limited work stations, and limited time.  Many class periods are under an hour, and when you subtract the time it takes to walk to the computer lab as a class and get 30 students settled at 30 machines that may or may not work, you’re left with a short play session.

The trickiest consideration though, is that you have to fit in an established curriculum.  Teachers are usually told exactly what to cover over the course of the academic year.  If you build the greatest science game in the world, a teacher may not be able to use it with her students if she already feels she doesn’t have enough time to cover the required curriculum.

Video games are a natural fit to teach STEM related skills, because many commercially produced games involve problem solving and collaboration skills.  (For more on this, see research conducted by EDC.)  When designed well, games help players hone the 21st century skills that employers look for today.  To be a successful scientist, you can’t merely follow established procedures 100% of the time.  Much of the student experience of STEM subjects in public school is about how well they can execute an established procedure, so video games are a great opportunity to let students do something completely different. 

It will be interesting to see what comes out of the STEM Game Challenge.  It's exciting that the President of the United States is acknowledging the potential of video games as a learning environment in such a powerful way.  This could turn out to be the best thing that's happened to educational games in a long time.

Picture of a game at the Museum of Science and Industry by croncast, shared via Creative Commons.


Building a Preschool iPhone Game, Part 1

I'm in the middle of producing an iPhone app for preschoolers.  A lot of people seem to be curious about the whole process, so I thought I would share some of my journey. 

First, you need an idea for a game.  My motivation to make a game came from browsing the App Store. I noticed that with some exception, most of the apps available for young kids were pretty dry.  There are many 'touch the thing that begins with this letter' games, memory card games, flash card apps, simple jigsaw puzzles, and apps where you touch an animal to hear the sound it makes.  I grew up playing pretty sophisticated games on the Apple IIe, so I thought I would try my hand at designing a game that I would have enjoyed as a kid.

So I got to thinking about what my game would include.  I wanted something very simple.  I wanted kids to be able to play without frustrations.  Young kids don't have the fine motor skills necessary to make delicate motions required in many small touch screen games, so I knew I shouldn't design something that would need careful precision on the part of the player.  I also knew the game had to be somewhat intuitive, because I didn't want to include any kind of aural or text instructions.  I'm of the mindset that players come to a game to play, and many people don't have the patience for reading or listening to instructions.  Plus, if the audience is preschoolers, most wouldn't be able to read anyhow.  So simple, intuitive play was my first directive.

Next, I needed a setting.  Most games are mimicking a system found in the real world.  For example, SimCity and Diner Dash mimick urban planning and restaurant management.  So what type of system would interest small children?  I thought about this for a couple of weeks.  Finally, in the middle of a walk through my neighborhood, I was struck with a concept I really liked.  Over the next few days, I brainstormed ways a player could interact with this concept via touchscreen.

Then it was time to work on my game design document.  I searched Google for a couple of templates to study, and chose one to use as my main model.  I didn't include every section shown in the template, because my game isn't as complicated or lengthy as some games, like fantasy role playing games.  But it was handy to have a structural guide for sections I would need.  It took me a couple of days to think through the game mechanics.  In other words, I had to plan out what the computer would do after each action a player could possibly take, and what would trigger the computer to introduce more advanced challenges to the game.  I also had to think about specific characters and objects in the game, and what the computer should be doing with them at specific times.  Once I had all this decided upon, I would be able to talk to a programmer about getting the game built.  The programmer uses this information to write the code.

Finding a programmer to work with was a challenge!  I talked to some of my colleagues from the children's media industry, and they were very supportive.  My friend Lynn tried to connect me with some production companies she had worked with before.  I didn't have any money to offer upfront though.  It was difficult to find a company willing to devote manhours with no guarantee of profit.  That was understandable.  Established companies would need to put their paying clients' work first.

In September, I attended GDC Austin and met many wonderful people from the video game industry.  Even there though, not everyone was interested in my game.  Kids' games are a niche market, and many of the people at the conference were interested in bigger selling MMOGs and console games.  I met some experienced iPhone programmers, but they seemed busy either developing their own game ideas, or working for bigger fish in the pond than myself.  I made sure to have individuals sign a non disclosure agreement before discussing details of the game with them, but honestly, I didn't get that far with very many of the people I met.  If they weren't interested after hearing my elevator pitch, I didn't press the issue.  I wanted a development partner who was excited from the get go, not someone I would have to constantly be motivating.

I did meet someone at GDC Austin I'm really excited to work with, and work has already begun!  I have a great graphic artist on board, too!  She's someone I've worked with on other projects.  Watch this blog for updates on our progress, including more details on the game itself. 

In the meantime, if you're interested in producing your own iPhone game, check out Carla White's Inside Secrets to an iPhone App.  It continues to be a great help to me in this process.  Another thing I should mention is that before you share your design document with anyone, it's a good idea to register it with the WGA West or East.  This will provide you with an extra layer of protection, should you find yourself in the position where you feel someone has stolen your idea.

Learn about my next steps in Building a Preschool iPhone Game, Part 2!

Photo credit: apdk, shared via Creative Commons


What's Wrong With a Tutorial?

A reader on commented on my recent ScribbleNauts article that people who don’t play a lot of video games would need the game’s lengthy tutorial.  At first consideration, this statement seems obviously true.  Of course you need to be told what to do the first time you do something, right?

Here’s the problem.  Your players aren’t with you for a lesson.  They’re with you to play a game.  Sure, your game may be educational, but the essence of gaming is something you experience, not something you read.  If your player was in the mood to read or study, she would have picked up a book.

Human beings as a species are pretty impatient.  Anyone who’s flown on a commercial airline knows that about a third of the passengers in the waiting area stand up as soon as the gate agent calls for pre-boarding.  People want to get on the plane now!  Similarly, many of your players will not want to go through your tutorial, no matter how clever it is designed.  They want to play your game.  Now!

On the other hand, some people are very patient people.  They will read every word you put in front of them.  You should take care not to test the patience of these people, and don’t insult their intelligence.  The game isn’t a test they’re going to have to pass with the information you’re giving them.  Don’t treat it like one by walking players through a step by step tutorial.

The best tutorials are the ones that players barely realize they are experiencing.  They let players do exactly what they came to do.  Play!  They feed needed information as the game progresses.  Some of the better tutorials do this nearly imperceptibly by putting hints in non-player character dialogue, or introducing new tools only when they’re needed, and only after players have had the opportunity to master other things in the game.

Remember though that not every game needs a tutorial.  Think of the original Nintendo Entertainment System and its vast library of 100s of games.  My family must have owned 15 game cartridges, and I don’t remember any of them having a tutorial.  Perhaps we just didn’t own the right type of games.  But all of the NES games I can remember featured simple and intuitive controls.  You didn’t need anyone to tell you how to play Super Mario Brothers, because there were only two things to do; walk and jump.  Many players walked right into the first Goomba on Level 1-1 the first time they played.  But they didn’t need to be told they were supposed to jump on or over them.  They learned from experience and did better on their next try.

When you design your tutorial, think of the verbs your player will do as they play.  These verbs could include actions like jump, walk, buy, or attack.  Ideally, the mechanisms to perform these actions should be somewhat intuitive, because they mirror controls that other games use.  Even if your player hasn't played other video games, the essential functions of the game should be something incredibly simple.  Click something to select it.  Push A to jump.  Move the joystick to walk.  Anyone would discover these actions quickly because they're what people naturally do when they have a mouse or game controller in their hands.

If user testing shows that some players just aren't getting it, your first move should be to simplify the controls.  If that's not possible and a tutorial is necessary, feed information on how to perform specific actions only when the player has already had motivation to want to do them.  That way, you are giving players information they already know they want.  If you tell them how to do something before they know why they would want to do it, the game feels more like a step by step activity.  Motivation is the key to making learning enjoyable.

Remember that you and your staff can’t learn how to play your game.  You already know it.  You cannot judge the usability of your game or gauge its need for a tutorial because it came from your own minds.  Naturally, it makes sense to you.  It’s vital that you test your game with players who are completely unfamiliar with it.  Watch and observe and resist the temptation to show them what to do.  If they have troubles playing your game, that will reveal what needs to be simplified or made more clear.