Thursday, 1 March 2007

Level 7 - Good games 2.0

In my previous posting on what makes a good game, I identified *playability* - roughly, an opportunity for experimentation and exploration; *competition/challenge* - the game is not too easy nor too hard, and offers some contest, either against another person or the VDU; and *primacy* (Rouse, 2001) - an elusive quality in which the player becomes immersed in the game. Having since read Tom Malone's articles (seminal - judging by the amount of times they are referenced by others), it is clear that these initial suggestions of key qualities, while useful, can be refined. In his article, What makes things fun to learn?, Malone tries to get right to the heart of which qualities encourage *intrinsic motivation* (Lepper and Greene, 1979) - 'of what makes an activity fun or rewarding for its own sake rather than for the sake of some external reward'. He identifies three key areas: *challenge* (which I referred to in the previous posting), *fantasy* and *curiosity* (which I did not).

The challenge element of a game is an obvious essential. If it's too easy, the outcome is likely to be certain, making the game futile (having said this, there seems to be a new breed of games offering a kind of pointless but aesthetically meditative gameplay, with little challenge, but are somehow addictive - see Flow in Games and the excellent FlyGuy); too hard and players are quickly demotivated. Providing an appropriate goal offers a motivation for the challenge, and by appropriate I mean something that is relevant to the world view of the player. Malone cites an interesting study by Morozova (1955) into the motivational capacity of goals. Children reading a passage on latitude and longitude were more engaged by a version involving a child hero trying to find her location. Malone reflects on several intriguing qualities of such a goal which I think are fundamental to good *learning* game design: [1] 'Using the skill being taught was a means to achieving the goal, but was not the goal in itself' - hence the learning was kind of slipped in through the back door so to speak; children were learning about mapping without even realising. [2] ' The goal was part of an intrinsic fantasy' - where the skill depended on the fantasy, adding to the potential for immersion. And [3] 'the goal was one with which the child readers could identify' - this is element of a target that this relevant to the play is key to their engagement (an olympic athlete is unlikely to be inspired by the goal of a deep-fried mars bar, for instance).

I hadn't picked up on the fantasy element of a game being such a strong motivator, but of course, almost every game requires the player to take on the role of a fantasy identity, a process that is apparently extremely fulfilling. In monopoly for instance, players take on the role of capitalist property developer (often to alarming degrees!), in Civilisation games, the player is a great leader, in 1st-person-shooters, the player is often a goodie trying to eliminate the baddies, even playing chess, the player acts as a kind of omnipotent being directing their army. As Malone points out, fantasies in games 'derive some of their appeal from the emotional needs they help to satisfy in the people who play them'. Thus, we are intrigued by games that precipitate emotional responses, and explains why so many games 'embody emotionally-involving fantasies like war, destruction and competition'. This attraction to an emotional narrative, does not of course just apply to gaming domains, but can be recognised throughout human history in mythology, folkloric stories, and in modern times in novels, films and music. [This is IMHO a powerful counter to the claim that VGs are too violent - that violence and war has permeated human narratives for thousands of years. Try telling the Greeks that their gory battle myths are unsuitable for children under 15, or telling the Tibetans that their visions of hell - too graphic even for this weblog - are unnecessarily profane.] The key point to remember in designing games for instructional use though, is that 'different people will find different fantasies appealing'. As one of Malone's studies found (in 'Heuristics for designing enjoyable user interfaces'), girls playing a maths darts game found the darts fantasy unappealing, whereas the darts element really appealed to the boys. Some games get round this problem by offering the opportunity to be one of several characters, thus widening the appeal to a greater number of users, but this level of adaptability may not be relevant in all cases. Needless to say, designers should be aware of likes and dislikes relating to social groups such as gender, race, age, etc.

The final characteristic Malone recognises in good games is curiosity, which he defines as the attraction to environments which have an 'optimal level of informational complexity (Berlyne, 1965; Piaget, 1952)'. He later reflects that a game should be 'novel and suprising, but not completely incomprehensible'. These qualities, in my view, link very closely to the potential for immersion in a game. The greater the curiosity invoked by a task, the greater the likelihood of undistracted effort, leading ultimately to a 'flow state' (see Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihalyi Csikszentmihaly, 1991) in which the participant is completely absorbed in their actions.

Malone identifies two main features of curiosity: *sensory* and *cognitive* curiosity. Sensory curiosity, or the attraction to lights, music, movement, images etc. is for ever being satisfied by computer games in more sophisticated ways. Current arcade machines will more the player's entire body, adding bumps and loud noise at every opportunity. Likewise, current technology (as can be seen with the Nintendo Wii) is giving players a much more immersive sensory role in the game, massively adding to the appeal.

I am, however more interested in cognitive curiosity, or 'the desire to bring better "form" to one's knowledge structure'. This curiosity can be credited for inspiring people to complete challenges, from puzzles and crosswords to 'feature-length' VGs, but also to resolve any problem that is not fully understood. This is surely at the very heart of a person's motivation to learn anything, the desire to make what was previously unknown, understood. Malone suggests that 'people are motivated to bring to all their cognitive structures three of the characteristics of well-formed scientific theories: completeness, consistency, and parsimony'. Thus, in Gestalt psychotherapy terminology (Fritz Perls, The Gestalt Approach, 1973), people seek cognitive *closure* to unresolved problems, and this experience of closure is in itself rewarding.

Of course not every game does, or should, include all these criteria for 'goodness', but these qualities of playability, challenge, primacy, fantasy and curiosity, certainly make the game appealing. As I have previously mentioned, designers of 'learning' games could learn a lot from COTS games with mass appeal and involving the features in GBL that make popular VGs so attractive is a good start. As a further note on teaching in general, these features of a good game can apply not only to games, but to course development as a whole. Understanding what engenders primacy and cognitive curiosity in learners is extremely valuable knowledge for teachers of any subject.

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