Serious Games in Virginia is this week. Here is the gist of the ideas that I shared.
Games are about experience, interaction, and engagement with ideas while fueled by competition, camaraderie, and humor. Education has tried to capitalize on these elements in games as the ultimate form of constructivist learning. No other form of content engages people quite like games.
Think of all the ideas absorbed while fighting to win. (Boardwalk is low rent; Carcassonne is one seriously walled town; the Oregon Trail was no joke.) Beyond the facts gleaned, games drop players into worlds where learning the systems and rules was imperative for victory. In a well-designed game, the player’s joy and desire propel them; learning is, therefore, self-fueled and addictive.
So Educational Games are a no-brainer?
What teacher, content-writer, interpretation professional, etc. don’t want people to be addicted to their ideas? But, the challenge is that games need to have an inherent authenticity that can be crushed by contrivances. Putting too many constraints and requirements during game design is a sure way to kill the game. This problem is at the heart of the challenges many people have with the term “edutainment.” Detractors point out that games are inherently educational, after all as they teach systems and interactions; edutainment is a way of hobbling good games with excessive content.
Truthfully, I am on the fence about edutainment. I like the idea of games as a way to get people into ideas in an entertaining way. My issue with edutainment and any other content-based game is about expectations and design. Games can’t do everything for everyone. Games are darn-hard to design and even harder to perfect. Games that feel easy to play are hard to design. Content-providers and educators must manage their expectations for the game. So, what’s the way to get the best content-based game? Scale back content expectations, increase the time for design, and test the heck out of the game.
What are the decisions you make to create game-based interpretation? How do you think about the audience?
First, when planning a game figure out who is playing this game and what their actual behaviors are. But, thinking about the audience requires nuanced considerations. All people play games sometimes but not all people want to play games all the time. In other words, games seem universal, but they aren’t. Often, content-providers are simplistic in considering who wants games.
Children seem like an obvious audience for game-based interpretation. Sure, games often work for kids, but children often want to play games to exclusion of everything else. Ever had to play Candyland until you consider gumdrop-icide? A family exhibition that needs fast thru-put might not be the best option.
Adult audiences have not lost all joy in life; they are not inherently-game averse. But, some types of games will turn off some adults. Role-playing games draw some adults for almost the same reason that they turn off other adults. LARP lovers want to be immersed, taking pride and joy from all the nuances of language and dress required to get into it. LARP-averse folks do not want to get into it—at all. (And, yes, I know that LARP love isn’t just a binary pro or con, but more of a spectrum.)
Practically speaking, game design is expensive in terms of time and energy. The most logical conclusion might, therefore, be to plunk money into a game that works okay for most audiences. But, designing games for slightly specialized audience slices can be easier and more successful. A good approach is to pick a sizeable chunk of the overall audience, say the largest sector of an exhibition audience, and plan for them.
After honing in on your audience, you need to focus on time, space, and depth. How long will people spend, at a minimum, to play one round? Time considerations should actually be considered before content ideas. If you only slot in 1-2 minutes, you cannot expect players to learn about all the nuances of the 100 Years War. Alternately, if you are creating a game that makes people WANT to learn all the nuances of the 100 Years War, you need to accommodate longer gameplay. Therefore, content is a function of time and space. Have a game where players can sit and dig in? You can go a little deeper with content. Only have space and time for a quickie? Hold the content tight and concise.
Finally, make sure experience goals are more important than content outcomes. In other words, make sure players enjoy engaging with the ideas. Think of that saying that Coco Channel said about taking one thing off before you leave. Scale down your content goals at least once before designing your game, and then be okay with having to scale back again after playtesting starts. It is better for players to really understand a few ideas while playing a fabulous game than being turned off by a whole host of ideas due to a terrible game.
Who should design a game?
Game design is a specialized skill, in certain ways, but also a learned skill. A full-time game designer has years of experience to draw upon. A museum profession or educator has years of knowledge and teaching to draw upon. In my previous museum work, I lead a team that developed games. Creating games bonded the teams and surfaced the complementary skills amongst the staff. Yet, we were often working long, un-competed hours to make our games. We were often unsupported by our institution.
So, the question about who should design a game is a complicated one. Now, as a consultant, with the pleasure of distance, I think game design can be exquisite torture for museum professionals—worth doing for the joy but torturously hard-work. Pairing institutional content people with game design people allows the museum/education people to have the joy of creating the game without the exhaustion of working through design and playtesting without support.
What makes a game successful?
I live in a mixed house-household—Scrabble-haters and Scrabble-lovers. While true, I mention this useful fact because even the most successful games will not hit 100 percent of players. So, firstly, success cannot be measured by the percentage of people who play. Instead, focus on the quality of experience for the people who did engage with the game. Did they enjoy the game? Would they play again? Would they tell friends about the game?
After focusing on enjoyment, then focus on content outcomes. This will be hard for educators and museum professionals, as they are generally focused on sharing information. But think of it this way. If your players were miserable but understood your content goals, you failed and made people unhappy. If your players had fun but didn’t understand your content, you failed but at least your visitors were happy. The best game, of course, helps people engage with content joyfully. And, that is totally possible, as long as you are completely aware that content success only happens when a player experience is at the fore of all decisions.