TYJM: The Four Defining Traits of Game Design

There is a tendency for many of us in academia put the emphasis on the ‘teaching’ side of the teaching/learning equation. Perhaps this is because we have more control over teaching. Of course, teaching without learning is a pretty pointless exercise. At first blush, its easy to think that, when we design courses and learning modules, that we’ve got “goals, rules, and feedback” covered. Voluntary participation is another matter. My first thought was to dismiss this as a characteristic that couldn’t directly translate from game design to course design. After all, students don’t ‘voluntarily’ attend classes the way they ‘voluntarily’ play games.

Goals and Rules to Motivate Rather Than Control
However, as I listened to the book I experienced a paradigm shift. McGonigal defined each of these traits in a way that had me rethink their purpose and function. Instead of defining ‘goals’ in terms of content and learning objectives, McGonigal framed them as ways to focus players attention and provide them “with a sense of purpose“. ‘Rules’, rather than explaining, very specifically, how the ‘goals’ needed to be met, involved “removing or limiting the obvious ways of getting to the goal” in order to “unleash creativity and foster strategic thinking“.

I know courses are not games. Each course has very specific objectives and these objectives need to be measurable.” I also know it isn’t always appropriate to “unleash creativity”. Too much latitude can create uncertainty for students and instructors alike. Nevertheless, I was intrigued by the promise of students who might be motivated to work harder and be more creative in situations where creativity was actually ‘a good thing’.

Feedback as Reward
Grades are a form of feedback. They are also ‘coin of the realm’ in most colleges and universities. We venerate students with the best grades and brand them “summa cum laude”. We use summative assessments to measure learning. If a student answers 70% of the questions on a final exam correctly, they have learned 70% of the course material. This will result in a ‘C’; which is a passing grade.

The same student can miss one additional question (I’m positing a 100 question multiple choice test) and their 69% will result in a failing grade of ‘D’. That 1% can be the difference between someone who completes their college degree and someone who doesn’t because they can’t afford to retake the course to maintain the requisite ‘C’ average.

Students pay close attention to grades. If a student answers all the questions on an exam correctly, they expect to earn 100% of the possible points on that exam. Since grades are deficit-based, any question they get wrong subtracts from their potential 100% score. If there are 50 questions on a multiple choice test, and each question is worth 2 points, they know that getting 10 questions wrong translates to 80%. Their last 12 plus years of education have also hard-wired the relationship between the percentage of correct questions and the ‘letter grade’ associated with that score. “Whew! Barely got a ‘B’ on that test.”

When we move from deficit-based, graded assessments to a reward-based points system, instructors, sometimes out of habit and sometimes because it is easy to do the math on 100 points, will cap a point-based assignment at 100 points. The problem is that, no matter what you do, students will translate the points they earn into grades. If they earn 60 points on an assignment capped at 100 points they believe they have failed. Why? Because they have been conditioned to think that way.

Whether we’re designing a game or designing a course, formative and summative feedback is necessary ‘Feedback’ also looks different when ‘goals’ and ‘rules’ are redefined. In a course, grades are a significant form of feedback. So are the papers we send back to students; marked up with spelling, grammar, and style corrections. This feedback indicates to students where they have gone wrong and how deep a hole they are digging for themselves in terms of the possible grade they can achieve in a given course. McGonigal lists “points, levels, a score, or a progress bar” as forms of feedback. This real-time feedback “serves as a promise to the players that the goal is definitely achievable, and it provides motivation to keep playing”. More recently Ramirez and Squire clarify this very important distinction between feedback as rewards vs. feedback as punishment. “Unlike grades, point systems are built on a growth model for the user, not a deficit, which is one reason that educators with experience in garrre design have gravitated toward experience points in lieu of grades (Holman, Aguilar, and Fishman 2013; Sheldon 2012).”

Once all these concepts had been turned on their ear, I was suddenly able to see the course that had been haunting me ever since Abby’s pronouncement, in a very different light. If I was going to develop a course with game elements, ‘feedback’ would need to be more motivational than judgemental. I would also need to provide significantly more feedback so that students could know were ‘on the right path’. Not only was more feedback called for, but more timely feedback as well. In an online RPG, when your avatar smacks the big rock with their sword, you expect something to happen; even if it’s just sparks flying. Every action prompts an appropriate reaction. Imagine your avatar delivering, what you thought was the killing blow to a Level Ten ‘Boss’, and having to keep checking your Blackboard Gradebook to discover, whether the boss was dead and you were moving on to the next level, or that your avatar had just lost another ‘life’. At very least it would slow down the game. More likely the stilted game play would be so frustrating that you would lose interest and stop playing.

Voluntary Participation
‘Voluntary participation’ is the fourth defining trait. As an instructor, I never gave much thought to voluntary participation. All three courses that comprised ICB300 were ‘required’ courses. All business majors needed to pass them. They were also prerequisites for all subsequent courses in the curriculum. It was a “don’t pass go, don’t collect $200” kind of deal. Be that as it may, this fatalistic mindset puts additional pressure on students and, while a Damocles sword might motivate them, it does nothing to inspire them.

Reality is Broken suggests that “voluntary participation requires that everyone who is playing the game knowingly and willingly accepts the goal, the rules and the feedback”. The approach we had taken to ICB300 was to keep reminding students that the course was “good for them”. We did so enthusiastically and with true conviction. Some of the students actually ‘bought into’ our sales pitch; at least conceptually. Others, however, as evidenced by the reaction we received on the last day of class, hadn’t been convinced. McGonigal tells us that “knowingness established common ground for multiple people to play together”. Obviously, along with everything else, we needed a better way to elicit “buy-in”.

Fiero and Flow and the Necessity of Unnecessary Obstacles
I’d never really gotten “inside the head” of a gamer. This despite spending many long hours as a spectator/back-seat-driver watching my son, Peter, as he transitioned from Brave Fencer Musashi to Phantasy Star Generation 2 to World of Warcraft in the early 2000’s. (This was before twitch.tv, but that’s a topic for another time.) I paid much more attention to what was going on on the screen than I did to how Peter, was reacting or what was motivating him.

What compels someone to sit at a computer, hour after hour, manipulating avatars on a computer screen? Peter’s characters kept getting killed, over and over, but he kept playing. He learned new strategies. He learned to avoid past mistakes and little by little the map filled in. Through listening to Reality is Broken I was able to gain some insights into what had been going on in my son’s head at the time.

Games make us happy because they are hard work that we chose for ourselves.

McGonigal explained that games that are ‘hard work’ lead to positive stress. It’s a stress we are in control of, since we decided (voluntary participation) to play the game. And when we succeed in reaching a goal that we have chosen to pursue, we experience ‘fiero’. This is the emotional high that accompanies triumphing over adversity.

The intensity and sense of purpose my son exibited while playing video games, stood in sharp relief to the frustration of students working on a difficult, yet uninspiring group project. Abby did not exhibit ‘fiero’ at the end of the semester. Actually, neither did the members of the team who ‘won’. Their reaction had been, more a sigh of relief, than a sense of exuberance.

If ‘fiero’ is the feeling of triumph that is a result of playing a challenging game, then ‘flow’ is the “intensive, optimistic engagement” a person feels while playing a well-designed game. I hadn’t been aware of Mihaly Csikszentmihayi’s work on ‘flow’ prior to reading the chapter on ‘happiness engineers’ in Reality is Broken. My wife, Linda, however, was very familiar with his work. We paused the book for a bit while Linda explained her perspective on ‘flow’. She added, helpfully, “I have a copy of his book at home if you want to explore it more closely”.

Flow is “most effectively produced by the specific combination of self-chosen goals, personally optimized obstacles,, and continuous feedback” and Csikszentmihayi identified its absence in school and work as a cause of boredom and anxiety. McGonigal identifies four intrinsic rewards that are essential to happiness; satisfying work, the hope of being successful, social connection, and meaning.

Work doesn’t need to be a chore; neither does a chore
Almost every student I have taught or advised over the years has heard me proclaim “we only do this dance once”. This has always been my way of communicating the importance of living every moment with joy and purpose. The four intrinsic rewards of happiness, seem to me, essential elements of this philosophy. Ultimately, students are getting a college education because of the promise it offers of being a better path to satisfying work, success, social connection and meaning.

Understanding this overarching objective in the context of ‘fiero’ and ‘flow’ made me realize that I had really neglected to consider the actual student experience as part of the ICB300 course design. While portraying ICB300 as a real world experience, we hadn’t managed to make that experience a happy one for the students.

The Car Ride Continues
One reason that Reality is Broken was such a meaningful read was the conversational tone. McGonigal laid out key concepts and followed up with plenty of examples. Not only that, but I was able to follow the discussion even while driving up Rt. 95 in Connecticut on a Saturday afternoon in June. All of this was new to me and yet it made so much sense. It was becoming clear that there were two primary areas of ICB300 that needed fixing.

The first, which I have been discussing in this post, is that ICB300 wasn’t a great experience for the students as individuals. In our initial iteration of ICB300, we had concentrated on creating a comprehensive and challenging group project. We hadn’t understood the impact that would have on the students’ overall experience with the course.

The second area that needed fixing was the “team experience”. We had built a clever, complex experience that wove together principles of marketing management and finance. We hadn’t, however, prepared students with the structure or tools they would need to successfully engage with the experience. Part 2 of this article discusses the difference between group work and collaboration, and details the fixes that made ICB300 legendary….at least for a little while.


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: