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Call for educational game design patterns

October 9, 2009

In spite of increased interest in game-based learning, the development of educational game design methods has been insignificant. Apparently, this lack has negatively influenced the quality of published educational games and the diffusion of game based learning. One of the biggest problems of educational games has been the inadequate integration of educational and game design principles. Furthermore,  it is common that the multidisciplinary nature of the design teams also arouses problems – there are too many chief cooks with their own recipes without having a common language to collaboratively mix the masterpiece. Good educational games just do not get cooked by merely hiring game designers and instructional designers for the game design team. A shared vocabulary and an understanding of how the instructional designers’ and the game designers’ work aligns and synergizes would facilitate the development of high quality educational games.

As a solution, I have proposed a  pattern-based approach that supports the design, analysis and comparison of educational games. Educational game design patterns that extend existing entertainment game design patterns are descriptions of commonly reoccurring parts of the design of a educational game that concern and optimize gameplay from an educational perspective.

The aim of this post is to awaken the educational game community to approach educational game design more structurally and to motivate them to participate in creation of design patterns. The current patterns are presented in educational game design pattern library:

In the same page you can propose patterns to be included in the library.

In addition, I will publish here a short description of each pattern in order to collect feedback about them and facilitate discussion about patterns.


The recipe for flow experience

June 25, 2009

Yesterday I played a simple Tetris-based game almost all night. Now I am a bit sleepy, but it was worth for it. I succeeded to beat my opponent’s score and I can still taste the victory – nammn. The designer of the game that I played managed to engage me and focus my attention on the game events until I reached my goal. I was in the Zone, I mean in Flow and that inspired me to write this post and revisit my thoughts about flow. In fact, I am in flow again. Sometimes even writing throws me into the Zone. Is that normal? The answer is yes – flow theory describes a universal model of engagement and flow can be experienced in variety of settings as well as in variety of levels.

Back to the games. The aim of learning game design is to create so interesting experience that it holds player’s attention as long and as intensely as possible. Imagine your previous gaming experience when some game totally captured your attention, when the time seemed to fly, when you didn’t have any intrusive thoughts during playing, and it felt so rewarding that you wanted to experience it again and again – can you still taste the flow?

Let’s dive deeper and define the building blocks of flow experience.  The elements of flow can be divided into three groups: Flow antecedents, flow state, and flow consequences. I will explain here the flow antecedents that can be used in design to create flow experiences.

Flow framework

Flow framework

When player’s goals are clear he can more easily stay focused on the learning tasks. It is good practice to provide a clear main goal at the beginning of the game. The main goal should be divided into sub-goals and provide them at an appropriate pace in order to create feelings of success. If the goals seem too challenging, the probability to experience flow is low.

The main purpose of the feedback is to inform player about his performance and progression toward the goals. In the illustrated framework, the feedback dimension is divided into cognitive feedback and immediate feedback. Immediate feedback keeps the player focused. If player has to wait long before he can realize what effect his action caused, he will become distracted and loose the focus on the task. Additionally, the delayed feedback may arise interpretation problems and in the worst-case even lead to misconceptions. The cognitive feedback relates to the cognitive problem solving – it is included because it provides the account for learning and cognitive immersion. Cognitive feedback aims to stimulate player to reflect on his experiences and tested solutions in order to further develop his mental models. In other words, it focuses player’s attention on information that is relevant for learning objectives.

The playability antecedent is included to replace Csikszentmihalyi’s action-awareness merging dimension, which is problematic in the learning game context. This replacement is reasonable, because according to Csikszentmihalyi, all flow inducing activities become spontaneous and automatic, which is not desirable from a learning point of view. In contrast, the principles of experiential and constructive learning approaches emphasize that learning is an active and conscious knowledge construction process. It is noteworthy that reflection is not always a conscious action by a player. However, only when a player consciously processes his experiences can he make active and aware decisions about his playing strategies and thereby form a constructive hypothesis to test. Thus, a distinction between activities related to learning and controlling the game should be made. This means that controlling the game should be spontaneous and automatic, but the educational content related to a player’s tasks should be consciously processed and reflected.

Generally, the aim of an learning game is to provide students with challenges that are balanced with their skill level. Furthermore, challenges should be related to the main task so that flow experience is possible. When both the task and the use of the artefact are complex, then the artefact and the task may detract from the player’s attention. In fact, bad playability decreases the likelihood of experiencing task-based flow because the player has to sacrifice attention and other cognitive resources to the inappropriate activity. Because the information processing capacity of working memory is limited, all possible resources should be available for relevant information processing (the main task) rather than for the use of the game controls. Thus, the aim of the user interface design of games is to support the shift from cognitive interaction to fluent interaction. In an ideal situation, the controls of the game are transparent and allow the player to focus on higher order tasks.

The challenge dimension can be explained with three-channel model of flow. Challenges and skills that are theoretically the most important dimensions of experience are represented on the axes of the model. The letter P represents a person playing for example snooker. At the beginning (P1), the player has only a little knowledge about snooker and can only perform basic shots. However, the player enjoys the activity (is occasionally in flow) because he feels that the difficulty is just right for his rudimentary skills. While training his basic shots, the player’s skills are bound to improve, and he will feel bored (P2) performing such shots. Or he might notice that playing against an opponent is still too hard and he will realize that there are much greater challenges than performing basic shots individually. His poor performance will cause feelings of anxiety (P3).

Three-channel model

Extended three-channel model of flow (modified from Csikszentmihalyi, 1991).

Boredom and anxiety are negative experiences that motivate the player to strive for the flow state. If the player is bored (P2), he has to increase the challenge he is facing. The player can set a more difficult goal that matches his skills. For example, he could play against an appropriate opponent that he can barely win against in order to get back to the flow state (P4). In contrast, if the player feels anxiety (P3), he must increase his skills in order to get back to the flow state (P4). The player could, for example, develop his playing strategy and train to perform safety shots. In general, it can be said that flow emerges in the space between anxiety and boredom. The flow channel can be extended by providing some guidance to the player, or by providing the possibility of solving problems collaboratively. Thus, the zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1962) is added to the original model. For example, in the snooker case, the player could ask for help from more proficient players to help him to develop his cue technique and playing strategy.

The model shows that flow is a linear channel where both P1 and P4 represent situations where the player is in the flow state. Although both situations are equally enjoyable, P4 is more complex because the challenges involved and skills required are greater. Neither situations P1 or P4 are stable states, because now and then the player tends to either feel boredom or anxiety, which motivates him to strive for the flow state in order to feel enjoyment again. In conclusion, this dynamic feature explains why flow activities lead to growth and discovery. From the point of view of learning activities, the three-channel model of flow has an important role in that it represents how the process of flow might develop through a single activity. The challenge of the game design is to keep the player in a flow state by increasing the skill level of the game while the skill level of the player increases in order to maximize the impact of them.

Sense of control clearly relates to challenge-skill balance dimension. Csikszentmihalyi has stated that sense of control refers to possibility rather than to actuality of the control. It can be said that a person senses when he can develop sufficient skills to reduce the margin of error close to zero, which makes the experience enjoyable. For example, a rookie snooker player can train hard and dream about perfect skills. However, unconsciously he knows that he cannot ever reach such skill level, but still the illusion, a dream of it, lives and motivates the player to work hard towards his goals, his dreams.

It is important to notice that the flow experience usually occurs when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Supporting the flow experience to lead to states of enjoyment does not require educational gaming to be easy and effortless. On the contrary, educational games should stretch a player’s mind to its limits in his effort to overcome worthwhile challenges. This nature of flow supports the premise of using flow as a one design approach in learning game design. However, maybe the most important final result of flow is that flow inducing studying activities are not done with the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because the playing of an educational game itself is the reward. This type of attitude supports the ideology of life-long learning and is priceless goal in education.

Now you know the ingredients that are needed to make a Flow Soup. However, I cannot provide the magic recipe that work in every situation. You just have to mix and match and create your own soup. One thing to get you started is to play some games and wait for the flow. When you have experienced it, explore the game deeply. Try to identifyi the building blocks of flow experience – how the designer caught your attention?

The final thing that I can provide you is a tool to evaluate the taste of your soup – the simple 9-item flow scale. Here it comes.

  • The challenge level of the game was appropriate for me. It was neither too challenging nor too easy (Note: the challenge level does not refer to use of the game’s user interface)
  • I understood what I needed to do and achieve in the game. Thus, I think that the goals were clear for me.
  • The game provided me such a feedback that I was aware how I was performing. I could really perceive the consequences of my actions.
  • The user interface of the game was easy to use. I could easily find all the necessary functionalities and information.
  • I felt that it could be possible to perform well in the game. Training could improve my skills to master the game.
  • I really enjoyed the playing experience. It was so gratifying that I want to capture it again for its own sake.
  • I was totally immersed with playing the game. External factors did not disturb me and I could keep my mind on the game events.
  • During playing I was not concerned with what others may have been thinking of my performance.
  • During playing the time seemed to pass very fast – suddenly the playing session was almost over.

That’s all folks.

Show me the money!

March 26, 2009

Two intensive days in Game Developers Conference clearly showed that it’s all about money. No matter, if the talk was about casual, serious, social, hardcore or mobile game, at some point the financial issues were considered. Hey, that’s not a surprise – just think how much it takes to develop a good game. However, whether the game is a master piece or not it is never guaranteed that the developer gets his investments back. In the area of learning games the situation is even worse.

Contradictory to my naive beliefs, the recent years have painfully showed that the world, school world in particularly, is not mature enough for game based learning approach. It seems that also publishers have noticed that. In the conference I met several people that had quite good products waiting to be finished and published and they had waited and waited… As I understood, finding a publisher for a learning game can be almost impossible  – maybe only Tom could complete such a mission at this time. Someone was even asked to pay money to get his game published. Of course they would have had some revenue of the game sales – something like 20%. I guess that they are still looking and waiting. It seems that nobody dares to make necessary risks to get things going.

However, getting a deal with a publisher does not guarantee that you see the money that you have dreamed of. Maybe after waiting enough you sign a publishing contract justifying you only a small share of sales and at the same time you may have lost all your IPs. Yesterday, I heard many sad stories about problems with publishers who were too passive, too constraining, too greedy etc. So, be carefull and don’t rush, because the consequences can persecute you quite a long time.

The inspiring talks of independent game developers truly opened my eyes. The main thing that I realized was that I want to be independent.  It may not be easy, we may need more capital, but at the end we will be free and it’s up to us weather we manage to see the money or not. So, it’s time to mull up all the ideas and work out new business models. But there is a problem – I have lost the hunch of the money in the area of learning games. Maybe it’s time to make something casual and gather some capital to be ready for the next hunch. It can’t be far away. Maybe we are just trying to sell learning games to wrong target group… Do you hunch it – the money?

Simon says…no to reflection

October 21, 2008

I participated the European Conference on Game Based Learning held in Barcelona. The conference was fruitful and I got a plenty of new ideas. However, I am really concerned about how many researchers see the meaning of reflection in game based learning. The first keynote of the conference triggered me to write this post. In his keynote speech Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen argued that reflective thinking is not important in playing learning games. He tried to convince that reflection does not belong to playing – playing have to be fun and reflection doesn’t facilitate it. On the other hand, he emphasized the meaning of external reflection processes – performed for example after the playing session. I agree with Simon that the complementary discussions and debriefings are important events in game based learning, but my opinion about reflection during playing is totally controversial to his.

In my mind, reflection is a vital part in learning – either in traditional or game based settings. Simon used hammer as an example. He argued that player does not have to reflect how to use a hammer – it is only a hammer – just use it. Simon totally misses the point of reflection. Let’s consider the use of a hammer in an adventure game with the help of Problem-Based Gaming model (Kiili, 2007; Kiili & Ketamo, 2007). Imagine a situation where player has to open a closed box in an adventure game.

A) Player forms a strategy: He is going to open the box by hammering it.
B) Player hammers the box.
C) The box opens after few hours hammering.
S1) Player does not evaluate the opening process.
S2) Player finds another similar box.
S3) Player uses the same strategy (hammers the box)
D1) Player recaptures the experience with the hammer and understands that hammer is not the best tool to open the box.
D2) Player discovers a new strategy: He is going to open the box with acid.
D3) The box opens very easily.

So what is reflection in games? It is an activity in which player recaptures his experience, think about it, mull it over and evaluate it. The outcome of the reflection may be a personal synthesis of knowledge, a validation of hypothesis laid or a new strategy to be tested. In the hammer example (D2) player generates a new strategy because the first one wasn’t optimal (Double-loop learning). Player emphasizes the scrutiny of governing variables in order to generate better strategy to open the box. Unlike double-loop learners, single-loop learners (S1-S3) tend to only operationalize the chosen goal and playing strategy, rather than challenging and developing it.

The hammer example shows the role of reflection in gaming. However, this isn’t the best example – the activity is so simple. Try to consider reflection in different context – for example in business gaming involving lot of decisions on the use of working shifts, the amount of machines in production lines, the amount of employees etc. I argue that in complex games the meaning of reflection is emphasized. This lays challenges to learning game designers.

  • How can we design such feedback mechanisms that trigger reflection?
  • How can we support double-loop learning?
  • How can we avoid gulfs of evaluation?
  • How can we avoid cognitive overload?

Unfortunately, the educational technology field has lacked of structural approaches to design reflection. Thus, I decided to do my bit in arousing discussion on this topic. In the ECGBL I proposed a Reflection Walkthrough method that can be used to design reflection patterns. Reflection Walkthrough (RW) is an expert evaluation method conducted by educational technology experts. In Reflection Walkthrough, the evaluator aims to locate cognitively problematic issues, as well as to discover ways of providing more effective forms of cognitive feedback, thereby stimulating players to reflect on their problem-solving strategies and solutions created.

RW is still in an early development stage and the article reported the first empirical evaluations of the method. According to these results RW seems to be a promising design method. However, the real power of RW can’t be determined due to small sample size. More research in different kinds of contexts and with games in different developmental stages is needed in order to validate the method and empirically prove its usefulness. The full description of the method and the related study can be found from the proceedings of the ECGBL 2008.

I am looking for colleagues to work on this topic. So, if you are interested to test RW don’t hesitate to contact me. We could further develop the RW method together.

To conclude, I argue that reflection needs to be taken into account when designing learning games. If the game doesn’t trigger reflection, the production of engaging stories, amazing graphics and awesome sounds are just waste of resources. Conceptual change is the key to success.

The beginning

October 14, 2008

Welcome to the world of game based learning. In this blog I will share my thoughts and research results about learning games and related issues. Ha! Is the theoretical approach too boring for you? Don’t worry. I will also provide you a chance to play some prototypes of games that I am developing. Because I don’t believe in totally free lunches, I expect some feedback as a corresponding term. Basicly, I am aspiring something like a Living Lab.

I will also provide some reports of events that I have participated. In fact, I am traveling to Barcelona tomorrow. So, I will share the highlights ofEuropean Conference on Game Based Learningwith you pretty soon.