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Engaging Learning: Experience Basics


This article is excerpted from Engaging Learning: Designing e-Learning Simulation Games.  

 

Can we define the elements that make an experience engaging? The received answer is no. That is not to say, however, that we should not try. We can do a lot better than random chance. Following some principles can give us a good start, and then it is recognized that tuning and tweaking the outcome can improve the outcome.

 

Let’s review different approaches to creating engaging experiences. With a more disparate set of sources the approach is mixed but still provides a list of elements that characterize engagement.

 

In exploring elements of engagement, I have considered sources form several areas:

 

  • psychological investigations into what makes compelling experiences
  • computer interface design, specifically regarding elements of engagement in computer-mediated experiences
  • computer game design. 

Let’s start by looking at categories of games.

 

Genres

 

Although there are so-called genre-busting titles that cross boundaries, we can identify some major categories of games. The benefits are twofold: to understand some of the dimensions of difference, and to have some templates to pull off the shelf to match our needs.

 

We should also distinguish between game platforms. Initially there were the arcade games, featuring dedicated hardware. Then came the home computers and the games upon them. Some of those computers were game machines with dedicated graphics hardware; Atari is an example. The market split, and on one hand are the so-called consoles, the gaming platforms such as GameCube and PlayStation with their dedicated gaming architectures and controllers, as well as their handheld equivalents; on the other hand are the games that run on the more generic personal computers.

 

Personal computers now include multiplayer versions of games that start on your computer but then connect through the Internet to other players (this is touted as a new capability for consoles as well). And there are games that are played exclusively online. Within those constraints, we can have different genres of games, with different educational potential.

 

Action. Essentially the original category, action games include running around or manipulating things under time constraints. These games require coordination and reflexes.

 

Fighting. A version of an action game, fighting games feature characters in martial arts combat.

 

Driving or flying. Another action game, these games simulate driving or flying vehicles, often in competition. The Microsoft Flight Simulator was supposed to be just that, a simulator, but it came to be played as a game because the challenge and fantasy were appealing.

 

Sports. Sports games mimic popular individual or team sports, such as football or skiing. These games could help players develop the mental skills involved in such sports.

 

3D Shooter. These are games where the view is first person and you move through a simulated environment using weapons to shoot at enemies. The first-person viewpoint requires some navigational capabilities.

 

Card or board. These are electronic versions of familiar games such as solitaire and chess. Some of these have strategic components.

 

Strategy. This category includes a variety of games in which the story line requires prioritizing and allocating resources to gradually grow and conquer. Games are often set in historic lands or in space. They may require negotiation and navigation skills, as well as planning.

 

Fantasy role playing. Fantasy role-playing games (RPGs) are games in which players control a character or team of characters that combat and gain skills over time. They can have embedded puzzles.

 

Adventure. These are games in which the character typically explores and must figure out how to overcome puzzles to advance.

 

Multiplayer. Some of the games, including 3D shooters, fantasy role playing, and strategy, have developed capabilities to allow players to play against one another.

 

Massively multiplayer online role-playing games. Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) have persistent worlds where many players come and go as they please, interact, and pursue goals individually or in groups. The social aspects have as yet unexplored potential for learning.

 

Combinations. Combinations of various types of games are will known; for instance, games that combine elements of RPGs with adventure or that mix driving with a 3D shooter.

 

Sources

 

Having considered different genres of games, now we will look at the different sources of elements of engagement. These include investigations of experience,narrative, human-computer interaction, and game design.

 

Experience

 

In the psychological consideration of experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has been othe seminal figure. He has investigated peak experiences, ones that give the feeling of being “in the zone.” He has termed this the experience of flow. A flow state ensues when one is engaged in self-controlled, goal-related, meaningful actions. A key element of flow is the management of challenge, having it above the normal requirements of individuals but within their capability. There must be a goal that can be achieved, dependent on learner actions, and with immediate feedback.

 

Narrative

 

We also find elements of engagement in narrative, as exemplified in story and theater (including film). One aspect of drama has been small cycles of tension and release within an overall buildup of tension. Small crises develop along the major theme of the story. This allows the buildup but with some relief along the pat, which also allows time for reflection and natural stopping points. The tension is translated to games by the mechanism of adapting the difficulty of the game to put the learner in this sort of tension.

 

Games as an interactive medium tend to have simplified versions of this thematic complexity. Although there is an ongoing debate about how to meld narrative and game play, it is recognized that interactive  activities are different, and there has been little success in achieving in a game the sort of emotional experience that a good book or film can provide.

 

Human computer interaction

 

In studies of human computer interaction (HCI) there has been investigation of what makes an effective interactive experience. John Carroll noticed that individuals would spend hours learning to play a game but would throw their hands up in frustration at bas task-oriented interfaces. Relevant elements from his list of reflections about makes games effective include responsiveness, benchmarks, acceptable uncertainty, safe conduct, learning by doing, and control. Responsiveness is feedback from the computer, benchmarks are indicators of outcomes and progress, acceptable uncertainty means the proceeding without complete understanding is okay, safe conduct means that you can make errors and not affect the real world, learning by doing means that you must explore, and control means that the learners is the agent of action.

 

Game design

 

The final area of input is directly from the game design community itself. Several writers have gained reputations for their designs and their reflections on designs. The elements that emerge from these writers’ musings include the requirement for a balanced level of challenge, the provision of opportunity for exploration, and a theme. Some other ideas include nonlinearity and a variable rate of reinforcement, both of which can be interpreted as a call from randomness and choice.

 

One of the essentially unique ideas from game design is the concept of level design. Games, while maintaining an overall theme, are divided into levels with you start out, have to get past numerous obstacles and through different locations, and eventually face a final challenge. Dividing games in these ways gives a bit if of the buildup of tension found in literature. The levels are, in a sense, minigames. This approach may not be feasible for learning game sunless the scope of the skill set being developed is substantial.

 

Synthesis

 

A review leads me to extract the elements that resonate across the approaches.

 

Thematic coherence. Every game is in a genre (or blends several), and the action within the game must be consistent to the theme or model world we develop.

 

Clear goal. The player must be presented or discover the goal he or she is trying to achieve within the game.

 

Balanced challenge. An experience that is too simple is not fun, and one that is too difficult is frustrating. As the player moves, the challenge needs to increase appropriately. The tension should relatively wax and wane while maintaining a steady increase.

 

Relevance: action to domain. The dilemmas and consequent decisions that the player makes must be meaningful in the model world.

 

Relevance: problem to learner. The genre of the game and the story line must be of interest to the player.

 

Choices of action. There needs to be (at least a perception of) a variety of choices the player can make at any time.

 

Direct manipulation. The player should act directly on the model world through the interface.

 

Action coupling. Input-output interreferentiality: the action in the world should cause actions that are represented back to the player by consequences in that world.

 

Novel information or events. The play should include elements of chance that make the play nondeterministic.

 

The combination of these elements does not provide a prescriptive guarantee of a great game. In addition to ensuring that these elements are balanced and mutually reinforcing (so the interface aesthetics are appropriate for the game setting; for instance, using a mediaeval script for text in a swords and sorcery title), there is the element of game play. However, using this list as a guideline for development will help ensure that you avoid some major mistakes. Coupled with a systematic design process, there is a great chance of having at least a playable game.

 

©2005 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

 

Published: July 2005

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