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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

What I look for when I judge Serious Games

Computer games have introduced a new grammar, totally foreign to those who have only focused on creating or studying books, movies, or traditional courses. Today, Serious Games can be used to develop conviction and competence, through the increased use of engagement, practice, emotion, and richer content. When I design or judge sims and other serious games, especially sims that are expected to be stand-alone, this is on what I focus.

A) Interactive World (30%)

From a design perspective, the highest level goal is to create and then present a small, self-contained simulation “world,” “environment,” or “content model” with appropriate rules, real-time rich interactivity, and visual and action based feedback. The player of the sim “learns” though practicing on and interacting with various subsections of this environment.

A Virtual World (from Theme Hospital)

This simulation world’s rules are framed by the learning objectives of the program. The creation of this simulation often requires novel and multi-layer visualizations and interfaces (although where computer games provide useful models, they should be adopted). These worlds may be abstract, or real world, or a combination of the two. When a player fails, the reasons for the failure have to be visualized and otherwise self-evident.

In theory, this interactive world can stand alone as a sufficient educational experience for the motivated student. However, other scaffolding increases the predictability and ease of the engagement.

B) Entice (5%)

Initially, the program actively helps the user understand and be excited about the sim engagement.

This may include a formal entice mode. Here, as in old coin-operated arcade games, the program will launch a short, non-interactive video style presentation that will expose users to basic rules, show some core interactions, and make the user excited about and comfortable with the upcoming experience. It is possible that some users will skip this content all together, while others will watch it two or three times to get a feel for the content before engaging.

C) Role of Coach (5%)

The Serious Game should use some type of “coach” framework. This provides a consistent voice throughout (all or most of) the sim.

This can include an explicit virtual coach. The “coach” avatar can be used to create a connection with the user by kicking off levels and concepts, providing debriefings, and giving tips and encouragement. Finally, the coach will present any pedagogically traditional content that will be used to augment the experience, such as bulleted summaries and diagrams of concepts. However, the best sims can predictably develop knowledge in players without explicitly teaching them anything.

This coach can be part of the story, or it can break the fourth wall.

An Example of a Coach Avatar

D) Level Components (5%)

Each level should begin with a briefing, and after the player engages the sim, end with a customized debriefing either explaining the success of failure. If the sim does not have discreet levels, a character or even note found can serve the same function more seamlessly.

E) First Level(s) (10%)

The player should be allowed to engage the interactive section as quickly as possible (i.e. there should be minimal required presentation-style content). The design goals of the first level(s), rather than highly instructional, are as follows:

1. The player has to get a general feeling for the interactivity.

2. A player can finish it quickly (in less than a few minutes), with experienced players finishing it more quickly than inexperienced players.

3. The directions and goals are unambiguous, with immediate feedback and a clear sense of success or failure. It should be set up through a brief cut scenes, and very high feedback, such as in-game tips/directions.

4. There is a reset button (to encourage exploration and reduce fear of failure).

5. There is room for some exploration, and/or promise of more interesting things to come. In fact, through the design and any instruction, players should be encouraged to simply exist in a safe, subsection of this world, exploring and testing the rules on their own. The world should feel like an open-ended sandbox. To accomplish this, players can either replay the first level as often as they want, or they can achieve the stated goal, but linger before they move on to the next level.

F) Small Challenges that Allow for Creativity (10%)

The sim, after the initial level(s), gives players small challenges in this world that can be solved using a variety of different techniques. (Minimize the use of single solution challenges.) Let players express themselves if possible. Open up the world a bit.

G) More Complicated Challenges (15%)

Then the sim should increase the depth and length of the challenges until they are more multi-faceted and elaborate. Make challenges harder, and also combine the application of various other skills. Challenges can be solved through a variety of approaches, not just one.

Imagine the skills within a player as a cone that gets bigger throughout the levels. (For example, each new level may bestow one new ability and add one new type of challenge, perhaps on a new map.)

The games can be synchronous, or the game can provide artifacts (such as screen shots of solutions, awards, or scores) that a student can share in a community.

The game may require stories for contexts. Easter eggs may be included to increase the value of community.

H) Replay with a Focus on Different Approaches to Win (5%)

Encourage players to replay the same levels over again, but try new approaches. Levels should be available for replaying after they have been won, and open-ended challenge levels should be available after the player is done with a story mode.

This may use explicit “trophies” or “achievements” to be given for the successful application of new approaches.

Examples of Achievements from the iPhone game Plants vs. Zombies.

I) Rigorous Assessment (15%)

Finally, present the player with rigorous challenges to solve. This part of the program may use a traditional presentation of material that lines up with the destination application, such as in a test or real world problem. This can serve to "prove" that the player has really learned something of value. Here, as well, there may be less ability for users to come up with unique solutions, and instead find the one correct answer.

These ideas have been taken from my (2.5 pound, almost 600 page) industry textbook: The Complete Guide to Simulations and Serious Games - How the Most Valuable Content Will Be Created In the Age Beyond Gutenberg to Google (Wiley, 2009), as well as its companion book, Building Sims the Clark Aldrich Way, currently in draft version and available for free here.

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