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  • Game Design So Good, Even Dad Would Use It

    - Brice Morrison
  •  If my Dad is going to teach me anything, he could use some lessons in game design.

    I drove up north to visit ol' pop yesterday. After grabbing a bite to eat he asked me, in classic father fashion, if I knew how to replace a bike tire. Though a professional designer in his twenties with a college degree, I couldn't claim to have replaced bike tires before. I'm just not a biker. Thus, my Dad was eager to share an important life lesson (and replace his bike tire), so we grabbed a wrench and headed out to his garage.

    As my Dad tried to instruct me and teach me this skill of replacing a bike tire, my mind couldn't help but wander. The thought crossed my mind of viewing this learning experience as a game, with myself as the player. These were the same patterns that my Dad used to teach me throughout my childhood. However as a scrutinized my experience as an painter would scrutinize another's artwork, I realized something: this game was very poorly designed, and I wasn't really learning very much at all.

    Games are essentially teaching devices. With their roots in behaviorism and other areas of psychology, games can be seen as a kind of "black box" which the player must interact with to figure out. A well designed game will convey its meanings, its functions, and its possibilities effortlessly to the player and, given some time, will make the player fluent in its systems. A poorly designed game will confuse the player and leave them frustrated or bored, with no real learning experience occurring at all.

    What makes the difference? The difference is whether or not the game follows certain rules and foundations of game design based on what we know about human behavior. Since these rules seek to teach the player some sort of information, they can easily be applied both to Super Mario as well as Super Replace a Bike Tire.

    He is a great role model with decades of wisdom to share. However, his instruction methods could use a little "tuning". In facilitating the "Learn to Replace a Bike Tire" game, here were a few things that I noticed my Dad should have changed to give me a more enjoyable and worthwhile experience.

    Break lessons into small, digestible chunks.

    One of the biggest flaws I see in many professional games as well as my Dad's teaching methods is trying to teach the player storehouses of information at once. Some games give extensive tutorials up front; my Dad would explain the entire process from A-Z without having me actually do anything but listen. Though well intentioned, our brains can only hear so much information at a time before they get bored and close up. Thus, the best learning method is to teach a bit of information, let them try it out, test it, master it, and then move on to the next bit.

    In games, the common mistake is to teach the player every action in a game right from the start. It would be better to introduce each new concept throughout the entire game. Let the player learn how to crawl, have them crawl for a while, and then

    Use rewards and punishments immediately after a task is completed.

    In most everything in life, we don't change if we believe that we are doing things correctly. We tend to kind of go along with the flow and do what comes naturally unless outside forces direct us. When a task is completed, we should receive feedback evaluating our performance, such as a simple "good job!" or "no, try that again." This lets us relate our previous actions to a certain outcome so that we can immediately begin altering our future actions for the better. This way we are learning and improving every step of the way.

    When I was trying to pump the tire, then my Dad waited until I was finished and halfway through the next step to say how I could have done it better. It would have been a quicker turnaround to point out mistakes as they happen. In a game, you want to tell the player what their actions are doing as soon as possible. If flying too far away from planets will cause the ship to run out of fuel, then you need to give them an indication that they are moving away from the planet. Don't wait until they're out there in the reaches of space to set off the alarm. They won't make the connection. Find the action, find the response, and tie them together tightly.


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