Games and Training

May 7, 2010

In 2006, the explosion from the Sago mine disaster in West Virginia trapped 13 miners and killed 12. Miners could not find their way out after the explosion, so they waited for rescue. Although the SCSR (Self-Contained Self Rescue) device all miners carry are supposed to give them about an hour of oxygen, at least four did not work, as described by Randal McCloy Jr, the lone survivor [1]. Follow-up investigations showed that the devices were perfectly functional, but because it was very difficult to deploy, some miners probably thought their SCSRs were broken [2].

The Upper Big Branch mine disaster a month ago was the biggest mine disaster since the 1970s. 25 miners were killed by the initial methane blast. Of the four remaining miners, authorities hoped that they had somehow made it to safety chambers supplied with oxygen, food, and water. Unfortunately, those four miners never made it to the safety chambers and their bodies were recovered four days later [3].

Human factor investigations cited the miners’ inadequate emergency training as one of the biggest faults. Training for the SCSR device was administered through video. Evacuation drills of the mine were completed under perfect light and perfect oxygen [4]. Trainees were never physically, cognitively, nor emotionally challenged. It’s not a surprise that this kind of “fake” training did very little to help miners survive a real emergency. There was a huge gap between what they learned and what they faced in a real emergency.

Games can help bridge that gap.

How Can Games Help with Training?

The two terms “games” and “training” sound like oil and water at first. After all, games should bel “fun”, and training sounds awfully boring. However, if we take a step back and look at a game’s basic structure – an operating model made up by rules that players interact with — then the two are pretty similar. Isn’t the leveling up process in a RPG analogous to training? Doesn’t hard-earned success taste sweet, regardless of whether it’s for sport or for work?

In 2009, an experiment was done to see if video games can help business students learn. The study showed positive, quantifiable results on behalf of the games [5]. More students got A’s and B’s when they played the video game. But that was in a classroom for a bunch of college students. Will games also work in in coal mining for a group of hardened miners?

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), located in Pittsburgh, believes so. They responded to the mine disasters by designing fire-escape training software for use in a mine-safety training course. So far, the results have been promising, though more testing is needed [6]. I believe NIOSH’s approach is in the right direction because of three fundamental concepts:

1. Gameplay builds and reenforces the player’s mental model.
2. Games provide a risk-free environment for exploration and mistakes.
3. A game’s time and space is virtual, so the material can be structured in a way that’s best for learning.

Educational vs. Training

Before taking a closer look at how game design can help training, it is worthwhile to differentiate a training game from an educational game. (Strictly speaking, the business class experiment mentioned above is an educational game, not a training game.) While both types of games aim at communicating real-world information to the player, training games are more application centric.

Perhaps the difference is better explained through examples. The following is an educational game from, about blood types. The designer of the Blood Typing game didn’t design it for physicians or even medical school students. Players of this game are likely casual and do not expect to put the knowledge to practical use.

Learn the concepts behind Karl Landsteiner's Nobel Prize winning work from 1930.

The second example below is a screenshot from another training game developed by NIOSH for mine safety. The target audience here is exclusively miners. It is designed to train miners to do every day tasks as well as respond to emergencies.

Scene from an accident reenactment

Mental Model

The first thing games can help with is the mental model. If the miners’ don’t have a correct mental model of how the SCSR device works or how the mine is laid out, they are not likely to respond correctly in case of emergency. Games can help create the correct mental model in two ways: building and reenforcement.

When forced to learn, people learn very little. The fun elements of training games encourage people to participate. For audiences like miners, playing a virtual reality game probably sounds a lot more appetizing than a day-long workshop.

Of course, The “game” name is only enough to get people’s attention — good game design concepts like flow are needed to keep players playing. The game can’t simply be a rote, electronic version of the material. Instead, it should be a lot more  like an adventure game, complete with goals, obstacles, and rewards. Like learning the maze of a dungeon, players will learn the maze that is the mine they work in. Like the 15-step process to obtaining the ultimate weapon, the rescue team (the game can be for miners and rescuers alike) will learn how and where to look for survivors.  A multi-player game can further help players learn how to cooperate with each other, like what to do if one person is injured (thus slower) or has defective equipment.

Watching a video is passive. Even physically participating in a drill is passive unless players are cognitively challenged. In a game, players will solve problems after problems until the correct mental model takes root in their heads.

Risk-free Environment

Another win for using games for training is the low risk. Players don’t have to subject themselves to toxic gases or dangerous landscapes learning how to escape after a mine fire. Moreover, when players are unsure, they can explore and make as many makes as needed. It is better that the exploration and mistakes happen during the game rather than in a real emergency.

There are two approaches to treat mistakes – the game system can point them out to players as players make them, or point them out at the end of gameplay. Pointing out mistakes as they happen has the benefit of context; players know exactly how they made the mistake. But it can be distracting and is not as realistic (Imagine a random villager who won’t let you leave because you haven’t spoken to the right person in the village.) The second approach records the gameplay and does an “instant playback” after the gameplay to show the players their mistakes. It is less of a “crutch” than the first approach, but the context is lost (Imagine being completely clueless about the game’s next step because you missed a step two hours ago.)

The first approach is probably better for novice players because novices will make more mistakes and will do better if mistakes are corrected early and in-context. The second approach is better for experienced players or critical tasks (like a boss fight.) Here’s an example of the second approach: The mission is to escape from the mine after a fire and the player is supposed to locate a safety chamber along the way to get an additional SCSR, because the one he has on him won’t last. If the player misses the chamber or is not paying attention to the O2 level, the system will not remind him. It’ll tell the player about the missed opportunities after the “game over”.


Compressions of time and space make experiential learning feasible and more salient. Players don’t have to wait for that ” once in a blue moon” occurrence in order to how to respond to it. And regardless of the rarity of the event, players can train as much as they like. Because games don’t care about real time, players can progress from easy to hard tasks as they train. Real life may not be so thoughtful. It terms of game flow, rewarding the players early as they complete the easier tasks encourages them to keep playing.

Also in the real world, people may not be cognizant of the consequences of their actions because the consequences happen much later or happen much further away. A game can compress space and time to make those consequences more visible, but we must be careful. In adventure games we sometimes see how hitting a switch in one room will cause the camera to move to a different room, where a door would open up. That doesn’t make sense at all in real life, so this isn’t the type of time and space compression we’d want to see in a training game. In a training game, it is more appropriate to show how a small gas leak can turn into big trouble over time. Another example of appropriate space compression would be distances — a path that takes 20 minutes to walk through in real life would only take 20 seconds in the game. This kind of time compressions will keep players from becoming bored. What is not OK to distort? The oxygen level along that 20 minute walk. Although it would only take 20 seconds of gameplay to traverse the path, the decrease in oxygen level should reflect a 20 minute walk.


Games can’t take away the inherent dangers of mining, but they can improve people’s chances by bridging the gap between training and emergency response though mental model development, risk management, and time-space compression. Although games can’t substitute all training (there’s still nothing comparable to learning from a mentor or learning how to put on a SCSR device in real life), it can only become more powerful as technology improves. An ideal training game should make use of all five of the player’s sense.



[1] Smith, V (The Associated Press), Sole Survivor of Sago Mine Disaster Says Some of the Miner’s Air Packs Didn’t Work, First Coast News, 2006,

[2] Wikipedia, Sago Mine Disaster,

[3] Kiesler, S, Human Factors Lecture Notes on Training, 10/13/2009

[4] Wikipedia, Upper Big Branch Mine disaster,

[5] Blunt, R, Do Serious Games Work? Results from Three Studies, eLearn Magazine, 2009,

[6] Orr, T.J, Mallet, L.G, Margolis, K.A, Enhanced fire escape training for mine workers using virtual reality simulation, Mining Engineering, 2009

[7] Enciso, R, Simulation games, a learning tool, International Simulation and Gaming Association, 2001


The Craft of Stickiness

April 1, 2010

Malcolm Gladwell’s best seller, The Tipping Point (Back Bay Books, 2000), has an extensive chapter on The Stickiness Factor. Children’s TV shows like Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues are carefully engineered to be “sticky”, so that children can’t help but keep coming back to those shows. This post will examine the craft of “stickiness” in these two children’s TV shows, in conjunction with another show, Teletubbies. Then it will show how the craft of “stickiness” could be and have already been applied to games.

First, a brief description of each show for those either too young or too old.

Sesame Street

Sesame Street

No ink (or bytes) need be wasted here since Sesame Street, premiered in 1969 and featuring live actors and puppets known as Muppets, is the longest running and most beloved children’s TV show.

Blue’s Clues

Blue's Clues

Blue’s Clues was created By Nickelodeon during the 1990s and features a single live actor, Steve, who guides the audience of preschoolers to solve mysteries involving Blue, a blue cartoon dog with spots and floppy ears.



Teletubbies is a British production aimed at the youngest of television watchers. The show features four imaginary creatures named Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa Laa and Po.  They live in a dome shaped house on a lush grassland they share with live bunnies, silk flowers, underground periscopes, and a baby sun that giggles and gurgles. Controversies like Tinky Winky’s sexual orientation and toddler TV watching aside, it is one of the most revolutionary and successful shows for children.

In addition to interesting and creative content, these shows share a few fundamental “sticky” tricks:

1. Know Your Audience

The 1960s and 1970s was when people started studying children’s psychology seriously. Psychologists working with Sesame Street believed that preschoolers have a very short attention span, thus the show was created in “magazine style”, where each segment is short and bursty. Through pilot testing, the creators furthered realized that children have no problem mixing fantasy with reality. In fact, the children were often bored with the segments that only had live actors. To battle the boredom, the creators added Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch to bridge the chasm between Muppets and humans.

Blue’s Clues learned from the success of Sesame Street and took it one step further. Sesame Street is a one hour magazine-style show parents could watch with their preschoolers. Blue’s Clues, on the other hand, is a half hour show made exclusively for preschoolers. The producers understand that children’s attention span could be sustained if they are appropriately challenged and rewarded. The content of the show is void of clever adult jokes and instead aimed that helping children solve problems through literalness. Not a great show for mommy or daddy, but the children are nearly under-spell as Steve guides them through solving mysteries such as “what’s Blue’s favorite animal?”

If Blue’s Clues was made exclusively for preschoolers, Teletubbies was made exclusively for toddlers. The world of Teletubbies is so fantastical that most adults would find it bizarre and difficult to comprehend. To a toddler, the entire world is novel, so it makes no difference to them whether the TV show showcased real people or brightly colored creatures in a fantasy land. The producers understand that babies like looking at other babies, so the show has a baby sun that giggles when something exciting is about to happen. Furthermore, all of the Teletubbies do baby things (ex. twirling), explore the world the baby way (ex. splash on water puddles), and talk babytalk (ex. eh-oh” for “hello”). The show shocked parents at first and almost all derided the babytalk, but after a while, parents started to turn around. “I must admit that I originally found the tubbies quite ugly. But, due to my son’s fondness towards them, I grew to like the tubbies,” says a mom on an internet discussion board.

2. Use Repetition To Promote Learning

Gladwell cited a segment from Sesame Street known as the James Earl Jones alphabet recitation. The kids started by repeating each letter after Jones, then they would respond to the letter before Jones recited it, and finally, the kids were able to anticipate the sequence and shouted out the next letter even before it appeared it on screen. The James Earl Jones recitation did not change, but the children’s responses did. Repetition is a very effective sticky trick if the audience can derive something different (like a feeling of satisfaction or reward) each time.

Blue’s Clues again took repetition to another level by showing the same episode Monday through Friday. This repetition helped the children digest the progression of the mysteries, often lengthy and complex. After enough repetition, they were able to anticipate the host Steve’s questions even before he asked them. Gladwell explained that this “gave children a real sense of affirmation and self-worth…They feel like they’re helping Steve out.”

Repetition is, not surprisingly, also a hallmark of the Teletubbies show. The show always begins with the same rhyme and ends with another rhyme. About midway through each episode, a short film is shown to the audience through the selected Teletubby’s tummy. The scene depicted in these short films are often complex and advanced like the mysteries from Blue’s Clues. Examples of clips: a group of young children blowing bubbles or a little girl taking care of her pony with her mother. The Teletubbies would scream “Again! Again!” and the short film would repeat. Not only do children feel excited screaming “Again! Again!” with the Teletubbies, the rerun helps them digest the advanced content.

Laa Laa receiving signal for the short film

3. Pay Attention to Structure and Format of Content

Sesame Street is the longest running children’s TV show and Big Bird has become a household name. Blue’s Clues became the highest rated children’s TV show, overtaking Sesame Street, and received nine Emmy awards. Teletubbies won BBC BAFTA awards and has a best selling single that reigned in the Top 75 for 32 weeks after its release, selling over a million copies. None of these sticky successes were coincidental or even the automatic result of great content. The creators took care to maximize the stickiness through tweaks in structure and format of the content.

As explained previously, much of Sesame Street’s stickiness could be attributed to the addition of two characters – Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. Instead of scrapping the real world part, occasionally blurring the boundary between fantasy and the real world was all that was needed to maintain the children’s attention.

The writers of Blue’s clues understood that the order of the clues were of the utmost importance. It was crucial to keep the children in “the flow” so that they’re neither too bored or too stumped. For example, the mysteries always opened with an easy clue, so the children can amass the confidence to keep going.

In the case of the Teletubbies, the underground periscope comes out to make important announcements, such as transitions, to give the show structure. Like the narrator, the periscope speaks rhythmically and clearly in adult voices, so even the youngest of children can understand what is happening.

The Craft of Stickiness and Games

Games that profit through micro-transactions depend on the stickiness of their games to keep users playing (and transacting). The aforementioned stickiness tricks from children’s TV shows often work for games, too.

Farmville, by Zynga

Restaurant City, by PlayFish

“Facebook is designed for everyone,” said a Facebook designer once. If the platform is for everyone, how does it Facebook game designer get to know its users? The answer for Zynga, the largest Facebook game maker, is empirically. Mark Pincus of Zynga’s Customer Development, describes the process as “ghetto testing”,

We put it in a feature we can build in a week…We built a data warehouse with a testing platform so we’re running several hundred tests at any given time for every one of our games.  And no single user has more than one test. So, one example, we just turned on flowers in Farmville.

The method of ghetto testing may sound strange, but it’s not that different from the pilot studies the TV shows do. It’s a lot more difficult to study “everybody” (can you even get your hands on a psychologist who is the authority in “everybody”?), so the best way is to probe the audience nonstop until you know enough about them. If the players like something, you keep it. If they don’t, you change it. It’s as simple as that.

Repetition seems like a strategy that only works for children. In fact, Gladwell mentions that older children prefer novelty over repetition. In actuality, games like Farmville(by Zynga) and Restaurant City (by PlayFish) make exhaustive use of repetition. The players are trying to master the skills of a farmer and restauranteur in these games, so repetition is essential. Imagine if players were always asked to new things; the game would become incomprehensible! The farmer must keep planting and harvesting crops and the restauranteur must keep serving customers. It’s perhaps more correct to say that instead of just repetition, novelty is also essential since the players are rarely preschoolers. The novelty comes in the form of rewards, new items and new skills as players advance in level. One of the most effective “sticky” features Zynga ever implemented for Farmville was the addition of achievements (08/2009) – the broadcasting of ribbons earned in the player’s newsfeed. Players, just like preschoolers, feel affirmed when they master a skill and feel even better when their friends know about it.

The structure and format of game content is important, too. Restaurant City makes it really easy for a brand new player to advance to the second level, similar to how Steve’s first clue is always easy. Then it gets harder but also more interesting. This strategy keeps players in the flow. Another interesting features for these social games is the ability for players to visit their friends and “snoop” on their friends’ progress. Visiting a friend’s more advanced farm gives you a sneak peak into the “future” game content like new items and new privileges. If you like that future, you will keep coming back to play the game.


Humans may get older, but the fundamentals of human psychology doesn’t change that much. Game designers can learn a lot from children’s TV shows when it comes to the stickiness factor. After all, children will never pretend to be interested in something they’re not; their brutal honesty will help designers hone in their craft of stickiness.



Gladwell, Malcom, The Tipping Point, Back Bay Books, 2000

von Coelln, Eric, How Big Social Games Maintain Their Sticky Factors,, retrieved March 30, 2010

Gratt, Matt, How Zynga Uses Minimum Viable Products,, retrieved March 31, 2010

Bedford, Karen Everhart, Eh-oh!,, retrieved March 30, 2010

maceyr, A good infant’s show,, retrieved March 30, 2010

Transmedia Storytelling

February 18, 2010

At first glance, the term “transmedia storytelling” seems easily understandable. It’s just “telling the story using different media”, right? Therefore, though the term “transmedia” is relatively new, most media company executives think they know exactly what it means. Why, it’s exactly what they have been doing to good ideas all along, turnings books into movies, movies into video games, and games into merchandises! Few executives realize that simply taking an idea (often essentially unmodified) from one media to another does not provide the audience with the transmedia story “hearing” experience.

Henry Jenkins first coined the term “transmedia storytelling” in 2006, to describe a process in which “integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience.” [1] Based on this definition, the usage of the medium is secondary to the craft of storytelling and experience of story “hearing”.

I will first illustrate a couple rookie mistakes at the craft of transmedia storytelling, then for contrast, follow up with a couple more examples that, in my opinion, have “got it right.”

Rookie Mistake #1 – The media is the only variable

A rookie mistake is to define transmedia storytelling simply by the “means”, rather than the “ends” by treating the media as the only variable in the process.

Second, Hollywood loves making of popular books into movies, notably Lord of the Rings, Watchmen, and Twilight in recent years. The motivation is to lower the risk in investment. If the book is popular, then we have a guaranteed turnout for the movie, right? The Japanese have also been turning popular mangas into anime or movies for decades. One of the bestselling and critically acclaimed mangas of all time, 20th Century Boys by Naoki Urasawa, was made into a movie trilogy recently. The three movies incorporated 300 characters (with the major ones portrayed by A-list actors and actresses) and had a budget of 6 billion yen[2]. It was no small feat, but the only variable in the project was the media. The story “listening” experience of the manga and movie are not different. In fact, the movie strived to replicate the manga as faithfully as possible, worrying about driving away die-hard fans if they did ntot. When the first part was released in 2008, fans were elated at how much the actors resembled the manga characters. Plot progression, scenery, dialog and the cinematography were all precise down to the minutest detail, too.

Main characters from the 20th Century Boys manga

Movie poster for Part 1 of the trilogy

Rookie Mistake #2 – We don’t need to do any additional work

Media companies invest enormous amounts of money and time into the creation and production of stories. Licensing their creative intellectual properties seems like the ideal way to branch into other media without additional investment risk on their part.

Characters from successful movies are often licensed to video game publishers. Like collecting royalty, these licensing deals require little to no additional investment from the owners.  Dave Perry, President of Shiny Entertainment, alludes to an awful experience trying to make a Terminator game “that can only have one Terminator that you can’t kill because you wouldn’t have the Terminator left [since you couldn’t get the rights to the Terminator, Sarah Connor, or Arnold Schwarzenegger.]”[3] It was an awful experience for Perry and his team, and the resulting game was not very fun. When Perry worked on Enter the Matrix, however, the situation was completely different. The Wachowski brothers granted all rights and provided access to everything. The Wachowskis even declared, “this is more than a licensing deal. It’s an artistic partnership”. Furthermore, rather than handing over the script and licensing rights to the Shiny, the brothers remained involved and made sure they created a story that worked well for the gaming platform.

Rookie Mistake #3 – Product placement is an easy way to blur the lines between reality and fiction

In addition to treating licensing as the way to reach other media, some consider product placement to be a legit way to let the real world to seep into the fictional world. And look at all the money from the sponsors; why not kill two birds with one stone?

Media executives cannot help but be tempted by lucrative product placement deals. Some might even argue that it encourages the transmedia experience. Jesse Alexander, the executive producer for the TV show Heroes, makes argument for the placement of the Nissan Versa in season 1 of the show, “Nissan had a new car they wanted to launch. [Assigning it to the character Hiro Nakamura] was organic to who he was. The car became a character in the narrative in a way that didn’t seem forced.”[4] This particular product placement was relatively successful because it made sense for Hiro, the Japanese salaryman, to exclaim excitedly at the prospect of driving a car for his cross country mission to save the cheerleader, as most Tokyoites cannot imaging owning a car in a city with a population density of more than 5000 people per square kilometer. It also makes sense for Hiro to pick a Japanese-made car because the Japanese are known to be very partial to their native brands. Perhaps it is possible for Alexander to claim this Nissan Versa as a successful product placement that actually enhances the story “listening” experience. He would have no chance in the later ones, though. In the subsequent season, the majority of the audiences squirmed when Claire, the cheerleader in the story, received a Nissan Rogue as a present from her father. It did not serve to facilitate story or character growth and the car was mysteriously stolen a couple episodes later. The current season has so many blatant of Sprint phones that there is a section on the Heros Wiki devoted to keep record. Whoever is doing the counting obviously pays more attention to the product placement than the story. Good news for the sponsors, but not so good news for the storytellers.

Hiro picks his rental car.

So what’s up with all of these rookie mistakes?

These rookie mistakes may seem disparate, but there is a unifying theme – the temptation to take shortcuts rather than invest in generating creative content. The latter is much riskier and costly that the former.

Key: Transmedia Storytelling Requires Creative Content

Let’s go back to the TV show Heroes. Although it made some serious snafoos in product placement, it is generally regarded as one of the most innovative transmedia storytelling experiences due to its success in telling the story through TV, comic books, web, and mobile games. (Its blunders in product placement may be indicative of the show’s overall success, because the sponsors would not have cared otherwise.) The audience can take part in one or two or all of these offerings and through them experience different aspects of the Heroes story.

How does Heroes do it? According to Jesse Alexander, “the writing of Heroes is done by 10-12 people…there has to be enough people to generate that content…that’s why we need the huge team” [5] Instead of writing each episode one by one, an writer is assigned to story arcs for a certain character, like Peter. The entire writing team gets together and do rapid prototyping to iterate on the narrative to ensure its quality. The Heroes comic book is not a spin-off; it’s entirely new material that is part of the canon of the story. Like the Nissan Versa, the idea of using comic books is organic because one of the characters from season 1, Issac, is a prophet comic book artist, and Hiro uses Issac’s comic books from the future to guide his hero quest. The web comic component told much of the background and history the TV show is unable to tell due to time.

An excerpt from the Heroes web comics

Another innovative approach Heroes takes is to weave part of the fictional story into the real world. Examples include websites created for the fictitious corporations in the show: Primatech, Pinehurst, and The Linderman Group. Primatech, AKA The Company, is an important part of the story because it plays the role as the faceless super villain for a significant part of the story canon. These websites give expressive “faces” to these faceless super villains and makes it easier for the audience to “suspension of disbelief”. The cost of the website is cheap content-wise, but the state of the websites are kept up to date with the progression of the story. In the case of Primatech, an NBC employee will respond to inquiries from the website and send emails on behalf of these corporations. Before Primatech disintegrated, one could even inquire about employment opportunities through the website.

The fictional website for Primatech. The bit about Noah Bennet, AKA HRG, was added to reflect story progress in season 3.

The fictional website for Pinehurst, the villainous biotech company from season 3.

As if the TV show, comic books and websites are not enough, Heroes also has a mobile game. The game, developed with collaboration from the show’s writers, allows the audience to step into the shoes of three of the heroes, meet other characters from the show, and take their stab at saving the world.

A screenshot from the Heroes mobile game.

CLAMP’s experiment with Tsubasa and xxxHolic

Sometimes, transmedia storytelling only requires one type of media. CLAMP, a popular Japanese manga artist group made up of five women, is not lacking of work that have been turned into anime. Here’s what’s interesting: the authors currently have two concurrent series running (Tsubasa and xxxHolic) and there are occasional crossovers from one story to another. The main artist for each series is different, so the styles are drastically different. The main characters in each series are different except for a couple characters that seem to straddle both series. In addition, Tsubasa reads more like episodic adventure stories for boys while xxxHolic reads more like a romantic girl manga. The two series are telling stories that happen within the same universe (though different dimensions) and operate under the same rules. It remains to be seen what will happen when the series converge, which is the plan, and what that will bring to the audience’s story “listening” experience.

CLAMP's Tsubasa

CLAMP's xxxHolic

There Is Only One Story

Transmedia storytelling is a tricky and laborious craft. It is unfortunately easily confusable with more traditional marketing techniques executives are used to. The important thing to remember true transmedia storytelling involves only one story, albeit a very elaborate story told through a variety of media with creative new content. The usage of different media is entirely secondary to the craft of weaving layers and layers of content for the audience’s story “listening” pleasure.

[1] Jenkns, H. (2007) Transmedia Storytelling 101, March 22, 2007, Retrieved:  February 16, 2010 from

[2] 20th Century Boys, Wikipedia. Retrieved February 17, 2010,

[3] The Game Informer (2002) Nothing Can Prepare You

[4] Dahlen, Chris,  (2007) MIT: Heroes, Narnia Panel Talks Transmedia Storytelling, November 21, 2007, Retrieved: February 16, 2010,

[5] Taylor, Alice (2007), Hollywood & Games: An Interview with Jesse Alexander, June 27, 2007, Retrieved February 16, 2010 from

02.05.2010 SPIFe Demo

February 6, 2010

Research Plan Presentation + Field Guides + SPIFe Demo

While Jenn and Noah worked on the research plan presentation, Jesse, Katy and I divvied up the field guides. Jesse wrote one for hospitals and Katy wrote one each for restaurants and news broadcasting. I was tasked with writing one for our JSC visits. I poured over the ISS document in detail in order to find out more about RPEs. It took forever but it made writing the field guide a breeze.

I missed the faculty meeting on Friday due to a conflict, but I was told the research plan plus field guides was generally well received. We just have to fix a few things with the Field Guide: the layout, and add an opening script and consent form.

Friday afternoon, Mel gave us a very useful tutorial on SPIFe. The current version is actually called SCORE. Forgot to ask her if that’s an acronym for anything. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is, since NASA seems to love acronyms :).

I found the tutorial very helpful, especially:

  • RPE are just the implementors of real-time replanning. (The ISS document I read was a bit unclear about this.) They don’t make the decision, since more experience is required.
  • It was very helpful to see concrete examples of activities and constraints. Prior to that we were just relying our imagination and knowledge from TV shows and movies. By the way, I’m glad we watched “From the Earth to the Moon”; I’m surprised how much I remember from the miniseries.
  • SCORE looked more polished than I imagined it. I guess that makes sense for something that’s supposed to transition to production in about a year :). It reminded me a lot of the ESX interfaces at VMware, except those were for both planning and monitoring so they showed a lot more status information.
  • It takes a lot of pixels to be able to use SCORE productively. ESX was the same way.
  • Some things can be automated, but most of the time, people like to feel smarter than the computer, and that the computer is there to help them, not destroy their plans.

On Monday, we’re supposed to get together and share our research results thus far in order to prep ourselves for the client meeting on Tuesday. We also have a CI scheduled for Thursday at a local news broadcaster.

02.02.2010 Ready? Set. Go!

February 3, 2010

Client Meeting + Team Meeting

This project is really starting to pick up pace! We had a good chat with the Mel and Jessica this evening. They gave us good feedback on the affinity diagram, pointing out the extensive impact of constraints and the potential muted-ness for authority tension. We really want to get the NASA visits settled as we only have about four more weeks to do our research.

It’s a pity (or a blessing in disguise) that we can’t perform our research entirely on NASA personnel, since access to astronauts is pretty scarce. Instead, we have to look at many different analogous work domains. In order to make things more efficient, we tasked each person to become the “expert” in that domain:

  • Jenn: Space Missions and Newspaper
  • Noah: Airline and Submarines (Navy)
  • Christine: Space Missions and Power plants
  • Jesse: Hospitals and News Broadcasting
  • Katy: Kitchens and Disaster Response

Btw, must thank Sara for pointing us to so many good resources…I am really inefficient when it comes to literary reviews. Never really know what to look for. This is why I would have never made it as a lawyer :).

We also decided to split up and try to work in smaller teams from now on. Even with just five people, it’s difficult to come to a conclusion sometimes (I’m still amazed how my team of 7 worked out last semester – oh yeah, we broke up into 4 and 3.) We kind of have the research plan document in the bag. Noah and Jenn are going to work on the presentation due tomorrow in class, and Jesse, Katy and I will hash out the Field Guides.

Ready? Set. Go!

A Cursory Look at the Invisibility of Design

January 28, 2010

Steve Gaynor of 2K Marin wrote an opinion piece for Gamasutra in 2008[1], speaking about the desire for total player immersion. He argued that such immersion could be achieved by making the rules, and hence the hand of the game designer, invisible.  He applauded simulation games like The Sims where interactions are intuitive and endless like the physical world and doubted the usage of controllers that only expose an artificial, limited set of interactions.

Reader support to the piece was underwhelming, as most retorted that game essentials like rules are the soul of the game, put in place to create an alternate reality for the player. A couple of the readers, however, seemed to align with Gaynor; an anonymous reader alleged that the naysayers were simply “…too close to what have become the conventions to re-examine…” the role of game designers.  Before speculating on why Gaynor may have failed to convince the majority of his readers or better yet, whether his claim was even grounded, it would be worthwhile to examine the concept of “invisibility of design” more widely.

The American psychologist Julian Jaynes, in 1976, wrote extensively about the concept of “consciousness”. Consciousness in the context of skill performance “is often not only unnecessary; it can be quite undesirable.” [2] A pianist suddenly conscious of his fingers during a furious flight of arpeggios would have to stop playing. A sprinter who becomes more conscious of his alternating feet rather than his opponent’s position, may trip on the track. Even an ordinary person would lose the ability to speak if he had to be fully conscious of the articulation and enunciation of every word. If Jaynes’s insights are correct, the implication for the role of design, in the context of task performance, is quite profound. Regardless of how the design may be tied to the performance, it seems to require “invisibility”, so that it does not risk becoming the culprit that exposes the performance.

Indeed, in 1988, Don Norman spoke about the need for the “invisibility of design” in computer and user interfaces. “Whether I’m using the computer for text editing, drawing pictures, or creating and playing games – I do think of myself not as using the computer but as doing the particular task. The computer is, in effect, invisible.”[3] To support his claim, he listed an array of poorly designed products, from doors that should be pushed rather than pulled to telephones that do everything but forward a call. All of these products failed because the design became visible. If the user tries to pull a door that ought to be pushed, the design of the door is no longer invisible to him. Restating Norman’s observation in Jayne’s terminology, the user was forced to become conscious of the “performance” of door opening because he must first figure out the design before he can complete the performance. All of a sudden, he is not opening the door anymore, but preoccupied with figuring out the design of the door. The design became so visible it swallowed the user and his performance whole.

At this point, the game designer may wonder, “how does this apply to game design? The player is playing a game, not typing up an essay or making a telephone call. If the player isn’t swallowed up by the design, like rules, how else would the player experience total immersion in the game?” Certainly, total immersion remains the goal, but the important distinction is the medium. The player should be immersed in slaying the dragon, not the rules around how to slay the dragon. All of a game’s components are meant to create an experience for player.  If the player is to be swallowed by anything, it ought to be the experience, not the rules.

The idea of “experience design” is a fairly new concept to the design community.  In 2007, the Canadian designer Bill Buxton compared “interface design”, “interaction design” and “experience design.” Buxton explained why “experience design” is most akin to what designers are trying to accomplish, “it is the most human-centric of the lot. Despite the technocratic and materialistic bias of our culture, it is ultimately experience that we are designing.”[4] To illustrate his point, he related a personal anecdote about three juicers (See image below). Although all three juicers produce the same result – a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice, nuances of the interaction like motor noise, tactile feedback, and lever resistance created completely different experiences. After the third juicer was declared the champion of the juicing experience, he only wanted to use the third juicer. For Buxton, a good design brings about experiences so salient that it is desirable; users want more. However, designers should also realize that designs do not dictate the experiences in a one-to-one mapping. Even the best designs are just “plans” for an experience. It is, after all, missing a most critical ingredient for an experience – the user.

The game designer, similarly, can at best put in place all of the components (minus the player) – monsters, mazes, rules, weapons, characters, story…etc. that encourage good gaming experiences. In order to anchor the player in the experience, these components must become background noise. The player need not be conscious of the every weapon usage rule or camera angle shift during a perilous boss fight. The player also should not be conscious of button mappings when Tetris blocks are falling down at lightning speed. According to Jaynes and Norman, those are about the worst things that could happen because they will instantaneously eject the player from the alternate reality the designer has created.

The objective of this essay is not to recommend ways of accomplishing “invisibility of design”, but merely to suggest that it is a legitimate concept for total immersion. Returning to Gaynor’s piece from the beginning of this essay, he was perhaps also a little “…too close to what have become the conventions” to comfortably champion the cause.  His argument might have benefited if he had stepped away from the specifics of game design like rules. It was never about whether the rules are life-like, artificial, few, or countless. His high-level argument is still valid – game designers should strive to put forth conscious designs that are invisible to the player, so that the player is unconscious to everything except the overall, immersive gaming experience.

[1] Gaynor, S (2008) Opinion: On Invisibility In Game Design,

[2] Jaynes, J (1976) The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Mariner Books

[3] Norman, D (1988) The Design of Everyday Things, Basic Books

[4] Buxton, B (2007) Experience Design vs. Interface Design, Sketching User Experiences, Elsevier, Inc.