Archive for the ‘Game Design’ Category

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

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.