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Chance vs Strategy: Which Works Best in Serious Games?

Chance vs Strategy

If you are creating a serious game to help your employees improve their performance, the type of game you create depends greatly on the type of job your employees have. Are either of the following statements true?

  • Day-to-day work is highly reactive in an “anything can happen” environment. Employees complete tasks such as responding to varying customer needs or emergency situations.
  • Work is based on organization, planning and foresight. This might be the case for sales managers, executive leadership or even individual contributors who must carefully plan and execute project work.

Depending on your situation, you should include an appropriate amount of chance or strategy in your serious game that reflects the work environment. As always in game design, you’ll want to avoid game elements that are irrelevant to learners. Gadgets and gimmicks within a game serve as more of a distraction than an engagement tool.

Sharon Boller talks about this at length in her learning game design blog series. With so many different game elements and game mechanics to potentially include in a game design, instructional designers new to game design often struggle to find focus and direction. We think about the “fun” of commercial games we have all played and enjoyed and try to incorporate all of this into games for our learners.

The result? Games that are distracting, out of focus and ultimately ineffective for learning.

The two game elements most commonly misused are chance and strategy. The usual mistake? too much chance. Would-be designers add lots of “surprises” to their games thinking it will make the experience more fun. The other mistake is to include strategy or chance in a game when the real answer is to use neither. Sometimes, the best corporate learning games focus on just a few game mechanics and game elements so mastery of the content can be brought front and center.

Consider the following examples Sharon gives in her blog post on game elements:

  • Is my game unintentionally creating win states that are largely achieved by chance or a specific sequence of events? (This can happen more easily than you think. We recently played a board game where it became clear over several game plays that the person who got to go first—which was determined by age—had a much greater chance of winning than the person who went last.)
  • Do I blend strategy and chance in a way that mirrors the skill I want my player to learn, or the context in which they will have to apply the skill?
  • What control do players have  in the real world over decisions? How do I design that into the game?

Don’t forget that chance and strategy, while seemingly very important, are only two of the many game elements available to you. A game does not need chance or strategy to be fun or effective for learning.

game elements chart

 

Case In Point

Knowledge Guru’s game play is essentially simple and straightforward. Why? Each game is really a template of sorts for whatever content you put into it. If the game had too much chance, it would undermine scenario questions where learners must formulate a strategy. And if the game had a strategic focus, it would distract learners who need to learn how to respond to seemingly random situations in real time.

Instead, Knowledge Guru includes the following game elements:

  • Story
  • Aesthetics
  • Rewards/achievements
  • Levels
  • Theme
  • Competition

So, what about strategy and chance?

You probably already know if your learners’ jobs involve more chance or strategy. Whichever is more true for them, be sure to include the appropriate game element in the game they will play.

The bottom line: When designing a game, you should never include a game element or game mechanic if you do not understand how it is linked to the desired learning outcome.

How Much Story Does a Serious Game Need?

how-much-story_Q220140401

In serious games, story is a narrative that either weaves through an entire game or sets up the reason you are playing the game and elaborates on the theme. The type of story and level of detail you need will depend on your learning goal.

Some in the corporate learning field get nervous about using “too much” story for obvious reasons. Will the story be too “out there” for some learners? Will a story that is too detailed exclude certain learners or make them feel the game does not apply to them?

Should I use a story?

Sharon Boller wrote extensively on this subject in her Learning Game Design Blog Series. When deciding whether to use story, or how much story to use, it’s important to ask two questions:

  • Would story add to this game? Include story when you need to evoke emotion in players and motivate them to play.
  • Can story be used as a learning tool? Research shows that incorporating story and even fantasy elements into games can help embed memories. You also might be able to make the story mirror a real-life situation for learners, either literally or metaphorically.

 

Should I combine my story with a theme?

When we think of story, we often think of theme at the same time. A game’s theme is essentially a backdrop or collection of aesthetic elements. In the board game Smallworld, the theme is a beautifully illustrated fantasy island with many topographies. The story connects to the theme: you are one of many races vying for control of a small island that is not big enough for all of you. The game’s story is simple and intentionally vague, but it is effective because it is combined with a lovely theme and well-done aesthetics.

Smallworld board game, ® Days of Wonder

Smallworld board game, ® Days of Wonder

How much story do I need?

The level of story will depend on how immersive your game needs to be. For a complex game teaching high-level skills, you might require a level of story bordering on simulation-worthy realism. For a game teaching foundational knowledge and simple skills, a complex story might be unnecessary.

Each time we develop a new theme pack for Knowledge Guru, we try carefully to develop a story that is simple yet fun… and does not distract from whatever content users put into the game. We also carefully link the game’s story to the aesthetic elements of the theme.

Knowledge Guru theme pack

In the new fairytale-themed “Knowledge Hero,” players learn about a Dark Wizard who has locked up all the knowledge in the land.

These simple stories create a feeling of interest and novelty, yet have nothing to do with the actual content or “knowledge” the user has inputted into their game.

New Knowledge Guru theme packs

Even when the theme is pretty “out there” (like our new Space Aliens theme), the story is always fairly straightforward.

You should also consider how a simple story can be more business-centric, which will be more suited to certain players.

Knowledge Guru business theme

We created three different “business” themes that combine a corporate feel with fun and whimsy.

The truth? The type of story and amount of story you need completely depends on your learning goal. Make sure story is being used as learning tool and not a distraction.

Learning Game Design: Game Elements to Consider

learning-game-design-theme

The game elements you choose to include in your game should be carefully selected, with a focus on making the play experience fun and facilitating/enhancing the learning experience. In last week’s post I introduced game elements as a whole, and provided a more in-depth description of  conflict, cooperation/competition, and strategy/chance. This week’s post focuses on the next four game elements to consider when developing your learning games: aesthetics, theme, story, and resources—with time considered to be a fairly significant resource.

Aesthetics

Aesthetics, or visuals, are one means of engaging players and helping to immerse them into the game experience. In video games, aesthetics are a huge part of the game experience. Even board games rely on aesthetics to pull players in, as well as to offer visual cues that guide game play. With learning games, however, the temptation can be to cut corners on aesthetics and not realize the impact this has on the learning value of the game. If you are a one-person band, you may simply say, “Well, I don’t have a graphic designer to help me.”

Compare these two game boards, for example. Which one would you rather play?

FirstProtoypeAPAGameBoard


FinalGameBoard_APA

If you have no budget for a graphic designer, there are online resources for helping with aesthetics. Here’s a couple to check out:

http://opengameart.org — has some nice graphics bundles you can download and use in your digital games.

http://elearningtemplates.com/elearning-activities/ — has cutout people and graphics as well as some “game” templates (they aren’t really games, but are gamified activities.)

Theme

A theme can add interest and create engagement. In the game Forbidden Island, the theme is conveyed through the visuals and a “back story” that is included in the rules. There is no narrative running through the game, but the back story and the aesthetics convey the theme of a mythical, mystical island. Knowledge Guru uses thematic elements to convey the idea of theme even though there is no real story.

When creating a learning game, ask yourself whether a theme can enhance the learning experience and create interest for the learner.

Story

Story offers a narrative thread that pulls through an entire game. It’s far easier to remember facts when they are part of a narrative, rather than when we simply have the facts devoid of any “story” or context around them. A game can have a theme but no story, a theme and a story, or no story and no theme (think Scrabble). If you elect to create a storyline for your game, keep in mind that a strong story has four elements:

  • Characters
  • Plot (something has to happen for it to be a story)
  • Tension (often thought of as conflict)
  • Resolution

Example: We’re working on a game story right now that uses the theme of an alien invasion. We have a detailed story to go with it. Players have to successfully demonstrate knowledge of incident investigation to thwart the aliens and rescue their fellow workers. Our story has characters: the player who represents a worker, a learning agent who represents an expert cohort, and the Martians who have invaded with Dr. E.L. Snatcher as their leader. It has a plot: an invasion has happened, workers have been captured. It has a conflict: Martians against the human workers. And it has resolution: the resolution comes if the player can successfully use knowledge of incident investigation and rescue all his co-workers.

Notice how the images below help evoke emotion and interest in the story itself—hence, the relationship between story and aesthetics.

Cohort-04

 

 

ELSnatcher

Questions to ask yourself as a learning game designer:

  • Should I use a story?
  • Should I couple my story with a theme?
  • Will it help my game or make it too complicated?
  • How much story do I need?
  • Do I need just enough story to convey a theme? Or do I need to immerse players in the story to provide the right learning experience?
    • Example: The stories used in Settlers of Catan or Forbidden Island are really “back stories” used to set up the game. The story doesn’t drive the game itself. This contrasts with some of the intense video games.
  • How do I integrate story?
  • Do I make each player a separate character?
  • If so, who do they represent? Is it a fantasy character or does it represent something with real-world context to their job or situation?

Resources

Resources are often defined as part of game mechanics, but they are the tools the player has available within the game to help them achieve the goal. Common resources include money, tools, building materials, etc. In the game of Monopoly, resources include money, real estate, houses, and hotels. All have value within the game and all contribute to helping a player win. In Settlers of Catan, players very literally have cards called resources. These include sheep, ore, wheat, and bricks. Players can use resource to purchase buildings or Development Cards, or they can trade for other resources.

When designing a learning game you should ask yourself:

  • What resources make sense given the skill or knowledge you’re trying to teach?
  • Do I need to include currency to represent something, or would that be a distractor?
  • Do you need resources in your game? (Perhaps not.)
  • Do you want to incorporate time: time can be a resource, it can be a constraint (e.g. you have to complete a task within a specified amount of time), or it can be a means of compressing real-world time into a more manageable amount of game time.
    • Example: In A Paycheck Away, we compress three months of homelessness into a 90-minute game play experience.
  • If I want to incorporate time, do I want to use it as a resource, a constraint, or a means of compression?
    • Example: In Knowledge Guru, time is not a factor at all. We originally designed it as a constraint—giving players two minutes to complete a round of play—and we found out that this actually detracted from the game play rather than enhancing it. Consequently we eliminated it.

Learning Game Design: Game Elements

learning-game-design-elements

In my last post, I talked about game mechanics. These are the rules and procedures that guide the player and the game responds to the player’s moves or actions. Now we’ll move on to game elements.

Every game has “elements” or features that keep people engaged. Some games have a lot; others have very few. The choice of what to include should be deliberate. With learning games, you should consider how each element supports the learning process. There are many game elements you can include; this graphic shows 12 common ones:

game elements chart

Note: Because there are so many, this post focuses only on the first five. I’ll be covering the others in my next posts.

Conflict

For a game to be interesting, there needs to be some sort of conflict. Conflict comes in many forms, but it always represents a challenge for the player to overcome. The challenge could be physical obstacles, it could be combat with another player, or it could be a puzzle that has to be solved.

Things to ask yourself about incorporating conflict as an element in your learning game design:

  • Given what I want people to learn, what conflict is most appropriate? Should I incorporate a conflict that arises with other players or should I incorporate challenges that all players work together to overcome? Or should I include some sort of challenge against the game itself? Example: puzzle-style games are really a challenge that pits you against the puzzle.
  • How can I best represent the real-world conflicts I want people to deal with? Example: conflict between quality and time constraints or quality and budget.
  • What game mechanics can I create to simulate the real-world conflicts/challenges players encounter?

Cooperation and/or competition

With learning games, cooperation is often a better element to use than competition alone. Direct competition with other players can demotivate learners or set up a negative dynamic. In contrast, cooperation between players to overcome a game challenge can often motivate players and foster teamwork. Cooperation gets people working together; competition pits people against one another. Only one person or team wins—while everyone else loses. The players’ focus is very different depending on which element you employ or how you combine the two elements together. Competition can be appropriate, but you need to consider the outcomes it can produce.

Questions to ask yourself when designing a learning game:

  • Do my players need to compete in the real-world or is competition not a factor in using the skill or knowledge I want people to learn?
  • If competition is part of the real-world context, do I incorporate it into the game as players working together to beat the game or as players competing against each other within the game?
  • Will competition motivate or demotivate the target group I’m designing the game for? What negative consequences might occur if only one person wins and everyone else loses, and how do I manage those emotions?

Strategy and chance

Strategy puts control into the player’s realm in the form of decisions they can make that affect gameplay or their odds of achieving the goal. On the other hand, games that are heavily based on chance put the player in a highly reactive mode, one where they have little control over the outcome.

A game can have neither strategy or chance, it can combine both, or it can only focus on one. Gambling games are largely games of chance. Games with little or no strategy or chance built in can be less interesting to play than those that use these elements.

Questions to ask yourself when designing a learning game:

  • Is my game unintentionally creating win states that are largely achieved by chance or a specific sequence of events? (This can happen more easily than you think. We recently played a board game where it became clear over several game plays that the person who got to go first—which was determined by age—had a much greater chance of winning than the person who went last.)
  • Do I blend strategy and chance in a way that mirrors the skill I want my player to learn, or the context in which they will have to apply the skill?
  • What control do players have  in the real-world over decisions? How do I design that into the game?

Case in Point

Example: We devised a coaching game for a global company that wanted to reduce its product development and launch timeframe from 10-12 years to 8 to 10 years. They felt coaching was one means of reducing this timeline. We also knew, though, that sometimes factors outside someone’s control would affect the development timeline… so we included chance as an element. When players landed on specific spaces on the board, they drew a “Life Happens” type of card that either positively or negatively influenced their timeline. Strategy played no part in the effect. These cards simulated things such as an economic downturn, a hiring freeze within the company, a loss of budget dollars, etc.

Coaching Game Example

Example: I designed a game to simulate the pressures of maintaining the company value of ethics and honesty while dealing with last-minute requirement changes from a federal agency. In essence, if players hadn’t planned well, they ended up not having enough time to test their products before the regulatory agency arrived to inspect things. Many players signed forms in the game indicating that tests had been performed. The game mimicked a real-world issue, and my strategy elements were designed to support this.

Example: The cards below are from A Paycheck Away. They are chance cards that players have to draw on each turn. These simulate real-world things—good and bad—that can happen but which the player has no real control over.

ChanceExample_BadOutcome      ChanceExample_GoodOutcome