Tuesday, March 28

The Genetic Differences Between Games and Instructional Design (Clark Quinn Beats Me to the Punch)

Darn Clark! And here I was going to spring this same post. Anyway, since you already spilled it, I want to follow and extend a bit.

What Clark posted was a little re-cap of part of the keynote that Nintendo president, Satoru IwataIwata2_1 delivered to a packed house at this year's Game Developers Conference. I'll say that I was in the audience that packed the San Jose Civic Auditorium (we were actually 2-3 deep standing around the top and some were left outside - the capacity is slightly over 3,000). Let me just say - the dude was ON! Forget the problems of english not being a first language - Iwata was engaging, funny, personable and darned interesting.

Clark, in his post, points to a section of Iwata's speech in which he (Iwata) lays out the "Four I's" that Nintendo uses as game development standards. They are:

"First, is it truly innovative - something different from what has come before? Second, is it intuitive? Do the control of the game and the direction of gameplay seem natural? Third, is it inviting? Do you want to spend time in this world? And finally, how does it measure up in terms of interface? Can the player connect in new ways?"

Here is what I want. Quick - someone start talking to me about how these are not valid design considerations for learning. Start telling me about how what we do is serious and this stuff is just frivolous, meaningless - dare I say the "F" word? Fun? Tell me about constraints. Tell me how learning is different from gaming. Tell me about how so much of our thinking about learning is calcified and how we as an industry seem to have lost the ability to think within frameworks such as this. Someone tell me how putting the "next" button in the lower right-hand corner (oohhh maybe with rounded edges instead of square ones) is inviting, intuitive, innovative or considers the user as a requirements generator in the design of the interface at all!

I swear I think I know what it is - and the news is both good and bad. The good news is that's its not really our fault - phew - as instructional designers, we were just born like this. Like color blindness or being tone deaf- our handicap doesn't prevent us from functioning in the world - just from perceiving it clearly. The bad news is that its genetic - this goes to our core and it reveals the shocking fact that gaming and instructional design (note: I did NOT say learning) come from two distinct evolutionary branches.

Gaming comes from play and art and music  - from a creative place. Where does instructional design come from? There are a few probable fathers but chief amongst them is World War 2. The real drivers were the need for effeciency and effectiveness. Not exactly the most forgiving or indulgent of parents. So now we come to present day and shocker!...processes derived from a need to have a conscript military force rapidly trained in set patterns...are breaking down in the face of generational and technological changes that were never anticipated or dreamt of at the dawn of ISD (at least not by instructional designers).

So we have a practice, a set of ways of knowing what to do, that are radically unable to keep pace (and its getting worse) and all we can seem to talk about is how to generate templates faster. We need to be talking about gene therapy; about some radical treatments that can save the best values of ISD and yet jettison - in some wholesale fashion - the outdated and outmoded ways of thinking about humans and how they learn (but that's really not what we think about is it?).

What is the answer? I don't know. I know enough to listen though when a man speaks who has a set of design principles flexible enough to produce both Super Mario Kart and Brain Age. Let's stretch people...left leg...on three....


Peter Isackson said...

I wonder, is there something ironic about the comment above, clearly a form of spam? Is it an oblique comment on the notion of games?

The one thing that worries me about what I see emerging is the apparent trend towards defining a neat dichotomy between traditional instructional design and gaming. Personally, I don't see them as simple rivals or obvious alternatives. Much is required to make either an effective tool for learning, not just applying the rules (of cognitive ergonomics, on the one hand, and, say, the four i's on the other).

The fun principle is, I would agree, fun-damental, whether the context is human or computer-based. It isn't the only factor of motivation, however. As I learned years ago, when working with advertising people, what produces impact is not the chosen medium but the media mix.

Mark said...


If I were to wax academic, I'd say that the post/spam poses a humorous if not informative juxtaposition of the notions of gaming and play...but I'd be full of it if I did that. :-)

I am really starting not to see gaming and instructional design as rivals or obvious alternatives but instead as different species which do not spring from some UR-progenitor but which are different from the DNA up. I think it is not trivial to consider the military/industrial roots of ISD as compared to and markedly different from the ancient roots of gaming. Remember, I am not talking about learning here - which I think is inextricably linked with gaming - but rather with ISD.

Godfrey Parkin said...

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Oh my, but that all sounds familiar. Nine years ago, when I was running a games development company, I took a team of my developers to the 1997 Game Developer’s Conference. The thrust of the papers by the non-geek speakers were similar to what you were hearing this year, because, let’s face it, there is nothing rocket science about the creative aspects of commercially-viable games development.

Back then, in among the papers on optimizing code and manipulating non-linear sound were the design folks, usually representing a platform manufacturer or a games publisher hungry for new stuff to make money from. They talked about design principles (“Hot, fast, and deep” and “easy to learn, difficult to master”) and they talked about what works in the real world of business. “Innovate!” they said. “Make it intuitive!” “Create compelling environments!” Yadda yadda.. These notions were already clichéd, trite, and a grossly inaccurate reflection of the real world of games business. But I did spend an interesting evening getting drunk with John Romero, one of the original creators of Doom. Or was that at E3?

A couple of years earlier I had discovered the paradox of game publishing: in order to get a publisher to invest in your game it has to be both totally innovative and been successfully done before. In other words, tweak Doom a bit or plug a different industry into railroad Tycoon.

That risk aversion which has progressively paralyzed creativity in other areas such as Hollywood has also sapped the spirit out of corporate learning. We stand up at conferences and cheerlead the drive to nextnet, informality, and collaboration. We urge ISDs to innovate and create compelling environments. Then we go back to the real world and crush any attempt to move away from what is traditional, establishment, or low-risk. Look at what we did to e-learning if you want a classic example of unimaginative timid line-extensionism. Nine years from now, whoever is the hot speaker du jour on the learning conference circuit will probably be banging the same drum, we will all be agreeing enthusiastically, and, where the rubber hits the road, not a lot will have changed.

My only hope for a more interesting future of learning is that a newer generation of non-linear disruptive thinkers will infiltrate the learning establishment and start actually doing different things instead of merely talking about doing them. We are an industry ripe for subversion!

Anonymous said...

Okay, I'll step up and dispute a bit of this.

I think points 2, 3, and 4 are all right on, but I would dispute number 1. Not that I think that innovation is bad, but in games, innovation is a requirement for market differentiation, and therefore comes much higher on the priority list than it does for learning. In learning, I would argue, innovation is a Means rather than an End. It can be a good thing (especially given the state of much of elearning these days), but it isn't really the point.

Where I work we talk a lot about creating meaningful and memorable learning experiences, and I think that there is a reason we don't include the word "fun" in that. Not because we don't want learning to be fun, but because that word is open to misinterpretation (too often it's used to mean other things--wacky! flashy! jazzy!). I believe that learning should be really engaging, which might (and often should) encompass "fun" but is actually a higher standard.

I would agree, though, that traditional ISD frequently seems to teach everything BUT design (analysis, evaluation, etc.), and that there is a lot that can be learned about design from game devlopment.

Anonymous said...

I am all for more fun and games in training. I would love to work on projects that required more of my programming skills and less of my ability to format text. I have built Jeopardy style games for courses, but those projects were the exception.

If we want to engage students in a course, the content needs to be able to keep their attention. In real life, no one is preventing me from changing the channel or surfing to another website. But, when I am taking a training program, I am required to view each and every page. I may finish the course, but will I enjoy it and pay enough attention to actually learn something.

Given enough time and money, all training can be fun and educational. But, I work in the real world and have developed training specifically targeted to audiences of less than 100 people. As a result, we just don't have the budget to be truly innovative. Nintendo just has a bigger audience and the cost/person to develop a game is lower.

Mark said...

OK...so I lost my earlier commen...I'll try to reconstruct...Godfrey, in the one good motto deserves another dept. - the story goes (possibly apocryphal) that the motto minted on Spain's coins before the voyage of Columbus read "ne plus ultra" (no more beyond) but that after CC made his trips - the new Spainsh coins bore the motto "Plus Ultra" (Much Beyond) - my only point being while I totally hear what you're saying - there is always room for some "discovery" to re-engineer our thinking.

I also totally hear what you are saying about the paradox of publishing - the risk aversion in game production is damn near epidemic. Read the whole keynote however, Nintendo has some interesting ways it is attacking the current publishing regime.

I also want to be really clear that I am talking about the differences in ISD and game design not learning. I just don't think that on one level we have faced squarely enough, the military-industrial heritage of ISD and the fact that a desigm schema with the DNA of Taylor and Skinner and of WWII might be genetically pre-disposed to reject the introduction of certain elements of game design. Bill Gates made this great speech about how American high schools aren't broken, they are working exactly as designed - their design is just suited for a different era. I wonder if our current ISD model is not the same - working exactly as designed - its just that the design requirements have shifted.

Mike I also hear your frustration but disagree big time about your contention that it takes time and money to be creative - take a look at the stuff on the Experimental Gameplay site (just Google it) - all the stuff there was developed in 7 days (each game was developed in 7 days) - I think what it takes is us learning about creativity and how to engage it in lower-threshold ways - game elements (e.g. scoring) are severable from building a whole game but can still add something to already existing training.

How do we do genetic therapy for instructional design?

Godfrey Parkin said...


I agree totally that our basic teaching/training paradigms are inappropriate. But people employed in the business of learning are so resistant to innovation that I doubt we will see much in the way of voluntary evolution.

I have always found it ironic that those charged with preparing others to deal with the future are themselves so reluctant to let go of the past. We rationalize, quote studies, and get pompous about pedagogical theory. And we deride as unproven or unprofessional any attempt to do things differently.

I can understand the fear in parents that their kids can't afford to lose their one shot at a "good" education (i.e. the kind my father had) by allowing some whacko new-generationalist to experiment on them. But can't they see that the education that many of their kids are getting IS whacko new-generationalist anyway -- just the wrong kind of whacko?

As for corporate learning, maybe we should stop using "traditional" instruction methods to teach Instructional Designers? The way we learned becomes the way we teach, which really puts a damper on innovation and perpetuates an unhelpful mythology.

We don't really have to wait for bottom-up change in learning to eventually be brought in by those less steeped on "old-school" dogma. I have a feeling that a populist revolution may be just around the corner that may simply bypass our present ways of doing things.

Mark said...


This is my new favorite quote:

"The way we learned becomes the way we teach, which really puts a damper on innovation and perpetuates an unhelpful mythology."

What a powerful sentiment.


steven rix said...

Off topics:

Larry Geisel, Senior Vice President from Netscape is back to work. He's relocating from Arizona to Las Vegas and this time he will be working on strategic choices in LMS.

I met him this week and I wrote a few lines in french about him and his new strategies on my blog.