Thursday, April 09, 2009

Building Better Learning Games

Interested in building casual games for your learners?

Read on for notes from a webinar today, April 9, 2009:

Building Better Learning Games: Leveraging Game Design and User Testing for Results

Our hosts today:

Enspire Learning (Ben Katz)

Doorways to Dreams D2D -- financial entertainment. Work with and for consumers how to better manage their money. Focus on casual video games. (Nick Maynard)

Skillpoint Alliance (Kristy Bowden)

Partnership of profit and non-profit organizations.

Games in a variety of shapes and sizes:

  • Console Games (for the Xbox or Wii)
  • MMORPG (Massively Multi-player Online Role Playing Game): World of War Craft, Club Penguins.
  • Simulations (Flight Simulator, The SIMS)
  • ARGS (Alternate Reality Games: World Without Oil)

But there's a whole 'nother genre of games: Casual Games.

Poll: Do you play any of these? (Solitaire 92%, Tetris 75%, Bejeweled 47%, Peggle 7%, Diner Dash 13%)

These are all casual games.

Demographics of Casual Games:

In 2007, 61% of online game play was in the genre of casual games.

  • Gender: 63% of casual gamers are WOMEN
  • Age: 71% are 25-54, 17% are 55+
  • Families: 46% have kids
  • Experience online: 90% have been on Web longer than 3 years

Casual Game Design principles:

  • Low barriers to entry (few instructions)
  • Forgiving (no punishment if wrong)
  • Short play times (10 minute coffee break game)
  • Highly re-playable
  • Non-violent themes

Casual Game Development:

make it easy to

  • build a prototype and iterate quickly
  • Closely match game mechanics to key learning objectives
  • Deploy games online in Flash - which can reach wide population (and eventually via web portals like Kongregate)

Diner Dash actually used by restaurants.

Case Study: Celebrity Calamity (Casual Financial Literacy Game)

Casual game about credit cards.

D2D's vision is financial entertainment. Creating a library of casual games to teach simple lessons (credit cards, personal budgeting, saving, loans, etc.)

Looked at existing games and saw issues...

Celebrity Calamity Game has focus on fun, but explicit learning objectives:

  • Pay more than min on credit card
  • Min credit card finance charges
  • Avoid fees on card
  • Make good APR choices

Check out the game yourself:

Prototype game:

YouTube Trailer

Ben Katz (Developer at Enspire) now shows the game:


  • 3 celebrity characters in the game. Player controls that celebrity's job. (Player is managing a celebrity).
  • Income is collected.
  • Player goes on a shopping mission (the celeb wants to buy something).
  • Player runs around on screen to collect cash, but to avoid the things you don't want (falling watches, laptops, etc.)
  • Player has to pay with credit or debit card (making choices) and sees balances mounting.
  • Finance rules are explained as you read the CC statement.
  • The Celebrity has different emotional states (happy, content, anxious, and something else). As you make decisions, the celebrity rebukes you or praises you.
  • Player goes up a career ladder based on decisions made.
  • Celebrity is onscreen at all times -- creates emotional engagement.

Lessons Learned

  • Know your audience
  • Games are popular form of digital media
  • Listening to people's needs and preferences is important
  • Evaluation is Important.

For this project, target audience was mostly women.

72% of Americans are playing vid games; high rates of play under 35, casual games are fastest growing segment.

Did testing sessions -- with focus groups, observational feedback.

Development Milestones:

First Playable (rough prototype)--> User Test --> Alpha --> Test --> Beta --> Test --> Final

At each development milestone:

  • Fun. How much fun is player having? Do they want to keep playing?
  • Learning Needs. What do players know about the teaching topics.
  • Assessment. Are players engaged? increases in self-confidence?

Community benefits of the testing process.

Evaluation is Important

Engagement of individuals. Built assessment into the process. Pre-test. Play game for 90 minutes. Then do a post-test. (The evaluation is not part of the game).

Preliminary evidence of Efficacy Testing -- increased self confidence in the 5 core teaching points.

Big increase in knowledge in APR and Finance Charges. (People use financial products -- credit cards -- without really understanding them).

Qualitative Feedback: Enthusiasm, Engagement, Education, Empowerment.

Next Steps

  • More rigorous evaluation of Celebrity Calamity
  • Creating additional casual games: Starting to work on a budget game
  • Testing distribution strategies

Looking for national employers and organizations testing distribution of Celebrity Calamity (contact Nick Maynard at D2D).

Lessons Learned:

  • Test early, test often
  • Usability testing first, efficacy testing later on (early prototypes on creating best user experience, focus on knowledge and confidence after usability of game is assured)
  • Collect as much good data as possible (Likert scaled confidence questions, knowledge questions, in-game data collection, avoid focus groups until end of session -- focus groups people can color each others' opinions).

The game doesn't use quizzes, but used knowledge questions as part of user testing.

Education: Lessons Learned

Discipline in the scope of teaching content (fun can be overwhelmed by rush to include teaching points, if teaching points not relevant player will miss)

Repetition, repetition, repetition (APR talked about in many contexts)

Players can learn from failure (can change strategy and try new things)


Where to get data on games?

Independent Game Developers Association -- for data on games (what consoles are people using? what games are people playing?)

Electronic Software Association -- trade org for game developers in the US

Gama Sutra

Game Developer Magazine

Timeline/Team to Develop?

  • About five months
  • Had lots of volunteer support for testing and feedback

Made at Enspire with a team of three people!

[Many of Flash games you'll find on Kongregate are made by one person!)

If you're an ID who wants to create games:

  • play games
  • read up on game design
  • Need to be both an ID and a game designer

Content can be easily updated via XML.

Check out the game yourself:

Prototype game:

YouTube Trailer


Tridib Roy Chowdhury said...

The term casual games like the term serious games suffers from a lot of misconception arising due to their names.

Casual games is very big business and actually drives more traffic than other forms of games, while serious games can be fun!

Serious games, which I like to call immersive games, can come in two forms - 2D and 3D.

While games like Diner Dash etc. are 2D and is a good learning tool, the 3D world does take this to a altogether different place of enagement and interaction.

The challenge in 3D world is the steep learning curve, which may daunt most IDs and eL content creators. But, help may be on the way on the form of companies which are delivering a template-driven platform for creation of pretty cool immersive games in 3D.

Cammy Bean said...

Hi Tridib,

Thanks for the comments! I was just checking out Thinking Worlds, a new 3D development tool created by Caspian Learning that looks like it will really start opening up the 3D space some more.

For this particular project (the financial game), the team decided a casual game was best for many reasons: speed to develop, ease of use, appeal to the target population (lower income, younger women). I think a 3D world would have been the wrong fit for them. Don't you?