CS 377G: Final Reflection

I enrolled in this class as a way to understand how to build things, whether games or other kinds of products, that are both engaging and educational. For the last six months or so, I’ve been working on a couple of consumer applications related to misinformation and political polarization that, while not games exactly, involve game-like elements. The objective of these products is to provide people with an alternative to the enervating, polarizing mediums we currently have for acquiring and sharing information (read: Twitter bad. 24-hour news cycles also bad.). I thought, if I was going to be successful, I’d have to find a way to make the healthier alternatives I was offering at least as appetizing as the junk food people were hooked on. Essentially, I wanted to learn how could I introduce game elements without producing gamified products devoid of educational value.

I was starting from zero, more or less. I grew up playing games, but I didn’t know anything about making them. The class’s overview of game elements, and how decisions about combining them determine a game’s dynamics and overall aesthetic quality, provided me with new tools for thinking systematically about what had previously been a vague objective for my applications.

My previous experience with design focused on creating products that appealed to analysts and decision-makers. The class provided a refreshing opportunity to think about UX through a lens that identified fun as a core objective. It was beneficial to rewarding to think more deeply about what it means to have fun and to consider the different forms that fun can take. Not everything needs to be laugh-out-loud, knee-slapping fun. Nor does fun require a rich, engaging fantasy world. Fun can also mean engaging people in subtler ways, providing opportunities to discover or challenge themselves. Our reading on SOPHIA and how fun is the “process between multiple emotions” helped crystalize this broader perspective on fun and its relationship to learning.

Achieving this relationship between fun and learning was primarily what I explored during the sprints. I intentionally chose pretty dull topics – electoral politics, medical insurance, and the credit score system – as analogs to the challenge I was working on outside of class around media polarization and misinformation, topics most people wouldn’t describe as fun, exactly.

I think what I learned most through the rapid sprints, and the repeated opportunities to iterate on our games, was that it’s extremely hard to get this relationship between learning and fun right from the start. It’s hard enough to model a system accurately even without thinking about fun. Adding in the requirement that it be fun for players to interact with that model only increases the difficulty of the task.

I can’t say I figured out a silver bullet for how to do this, and if anything, my methodology is to try multiple methodologies. In the first two sprints, I tried to prioritize fun, finding ways to introduce elements of the real-world system where possible. For the last sprint, I put more emphasis on getting the modeling of the complex system right first. Neither approach yielded immediate home runs, but all three games definitely got better over time. The key was iteration. There were clear rewards to both energetically and enthusiastically pursuing ideas, and also to throwing those ideas out and starting over when they reached dead ends.

This wasn’t an entirely new idea to me, as I’d found it applies to a lot of different kinds of creative endeavors, from making music to essay writing to painting. Similarly, the emphasis in “A Primer for Playtesting” on playtesting early and often was a lot like the AGILE methodology I’ve used professionally. However, experiencing the importance of iteration in a new domain helped me appreciate its importance more deeply.

So, as I go forward in design, I’m going to remember three main lessons I learned from designing games this quarter: 1) fun can take many forms; 2) when done correctly, fun can be a catalyst to learning; and 3) while understanding how game elements can accelerate the process considerably, the most reliable way to figure out how to combine learning and fun effectively is to keep trying. I will never be able to accurately predict all the ways a product will behave when humans interact with it, especially multiple humans at the same time. In the end, designing games, or other products, requires the designer to be ambitious, flexible, and humble.


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