In several previous posts, I talk about the idea of creating motivation (here, here and here).  If a player comes to a game expecting to like it, then the motivation is already there and the designer needs to make an exciting game that meets players’ expectations.

It is an altogether different challenge to engage players that come to a game with little to no interest and no (or negative) expectations.  Games that engage people initially lacking motivation can be profitable, as companies like Zynga achieve tens of millions of monthly average users, very few of whom ‘eagerly awaited the release of the game.’  Creating motivation where it is lacking is critical challenge in educational or training games.

The idea that presenting algebra in a game format will miraculously make algebra fun and increase math literacy is optimistic.  Algebra is still hard.  And if a student isn’t interested, it is still boring.  And no amount of animation, dragons, or experience points is going to make solving a quadratic equation easier.  If saving the princess means going through swamps of integrals and derivatives in the land of calculus, “that b* is history.”  I am skeptical that teaching algebra using a game format will improve math education by making it fun.  Instead, a game format provides a scaffolding to create motivation where there was none before.  But to reiterate: the motivation does not arise because suddenly a game has made algebra fun.

Motivation arises when the stimuli a person encounters become relevant and, I would argue, associated with a set of skills that empower them to respond to those stimuli to their advantage.  To an important extent, fun arises from competence.  So how do you engage a non-motivated player to develop competence and acquire motivation?  You have to do it incrementally.  And in order to do it incrementally, you need to achieve habit and persistence, where the game becomes a part of a person’s daily routine.  The techniques used by Zynga in the various *ville games illustrate several critical components of inducing habitual game play and creating motivation where there was none before:


1) limit time commitment.  In a traditional view, a game that engrosses the player so that they become obsessed and find it difficult to stop playing, is considered a success.  This inducement of obsessive game play, however, is a detriment to forming habit.

(a) First, as play extends, players become gradually sated and tired, reducing the reward value of continued play.  Like a child allowed to eat all the cake he/she wants, it becomes less valuable, even aversive, after, say the 8th piece.  Enough cake binges and the kid may come to not like cake at all.  Long, engrossing sessions of gameplay may actually decrease the future value of the game, working against the development of persistent, daily habitual gameplay.

(b) Second, obsessive game play can induce player regret.  “Wow, I can’t believe how much time I wasted on this game.”

So a game that engrosses and exhausts a player actually ends on a reinforcement down note: less rewarding and more aversive– effectively decreasing the likelihood of repeating the performance tomorrow.  In contrast, a game that offers 15 minutes of fun does not create player regret, ends with a positive reward value– “that was amusing”– and provides an incentive rather than disincentive for returning to the game tomorrow.  Not ending with satiety, the player may actually anticipate returning to the game, without fear of regret.

2) encourage consistent engagement with the game.  If our objective is persistent, regular play across a extended periods of time (weeks, months), we need to allow and encourage players to determine how the game can fit into their daily routine.  If the required time commitment for a single session is minimal, it is easy to make demands that players check in regularly, allowing them to determine the frequency of play.  Farmville provides an illustration of this.  Players can check in every two hours, every few hours or daily, and make their crop selections to conform to their schedule.  The ‘demand’ that players play regularly is part of the monetization scheme: keep people coming back.  But monetization is one use of getting players to integrate gameplay into their schedule in a regular way.  This regularity of behavior establishes the groundwork for developing habit.

3) keep the game in the players mind.  For the brief period I played Farmville, I would find ‘check my crops’ mysteriously appear on my mental list of things to do in the morning.  Ridiculous, yes.  Nonetheless, the idea that ‘check crops’ makes it onto my mental list of tasks indicates an important outcome of limiting time commitment and inducing regular game play:  the game finds a place in players’ minds when they are not playing.  Unless you are temporarily obsessed with a game, in general you don’t think about it until you have free time and ask yourself, ‘hey, what should I do?’  Then, maybe, game x comes to mind.  In Farmville, the game essentially makes its way onto your to do list.  It is not a leisure option, but something you think about and remember to do.  This arises from making the incentives easy to obtain (ie., as above) while adding disincentives for forgetting:  punishing players when they forget.  In Farmville, if you ignore the game too long, your crops wither.  In the future, you (a) tend to remember and (b) select crops with turnaround times appropriate to your schedule.

4) develop incremental player investment.  Traditionally we think of the value of a game arising from its intrinsic fun.  An alternative is to think of the value as arising from a players’ investment in it.  It’s similar to the ‘waiting for the bus phenomena.’  When the bus is delayed, we tend to become increasingly annoyed and, perhaps, consider hailing a cab.  But then you think that as soon as you climb in the cab, the bus will arrive and you have wasted both your time waiting for the bus and your money paying for a cab.  So you wait longer.  And the longer you wait, though you increasingly fantasize about a cab, the more loath you become to risk the double waste.  We tend to protect our investments.  By analogy, after several months of playing Farmville, it may gradually dawn on you that, well, this is really a stupid game.  However, when you look at your vast farm, it feels like an accomplishment, stupid or not, and you experience just a little reluctance to quit . . . maybe not just yet.  In some games, such as educational games, an incremental investment may provide motivation to continue.  I hate algebra and really think this game is stupid, but look at what I have done: maybe I’ll continue just a bit longer

5) low demand, high reward.

If players are not motivated to play a game, a designer cannot make significant demands upon them up front.  You have to win them over, bit by bit, creating incremental investment.

(a) simplicity.  Many games have cluttered interfaces, lots of indicators, things to figure out, etc.  For someone already interested in the game, this is all fun stuff to figure out.  To everyone else, it is a tedious bother.  Many games ask people to figure out the game before playing.  For a non-motivated player, this is asking way too much.  An alternative would be to develop a minimalist interface with as little clutter and complication as possible, presenting only those things players can interact with and obtain reward– that is, things to click where something novel and interesting happens.   Instead of a daunting screen full of indicators and meters, hide these.  Mask the artificial ‘game’ components and reveal them in the course of player’s exploring and interacting with the game . . . when they become necessary. Reduce clutter, both on-screen and in-head.  This doesn’t mean these critical elements of a game should be eliminated, only that they should be introduced incrementally in response to player activity at a time when the player is likely to go ‘ah, I see,’ effectively making learning about the game rewarding rather than burdensome.

(b) orient the game toward discovery.  Typical games are presented to players as follows: ‘here’s the game, the objective, the rules, the meters, etc . . . now go to it.’  Designers have become brilliant at replacing a bunch of reading with interactive tutorials that walk a player through the game.  What is proposed here is taking this to the extreme: even a tutorial, to a non-motivated player, is instruction– boring and demanding.  Instead, a game can be designed such that players ‘uncover’ or discover the game and its elements as they go, without starting with an overall understanding of how the game works.  Exploration and discovery is intrinsically rewarding and tends to generate interest and investment.  Of course, it has to be fun.  I am not suggesting a blank screen with a bunch of click points that slowly reveal a game.  Rather, whatever game we design, we reduce it initially to its bare essentials—what is fun for players to interact with—and reveal the complexities of the game and allow it to unfold as they do this.  Again, the Zynga games illustrate this quite well.  You can begin playing and discovering, without any notion of how the game works: you start clicking and figure it out.  In contrast, some games, for example the online Oregon Trail, demand players spend some time figuring them out before starting to play, an obstacle to engaging the non-motivated player.

This may sound like ‘tricking’ someone into liking a game. Perhaps.  But the fundamental idea behind many educationally oriented games amounts to ‘tricking’ students into liking academic work by ‘making it fun.’  The argument here is that for most students, algebra is not– and will never be— intrinsically fun.  To make learning algebra fun requires going deeper than framing educational content in a game format.  Rather, one needs to recognize that ‘fun’ and ‘motivation’ arise when things in the world around us, or in a video game, become meaningful to us and actionable . . . things we can respond to successfully.  Competence requires persistence, practice and investment.  Thus, when you start with a lack of motivation and hope to engage someone in something that is, at its core probably not fun, at least at first . . . the single most important thing is to create persistence and engagement.  From this, skill will gradually develop and with it, motivation.

The five principles briefly described above go beyond the idea of making algebra palatable by making it fun and instead represent a strategy for inducing incremental, habitual gameplay that creates the conditions under which a player can persist in skill development and gradually acquire a motivational structure that supports learning algebra.  You don’t create motivation by making algebra fun; you make algebra fun by creating motivation, even and especially when it is initially absent.  That is, games provide motivational scaffolding that gradually creates motivation, not by disguising hard work as fun and games. . . but by transforming the hard work of skill acquisition into the fun of success: an age old educational principle that games allow us to implement with profound sophistication and individualization–   as long as we recognize what it is about games in education that is really important.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s