Now, I’ve got nothing against people who don’t play games. I mean, some of my best friends don’t play games. But people who don’t play games shouldn’t be put in charge of making games.
I’m talking specifically about “serious” games here, although I’d imagine the same goes for other kinds too; this post is inspired by a recent long, bad and annoying experience making games for a large learning website, and I wanted to try and sum up my feelings about the project and what I’d learned along the way.
Serious games have “a point”, which is to say they have some information they would like you to take away into the real world. They’re often produced for schools or educational sites, or to support things like charity or awareness-raising campaigns. And they’re generally shite.
Now, I don’t have a problem with serious games per se, but the vast majority have too much serious and not enough game. I firmly believe that games should be fun, first and foremost. When you’re making a game, fun should be prioritised over learning, educational content, quizzes, badges, social play gubbins or everything and anything else the client would like to bolt on.
Obviously the aim is to make something that’s genuinely useful and educational as well as being ridiculously good fun, but the sweet spot where fun and suitable subject matter meet is really pretty small – and unless your client “gets” games then you’re going to be pulling in different directions, which makes hitting that target virtually impossible. The upshot of this is that you often end up having to choose between fun and serious, either focusing on gameplay or pushing the serious content to the front.
If a game is fun but only gets across half your message, then that’s pretty good going. People will play the game and enjoy it, leaving positive impressions and happy memories – and at least some of your serious information.
But if a game isn’t fun then people won’t play it, regardless of how well it conveys your message or teaches your content. And players-not-playing is a best-case scenario; at worst, you’ll actually turn people off a subject they might have been interested in before they even really had a chance to get to grips with it.
Unfortunately, if your clients don’t get games, then they probably won’t see it that way. To a non-gaming client, a game is nothing more than a vehicle for delivering information – essentially a web page that moves around and makes noises – and that lack of understanding means serious content gets prioritised over fun or playability.
Modern gamers enjoy a multi-billion-pound industry dedicated to making stuff that is fun – they can afford to be picky. If you think they’ll play your game that’s kind-of-a-bit-fun when they could be playing the new super-fun Gears of Duty 17 you’re sadly mistaken.
The problem for me is that people who don’t play games often don’t get games. They don’t understand the flow of games; the joy of discovery and what makes them fun; the playfulness of a well-crafted game mechanic and the learning that can come from play rather than reading stuff in a book. They don’t get the ebb and flow of risk and reward or the satisfaction of a perfectly-timed recovery or counterstrike.
Not all non-gamers are like this, obviously. There are plenty who still have an appreciation of the art of game design, or are open-minded enough to accept that there might be things they don’t understand about games. These people are great to work with.
But these lovely people seem few and far between. The digital industry is dominated by the worst kind of non-gamers – people who simply don’t seem to care about gameplay, or understand when a mechanic doesn’t work, and who just want to shoehorn facts in wherever possible because otherwise the player can’t possibly be learning anything. And they’re often the ones in charge.
You can see the effect of this firsthand – just play virtually any e-learning game, because the vast majority are shite. They’re boring, and there’s often little to no actual gameplay; most should be classed as “activities” or “quizzes” rather than games. They take some educational content and digitise it, wrapping facts up in something that looks like a game but really, really isn’t.
When there is gameplay, it’s either perfunctory or completely split from the learning – often in a play a bit, learn a bit, play a bit kind of structure where you finish a level of play and then have to complete a quiz before you can progress.
These things are the bastard offspring of badly made Flash games and those deadly-dull teachers whose lessons seemed to stretch on forever. These “games” aren’t fun or educational for a lot of reasons (usually because no-one can be bothered to play past the first level) and the only realistic response to the stupid inter-level quizzes is listlessly clicking at random until you get the right answer.
Throwing more serious content into a broken game will not make players learn more – if anything, you’ll just turn them off even quicker.
These kind of non-fun time-wasters get made over and over again – but we wanted to do something different. We wanted to make games that are fun, where the player can learn by playing, rather than by alternating play and learning.
Gamers know that when you’re playing a game you are learning, while not necessarily “being educated” in the classical sense – and that kind of learning can be powerful stuff. Why show someone a picture of a process in a book when you could use a game to bring that process to life, let people experiment, muck around, mess up and actually, literally, play with it?
Games can’t replace lessons and teachers – but they can complement each other. Games can spark interest in subjects and help bring subjects to life. For example, an intelligent game where the player uses gravity and momentum to battle foes could well inspire a child to ask “But why do things fall down? Why do things move in a particular way?”
A well-crafted complementary lesson could take that spark of interest and help it grow, perhaps even teaching the theory in such a way that players can take their new knowledge back into the game to improve their scores.
Sadly, making games like this is a difficult process, and prone to being derailed by non-gaming people who don’t see how anyone could learn from a game that doesn’t have a quiz in it. Games get treated as lesson-replacement activities, crammed full of “educational” material and thrown out into the cruel world to fend for themselves.
The lesson I’ve learned is that it’s best not to try to make a game that teaches through gameplay unless you’re sure everyone’s on the same page. Without buy-in and understanding from the client you’ll end up with an awkward halfway house of a game that pleases no-one; not fun enough for kids and not enough educational content to stand up in class alongside videos and textbooks.
There’s a reason most e-learning games are crap. The games industry is mature enough to move forward and start making games like this – but I don’t think the public has got the message yet, and until everyone client (and agency) side is on board then making decent serious games will be very, very difficult.