Games are Bad at…


About a year ago, I had the pleasure of attending a presentation given by game designer and Carnegie Mellon professor, Jesse Schell.  As both an innovative thinker and practitioner in the gaming space, this former Disney Imagineer responsible for the seminal, 3D massively multiplayer for kids, ToonTown Online, is nothing short of brilliant.  His presentation was titled, “What Games Are Good At.”

Without going into too much detail, here’s what Professor Schell outlined…

Games are good at:
1) Giving the brain what it wants
2) Illustrating complex systems
3) Keeping you in the flow
4) Showing new POV
5) Being authentic
6) Raising new questions
7) Creating shared experiences
8) Allowing independent exploration
9) Practice for dangerous situations
10) Creation of teachable moments
11) Giving students ownership

All excellent points and nothing there any would quibble with.  I especially love that games are good at 7, 8 and 11.  And having been a Mihaly Csikczentmihalyi “Flow“-natic since the 1990s, I especially like #3.

illustration by Eva-Lotta Lamm

illustration by Eva-Lotta Lamm

But what really perked my eyes and ears in the midst of Schell’s presentation was a slide titled:  “What games are bad at…”  And “bad” was written in red.  Nice.

Gotta know your medium’s limits.  The boundaries.  In fact, they’re a good thing, as we all know, for creatives.

Any good designer when confined by limits — whether externally imposed (e.g. budget, time frame, space), or an unyielding condition embedded in the medium (e.g. stunted state of the art, unavailable features in the technology), or internally constrained (e.g. limited maker ability, knowledge and/or skills) — can still generate transcendent work by understanding and working within those limitations.  Take the movie Beasts of the Southern Wild.  I doubt it could have been improved measurably by more budget, more shoot days, or if it was shot in 3-D I-Max, or by an experienced director.  Benh Zeitlin made a terrific movie despite Beasts being his first feature.


Understanding limitations and working knowledgeably within, around and despite them is truly important in educational game design and creation lest one embark upon an expensive fool’s journey that ends in failure or walk away at the outset because of the constraints.  In the edtech space, we see both happen all the time.

So I was particularly excited by this slide, and here’s what it said:

Games are bad at:
1) Being cheap
2) Tricking students into learning
3) Limitless exploration
4) Adhering to time limits
5) Understanding mistakes
6) Long shelf-lives
7) Staying interesting forever

That was eye-opening.  Especially number 1.  If educational games aren’t good at being cheap, there is no way the average American public school district can afford it.  Gamified edtech is a dead industry if it’s a luxury item.  And so I went back to the Nuvana team with this list of seven deadly sins and we went to work — working within and around those limitations.

from Darla Bunting's blog

from Darla Bunting’s blog

It was daunting, intense work to revamp our platform — but if I might boast — this Nuvana team of ours is awesome.  I think we’ve got most of these 7 items licked.

1.  The Nuvana MVP is cheap.  And with every deployment, we’re very effective.  With cheap came an ability to deploy quickly and with customization.  Yes, cheaper and better.

2. So if games are bad at tricking students, why bother to try the old bait and switch?  Why not just be honest?  The game just better be engaging while being clearly educational.  So in every deployment, we are straight up with the player community, whether they are students, workers, execs, adults or children.  This is a serious game.  A participation game.  A learning game.  And we’re also up front that, if played the right way, it’s fun.  No tricks.

3.  The limit to exploration is not a function of the Nuvana platform.  It’s up to the folks who administrate the game.  (Cars are not limited in their ability to explore.  The environment and drivers are the limiters.  Oh, and gas.)  Nuvana is just a learning vehicle.  There are enough features within the MVP that empower the community to explore limitlessly.  They choose what they want to do.  They like what they wish.  They suggest their own missions.  Where boundaries to that exploration occur is when administration sets them.  The best Nuvana games we’ve seen are when admin mentors have the courage to let the players drive the learning journey.  When that happens, the game is beyond success.  It’s magic.

4.  Not sure I understand what Mr. Schell means about a game’s inability to adhere to time limits.  In Nuvana, there are strict beginnings and ends.  What I do find interesting about Schell’s 7 items is that 4 of them are temporally oriented.  All I can say is, when you have a great game, and a player reaches “flow state” — time doesn’t mean much.

5.  These days, a lot of effort on the part of the Nuvana tech team is devoted to understanding and utilizing the data that is mined inherently by our platform.  The way we try to understand mistakes is driven by a confluence of “auto-magic” technical data analysis, human mentorship, and gearing the game platform to favor connection to desired successful outcomes (e.g. Common Core State Standards, a company’s targets and projections, a doctor’s health parameters) over failure.  Our collaboration right now with Stanford School of Design and Michigan State University’s Literacy Achievement Research Center is driving our build strategy to address these issues in exciting ways.  (More on these collaborations in this blog soon).


6.  Shelf life in game is driven by the community’s passion for the activities.  In conventional edtech games, the loop is closed.  The branching story ends up at fixed spots.  The virtual world has boundaries.  There are right and wrong answers.  Multiple choice is actually limited choice.  Nuvana circumvents this by avoiding single answer propositions, constantly generating new missions, and allowing players to suggest and iterate.  And by avoiding animated environments (despite our expertise in that genre.  Just check out the work of Nuvana principles, Jeff Fino Wild Brain and Drew Takahashi Colossal Pictures) — the boundaries are only limited by the learning community’s collective mind.  That’s why we see no end in sight for some of our games.  In education, students move through the learning portal like a never-ending stream.  What is exciting is when learners can see past work of those that went before them and either model on best practices or expand and extend upon the work.


7.  So will Nuvana games stay interesting forever?  Who knows.  What we can say is. because we rely heavily on the Nuvana learning experience taking place in the real world — we have an advantage.  Reality is unpredictable, full of unsolved problems, and therefore infinitely interesting.  We’ll let you know when boredom sets in.  But so far — so good.

                                                                                                                                                                                                               — JvK

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