Saturday, June 14, 2008

What actitivies can be turned into games?

Techniques for designing consumer scales

Recently, my amazing wife picked up a copy of Wii Fit. No, this is not a review.

Here is something you may not know about my wife. For the past year, she's been dealing with a rather serious, debilitating illness. One side effect is considerable and undesirable weight loss. On the positive side, she has enjoyed shopping for a new wardrobe to match her more petite frame. On the less positive side, many stores no longer carry clothes that are small enough to fit.

So when the Wii Fit first booted up and cheerily prompted her to set a goal, she decided to try to get her BMI back up to the 'normal level'. Every day or so, she's been exercising, weighing herself and doing yoga. So far she has found the game to be convenient and highly motivational tool for helping her to track her weight.

We've had other exercise equipment around the house before, as well as gym memberships, yoga classes, etc. None of them has been as motivating as a simple set of exercises wrapped in a system of game-like rewards. My wife's experience with Wii Fit speaks volumes about games potential to turn an often mundane activity into entertainment that is delightful, exploratory and highly meaningful.

Thinking beyond scales
Yet, who would have ever thought that weighing yourself could be turned into a game? Miyamoto did, but then again he is widely considered to be an uber genius. The skeptical observer might imagine that successful cross-over games like Wii Fit are one-in-a-million success stories. Suppose it works for Wii Fit, but nothing else.

However, if the lessons of Wii Fit were broadly applicable, entire industries could be transformed. Games are a competitive advantage that can turn a commodity scale into one of the hottest consumer products of the year. In highly competitive markets, that is the sort of product design super power that lets innovative companies walk away with market share.

As I contemplate my wife's success with the Wii Fit, I'm struck by a multi-billion dollar question: What other activities can you turn into a game?

Almost anything
First, though there is no doubt that Miyamoto is a genius, what he does is reproducible by mere mortals. He is able to apply his game design skill (or at least his greenlighting abilities) to non-traditional games like Wii Fit because he understands game design at a very atomic level. Here is another way of looking at it. A craftsman builds tables the same way he was taught by his father and his grandfather can only build tables. But someone trained in mechanical engineering can use the fundamentals to build chairs, bridges, cars or even cathedrals. Similarly, by understanding the fundamental science behind traditional games, you can apply the theoretical tools of game design to transform wildly divergent activities into games. I've written about some of this in the past with essays on skill atoms.

It turns out that most learnable skills can be turned into a game. However, there are constraints. A skill must meet the following criteria before it can be turned into a game:
  1. Decomposable into simpler skills
  2. Skills can be nested
  3. Skills can be arranged in a smooth learning curve
  4. Skills are measurable
  5. Performance can be rewarded
  6. Skills are locally useful.
Let's look at these one by one.

1. Decomposable into simpler skills
Complex learnable skills can be broken down into sets of easily acquired core skills. Players can only learn so much at once and overly complex skills overwhelm all but the most persistent players. By breaking skills up into digestible chunks, you are now able to apply many of the basic techniques of game design.

In Wii Fit, the complex activity of "Becoming fit" is broken down into skills associated with using the board, testing balance, endurance activities and more.

2. Skills can be nested
Complex skills should build upon and reuse earlier skills. Advanced skills are best taught by the extension of existing skills, not introducing new metaphors.

Game design is built around the idea of core mechanics, skills that are exercised over and over again throughout the game experience. If you can't find a set of basic reusable skills that can be incorporated as the foundational elements of more complex skills, players will deem the activity shallow and lose interest.

In Wii Fit, the act of balancing while following rote exercises is used repeatedly throughout. It is an activity that is easy to learn, hard to master and contributes nicely to a wide range more advanced activities.

3. Skills can be arranged in a smooth learning curve
There is a smooth ramp from learning easier skills to learning more complex skills. Initial skills should take only seconds since they leverage existing skills. Afterwards, learning activities should build in complexity until they take minutes, then hours. If the initial learning ramp takes too long, players will be confused or bored and stop playing.

In Wii Fit, you can learn to use the board in seconds. Just step on it. However, more advanced games are slowly introduced until must spend hours of your time to unlock that last activity.

4. Skills are measurable
The game can detect when a skill is used correctly or incorrectly. Without this the game cannot provide timely feedback that pushes the player in the right direction.

The fact that Wii Fit is a giant sensor is perhaps to be expected. Within limits, it knows exactly what you are doing and when you doing something incorrectly. This is a dramatic difference from most exercise equipment or a workout video.

5. Performance is rewardable
The game can provide the player with a timely feedback and rewards. If the game provides feedback too late or in a manner that is disconnected from the original action, the player won’t learn.

Unlike traditional exercise equipment, Wii Fit judges your performance. It lets you know when you are doing poorly and it praises you when you are doing well. It is not a passive tool, but one that seeks to mold you. This is how games work and is an integral part of their success as a teaching tool.

6. Skills are locally useful
The skill can be exercised in a useful manner by the player in a variety of meaningful local contexts. If the skill isn’t useful, the behavior will extinguish.

Local utility is a tricky concept for many, especially those trained to think in terms of filling measurable customer needs. It basically means that the player finds an activity useful in the short term within the local context of the game. Grabbing a coin in Wii Fit may accomplish absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of the player's week. However, it does let the player unlock a new exercise. So for the moment, the player considers frantically gathering coins to be a completely utilitarian activity.

Skills that are eliminated by these constraints
What skills are eliminated by these constraints? Surprisingly few.

The biggest sticking point often ends up deciding how to measure complex skills. With Wii Fit, they needed to engineer an entirely new device. It is not uncommon to invest substantial amounts of effort just gathering the right data so that you can reward the proper skills accurately and in timely manner.

Machines alone have a limited understanding of many cultural human activities. In these situations, you need to build your games to use other human beings as measurement instruments. The rating techniques of sites like Hot or Not or are widely applicable.

The other constraints end up being easily worked around with a little bit of thought and prototyping to find what works.

When I look at our list of six constraints, it is obvious to me that there are a plethora of skills that are just waiting to be turned into games. Games like Wii Fit or Brain Training may seem exceptional strokes of genius, but in reality they are merely the tiny tip of an immense iceberg. Almost any human skill, be it physical, cultural, political or economic can be turned into a game that enlightens and enables.

As more leisure games emerge that mediate and accelerate the acquisition of skills, there is going to be a economic incentive to spread the science and craft of game design far beyond our tiny game industry. Game design is not just about games. It is a transformational new product development technique that can turn historically commoditized activities into economic blockbusters.

This morning, my wife came back from her morning Wii Fit session and proudly announced to me that she just worked her way back to her normal weight range. She is still on the light side and this odd little game was by no means the only source of her success. But it had its place as a tool that measured, encouraged and rewarded progress. As such it was worth every single penny.

When I look at Wii Fit and I hear the delight in my wife's voice, it is apparent that game design is again breaking out into the broader market. Obviously it isn't happening quite in the way many have predicted. The harbinger of game's ascendancy to all aspect of the modern life is not some piece of evocative art or Citizen Kane-a-like. Instead, our future appears in the form of a glorified bathroom scale. Still, if we can improve people's lives with a bathroom scale, just imagine how games can transform the rest of our world.

take care


  1. This list is a way more useful tool to a game designer than that Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics stuff they're teaching in schools these days. To apply this to game design, just turn the requirements into instructions (e.g. "the skills are measurable" becomes "measure the skills"), and let the top-level skill -- the root of the nested skill tree -- be "the skill of being good at this game".

    Thank you for making such a concise and comprehensive list.

  2. I've saved the skill definition list - it looks like a excellent way to tackle something and break it down.

  3. The first obvious one is music. I never played guitar hero, but it's amazing to me that you have to use a guitar shaped controller. Why not use a real instrument? Anyone could start alternating 3 or 4 notes, and as you'd include more and move on to faster and more complex patterns, you'd build your chops and learn your scales faster than studying by yourself with just a metronome.
    Oh, and a lot of people learned to type with mario teaches typing...

  4. Thanks Danc. Fantastic work as always. Laying these kind of development metrics out is pushing the development of game design science.

    Obviously, these rules don't have to be electronic. They translate into all other games as well. Because these goals are directed towards improved learning, I wonder if they match up closely with any classroom or mentoring educational models?

  5. Excellent insight as always, Danc. I've thinking along this lines a lot regarding educational games, but you certainly know how to make concepts crystal clear.

    However if you look at the list of necesary criteria, it seems to me that #5 overlaps completely with the previous ones. I can't think of any case in which a simple. measurable skill couldn't be rewarded.

    Sorry to hear about your wife. Hope she recovers quickly and completely.

  6. Re: Rewards and Measurement

    I separated these two out because some measurement systems have inherent lag built in that makes giving feedback in a timely manner difficult.

    This issue often comes up with social games where you use other people as your measurement system. You draw a picture and then days later enough people offer ratings.

    You also see this problem in modern personal banking systems. You make a purchase, it is clearly recorded and measured against your bank account. However, you don't get any feedback until later that month. This makes for a poor game.

    take care

  7. The other problem with the banking game is that my score constantly seems to be decreasing. I guess I just suck at it.

    I think the biggest issue with something like WiiFit is the fact that to really create a worthwhile interface, you have to include a piece of specially designed hardware. Nintendo has been smart enough to make the capabilities of the device generic enough that it has potential uses beyond WiiFit, but I'm not sure that'd always be possible.

    So not only does the need to provide hardware raise the bar of entry for a game designer, but it also raises the end cost, and somewhere down the line gamers are going to have enough random plastic objects lying around their living room.

    My wife and I have already experienced that with RockBand. We love the game enough that we bought an extra guitar, but those two guitars plus the drum set are hard to stuff in a closet when we want them out of the way.

    But I guess at the end of the day, if it's fun enough, we'll find a way to fit it into our lives.

  8. Hi Danc,

    This is a great insight into how games work. I never really thought about how young children tend to really enjoy life because they view it like a game - chores such as brushing their teeth or washing their hands are fun to them until they hit a certain age where they have mastered that skill.

  9. It reminds me of "A Theory of Fun". The idea that things are fun as we learn, but when mastered, become a chore. The beauty of Wii Fit, which I'll admit I've considered buying, manages to push the goal further as the player approaches it. By the time the skills are mastered, the player is fitm and that becomes their ultimate reward

  10. Love your blog, you're always an interesting read. This post is great primer on what is most likely the next great Eldorado in videogames. I've tackled this issue (with a twist) over at my blog as well.

  11. I've been working on this in education -- I teach 4th graders. It's amazing what you can accomplish by withholding the shoebox diorama until the student shows he/she can make a diagram and write a paragraph. Little coins to gather, every day, like in Wii Fit -- they really move for those, that and climbing up the skill ladder.

    The trouble is getting the resultant work to be outwardly directed, pleasing and coherent. That is, if the kids produce a barrage of work but it's a mess, something needs tweaking.

    The amazing thing, though: No one (that I know of) is working on this in the educational system. No one.

  12. andyjames - I'm actually an undergraduate looking for ways to apply good game design techniques to education, and I agree with you that pedagogy can improve a lot by tapping into what motivates people to learn. Lions learn their pouncing and stalking skills by playing with each other as cubs; it only makes sense that humans also learn through play, and that formal education should focus on doing whatever motivates kids to learn the best.

    My question is: how would you successfully push for this sort of change in education? I think that most people who give serious thought to the study of play wouldn't take much convincing that game design can be applied to pedagogy and show good results. However, education seems to be pretty resistant to change as a field. What sort of credentials would you need to make a difference in education and not just the home entertainment market?

  13. stephen:

    Yes, institutional change is very hard within education -- it's a fusty old field with little interest in any cutting edge (college courses in education still treat behaviorism seriously, for instance). There's a feeling in educational research of the worst of social sciences aping hard sciences -- footnotes for the most timid assertions, bland study models. If gaming had to proceed this way we'd still be chewing over the gristle of Pong.

    Within the schools, teachers tend to run their own little fiefdoms, as I do. Within that fiefdom you may come up with something dramatic and new but the teacher in the room next door won't know about it.

    Of course there are school where there is a unified curriculum, but it's rarely unified because teachers are working together -- it's unified because they're all told what to do. It's a frustrating field.

    I've said all this without really having an answer to your question -- if I did, I'd be aiming at that position. I suspect that a very dramatic set of developments from outside education, something fusing the addictive force of video games to real academic results, will have to supplant the traditional classroom -- and how long will that take? A long time I suspect.

    That said, I do have an eye on the Institute of Play; their Game School could be an interesting model. And good luck in education.

  14. Andyjames, I'm a graduate student doing research on Serious Games and I'd like to know more about what you're doing in your class.
    I've heard of plenty of examples of either using a particular game for a particular lesson/topic, or of using quiz-style games on a regular basis, but you seem to be using some sort of meta-game to tie all your lessons together, is this correct?
    If possible, please send me a note. I'm esaulgd on gmail.

  15. DanC - Excellent article. Didn't you write a concept for a "financial GameBoy" awhile ago? You might revisit that in the context of your six skill constraints.

    andyjames - The good news is, a lot of people are actually working on applying games to learning (just google "Serious Games" or "Games for Learning"). The bad news is, it's largely driven by money, so it'll take awhile for the good stuff to bubble down from industry to college to K-12. The other good news is that if you read good books on game design and good books on teaching/pedagogy, you'll find that they're both basically saying the same thing... just with different words. Raph Koster's Theory of Fun is the only book I've seen that directly makes the connection, and it's sadly out of print (but an excellent read if you can get your hands on it).

    Stephen Hilber - I actually teach game design classes, so I kind of get to apply the principles of one to the other automatically. My only credentials are some industry experience and a bit of persistence. As for forcing my fellow educators to change their approach in the classroom... well, as andyjames said, each class is a fiefdom. The best I think you can do is to strive for excellence in your own classes, and open a dialogue for your colleagues to join on the subject of teaching (which most of them will subsequently ignore, but you reach who you can).

  16. Ian,

    There's an excellent book by James Paul Gee called "What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy". The book is basically a through explanation on why good gameplay and good education are basically the same thing.
    I highly recommend it, though I haven't read his other books.

  17. You should give a watch of this...

    He walks through some of the design behind World of Goo and you can see a bunch of these principles in action.

    I just happened to get this video forwarded to me while I was reading you article, so it was very timely.

  18. "I never played guitar hero, but it's amazing to me that you have to use a guitar shaped controller. Why not use a real instrument?"

    I think the key is signaling? Like the controller says to the prospective player "This is in no way a serious activity that you have to dedicate yourself to, just a silly game you can do for fun." I think this is crucial to the Wii Fitness's success; it turns exercise into a game instead of GRRRRR GOTTA EXERCISE, TOUGH IT OUT MOVE IT OR LOSE IT FEEL THE BURN mentality that tends to take over even a lot of more relaxed attempts at getting in shape.

  19. fifthfiend: i totally see your point and agree with it. But "play FUN games and you might actually learn to play an instrument" is very appealing to me. A lot of people are turned off by the mere idea of physical exercise, but not many folks react that way to learning music (unless they got some sort of childhood trauma, hehe).
    My brother is a sucker for games like beatmania and pop'n music. In pop'n music i noticed that he uses NINE controller buttons. If he were using a keyboard shaped controller he could be playing a whole scale (just one octave, but still). He doesn't even know what a scale is. If we could turn that vertical scrolling bar 90º he wouldn't be at all lost, and maybe incrementally we could begin adding notation and soon he would be reading a staff. As long as the overall fun environment was mantained, he could be educated without even noticing it, he would still play the game for the joy of it, just as he does now!
    It's totally doable, please someone read this and make this game, i beg you!!!