The Gamer’s Wish List: K.I.S.S.

Wish 2: Don’t over-complicate things. Especially when you have a good thing going.  Last summer, my brother introduced us to a wonderful board game called Castle Panic. In this strategy game, all players work together to fend of an invading horde of goblins, orcs, and trolls before they destroy your castle in the center of the board.

The mechanics, while numerous, are pretty simple to follow: Play cards to attack the enemies currently on the board, then draw two new enemies. The roll of a die determines the new enemies’ placement, and therefore the direction from which they will attack. Before you play a card, you have the option of trading a card with another player in an effort to improve the strength of your respective hands. You win if you’ve killed all the monsters and any part of your tower is left standing.

It’s a lot of steps to take on each turn, but the flow of steps from one to another is logical, and there are handy reminders printed in the corners of the board. So once you find your groove, gameplay moves pretty quickly. Which is good, because the game is hard to beat, so you may be tempted to play “just one more time” to try to win.

My son and I were so hooked by our short experience with the game that I resolved to buy him a copy for Christmas. The game had been featured on Geek and Sundry’s TableTop, and became hard to find. So imagine my excitement when the little game shop in my hometown was able to acquire not only the base game, but the Wizard’s Tower expansion as well.

As the name implies, the expansion pack adds a wizard’s tower, which you use in place of one of the standard tower pieces. It also comes with a second deck of cards, representing the defensive and attack spells the wizards cook up to protect your castle. The game comes with new monsters, too. 43 new monsters, to be exact, all with new skills and abilities. There’s the addition of 6 new mega boss monsters, mythological beasts such as a dragon, and a hydra, that have strange new ways of attacking and moving around the board. Plus there’s fire.

If you think this added a little complexity to the game, you would be wrong. This expansion pack added a lot of complexity to the game. So much so, my son and I found it nearly unplayable on our first try. Just setting up the game, which requires swapping out some old monsters for new ones, is an onerous task. We lost, naturally, but mainly because we couldn’t adjust our strategy to all the new rules. When my brother came to visit, we tried it again, thinking a third player would help us get a better sense of the added game mechanics. Sadly, this time we drew the dragon, who has his own rules for movement, different from any other monster in the game, and sometimes breathes fire. This was the point at which we split the expansion back out from the base game, and put the Wizard’s Tower away for good.

Okay, so I had a bad experience with an expansion pack. What does this mean for instructional and user design? Two words: cognitive overload.

A good user experience doesn’t have to be flashy to be effective. In fact, the simpler the better.  The more elements you add to your eLearning course, web page, or user interface, the harder it becomes to keep everything in balance. The learner’s focus is drawn in too many different directions, and the result is that the user doesn’t learn much of anything. Ever taken an eLearning course that reads you every word on the screen? Did you just mentally shut down until the narration finished and you were allowed to proceed to the next page? That’s what I am talking about.

Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer’s bible for multimedia learning designers, e-Learning and the Science of Instruction , outlines seven principles for designing instruction that will reduce cognitive overload. Mayer and Roxana Moreno also published a study entitled Nine Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load in Multimedia Learning. (Learning Solutions Magazine has a nice synopsis of the study and handy derivative cheat sheet here.)

In short, keep it simple, stupid. And until you have mastered an element (audio, animation, etc.), use it sparingly. If your training is effective without it, why ruin a good thing?

Posted in gaming, learning, UX

The Gamer’s Wish List: Lessons from game design

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Gamification and game-based learning – two of the hottest terms in the world of learning today. (TeachThought has a nifty article that explains the difference between the two.)

For non-gamers, and even for those of us who are passionate about our games, the terms seem to be hidden in a fog of vague concepts, like “game theory” and “game mechanics”. Concrete examples are hard to come by; the only one mentioned with any frequency is a reward or points system. But there is so much more that instructional designers can learn from the world of gaming, especially when it comes to the learner experience.

Over the next several blog posts, I’ll share some of my personal pet peeves or a-ha moments that I think can help designers shape better user experiences. Feel free to agree or disagree, or send me some suggestions in the comments.

Wish 1: Allow me to experience little successes on my way to bigger achievements.  

Let’s start with the example that is always mentioned in the same breath with gamification: a reward or achievement system. While all games have a single overarching goal – defeat Bowser, win all the races, stop the moon from crashing into Termina  – many games also include smaller, easier to obtain objectives. In my experience, there have been three major types of these achievements:

  1. Collecting: In some cases, these objectives are simple collection efforts with a moderate payout. Collect 50 gold rings in the Sonic games, and you are rewarded with an extra life. Kill 10 gold skulltulas in Ocarina of Time to get a bigger wallet. And so on.
  2. Extra levels and mini games: Some reward a particular accomplishment with additional game content. Earn enough gold trophies in Mario Kart, and you unlock additional courses that were not available to you at the beginning of the game.
  3. Pride, not prize: Achievements sometimes have no reward, other than being able to check the achievement off the list. Sometimes game developers add these specifically to drive you to portions of the game you might not otherwise explore. Most modern games take advantage of the achievement system in some way.

The one thing all of these reward systems have in common is that they keep the player engaged, even when they are slogging through otherwise frustrating or not that interesting aspects of the game. It gives the player a little bit of a break while keeping them in the game, sometimes encouraging them to replay areas they’ve already completed.

Can you imagine a learner voluntarily re-taking part of an eLearning course, just to complete an achievement? What if your safety course included a challenge to find all the hazards hiding in the background of your course images? A learner who only found 9 of 10 may be tempted to review the entire course just to find the last one.

The trick to these achievement systems is to remember to reward the learner. And remember, the reward doesn’t have to be big. Pride is sufficient, if you give them a way to brag about it. Does your organization favor completion certificates? Print an icon on the certificate commemorating the achievement. Instructor-led class? Snack-sized candy bars go a long way, even with adults.

However you decide to keep your users engaged, remember to make the achievements attainable, and the rewards appropriate to the challenge. Otherwise, you’ll just add to their frustration.

Posted in gaming, learning, UX

Awesomely Bad Training Videos: Blockbuster Video

Oh no. Another supernatural video system. Did Blockbuster and Wendy’s go halvsies on a video production team? And is that Maggie Gyllenhaal?

Posted in learning, training videos

The Ten Commandments Of Video Game Menus

The fine folks at Kotaku bring us the cardinal rules all developers should follow when designing a game UI. Because who needs UI testing when you have a vocal user group? (just kidding)

Number 5 is is probably my favorite, for the very reasons they mention. I’ve been known to rage quite games that don’t group the graphics and video options in the same sub menu. Seriously.

Posted in gaming, UI, UX

The 50 Most Frustrating Moments in Videogames

Yep, yep, yep.

Posted in gaming

So easy, anyone can do it!

Thanks to the blog e-Learning Infographics, I came across this item from CommLab India:

Find more education infographics on e-Learning Infographics

CommLab India makes very valid points here – instructionally sound elearning courses need to be thoughtfully organized, included interactivity, and assess the learner.

The problem is that, for some people, the last item will be their only take-away:

Employ rapid authoring tools which can quickly and easily convert PowerPoint presentations into eLearning courses.

We all know these people. Take the presentation from your successful instructor-led course, run it through Captivate, Lectora or Articulate to convert it (and nothing else), throw it in the LMS, and voila! – elearning!

Say it with me, folks – Converting a PowerPoint file does not make it elearning. 

I have run into a disturbing number of individuals who really buy into the notion that mastering an elearning authoring tool is the same as mastering instructional design. Since the tools are getting more and more powerful, learning how to use them effectively is a real accomplishment. But the tools can’t design your courses for you.

That’s where the human element comes in. An instructional designer is armed with experiences and skills to make your learning program effective. He (or she) understands how to avoid cognitive overload, the best way to assess the learner, and how to support employees after training. He has an eye for graphic design and a feel for the user experience. He can even tell you if training isn’t the solution to your problem. There’s a reason we go to school for this stuff.

We aren’t the only industry facing this sort of “design blindness.” Ever used a software application where the field names or locations just didn’t make any sense? Someone forgot to call in a user interface designer.  Ever been to website where the navigation was such a mess you just gave up? Web designers do more than code.

It’s up to us, all of us who proudly wear the badge of “designer,” to promote ourselves to our peers, our leaders, and the audiences we serve.

Posted in infographic, learning, UX

Icons for the new learning world

In October, The Noun Project hosted an Iconathon with Duke University and the Innovation Co-Lab. Their task was to create icons to represent new innovations in learning and education.

I’m looking forward to using these to help convey these trending concepts.

H/T to Oliver Pincus for sharing at the ASTD eLearning SIG.

Posted in learning, UX