Monthly Archives: February 2011

Serious Game Design: Theme is not Meaning

If you want to design a game that teaches something, first define carefully what that thing is.  Second, design your game to require the player to learn that thing in order to win your game.  This concept is very important for Serious Game designers, but it is also very important for every game designer.

As Soren Johnson said in his GDC2010 Serious Games Summit Keynote address, “Theme is not meaning.” If you want to make a game about diplomacy, you must require the player to cooperate with other players, and allow them chances to communicate, and you call the game Diplomacy.  But if you want to teach players to take chances and to use advantages they have over other players to win as individuals, then you create the game Risk.  Both of these games have the same theme:  They are both about war and strategy.  But they teach very different aspects of war and strategy.  These two games, Soren Johnson explains, clearly demonstrate the difference between theme and meaning.

Currently we are hard at work defining what we want players of Immune Attack 2.0 to learn and how we will require them to learn and then use that knowledge to win our game.  We have drawn from several sources and many long discussions with our Scientific Advisory Group for our learning objectives.  However, as we get into the technical, artistic and general restrictions of actual game development, it is easy to slip away from our goal.  The mechanics should teach the learning objectives and we have the mechanism all drawn out on paper, but do we have the processing power to make that mechanism work in our game engine on school computers?  Soon we make a compromise, and then another…  The only way to avoid creating a mechanic that is irrelevant is to continuously reevaluate our mechanism compared to our learning objectives.

For example, if you want players to learn the lyrics to Beatles songs, you give them points only when they sing the words from memory.  But if you want the player to learn to sing in key, you let them see the words but only give points when they are on key.  When your programmer tells you that the lyrics don’t fit on the screen…… what do you do?  Your objective is to teach singing on key… how do you stay on target?   I’ll be able to give more specific details about IA2 development in the future…

Bonus paragraph:  At GDC 2010 several speakers mentioned Spore as an example of a game that was intended to be about something, but the core mechanic was actually about something else.  Evolution is, as you know, a random process that causes some creatures to be born more fit for their environment than others.  Spore was a game where you choose for yourself at each step what you want your creature to look like.  So the joke is that Spore was supposed to be about Evolution, but it ended up being about Intelligent Design!

Making science video games: Spore and the misrepresentation of science.

A friend said to me,
“I am trying to make a video game to create interest in engineering.  Someone told me Spore taught a lot about evolution.  What do you think?”

I did play Spore and I was very disappointed.  I was angry, actually, because the things that are so cool about evolution were not present.  Playing Spore was like expecting an excellent new baseball game and instead it was a soccer game.  The worst part is, that real evolution would make a great game!

The real problem with Spore was that Maxis and EA advertised it as being about evolution, and bragged about it being a real science video game.  However, anyone who knows about evolution knows that isn’t true. The problem is that so many people do not know how evolution actually works, and could easily be confused by the version of “evolution” presented in Spore.

Science journalist John Bohannon assembled a team of scientists to give Spore a report card on all the subjects its claimed to present.  You can see this report card here: You can read John’s review of Spore in Science Magazine, here:

Why am I writing about it?  Because science can be explained by playing games, but only when the core of the science must be used to win the game.  For example, a game about evolution should require the player to overcome that fact that random events may wipe out your offspring at any moment.  That would be exciting and teach real science.  I am writing about this because we (learning technology folks) are still struggling with this concept.  I believe we have learned the theory: we know we want a game that requires the player to use real science to win.  The struggling is coming from the question, how do we make that game?   Working closely with the scientist, or having the scientist be the game writer is the answer.  For examples, see Metablast, Cellcraft and Surge (and Immune Attack, of course).