A great question from Kevin Shadix is the topic of my first proper blog post here on Learning Circuits. For me, the answer to this question lies in the perception of what a 'game' is. Personally, I've adopted Jesse Schell's definition of a game which suggests that a game is "a problem solving activity, approached with an attitude of fun".
It's a pretty simplistic definition but it helps me to frame my thinking when it comes to designing a new game. The definition says nothing of time or expense, or even particular skills and resources to be deployed; it is purely about solving a problem with a fun approach.
Of course, Schell isn't the only person to have an opinion on the definition of games and for many this would be too simplistic. So I'll throw another at you here; this time from Chris Crawford, which doesn't so much define Games as it defines the taxonomy of creative expressions
Things get really interesting with Crawford's taxonomy when you get to the lower reaches. Crawford suggests that without a competitor whose outcome you can directly influence, you don't have a game. I'm not so sure direct "attacks" are actually required in order to influence the outcome of an event - think about the mind games that occur in a running race where you can't actually touch your opponent, but you can psych them out. But his definition really boils down to this element of conflict, an element which makes it into other definitions of games, such as that of Learning Games expert Simon Egenfeldt-Nelson, who suggests the definition of computer games to be 'virtual worlds with a conflict'.
For me, 'virtual worlds' is a contentious term because it conjures the image of 3D graphics engines, Second Life and the rest of it. I don't believe that this level of virtual world is necessary to create a computer game, but I do believe it is necessary to create a reality which is different to our own - be that through a webpage, an app or a world.
Constructing the 'world' is a key part of the games design, as are a number of other elements. I'll throw back to Jesse Schell who neatly outlined 4 pillars of game design for us to work from:
Schell suggested that all games have a basis within these 4 pillars.
They have Aesthetics - a look, feel and touch which appeals to players and is appropriate to the context. This might mean a 3D virtual world, or it might mean a few scribbles on a piece of paper. If you are short on resources, it probably doesn't mean a 3D world, but that's no big issue. Many fine computer games are played out through a text interface within a browser window.
Schell also talks about the Story behind the game. This, for me, is one of the most important features in any game. Does it have a narrative that I am compelled to see through to the end? Am I genuinely interested in the outcome? To often 'serious games' overlook this aspect as they seek to rip the 'fun' elements out as an unnecessary and childish addition. It couldn't be more core. If 'fun' isn't a part of your vocab, leave games-based learning well alone.
Mechanics are the pillar which the architects of many a 'gamification' have come to rest upon. Mechanics are the methods by which we compete within a game, the way in which we do better and win. Most people come to rest on the ideas of points, levels and badges as being the sum-total of mechanics, but again, this is selling the concept short. Mechanics can be woven into complex design patterns which promote engagement within the game if they are done right. Think about ideas like Quests, Treasure Hunts, Reputation, Scarcity of Resources and Roles as just a handful of mechanics which you can use to promote engagement and signal competence within the game.
Finally, technology is the pillar which allows your participants to play your game. Simplistically, the technology you choose needs to facilitate the other pillars to the best of its ability. If you choose an aesthetic which happens to be a webpage, then you better have a web server which can serve it up reliably and your students better be able to access it. But it doesn't need to be an X-Box to do this.
I guess what I'm getting at with this background information is that you shouldn't feel constrained by the 'normal' view of what a triple-A rated game on the store shelf looks like. You don't need to invest in the next Call of Duty to make a great game. By considering the core components of a game and aligning the games objectives with your learning outcomes, you can create a neat solution which doesn't cost the earth. Games come in all shapes and sizes and, if you structure your expectations accordingly, can be brought in at low or even no cost if you are willing to do the work yourself.
Plagiarism is rife in the game development world and I wouldn't be adverse from taking a leaf or two from existing games as your inspiration. For example, in a recent project we created a very simple game that replicated "Guitar Hero" to teach students the rhythms behind a horses hoof falls. Really simple, less than a day to make and it works really well.
In reality, unless you happen to be a kick-ass coder, most games that are within the reach of your 'average joe' probably play out most of their story without the use of a computer game engine. But that's fine too; the approach transcends computer games technology once you know the core components of creating a decent game. Nowhere in those definitions will you find an insistence to make it a 3D photo-realistic shoot 'em up.
Let me close on a favourite story of mine for the development of a simple game.
Imagine you are running a new employee orientation course. On the first morning, you arrive 10 minutes late, looking a real mess. You announce to the class that you've lost everything for the onboarding programme - every scrap of information, save for the contents page at the front of the binder. Your job is on the line unless you can pull this information back together before the end of the day. You need their help. They need to get online, get around the office, and get talking to people to find you the information you need. They'll compete against each other to get the info back to you first as you only need one copy. But you need it all by the end of the day.
Well, what are you waiting for? Get going!