July 30, 2008

Should Game Designers “theorise” about games or should all “theory” be left to Academics?

Filed under: ECU MInT,GDT3102 Writing for Games — steve @ 2:09 pm

The short answer: both yes and no…
The long answer is, perhaps, more “academic”!

If, according to the Research Methods Knowledge Base (Trochim, 2006), there are “two broad methods of reasoning” comprising of “deductive and inductive approaches” to explore a theory and one assumes that:

Deductive reasoning works from the more general to the more specific. Sometimes this is informally called a “top-down” approach. We might begin with thinking up a theory about our topic of interest. We then narrow that down into more specific hypotheses that we can test. We narrow down even further when we collect observations to address the hypotheses. This ultimately leads us to be able to test the hypotheses with specific data — a confirmation (or not) of our original theories. (Trochim, 2006, ¶ 2)

would be indicative of the Game Designer’s approach to the testing of a game design theory, while:

Inductive reasoning works the other way, moving from specific observations to broader generalizations and theories. Informally, we sometimes call this a “bottom up” approach . . . In inductive reasoning, we begin with specific observations and measures, begin to detect patterns and regularities, formulate some tentative hypotheses that we can explore, and finally end up developing some general conclusions or theories. (Trochim, 2006, ¶ 3)

is more representative of the Academic’s exploration of a theory then one might infer that both Game Designers and Academics should theorise about games as the reasoning process employed by each serve different purposes, needs and outcomes.

On the other hand, assuming the theory of games design relates to serious games for education and if Prensky (2003) is correct in stating:

The people from educational research, educational methods, pedagogy, instructional design, learning science, cognition and instruction, cognitive psychology, behavioral psychology, educational psychology, human factors, training, child development, linguistics, neuro-linguistics, biology, computer science, neuroscience, and cognitive neurology, don’t have a clear answer. In fact, the National Academy of Science has established a committee on “New Development in the Science of Learning,” whose goal is to “synthesize new findings from research to create a user-friendly theory of human learning.”

Unfortunately, they haven’t yet produced one, at least not for public consumption. (p. 3)

and is accurate in the observations he made in one of his an earlier writings:

Today’s trainers and trainees are from totally separate worlds. The biggest underlying dynamic in training and learning today is the rapid and unexpected confrontation of a corps of trainers and teachers raised in a pre-digital generation and educated in the styles of the past, with a body of learners raised in the digital world of Sesame Street, MTV, fast movies and “twitch speed” videogames. (Prensky, 2001, p. 3)

while bearing in mind his contrast between games and education:

Computer and video games are so engaging – and education is often so unengaging – NOT because that is the “natural state of things,” or “the nature of the beast.” Although many hold the opinion that “learning hurts” and “games are fun,” any of us easily can think of enough counter-examples to prove this isn’t a universal truth.

The reason computer games are so engaging is because the primary objective of the game designer is to keep the user engaged. They need to keep that player coming back, day after day, for 30, 60 even 100+ hours, so that the person feels like he has gotten value for his money (and, in the case of online games, keeps paying.) That is their measure of success. (Prensky, 2002, pp. 2-3)

then perhaps the theory of games design should be left solely in the hands of the Game Designers?

Resnick (2002 p. 32) has also expressed his concerns as to whether academic theories of how games should be used in education have proven to be successful:

…while new digital technologies make a learning revolution possible, they certainly do not guarantee it. Early results are not encouraging. In most places where new technologies are being used in education today, the technologies are used simply to reinforce outmoded approaches to learning. Even as scientific and technological advances are transforming agriculture, medicine, and industry, ideas about and approaches to teaching and learning remain largely unchanged.

and has made the following observation of how wrapping up education in technology does not necessarily work:

More recently, there has been a surge of computer-based products that claim to integrate play and learning, under the banner of “edutainment.” But these edutainment products often miss the spirit of playful learning. Often, the creators of edutainment products view education as a bitter medicine that needs the sugarcoating of entertainment to become palatable. They provide entertainment as a reward if you are willing to suffer through a little education. Or they boast that you will have so much fun using their products that you won’t even realize that you are learning – as if learning were the most unpleasant experience in the world. (Resnick, 2006, p. 3)

Shelton and Wiley in their paper “Instructional Designers Take All the Fun Out of Games: Rethinking Elements of Engagement for Designing Instructional Games” (2006) have expressed similar concerns about an academic approach to the design of games:

Instructional designers frequently attempt to mimic the design of popular and commercially successful video games in the design of educational games. These educational games have had little success compared with their commercial counterparts, partly due to designers’ resistance to altering their way of thinking about traditional instructional design (for example, the strong desire to state learning objectives explicitly). (¶ 1)

For the most part, the attempt to engage learners in the same way commercially successful video games have has met with disappointing results. The disappointing results are due in part to how instructional designers have used rigid methods when implementing models within the educational product environment. (¶ 4)

Another example is when designers disengage the learner through conventional assessment activities. Much of educational software, including many of our own online courses, attempt to account for “learning” by offering a series of questions at the end of each lesson that reviews material that the learner encountered moments previously. This method is not only questionable in its effectiveness, it also tends to disengage the learner by taking their attention away from the gaming environment. (¶ 5)


If one was to take the writings of Prensky (2001, 2002, 2003), Resnick (2002, 2006), Shelton and Wiley (2006) referred to above on face value then one could be forgiven to think that academics have no place in the theory of design for serious games in education. However, it should be observed that Resnick works for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) while Shelton and Wiley are employed by the Utah State University. Prensky certainly has an academic background as his “background includes masters degrees from Yale, Middlebury, and The Harvard Business School (with distinction)” and “He has taught at all levels from elementary to college” (Prensky, n.d.)

So, back to the question: Should Game Designers “theorise” about games or should all “theory” be left to Academics? Certainly in the realm of games design for entertainment it would seem that Game Designers are more successful at their art of game design theory than Academics. However in the area of education it is the Academics who would appear to be educating “digital immigrant” academics as to how the approach to the theory of games design for education, based upon their observations of the entertainment games industry, should perhaps be.

The question has too many facets to make a distinctive call as to which one or the other should be responsible for the theory of game design – so I will leave the final decision to those confident to make the call.



Prensky, M. (n.d.). Biography. Retrieved July 30, 2008, from http://www.marcprensky.com/experience/Prensky-Bio.pdf
Prensky, M. (2001). Chapter 1 Digital Game-Based Learning: The Digital Game-Based Learning Revolution. Retrieved March 1, 2008, from http://www.marcprensky.com/writing/Prensky%20-%20Ch1-Digital%20Game-Based%20Learning.pdf
Prensky, M. (2003). e-Nough!. Retrieved March 1, 2008, from http://www.marcprensky.com/writing/Prensky%20-%20e-Nough%20-%20OTH%2011-1%20March%202003.pdf
Prensky, M. (2002). The Motivation of Gameplay. Retrieved March 1, 2008, from http://www.marcprensky.com/writing/Prensky%20-%20The%20Motivation%20of%20Gameplay-OTH%2010-1.pdf
Resnick, M. (2002). Rethinking Learning in the Digital Age. Retrieved July 27, 2008, from http://llk.media.mit.edu/papers/mres-wef.pdf
Resnick, M. (2006) Computer as Paintbrush: Technology, Play, and the Creative Society. Retrieved July 27, 2008, from http://llk.media.mit.edu/papers/playlearn-handout.pdf
Shelton, B. E. & Wiley, D. (2006). Instructional Designers Take All the Fun Out of Games: Rethinking Elements of Engagement for Designing Instructional Games. Retrieved July 27, 2008, from http://ocw.usu.edu/Instructional_Technology/Instructional_Games/AERA06_IDgames-bes_dw.pdf
Trochim, W. M. K. (2006). Deduction & Induction. Retrieved July 30, 2008, from Research Methods Knowledge Base: http://www.socialresearchmethods.net/kb/dedind.php


  1. I’m with Resnick re: “Edutainment” . . . the term is embarrassing.

    Comment by objectman — July 30, 2008 @ 3:30 pm

  2. What I find interesting, Ed, about ‘Edutainment’ is that it is not a new term – I can remember in the mid ’90s (prior to the onslaught of the web which killed multimedia as we knew it then) ‘Edutainment’ was seen as an exciting medium that would take multimedia development into new markets and thus new opportunities for employment. In fact, Perth had ‘FunEd’ which specialised on the development of educational multimedia learning tools – which one could have reasonably termed ‘Edutainment’.

    However, back in those days, the Instructional Designer was ‘king’ and much sought after. The realty was that Instructional Designers back then were really High School/TAFE/University teachers/lecturers who had no technical skills in multimedia and really had no understanding (due to their lack of technical knowledge) as to how to use multimedia, as a medium, to be engaging – this was left to the developer to come up with the GT-COOEE factor, so immediately one can see how fragmentation and lack of unity could creep into the overall design of the product…

    So, Resnick’s writings in 2006 is in some way a surprise in the instance that Instructional Designers still exist – mind you, there are still ‘multimedia/web’ development houses in Perth who express their reservations that there are no Instructional Design courses (certainly at the TAFE level) any more.

    Comment by steve — August 3, 2008 @ 10:59 pm

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