Re-evaluating SG Design Approaches

At Serious Games Interactive we have recently been working with a number of multinational vehicle manufacturers to design training games for assembly line workers. During this work I’ve been tinkering with the elements of the typical design process, experimenting with taking different elements as the focus for the design work, and the results have been quite interesting. In particular I have been experimenting with prioritising exploration of the corporate culture over the content of the training game, and the results seem to have made the overall design process more transparent, more efficient, and better suited to this type of bespoke service construction. In particular it has reduced the ‘random decision-making factor’ that serious game designers tend to confront when progressing from pedagogic design to scenario design.

This re-evaluation of the usual design process (which typically follows a need analysis – content design – review and proceed to production approach) came about for a number of reasons. Initially I wanted to explore how to push back the state-of-the-art for the use of serious gaming for training in manufacturing assembly  process areas. To this end I came up with a (selective) shortlist of 6 design principles to use as anchors in the design discussions with the clients. The 6 principles were selected from an initial list of about 20. These ‘anchors’ were:

  • Team focus: that the serious game should be designed not only for skills training, but also to support team building, team orientation and potentially use the team as the vector for competition. This last part is particularly important, as manufacturing industry is typically heavily unionised, and this has an impact on transparency of performance of individuals.
  • Permanency: games states which persist over time and encourage construction and progress towards goals should create a longer term engagement (compared to incidence-based gameplay) which leads to a more sustainable learning service (and a happy client!)
  • Many paths to success: having more than one winning strategy and winning style is important for inclusivity. In large manufacturing organisations there may be 500+ trainees, and you can be certain they won’t all ‘game the same way’.
  • Social interaction: either in-game, or around the game world, which is related to the concepts of deepening engagement and placing the training environment at the centre of employees attention.
  • In-game economy: this type of mechanic supports the concept of social interaction, deepening engagement, and ‘more than one way to play’.
  • Maintain learning relevance: that the game developed should remain focussed on the learning content and not become too abstracted while searching for engaging gameplay.

Some examples of principles which didn’t make the list but could be interesting in other contexts include ‘levelling-up’, ‘mentoring’, ‘open exploration’, and ‘influence over development of the game world’.

The clients’ response to the design principles was very positive – in some ways the principle list was like a high level pitch, pre-production. Instead of progressing to scenario/content design, however, I instead engaged the clients in a longer discussion about their organisational culture, essentially making the proposal to produce a training game that goes beyond delivery of learning content and becomes a vector through which the values of the organisation are supported and developed into the future. At first this was fairly slow work, the clients found it somewhat challenging, and I was also going into new territory and had to discover some of the rules as I went along, but after about half a day of workshop time we began to make more rapid progress, and the clients became more integrated in the game design than I have seen before. The clearest sign of this was that they suggested a lot of new elements, related to the principle list, but proposals for game design elements which had not been on the table previously. For example, one organisation volunteered that the game could be designed to support the competition which exists naturally on the factory floor between different production lines. Another took this idea, and embellished it by wondering what would happen if work stations could challenge each other to beat game targets/scores. Information like this is extremely valuable. None of the proposed items had been in the original design requirements from the clients, and they represent major departures from the narrow focus of their current training practices which are strictly functional, yet these ideas come straight from the clients themselves. Therefore the clients have a deeper sense of ownership over the service. Not only that, but the value to the serious game designer is priceless, as the landscape is much more clearly defined, making it easier to create interesting solutions to the clients’ needs, and that those solutions are in closer agreement with both the current state of the organisational culture, and its perceived future development. All-in-all, a pretty good result for a one day workshop.

This refocusing on the culture of the client organisation as the primary driver for game design over content (and to a lesser extent pedagogy) certainly won’t be appropriate in every case, but if serious gaming for industry is to move out of the realm of promising area for exploration and into mainstream acceptance than I believe that design principles which push both the designers and the clients into new (uncomfortable but potentially rewarding) territory are required. So far this approach seems promising, and I’m already looking at other opportunities to implement it in new projects coming up later in 2012.

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