ED5863 – Digital Games and Learning: Thinking critically about game design


Nintendo’s infamous N64 slogan, which I adapted to discuss Chris Crawford’s game design concept of topic vs. content.

When it comes to advertising, I have always been strangely fascinated by the aggressive slogans used by game companies to market their products. These catchy phrases are designed to embed themselves into a person’s consciousness, becoming readymade mantras that every loyal follower of Nintendo, Sony, Sega or Microsoft must repeat over and over again. These slogans also communicate the guiding ideologies of these corporations, which often want their consumers to feel like insiders who speak a secret language that the rest of the world doesn’t understand.

Some game designers have embraced this ideology wholesale, viewing game design as a secret and elusive art with its own set of exclusive codes and strategies. Others, however, have been challenging this point of view, viewing game design in a much more critical, holistic, and inclusive light. With that in mind, I’ll be analyzing two game design concepts each from Chris Crawford and Mary Flanagan, contrasting their approaches, and how their concepts apply to Metatopia, the game Matt Bellefleur, Natalie Drumonde, and I made using anna anthropy’s Emotica Online. I’ll also start the discussion of each concept by adapting a slogan from videogame advertising or popular culture.

Chris Crawford — Get Content or Get Out!

In advertising the N64, Nintendo used the slogan “Get N or Get Out” as part of an aggressive campaign intended to communicate that not only had the system arrived (after multiple delays), but to declare that Nintendo customers were part of an exclusive elite, to which other game consumers need not apply. To me, Chris Crawford takes a similar approach when discussing topic vs. content in the “Common Mistakes” chapter of Chris Crawford on game design. For Crawford, content is king, and he shows derision for those who decide to lead with what their game is about rather than the problem they are trying to solve. He writes:

A young game designer once told with obvious pride that he was working on a “King Arthur” game. I wasn’t cruel enough to point out that he had already blundered from the get-go by thinking of it as a “King Arthur” game. But the fact is, the topic of a game has little to do with the core design problems.

For Crawford, a game designer should start with the specific interactions they want the player to have in the game. Only when you have decided if your game will require fast reflexes, trial and error, or intuition, can you decide the topic of the game (e.g. science fiction, first-person, or King Arthur). He doubles down on this point of view, writing: “if the topic really is the initiating concept in your thinking, then you simply don’t understand game design well enough to do a good job.”

I disagree with this completely. Crawford insists throughout the “Common Mistakes” chapter that there is a single way to do game design, and that all other methods are illegitimate. I do not think that leading with the topic first is a bad idea, and in fact, starting with your topic can help you better decide what game design tools you want to use and what interactions you want the game to have. I also don’t see topic vs. content being a real dichotomy, as they are not mutually exclusive and both are needed in designing a game.

In developing Metatopia, Matt, Natalie, and I started with what we wanted it to be about. We were very democratic in our process, ensuing each person’s ideas could be incorporated. Matt wanted the game to be about identity and characters treating you differently depending on how you appeared. Natalie wanted to have an educational and environmentally-conscious game. I wanted a game that was irreverent and focused on exploration and discovery.


The starting screen of Metatopia.

It was after we thought about these topics and how we would bring them together that we then thought about the specific interactions in the game. Matt wanted randomization and player identity change. Natalie wanted there to be strong environmental and environmental messaging delivered by characters. I wanted to have something that was easy to pick up and play as I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with games that demand significant affective labour.

This is what led us to settle on Emotica Online as our game design tool, and to make a game that had a series of different environments and mini-narratives. We brought the topic and the content together, and I believe made a strong game, even if we lead with our topics before deciding on the game’s interactions.

Chris Crawford — Live In Your World. Edit In Ours.

The big slogan for the Playstation 2 was “Live in your world. Plays in ours.” The idea is that you have a normal, everyday, and possibly less thrilling corporeal existence. However, the world of the Playstation 2 is one of play and possibility. Crawford has a similar philosophy about game design toolsets: tools allows you to create, but they can also constrain you to another designer’s way of thinking. For Crawford, having cost-effective tools is desirable but he also thinks it shortcuts creative thinking. You’ll be editing in someone else’s world rather than your own. He singles out the level editor that ships with some games as his evidence. Level editors have made it easier than ever to make good levels thus people are focusing more on level design to creating more interesting game mechanics. He writes:

A truly fine tool is like a freeway: It gets you there especially quickly. Of course, like a freeway, a fine tool attracts a great many users, all of whom end up going to the same place, and if you take the freeway, you end up at a crowded beach.

His problem with level editors is that they are fine tools that always lead you to the same place. In this way of thinking, you are following the logic of the designers who included the level editor of the game rather than searching out the great peaks of good game design. Once again, I have to disagree. Simple tools are absolutely necessary for creativity.

I am sure Crawford would be contemptuous of Emotica Online as a design toolset, as it is very simple to use and furthermore fuses the level editor with the game itself. In Emotica Online, you are constantly aware of the toolset, and can instantly play around with the gameworld someone has designed. Furthermore, the game’s “programming” is very simple: you drag and drop emoji (the building blocks of the game) and define it as an item (which can be picked up), a player (which can be moved with the arrow keys), or a solid (a block that cannot be moved). We can also program simple transformations and animations. In contrast with what Crawford argues these constraints were good for our creative output and did not hinder it.


In Emotica Online, the game and the level editor are one and the same. There is no separation while playing.

 Mary Flanagan—With Great Play Comes Great Responsibility

For this slogan, I had to look outside of videogames for a slogan that fit Flanagan’s concept of responsibility in creativity and play. The line “With great power comes great responsibility” is from the Spider-Man comic, arguing that power confers on those who have it (whether they are creative powers or web-slinging) an obligation to use it wisely and responsibly. Flanagan has a similar argument for the creative process:

As game design matures, and as games themselves become more ubiquitous and more meaningful to culture, there is a growing need for designers to approach the creative process with increased awareness and responsibility to be inclusive, fair, and cater to a variety of play styles.

I agree with this completely. Often I find that games and game design are marketed to a select “elite” who are the ones conferred with the power and the ability to create. This is simply not the case. Tools like Twine, Game Maker, and Scratch, have opened up a plethora of creativity. Not only that, they have ensured that people are able to tell stories outside the “mainstream” of current games, focusing on topics like race, poverty, and systemic injustice. As Flanagan writes: “Perhaps even more than these “tools,” these games are simultaneously systems of information, cultural products, and manifestations of cultural practice.”

One reason I like Emotica Online so much is that it simplifies the process of games and game design. Metatopia is very easy to play and edit. Matt, Natalie, and I were also conscious of the messages we embedded in Metatopia. We had the player character start off as the cat emoji as it is gender-neutral and a fairly friendly starting option. I wouldn’t say that Metatopia is completely barrier-free as it requires a computer and access to an Internet connection. However, I do think our game lowers the barrier of entry to play.

Mary Flanagan—Now You’re Playing With Critical Power!

Nintendo used the slogan “Now you’re playing with power” while advertising the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in the late ‘80s. The slogan also lent its name to Nintendo Power magazine. I adapt it here to talk about Flanagan’s Critical Play game design model. This model is supposed to embed specific values and critical play within the game design process. She contrasts this with the traditional model of game design, which sets up systems and rules, and iterates without considering diverse play styles and approaches.

We definitely embedded our particular values in Metatopia, using specific stories and environments as sites of criticism. While on the surface, Toilet Town seems to exist for the purpose of a joke, we created a storyline where Toilet Town is implicated in high consumption and environmental degradation. Most of Metatopia’s resources are being used by Toilet Town and another city called Terminalia. Frog Town also exists to critique the loud, insular male gamers who are distinguished by their misogyny, racism, and continued harassment of feminist game critics and game makers. This group has chosen the frog emoji as its most significant symbol, so we used that in our parody.

I also made a Game Theorist’s Play Area, that pokes fun at the assumptions of certain game theorists about play and pedagogy and to further the critique of self-identified “gamers.” From the standpoint of being made from emoji, Metatopia is mostly fun and irreverent, but we also wanted to encode our values and principles.

Overall, I would say that Flanagan’s methodology of critical play exerted a substantial influence on our game design practice. Using Emotica Online and designing a game that includes our personal values made Metatopia something fun and enjoyable, that is also a substantial exercise in critical making.


Metatopia’s wasteful and much derided Toilet Town.

ED 5863 – Digital Games and Learning: Connecting the dots of videogame pedagogy

If we were to break down the pedagogical concerns of James Gee, Jonas Linderoth, and Rowan Tulloch about videogame pedagogy into single phrases these would be: what games teach (Gee), what gamers learn (Linderoth), and what games are (Tulloch). At first it would seem that each theorist’s concern is separate from the others. But an investigation into Tulloch’s argument for gamification as an alternative pedagogy, using connecting concepts and emoji (figures 1.1 to 1.5) will demonstrate that Tulloch is connected to Gee and Linderoth, even if the latter two theorists never specifically reference gamification.

Two central claims about videogame pedagogy are shared by Gee and Tulloch. The first is how games ensure the player engages in what Tulloch terms “correct play practices.” For Tulloch point systems like high scores and health bars provide important feedback to the player about how well they are performing. The higher the number of points they accumulate, like in Pac-Man or Space Invaders, or the less health they lose, found in first-person shooters such as DOOM or Half-Life, the better they are performing. Being able to progress through a game’s discrete but connected areas (levels) is also an indicator of good play practices. An example would be getting higher up the parallel construction beams of the original Donkey Kong, clearing as many of the game’s 22 available levels as possible. The more levels you clear, the better you’re playing.

Gee invokes these same concepts using the game Thief: Deadly Shadows as his example. While playing Thief, the player must learn to use the mechanics of light and dark to their advantage so as to avoid patrols and successfully steal the treasure. Failure to learn the principles of good stealth in Thief will lead to deadly confrontations with the game’s guards. Learning to navigate the virtual environment as Thief’s main protagonist Garrett is essential if players want to achieve a “win state” and progress to the next level.


Figure 1.1: Gee and Tulloch are connected by the concept of how games teach the players how to play or follow the rules. The top row illustrates Tulloch’s concept of correct play practices. The middle row illustrates Gee’s example of Thief’s light/dark mechanics as a teaching tool. The bottom emoji illustrate the connection between Gee and Tulloch.

A further connection between Gee and Tulloch is their conception of games as an alternative pedagogy with good principles for learning. For Gee, this is because games offer newer contexts for players to learn. These include principles include embodied movement through action and goal-oriented complex systems, the ability to reconfigure and resituate meanings, multiple pathways to completing a learning goal, and so forth. Ultimately, there is an identification between the learner (in this case, game player) and their subject (the game), which when applied to another context creates an important level of identification. An educational game like Oregon Trail, which places you in the role of an American settler would be an example of this kind of identification.

Tulloch offers a similar thesis arguing that games offer an alternative to unsuccessful pedagogies that do not build in engagement or a real sense of achievement. Gamification is more than just game-based mechanics overlaid previously ungamified subjects. It represents a better way of engaging with complex subject matter and train the “profitable consumers, obedient and efficient workers, healthy citizens, or knowledgeable students” that are currently needed. One can cite the mid-2000s craze for “brain-training” games like Nintendo’s popular Brain Age series for the DS as an example. Brain Age offers its players short, fun minigames that are specifically designed to increase math and logic skills as well as improve their spatial reasoning, pattern recognition, and hand-eye coordination.


Figure 1.2: The top row illustrates Gee’s concept of the player being engaged with the subject matter they are learning through games. The middle row illustrates how Tulloch thinks games keep people engaged.

Between Tulloch and Linderoth there might seem to be even less of a connection since Linderoth is skeptical about how much gamers actually learn. Tulloch and Linderoth are connected by two significant concepts: difficulty and player performance. Although their conclusions about what these concepts mean when applied to learning diverge, they both still explore these ideas to their fullest.

Tulloch sees difficulty as an intrinsic part of game design. He argues: “The gamification of difficulty is about recognizing difficulty as part of play’s pedagogic process and understanding the intellectual history behind it.” Balancing difficulty is important to the training aspect of gamification, as the one gamifying a training exercise wants the game hit that sweet spot between being challenging and fun; the game is difficult enough to give the player a sense of satisfaction at overcoming an intense challenge but not so difficult that they give up in frustration. Sites like Code Academy use gamification (specifically distributing badges and achievements) to encourage people to learn coding languages like HTML and Ruby on Rails.

For Linderoth, games superficially appear to give players the ability to learn and that although challenging, there is a satisfaction in mastery that provides a feeling of “empowerment.” However, they are not teaching as much as we assume. He writes:

“Games are…described as being something utterly complex that by its very nature is challenging. The complexity is said to gradually increase as a player progresses through a game. Thus the fact that a player can play through a game is taken as a sign of learning.”

This assumption of difficulty, Linderoth claims, is due to game environments generally being unfamiliar to the average teacher or parent. However, games tend to guide their players through difficult passages and offer many tools for shortcutting these complex systems. Level-5’s Professor Layton series give its players difficult puzzles to solve. However, each Professor Layton game also has a built-in hint system that can help a player solve these puzzle without necessarily going through the complex learning process of grasping its internal logic.


Figure 1.3: This emoji illustration is about Tulloch and Linderoth. The top row illustrates how games balance difficulty for learning. The middle row demonstrates how Linderoth think games simply guide the player to the right answer. The final emjoi illustration is about the connection and divergence of Tulloch and Linderoth.

Player performance is the key to understanding what gamers learn for both Linderoth and Tulloch.

For Tulloch, gamification is part of a deep heritage of game design that facilitates performance. Game designers understand that they have to provide tools to players so that they can navigate games and also remain consistently engaged. Facilitating player performance using the learning found in game design will produce the “profitable consumers, obedient and efficient workers, healthy citizens, and knowledgeable students for which gamification strives.” While schools have linear, conformist curves of learning, the alternative pedagogy of games offers a dynamic method of learning and good performance. An example of this kind of learning could be Portal, which teaches the player the game’s basic puzzle mechanics, but then lets the player solve each puzzle room on their own.

Linderoth sees this differently. He argues player performance is enhanced in games through the provision of special hint systems or specific game mechanics that make game environments much easier to navigate for the player. This is what undermines games as complex systems. An example is Assassin’s Creed, which allows players to enter into an “eagle vision” mode that easily highlights targets in the game or temporary power-ups like Mario Kart’s Blue Shell, which make these games less complex and easier to complete. What you can accomplish in a game is not solely due to learning, but actually due to what the game gives you to complete it.


Figure 1.4: The top row shows how Tulloch believes that games have a deep pedagogic heritage that supports performance. The middle row is Linderoth’s concept of how games provide shortcuts, raining on the parade of other gaming pedagogists.

These three theorists do not work in isolation but have views about games and learning that connect in distinct ways, especially when it comes to the pedagogy behind games. Tulloch’s conception of games as being part of an alternative pedagogical tradition is shared by Gee and significantly critiqued by Linderoth. Tulloch’s central claims about what games are (alternative pedagogy) can be linked to Gee and Linderoth even if Linderoth’s concept of what gamers learn diverges from the other two theorists.


Figure 1.5: This figure illustrates the connections between Tulloch, Gee and Linderoth, with Gee agreeing with Tulloch’s concept of gaming pedagogy and Linderoth disagreeing with Tulloch but still connected to him (and Gee).

All illustrations made using anna anthropy‘s Emotica Online.


ED 5863 – Digital Games and Learning: Ian Bogost’s videogame microecology


“…casual games are games that players use and toss aside, one-play stands, serendipitous encounters never to be seen again.” Ian Bogost, How To Do Things With Videogames, p.96.

Media ecology looks at the wide range of available media — books, television, advertising, computers, etc. – to determine how each medium functions, and how they interact with one another. This approach is deeply influenced by Marshall McLuhan, who viewed media as the extensions of specific senses (the book extends the eye, the wheel extends the foot, and so on) and also argued that new media create new environments. According to McLuhan, and those influenced by him, the media ecological approach is essential to understanding these new environments.

In How Do Things with Videogames, Ian Bogost references McLuhan’s approach, but argues that media microecology should be used instead to study videogames. Each medium has a variety of things that it does, ranging from the profound to the purely quotidian. To fully understand each medium and to avoid sweeping generalizations, we need to move from the “macro” level to the “micro” level (he uses the entomologist’s study of insects as an example), to look at the full range of uses a medium has, documenting, describing, and discussing its uses so that we can concentrate on its specific functions. This is the media microecological framework he proposes for analyzing videogames: understanding everything videogames do rather than settling on particular value judgements on the rightness or wrongness of playing videogames.

There are a number of different things videogames can be used for. Videogames can be sites of intense competition, with a focus on achieving high scores and longer play times, which is true of arcade games like Galaga (1981), Tempest (1981), and Space Harrier (1985). Games are also capable of providing expressive and emotionally engaging experiences, like in Dear Esther (2012), Journey (2012), and Gone Home (2013), which focus on exploration and story-telling instead of awarding points or tracking level progress.

One use for videogames that Bogost identifies is “Throwaways.” According to Bogost we often link the idea of “throwaway” games to “casual” games but he challenges this in the following three ways:

  • Although “casual” games like Bejeweled or Tetris, do not feature the more complicated controls of “hardcore” games, they can still be played for the purposes of mastery and personal achievement and often have long-term play investment.
  • The various meanings of “casual” such as indifferent, spontaneous and fleeting all contain an important element of how actual “casual” or “throwaway” games should be conceived. A game made specifically for the “Klik of the Month” club on glorioustrainwrecks.com could be an example of a “throwaway” game as these take minutes to play and are often played once and then completely forgotten.
  • Throwaways games should be short, significant play experiences (no more than a few minutes) that someone can quickly experience and move on from without long term investment. Bogost uses “newsgames” like the Zidane Head-Butt (tied to Zinedine Zidane’s headbutting of Italian soccer player Marco Materazzi during the 2006 World Cup final) and his own game, The Arcade Wire: Airport Security, about arbitrary airport security rules (in response to the TSA’s banning of liquids in carry-on bags) as examples.

I agree with Bogost that we need to change our understanding of what casual games actually are, from “easy to learn, and hard to master” to games that focus on shorter experiences. Although such games may be fleeting and often played only once, I think they have the potential to resonate with people.

A couple of “throwaway” games that I enjoyed recently were Pleasuredromes of Kubla Khan by Stephen Murphy aka “thecatamites” a bizarre and hilarious parody of History Television style ancient civilization “travelogues” that can be played in only a few minutes. The other one is Ohmygod Are You Alright? by anna anthropy, a game that is short, personal response to a car crash she experienced last year. These games focus on a particular experience rather than long-term play investment and mastery.

I’ll leave this question for you: if you designed a short, “throwaway” game what experience would you want it to give to the people who play it?