Games that require you to do exactly what you’re learning to do

Most “learning-by-doing” is actually “learning-by-doing-something-really-similar-to-what-you-ultimately-want-to-do.” This isn’t horrible, but it is different.

For example, I’ve designed and built many online modules that focus on interacting with people. Typically, the user clicks what they want to do/say and sees the results through immediate and/or delayed feedback.

Screenshot from loan officer simulation.

If the choices take into account best practices and tempting mistakes, these types of online interactions can help users practice some of the same sorts of decision-making used in real life. This is almost always more impactful than just passively reading or listening to information about these decisions.

However, the way the user acts and is evaluated certainly isn’t the same as real life. Not once in my interactions with real people in the real world have I been presented with three options for what to do next and asked to click one.

Receiving and judging user’s performance in novel ways is hard, especially with the limited options for input devices on computers and other electronics. On that note, my next few posts will feature games that I think are interesting BECAUSE of the way that they incorporate real (not just close to real) practice into the gameplay itself.

On that note, tomorrow’s post will explore GuitarBots!

It’s about the Experience

I was once again reading Jesse Schell’s The Art of Game Design and rediscovered this quote on page 10:

Ultimately, a game designer does not care about games. Games are merely a means to an end. On their own, games are just artifacts. When people play games, they have an experience. Without this experience, the game is worthless.

You can mentally replace “game” with “course” and I think this still holds true. The course itself, as some sort of product, is not at all the point.

Games that Embody an Emotional Experience

As part of a project-in-progress, I’ve been gathering examples of various types of serious games.

As a start, here is an informal list of games whose purpose seems less about uncovering a winning strategy and more about embodying a particular emotional experience. All of the games listed below are available online to play for free.

To me, what makes many of these games powerful (and at times, heartbreaking) is that you have to step into the role of a struggling person and make difficult decisions.


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Papers Please

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Often, the most impactful moment is seeing the options and choices that you aren’t given. In Depression Quest, this is done explicitly; while you see the decisions that someone who wasn’t depressed might make, you can’t actually select them.

Depression Quest

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Some other games are less about real world decisions and instead abstract representations of difficult situations.


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Finally, even though some might not classify it as a game, I found Dys4ia a very powerful interactive story-telling mechanism that was focused on a particular individual’s story.


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What other games have you seen that focus less on strategy and more on emotionally evocative experiences?

Encouraging Thoughtful Choices

I visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium a few weekends ago. There were many things I enjoyed about the aquarium, including that many of the exhibits look like art installations.

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Learning-wise, one of my favorite parts was how they wove the impact of their visitors’ choices into the exhibits.

At one exhibit, I placed an order for a seafood dish at a pretend restaurant. The chef, hostess, and waiter (on video screens) conversed with each other about the impact of my choice on the environment and instilled me with an appropriate amount of guilt based on my decision. (Want to upset the chef? Order shark fin soup.)

These same sort of experiences were woven into other exhibits throughout the aquarium as well. See this seahorse? What sort of shrimp do you think HE wants you to order?


Apparently, seahorses often get caught in shrimp nets, making net caught shrimp the worst choice for our seahorse. However, at other exhibits I learned that farmed shrimp, especially imported, can be hard on the environment because they pollute and destroy local habitats. The best choice for the seahorse and the environment according the the seahorse and the aquarium? Box trapped shrimp.

A visitor might remember to avoid net trapped shrimp and shark fin soup, but how does one know the best way to wade through the many other seafood options? The aquarium offers a wallet card and phone app with guidelines on which seafood is least impactful on the environment.

As a learning geek, I really loved this blend of offering choices, showing real-world impact, and giving longterm performance support (in this case, ordering support.) And the fish were pretty cool too.

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Imperfect Simulations

I just killed humanity. Oops.

In Pandemic 2, your goal is to evolve and spread your disease to wipe out humanity.

Even without a background in pathology or microbiology, I can assert with confidence that the game isn’t an exceptionally precise simulation of a global pandemic.

However, as I played this game, I kept coming back to Jesse Schell’s idea that imperfect simulations can actually be more useful teaching tools than perfect ones, because of the questions they spark about gameplay versus reality. Through this game, you explore the concepts of how pathogens spread and evolve and how various public health measures can attempt to stop the spread. The key to using this game for educational purposes might just be an effective debrief.

Less interested in wiping out humanity and more interested in just exploring viruses and bacteria? Filament Games has more focused (and less sinister) game for students, You Make Me Sick, where you take on the role of a pathogen to infect just one person.