Learning-by-Doing: GuitarBots

Yesterday, I wrote about how most “learning-by-doing” is really is actually “learning-by-doing-something-really-similar-to-what-you-ultimately-want-to-do.” This is the a post in a series where I explore games and online learning that incorporate authentic practice.

GuitarBots is an online game where you learn to play the guitar by playing the guitar. Unlike similar systems, you can use any guitar, including an acoustic one, since GuitarBots uses your computer microphone to detect which note you’re playing.

After watching my husband (Brian) play for months, I decided to sign up for my own account yesterday. Until I signed up for this account, I’d never played a guitar, so please excuse any accidental abuse of guitar terminology in this post.


If this were traditional online learning, it would have started with an introductory module on the history of the guitar and perhaps some information about how guitars are constructed. Luckily, this wasn’t traditional online learning.

If this were more performance-focused online learning, I would have interacted with a web-based interface to tune a virtual guitar, by clicking the knobs to turn them and then clicking the strings to play the notes. This probably would have helped somewhat had I then immediately practiced this using an actual guitar. However, I certainly wouldn’t have had the visceral sense of knowing just how much to turn a knob, or how to juggle picking and knob adjusting without dropping the guitar. (I’ve never claimed to be particularly coordinated.)

Instead, in GuitarBots, my first lesson was learning to tune my guitar by tuning my real guitar.


GuitarBots stepped me through the basic tuning process of turning knobs and picking strings. I adjusted until the onscreen tuner indicated that I’d matched each note on my guitar.

Once I’d finished tuning the guitar, I immediately moved into learning to play a song by playing a song. (A very simple song.)


After each song, I received a report on my timing and accuracy, as well as my history playing this particular song.


As I played, I unlocked additional songs.


In addition to songs, GuitarBots guides you to practice related techniques.


I’m told that it’s possible to test out of early levels by demonstrating your competence on a song that very gradually increases in difficulty. With my limited guitar-playing skills, I didn’t bother. However, this seems like a great way to make a system that accommodates learners at a variety of competence levels.

At the moment, I’m not actively looking to learn to play the guitar. However, I’ve watched Brian’s path since buying a guitar two years ago. Since the purchase, Brian tried various books and practice exercises, but GuitarBots was the first time that he practiced consistently.

Some of the motivating and helpful features Brian mentioned:

  • Self-Directed Learning: GuitarBots lets him decide whether to push himself with new songs, or perfect a song he’s already learned.
  • Competition: GuitarBots shows how Brian is doing in comparison to his friends. 
  • Scaffolding: GuitarBots provides guidance for new techniques and feedback on areas where he is having difficulty. Additionally, if he’s having difficulty with a song, he can slow it down and then build it back up again until he is able to play at full speed.

These are all great for encouraging practice – and techniques that are often utilized in games and learning. In the end, though, what makes this game so strong in my eyes is that it creates an experience where learners are engaging in real world practice, versus something similar. Creating these types of authentic experiences – instead of “near authentic” experiences – is HARD, and understandably not yet done much on the computer. Here a key was utilizing the microphone as an input device, instead of depending on the usual mouse clicks, finger taps, key presses, or toy guitars.

The next post also features a game with a novel input device, this time a biofeedback sensor. More tomorrow!

This part of a multi-part post about games that require you to do exactly what you’re learning to do. Previous posts:


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!

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.

An Unfinished Election Game (Or, you can’t win everything all of the time)

I started creating a serious game during maternity leave that is likely going to remain unfinished now that I’m back to work full-time. However, I did want to at least capture some of my thoughts about the project here.

Essentially, I was just looking for a fun project to help maintain my sense of sanity while taking care of my newborn son.

Newborns. Cute, but not always good for my sanity.

Thanks to an episode of This American Life, I stumbled upon a blog post by the Sunlight Foundation that explores the fundraising potential of various house committees.  The This American Life episode further explores just how much time, effort, and wooing of lobbyists actually goes into getting re-elected to Congress. I’m a huge fan of numbers and relationships, so I decided to dive right in, either by creating a serious game or an interactive graphic.

Numbers. Not as cute, but much better for my sanity.

Because I entirely overestimated the amount of time I’d have to work on the project, I went the serious game route. (Babies take up lots of time! Who knew?)

First, you select a candidate. Eventually, I planned to ambiguate (made-up word for the post) the text items that appear on each platform. For early development, I picked categories that translated pretty directly into membership for certain committees.

After selecting a candidate, you walk through some introductory material about your background as a junior congressperson who just barely won because your opponent was exposed in a last minute scandal… and information about just how much fundraising you’ll have to do in order to get re-elected as an underdog candidate.

You get some advice!

Then you get to select your committee preferences…

… and then see how the committees you were actually selected for impact your fundraising potential.

Your preferences and experience are taken into account.  Of course, as a not-very-important junior congressperson, there isn’t a chance that you’ll end up on the Ways and Means committee. Sorry.

Once you’ve been assigned to your committees, the real fundraising work begins!  You select the number of hours you want to dedicate to various activities.  Depending on your choices, your popularity with your constituents, lobbyists, and family will rise and fall.

You also have a number of special activities, represented by click-able items on the desk – emailing your constituents for donations, calling a lobbyist and asking them to hold a fundraiser for you, and mortgaging your house.

However, it’s often not as straightforward as just asking. No one is going to hold a fundraiser for you if you haven’t proven your usefulness.  If you don’t have strong support from your constituent base, emailing them won’t result in donations.

Decide to mortgage your house and spend all of your free time meeting with lobbyists?  Well, your reception at home next month might be a bit chilly.

All of these actions, plus your committee membership and unimplemented special events (say, voting on a particular bill that affects a potential donor) would affect your ability to raise money toward your next election.

That’s the unfinished game. Here are my thoughts on how it might have all pulled together.

I love the philosophy that the strategy for winning a serious game should be the message you’d like the learner to remember. I especially love the idea of this being a semi-hidden message that the user only discovers through trial and error during the gameplay itself. For this election game, I wanted the message not just to be about the committees and numbers (as it appears on the surface), but also about sacrifice and life choices (this is the secret message part… shh!).

In Ralph Koster’s A Theory of Fun, he talks about how we need more games around today’s challenges versus knights and swords. Though I’m not opposed to medieval warfare, I also love the idea of games that address the same sorts of conflicts I face in my modern life.

Generally, when I play games, I want to maximize my winning. My Sims reach the top of their careers, have great relationships with their families, throw amazing parties, and manage to have the biggest house on the block. However, in real life, winning at everything isn’t always possible.  So, in the finished version of the election game that exists only in my head, the user would be encouraged to try to balance work and family life…

… but the only actual way to win the election as an underdog candidate would be to not achieve this work life balance. You can retain your congressional seat, but only at the cost of a divorce. This isn’t meant to be a statement about the impossibility of having a happy family and a successful career (gulp!), but I did want to play with the idea that you can’t win at everything all of the time (unless you are one of my Sims).

Though the chances of me having time to finish this game in the near future are less than your character’s chances of being appointed to a lucrative congressional committee, you can still go here and click around my unfinished prototype, should you so desire!  Be warned though: winning is a feature that has not yet been implemented.


Games for Change 2012 – Notes & Musings

A few weeks ago, I attended the 9th annual Games for Change Festival.  As usual, it was a fantastic mesh of amazing speakers, thoughtful discussion, and inspiring interfaces. From my notes, I’ve pulled out items that I found particularly relevant to the types of learning activities I like to create, with additional notes and descriptions for some.

1. Focus on how the user is being transformed.

(What Games are Good At – Jesse Schell – my notes from this session)

Instead of serious games, Jesse suggested the term transformational games, so that the focus is on how the game is changing the user.  I love this and think that this same type of thinking is essential for designing useful learning activities.

2. Don’t build a game around a message or lesson. Instead, embody the message in the play.

(Game Design Workshop – Nick Fortugo)

The key to using a game for a message or lesson is to embody the message in the play.  The player has to engage with the message by making choices in the game system.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately.  I especially like the idea of “secret messages” that are embedded in a more successful strategy. For example, even though it isn’t explicitly stated as a strategy, the message that I took home from the game 3rd World Farmer is that without a strong infrastructure, any success you have as an individual farmer is likely to be wiped away.

3. Your first prototype is going to suck, so build it quickly and get on with it.

(Game Design Workshop – Nick Fortugo)

4. Focus on engagement, rather than just fun.

(Psychology of Engagement: Essential Motivational Ingredients for Successful Gamification – Scott Rigby)

Just fun does’t predict whether someone is still engaged months later; the Player’s Experience of Needs Satisfaction (PENS) does. Users want opportunities for autonomy, relatedness, and growth.

5. Engagement comes from the user’s anticipation of seeing the impact of their actions.

(The Game that Changed My Life – Jane McGonigal – Video)

6. Use your mechanics and UI to give people information that allows them to grow.

(Psychology of Engagement: Essential Motivational Ingredients for Successful Gamification – Scott Rigby)

7. Combine coaching with digital activities.

(What Games are Good At – Jesse Schell – my notes from this session)

Games are great at identifying where the user is making a mistake, but a coach is generally better at determining why the user is making that particular mistake (and, presumably, at also identifying how to not make that same mistake in the future).  I think this is a great argument for combining mentoring with digital learning, especially when trying to change more complex and high-stakes behaviors.

8. Set up the user to fail initially.

(Inside the Haiti Earthquake – Michael Gibson – Video)

I loved this case study of building a game for change with message that is, on the surface at least, uninspiring. In this case, the message was that the best way that someone can help during a disaster (specifically, the Haiti earthquake) is to stay home and send money.

Stay home is not an easy premise around which to build a game.

I’d suggest watching the session for a full description of how and why they built this game, but the core gameplay was designed to challenge the user’s false assumptions by setting up opportunities for failure.

9. Let the user practice real-life skills and strategies in game.

(Plug In, Chill Out: Managing Emotions Through Games by Michelle Riconscente – Video)

This game is designed to teach urban youth healthy ways to manage fear, frustration, and sadness. Users learn real-life tools to manage their physical responses (breathing, muscle tensing and relaxing, self-talk, and visualization) and then sends them into challenges to practice using these tools.

What’s particularly nifty about this game is that it uses biofeedback to measure the user’s physical response.  If the user ISN’T controlling their responses, the challenges actually become harder to complete.  For example, the frustration challenge is a maze where you can’t hit the sides (think Operation).  If the sensors show that you are becoming more frustrated, the size of your ball in the maze increases, making it harder to avoid hitting the sides.

Other stuff to check out:

  • www.game-o-matic.com – Generates games based on charted relationships between items. Created as a way for users to create news games, but works for pretty much anything. Not publicly available yet, but you can sign up for the beta.
  • www.playtheend.com – Game about death for teens.  Started as a list of philosophical questions and evolved into a game.
  • www.brainrush.com – Quick, short learning games. One of Nolan Bushnell’s latest projects.