Friday, March 9, 2012

Anatomy of an Instructional Game

Having believed for over 18 years that my son Atreya's blood type was B+, we got a shock of our life when his NS (Army) card had O+ listed on it. My first reaction was that the NS guys had made a mistake and insisted that he get it corrected. Three weeks later, his blood was retested and the result was again O+! Someone had indeed made a mistake, but 18 years ago!

A few days after this incident, I was preparing to make a short presentation to a small group on games in online learning. I decided to use a paper Purnima and I had written on games (see as the anchor for my presentation. I also decided that instead of listening to my discourse on games, the audience should experience the power/problems of games in learning by playing some online games. Unfortunately, I no longer have the rights and access to the games we had referred to while writing the paper. So, I searched high and low for game demos available online. And guess what I came across- a game on blood typing!

As I played the game, I found myself immersed. Part of the reason was of course its personal relevance to me because of the recent incident. But there was another reason too. It was a good game. This was reinforced by the reaction of each one of the six people who played it in front of me during the session.

What Made it a Good Game?
Before I analyze the game and say what worked for me, first play it for a bit here:

1. Alignment of Content and Context
The interactive and its wrapper were totally aligned. There was nothing artificial about context (people needing blood transfusion) and the content (identify blood type and select donor blood) of the exercise. Artificiality of context, very often seen in learning games, jars and distracts and makes the misaligned context an irritant. An aligned context, on the other hand, becomes invisible and aids immersion. 

2. Learnability
The game was a total learning tool by itself- it did away with the need to have a tutorial. Before playing the game, I had only briefly looked at the supporting learning materials explaining blood types, tests and compatibility, not long to master the content. Likewise, my session participants were not given enough time to read the supporting learning material thoroughly. Despite that, after playing the game for 2-3 scenarios, each participant had learned that a reagent clumping means you have a match, and that O can donate to all and AB to none but itself.

3. Sufficiently Challenging
The task required by the game was fairly challenging for a lay person, at least in parts. When I first played it, the concept of reagents clumping was new to me and posed a challenge. In the session, I heard enough shrieks (from the game and the participants) to know that wrong blood types were being administered. Today, weeks later, I found myself stumped by the concept of compatibility of Rh+ and Rh- factor. This new challenge, and the confidence that I will overcome it by playing the game, made me want to play the game again.

4.  Variability via the Content
The interactions in the game were repetitive, giving the players a chance to better themselves. Though repetitive, the game was not boring because of the nature of the content. The 4 blood types and the Rh factor provided enough permutations and combinations to bring variability to the experience.

5. Variability of Interactions
There was variability in the ways users interacted with the game interface. It included jabbing a patient for blood sample, dropping the blood sample in test tubes, selecting the blood type and placing the blood bags on the stand.

6. Fun Factor
Finally, even though the context is serious, the overall tone of the game was fun. Feedback included statements like "You are bloody right" and visuals/audio clips of patients getting electrified if you gave them wrong blood type. There were simple animations of test tubes shaking and blood flowing into tubes and the interface had a relaxed gamey feel to it. Just one thing bothered me...why were the visuals of people done so badly?

There is one more thing I learned from the game- even though all of us wrongly believed Atreya to be B+, he was never in any real danger. Hospitals always check the patient's blood type using these reagents before giving any transfusion just as the players of this game do! I double confirmed this (pardon my Singlish) with my doctor mommy!

Did you also like this game? Did something else work for you (or didn't)? Do share here.


  1. I really liked the game. Liked your analysis too. I agree that content needs to be right for a game to be effective.

    Look forward more such articles.

  2. The 6 factors you evaluated the game against can be used as a generic framework of evaluating instructional games. Very neat. Will try it on games we design in our courses. Thanks a lot puja.


    1. Niti, glad you liked it. Very hard to make a generic framework because games are so so different. But some elements need to be in to make them work. I too will try it on some other games and share.

  3. Hi Puja,

    Thanks for sharing this article. Really nice one!
    Can i share this blog link with my friends in Accenture?


  4. Yes sure Seby. I will be flattered.

  5. :) Thanks Puja! And i shared it... the response was amazing!
    See one small example "Very nice blog Sebi. Thanks for sharing"

    Please check the "Status", and there you can find out the number of 'hits' for this blog... and of course it will give a feeling that we are not in a ghost town...! :)