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How commercial video games are designed to develop players' skills

by Matthew Barr on 10/21/19 10:35:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Do commercial game developers think of their games as having the capacity to develop useful skills in those who play them? Or, do they believe video games present players with opportunities to learn something about the world, or about themselves? Might developers consciously include such opportunities in their games, despite their remit to entertain and – in most cases – generate revenue? To explore some of these questions, games industry personnel responsible for developing the games used in the previously described study were interviewed. The interviews began by asking developers if they had considered that their respective games might develop useful skills or experience in players.

Paul Hellquist, Creative Director and Lead Designer on Borderlands 2 (Gearbox Software 2012), is clear that the development of such skills was not a goal on that game. However, in retrospect, Hellquist identifies how the player’s application of critical thinking is embedded in the game’s design:

That was certainly not a goal, to make a game that encourages people and helps them learn how to collaborate or whatever. But I definitely can see how the game could help with that. Certainly, critical thinking was important to me. My goal wasn’t to teach or to train, but from my game design standpoint, critical thinking was important to me.

Players combine forces to take on a pair of ‘Bullymongs’ in Borderlands 2. Source:

Hellquist describes how forcing the player to think critically about the weapons and other loot that they obtain in the game is actually part of the fun. During the development of Borderlands 2, this philosophy led to an internal debate about just how much information players should be given about each item they encounter. For weapons, in particular, there was an argument in favour of reducing their on-screen statistics to a single ‘damage per second’ figure, in a manner similar to Diablo (Blizzard North 1996). Hellquist resisted such a move, explaining that because attacks on an enemy in Diablo requires nothing more than a click of a mouse, it makes sense to reduce such a transaction down to a simple ‘damage per second’ calculation. In a shooter like Borderlands 2, the outcome of an enemy encounter is affected not only by weapon statistics but also by factors related to player skill. So, from a game design perspective, reducing weapon statistics down to a single ‘damage per second’ stat made little sense. Instead, players were to be presented with a number of different stats for each weapon, requiring a degree of critical judgment to determine their relative merits:

What I thought was a really important and core element of the fun of looting in Borderlands was forcing the players to actually look at two weapons and say, ‘Hmm, is it more important for me to have a faster reload time or a higher rate of fire? How do I compare those two things? Which one do I think, as a player, will result in a higher damage per second?’ I wanted those questions to be unknown, so that players could do that critical thinking and make their own decisions.

One of the intended side effects of obfuscating the absolute merits of in-game items was to encourage online debate within the player community, which Hellquist feels paid off. Certainly, the game has inspired innumerable online forum posts, player guides, and wiki entries which address – in significant detail – the strengths, weaknesses, and strategies associated with the weapons, characters, enemies, and maps featured in the game. Such collaborative efforts are not uncommon in online gaming communities, of course, and discussion around the more opaque titles is particularly lively.

Karla Zimonja, Director on Gone Home (The Fullbright Company 2013), also connects that game with critical thinking. Here, players are provided with incomplete – and perhaps conflicting – information, which also forces them to think critically:

I feel as if there should be a certain amount of critical thinking that Gone Home could help develop, sure. We definitely tried to not fill in all the blanks, fictionally, but instead to allow room for the player to make the mental leaps themselves. This investment of mental work is much more enjoyable and interesting than just giving the information would have been. Learning is fun and working to understand a thing is super rewarding and satisfying when you succeed.

For Matt Charles, Producer on Borderlands 2, having players develop new skills was a personal goal, although, like his colleague Hellquist, this goal was closely coupled with a desire to make the best possible game.

I believed that I had noticed that really great games challenge you in a new way, and a challenge is really just an opportunity to learn something new. Or, it’s a mechanic presented in a new way or maybe it’s a recurring mechanic from another game presented in a creative way, in an unexpected way. But either way you’re learning, right? You’re being challenged by it; it feels fresh and new.

So, for Charles – echoing a sentiment expressed by the likes of James Paul Gee and Raph Koster – part of what makes a game fun is the learning it is designed to elicit. This also chimes with what Zimonja says above in relation to Gone Home: learning is fun. As Charles goes on to suggest, if a game feels stale, “that probably means that, well, we’re not really engaging the player, they’re not having fun, they’re not learning anything new”. In line with Hellquist’s comments above, Charles acknowledges that teaching players anything that might be applicable beyond the game was not the objective on Borderlands 2:

The mission for Borderlands 2 was pretty much more, better Borderlands. We’re trying to expand the audience, we’re trying to gratify more people to a greater degree than we did with the first one, and we’re going to do that by refining the things that worked, adding new things to keep people entertained and maybe grow the audience a little bit, and honestly cut the stuff that doesn’t work.

However, Charles is optimistic that some of the design decisions made on Borderlands 2 might have facilitated personal growth in those who played the game:

Maybe they related to a particular character that had a struggle that was represented in a light that they had never considered before. You know, some way of empathising with somebody struggling with something that had never really occurred to them. That’s what I’d consider a useful experience, that they might take with them out of the game.

The empathetic learning potential of games to which Charles alludes here is a phenomenon that has already generated interest amongst academics and is touched on elsewhere in this book. In Chapter 4, for example, participants involved in the study on which this book is based discussed how playing games such as Gone Home had presented opportunities to explore new perspectives. Gee’s Identity Principle, which states that “learning involves taking on and playing with identities in such a way that the learner has real choices (in developing the virtual identity) and ample opportunity to meditate on the relationship between new identities and old ones” (Gee 2007 p. 67) is also relevant here, as is the growing body of research on games’ potential to develop empathy (Bachen et al. 2012; Belman and Flanagan 2010; Harrington and O’Connell 2016). What is interesting to note here is that game developers are aware of such potential.

Mike Ambinder is Principal Experimental Psychologist at Valve, creators of both Portal 2 (Valve Corporation 2011) and Team Fortress 2 (Valve Corporation 2007). Ambinder’s role involves applying knowledge and methods drawn from the discipline of Psychology to game design; for example, “to foster cooperation or communication among players or to manipulate visual attention on screen or to design experiments for in-game economy”. However, like Hellquist and Charles, Ambinder’s focus is entirely on making the best possible game, rather than creating an experience that will develop skills:

The underlying goal is always to make something that is entertaining to our customers. Make something they enjoy playing. And that’s a nebulous description, but it ends up being something that players will come back to and continue to play over time.

That said, Ambinder can also see potential for exercising skills such as cooperation in Valve’s games, citing the acclaimed zombie-themed multiplayer titles in the Left 4 Dead series (Valve Corporation 2008-):

Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 were specifically designed to enforce cooperation. That was a very specific part of the game design where we did not want to encourage players to go off on their own, so there are consequences for doing that. And we wanted to encourage players to work together, so there are game mechanics that are implemented that directly work to that end. So, when a player is incapacitated, some other player has to save them. You get higher bonuses for getting your entire team to the end of the level as opposed to just one person surviving, for example.

The Left 4 Dead games are designed to encourage cooperation. Source:

So, for Ambinder, it comes down to “what kind of game we’re making and what kind of behaviours we want to foster”, citing a King of the Hill type scenario as an example where encouraging cooperative behaviours would be counter to the goals of the game: “your game mechanics would not encourage that and then you wouldn’t get to see those benefits”. In general, though, Ambinder suggests it may be possible for games to develop useful behaviours in players:

But I think that with games, they are interactive and dynamic and adaptive and constantly changing. So, you do have the ability to elicit certain forms of behaviour that are ancillary to playing the game, but actually end up having better benefits outside the game.

However, Ambinder is very clear that neither he nor Valve would make any such claims about their games’ potential to develop useful player behaviours without investigating them thoroughly, citing an “innate scepticism about claims I haven’t directly investigated”.

Speaking to Daniel Bryner and Jeff Wajcs, level designers on Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light (Crystal Dynamics 2010), a similar picture emerges: while the game was not designed with the intention of developing useful skills in players, the application of certain skills is central to the game’s design. Bryner explains that the game was built “from the ground up for couch co-op“, meaning that players must communicate constantly in order to succeed – as was observed and commented upon by participants in the experimental study. Wajcs also highlights the cooperative nature of the game:

The Guardian of Light is a cooperative game that encourages players to work together to solve its puzzles and working cooperatively is another valuable skill in the real world.

Players must work together to traverse the obstacles presented in Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. Source:

Wajcs is clear that The Guardian of Light was not intended to develop attributes like communication skill, resourcefulness, or adaptability, expressing surprise that this may be the case. He can, however, see the potential for the transfer of related skills, such as problem-solving:

Certainly, using a bomb to knock a boulder onto a pressure plate is not a skill that has many real-world applications, but problem-solving and ‘thinking outside the box’ are two very valuable skills in a wide range of fields. Perhaps in solving these puzzles, the players are waking up and exercising specific problem-solving muscles in their brains that they could then apply in other contexts.

However, while the developers “worked very hard to add plenty of moments of player cooperation“ to the game, Wajcs notes that the potential to subvert this spirit of cooperation might result in a life lesson of a rather different sort:

At the same time, The Guardian of Light also encouraged players to ‘grief‘ each other relentlessly. My favorite moments in that game have been using bombs to knock my partner into a pit of spikes or letting go of the rope and letting my partner fall into lava. Hopefully, learning to never trust another human being ever again was not a lesson that players were taking away from our game!

This post is an extract from Chapter 7 of my new book, Graduate Skills and Game-Based Learning - check it out for more developer interviews and lots more!

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