I’ve been thinking a lot about instructional design lately because I’m participating in Design Forward, “a month-long emergent exploration of the intentional design of teaching and learning” created by Martha Burtis and other folks in Plymouth State University’s Open Learning and Teaching Collaborative. The work of Design Forward is to think about what “critical instructional design” might look like. The approach will “emphasize faculty ownership and autonomy to develop flexible and custom learning experiences.” This language has me thinking about designing other kinds of experiences which always leads me to thinking about game design.
I regularly teach a class called Creating Games, which is about creating tabletop games. One of the frameworks that we use in that class is the MDA Framework, by Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc (no relation!), and .Robert Zubek. In this framework, the experience of the players as they play the game is an explicit consideration and, although the analogy isn’t perfect, perhaps using this framework can help us to think explicitly about designing learning experiences in our classes.
MDA stands for Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics. The mechanics of a game are the rules and other structural materials of the game. The dynamics of a game are what happens when you put the mechanics into action, when players actually play the game. And the aesthetics of the game are ways that the player experiences the game, the feelings and emotions that the player has while playing. For example, the mechanics of Tic-Tac-Toe are that the players draw a 3×3 grid and take turns placing their marks in the empty spaces of the grid. If someone is able to put 3 of their mark in a row, column, or diagonal on the grid, they win the game. If the grid has no empty spaces left and no one has won the game, the game ends in a draw. The dynamics of the game are initiated when two players come together to play the game. Even with the same rules and the same players, no two instances of playing Tic-Tac-Toe are exaclty alike. As a player is playing the game, they will have an emotional response. This response is the aesthetics described in the MDA framework. Note that the aesthetics are not something built into the game itself but instead are a reaction to playing the game. In the case of Tic-Tac-Toe, little kids often become obsessed with the game and they want to play over and over. Once they figure out the pattern of optimal play in the game (so that every game ends in a draw), they become bored with the game. They have learned everything they can about the game. The game hasn’t changed but the player has.
One of the things I like about this model is that Hunicke, et al. describe MDA as a set of lenses through which we can view the game. The player views the game first from their experience of it, the aesthetics. Then, they might think about the particular instance of game play (dynamics) that gave rise to their experience of the game and then, maybe, they would think about how the dynamics were put into play by the particular mechanics of the game. (Most players don’t think about how the mechanics of the game give rise to the particular dynamics of the game but in my class, I ask students to analyze games in exactly this way as a means to more deeply understand how games work.) The game designer, on the other hand, views the game first from the perspective of what they are designing, the mechanics, that is, the materials, the rules, and the other structural elements of the game. The game designer might then observe a play-testing session, to see the game in action, to understand the dynamics of a particular instance of game play. In a play-testing session, the game designer might then explictily ask the player questions about their experience but they might also observe instances of enjoyment or frustration or boredom. Observing such aesthetics or reactions to the game, the game designer might rethink the mechanics of the game, making changes to improve the aesthetic exprience of the player. The figure below showst hese lenses and how they interact.
Hunicke, et al. go on to explain that these various lenses means that designing games is a second-order design problem. That is, the game designer cannot directly design the dynamics to evoke the desired aesthetics. The game designer designs the mechanics which result in different dynamics each time the game is played which then evokes various aesthetics in the players. The same player might actually have (and usually does have) a completely different experience the second or third or fourth time they play a game. The goal of the game designer is to put in place mechanics that are most likely to evoke the desired aesthetics in most players most of the time. This is a really challenging task!
What does this have to do with instructional design? In many ways, instructional designers (teachers) are similar to game designers while learners in a classroom are similar to players. Teachers design the mechanics (rules, assignments, activities, etc.). We get the dynamics of a class when students put the mechanics into action. The student experience of the mechanics in action are the aesthetics described by the MDA Framework. Until the teacher sees the particular learners interacting with the mechanics they have designed, there is really no way to know whether those learners will experience what we want them to (that is, learning). In fact, all teachers have probably encountered situations in which the same mechanics (lesson plans, class activities, etc.) are put into action by different sets of learners and create very different dynamics and, therefore, very different aesthetics. From the student perspective, they often have very different experiences (aesthetics) in different classrooms which may have very similar mechanics because the dynamics matter. Who is in the room to put the mechanics in motion can create very different dynamics which create very different aesthetics.
By viewing the educational endeavor through these lenses, we might be able to design learning experiences that are more likely to help students learn. I’m still thinking about how this framework might help me design better learning experiences with and for my students. I’ll be curious to know whether anyone else thinks this might be a useful framework for thinking about instructional design.
I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.