TECH: What makes a video game fun?

From: Chris Rasch (
Date: Mon Feb 19 2001 - 13:51:33 MST

Thomas Malone was a primary investigator in studying the effects of
games on motivation. Malone wanted to find out how to design
activities that are intrinsically motivating (1980a). Intrinsically
motivating activities are those in which people will partake for their
own sake even though an external reward was not present. Malone
surveyed a group of kids who had been playing computer games for two
months, and asked them to rank their preferences. Malone found that
certain elements must be present in a game in order for them to be
enjoyable to children. By conducting a correlational study between
features of the games and popularity of the games, Malone found that
the element most highly correlated with popularity among children was
the presence of an explicit goal (Malone, 1980b). Other factors that
affect a game's popularity were the ability of the computer to keep
score, the presence of audio effects, randomness, and the reqirement
that the player responds quickly.

In another study, Malone (1980b) took the game of Darts, which
attempts to teach children about fractions and number lines (the game
was originally designed and created by the Plato system at the
University of Illinois). Malone created different versions of the game
in order to find out which features kids found the most fun. One by
one, Malone deleted features like scoring, and music from the original
game so that he could determine at which point the game became less
fun. He also created different versions with different types of
feedback, and one game with no feedback. There was a significant
difference between boys and girls on which features were most
preferred. The boys liked a version of the game where fantasy arrows
shot and popped balloons, but the girls did not like this version. The
boys did not like the version where the computer gave them feedback
telling them they were shooting too high or too low, and the girls
liked the version with the music the most. Malone says that it is
important to understand the differences in preferences between boys
and girls because we might end up unintentionally designing software
that is meant to be motivating and educational, but does not succeed
at motivating both genders.

In another study using the Darts game, Malone and Lepper (as cited in
Malone, 1980a) looked at whether the game was actually
educational. They tested two groups of kids using two versions of the
game. One version was the original Darts game, and the other one was a
drill game. The drill game was identical in educational content, but
instead of having arrows shooting balloons, there were simply
rectangles substituting for the balloons and horizontal lines which
replaced the arrows. One group of kids played the original game for
twenty minutes, or had the option to play Hangman. The second group of
kids could play the drill version of the game or Hangman for twenty
minutes. The kids who played the original game played almost fifty
percent longer than the kids with the drill version of the game,
showing that the game version was indeed more motivational. Did the
kids learn anything from the game? Malone and Lepper took three more
groups of kids and had them play for thirty minutes either the game
version or drill version, or Hangman as a control. The groups that
played the game version and the drill version learned significantly
more about fractions and number lines than did the control group who
played Hangman. There was no significant difference in knowledge
between the group that played the game version and the group that
played the drill version. When given a choice, however, a child will
spend fifty percent more time on the game version. It is therefore
expected that a child would learn more from an educational game than
from an educational drill.

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