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Analysis: What Activities Can Be Turned Into Games?

In this analysis piece, designer Daniel Cook looks at Nintendo's Wii Fit to examine and break down the critera that skills - such as exercising or balancing - need to have in order to be turned into video games, suggesting a blossoming of games as

Daniel Cook

July 23, 2008

8 Min Read

[In this analysis piece, designer Daniel Cook looks at Nintendo's Wii Fit to examine and break down the critera that skills - such as exercising or balancing - need to have in order to be turned into video games, suggesting a blossoming of games as we discover those opportunities.] Recently, my amazing wife picked up a copy of Wii Fit. No, this is not a review. For the past year, my wife has been dealing with a rather serious, debilitating illness. One side effect is considerable and undesirable weight loss. On the positive side, she has enjoyed shopping for a new wardrobe to match her more petite frame. On the less positive side, many stores no longer carry clothes that are small enough to fit. So when the Wii Fit first booted up and cheerily prompted her to set a goal, she decided to try to get her BMI back up to the "normal level." Every day or so, she's been exercising, weighing herself and doing yoga. So far she has found the game to be convenient and highly motivational tool for helping her to track her weight. We've had other exercise equipment around the house before, as well as gym memberships, yoga classes, etc. None of them has been as motivating as a simple set of exercises wrapped in a system of game-like rewards. My wife's experience with Wii Fit speaks volumes about games potential to turn an often mundane activity into entertainment that is delightful, exploratory and highly meaningful. Thinking Beyond Scales Yet, who would have ever thought that weighing yourself could be turned into a game? Miyamoto did, but then again he is widely considered to be an uber genius. The skeptical observer might imagine that successful cross-over games like Wii Fit are one-in-a-million success stories. Suppose it works for Wii Fit, but nothing else. However, if the lessons of Wii Fit were broadly applicable, entire industries could be transformed. Games are a competitive advantage that can turn a commodity scale into one of the hottest consumer products of the year. In highly competitive markets, that is the sort of product design super power that lets innovative companies walk away with market share. As I contemplate my wife's success with the Wii Fit, I'm struck by a multi-billion dollar question: What other activities can you turn into a game? Almost Anything First, though there is no doubt that Miyamoto is a genius, what he does is reproducible by mere mortals. He is able to apply his game design skill (or at least his greenlighting abilities) to non-traditional games like Wii Fit because he understands game design at a very atomic level. Here is another way of looking at it. A craftsman builds tables the same way he was taught by his father and his grandfather can only build tables. But someone trained in mechanical engineering can use the fundamentals to build chairs, bridges, cars or even cathedrals. Similarly, by understanding the fundamental science behind traditional games, you can apply the theoretical tools of game design to transform wildly divergent activities into games. I've written about some of this in the past with essays on skill atoms. It turns out that most learnable skills can be turned into a game. However, there are constraints. A skill must meet the following criteria before it can be turned into a game: 1. Decomposable into simpler skills 2. Skills can be nested 3. Skills can be arranged in a smooth learning curve 4. Skills are measurable 5. Performance can be rewarded 6. Skills are locally useful. Let's look at these one by one. 1. Decomposable into simpler skills Complex learnable skills can be broken down into sets of easily acquired core skills. Players can only learn so much at once and overly complex skills overwhelm all but the most persistent players. By breaking skills up into digestible chunks, you are now able to apply many of the basic techniques of game design. In Wii Fit, the complex activity of "becoming fit" is broken down into skills associated with using the board, testing balance, endurance activities and more. 2. Skills can be nested Complex skills should build upon and reuse earlier skills. Advanced skills are best taught by the extension of existing skills, not introducing new metaphors. Game design is built around the idea of core mechanics, skills that are exercised over and over again throughout the game experience. If you can't find a set of basic reusable skills that can be incorporated as the foundational elements of more complex skills, players will deem the activity shallow and lose interest. In Wii Fit, the act of balancing while following rote exercises is used repeatedly throughout. It is an activity that is easy to learn, hard to master and contributes nicely to a wide range more advanced activities. 3. Skills can be arranged in a smooth learning curve There is a smooth ramp from learning easier skills to learning more complex skills. Initial skills should take only seconds since they leverage existing skills. Afterwards, learning activities should build in complexity until they take minutes, then hours. If the initial learning ramp takes too long, players will be confused or bored and stop playing. In Wii Fit, you can learn to use the board in seconds. Just step on it. However, more advanced games are slowly introduced until must spend hours of your time to unlock that last activity. 4. Skills are measurable The game can detect when a skill is used correctly or incorrectly. Without this the game cannot provide timely feedback that pushes the player in the right direction. The fact that Wii Fit is a giant sensor is perhaps to be expected. Within limits, it knows exactly what you are doing and when you doing something incorrectly. This is a dramatic difference from most exercise equipment or a workout video. 5. Performance is rewardable The game can provide the player with a timely feedback and rewards. If the game provides feedback too late or in a manner that is disconnected from the original action, the player won’t learn. Unlike traditional exercise equipment, Wii Fit judges your performance. It lets you know when you are doing poorly and it praises you when you are doing well. It is not a passive tool, but one that seeks to mold you. This is how games work and is an integral part of their success as a teaching tool. 6. Skills are locally useful The skill can be exercised in a useful manner by the player in a variety of meaningful local contexts. If the skill isn’t useful, the behavior will extinguish. Local utility is a tricky concept for many, especially those trained to think in terms of filling measurable customer needs. It basically means that the player finds an activity useful in the short term within the local context of the game. Grabbing a coin in Wii Fit may accomplish absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of the player's week. However, it does let the player unlock a new exercise. So for the moment, the player considers frantically gathering coins to be a completely utilitarian activity. Skills that are eliminated by these constraints What skills are eliminated by these constraints? Surprisingly few. The biggest sticking point often ends up deciding how to measure complex skills. With Wii Fit, they needed to engineer an entirely new device. It is not uncommon to invest substantial amounts of effort just gathering the right data so that you can reward the proper skills accurately and in timely manner. Machines alone have a limited understanding of many cultural human activities. In these situations, you need to build your games to use other human beings as measurement instruments. The rating techniques of sites like Hot or Not or Amazon.com are widely applicable. The other constraints end up being easily worked around with a little bit of thought and prototyping to find what works. Conclusion When I look at our list of six constraints, it is obvious to me that there are a plethora of skills that are just waiting to be turned into games. Games like Wii Fit or Brain Training may seem exceptional strokes of genius, but in reality they are merely the tiny tip of an immense iceberg. Almost any human skill, be it physical, cultural, political or economic can be turned into a game that enlightens and enables. As more leisure games emerge that mediate and accelerate the acquisition of skills, there is going to be a economic incentive to spread the science and craft of game design far beyond our tiny game industry. Game design is not just about games. It is a transformational new product development technique that can turn historically commoditized activities into economic blockbusters. This morning, my wife came back from her morning Wii Fit session and proudly announced to me that she just worked her way back to her normal weight range. She is still on the light side and this odd little game was by no means the only source of her success. But it had its place as a tool that measured, encouraged and rewarded progress. As such it was worth every single penny. When I look at Wii Fit and I hear the delight in my wife's voice, it is apparent that game design is again breaking out into the broader market. Obviously it isn't happening quite in the way many have predicted. The harbinger of game's ascendancy to all aspects of the modern life is not some piece of evocative art or Citizen Kane-a-like. Instead, our future appears in the form of a glorified bathroom scale. Still, if we can improve people's lives with a bathroom scale, just imagine how games can transform the rest of our world. [Daniel Cook writes regularly on design, the business of games and product development techniques at Lostgarden.com. He has previously worked with Epic Games, Anark and Microsoft.]

About the Author(s)

Daniel Cook


Daniel Cook writes regularly on design, the business of games and product development techniques at Lostgarden.com. He has previously worked with Epic Games, Anark and Microsoft.

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