The paradox of social video games

Despite the entertainment value and fun video games provide, video games may be making us more depressed as a society.

More socially-oriented video games like MMORPGs prey on our fear of loneliness and desire for companionship. But these games fulfill our desire in temporary and minimal ways, keeping us addicted to fleeting sources of social activity and never quite satisfying us over the long term to build the most personally meaningful experiences. In this way, social video games are a false panacea to our isolation and loneliness.

To fulfill our social desires, we need to keep playing these video games – especially if video games are our main source of social interaction. We hole ourselves up in our game dens, hooking up to gaming headsets to transport ourselves to another world. But the technological requirements needed to play are very isolating. LAN parties are not the norm, and they require more coordination than is sustainable for most gamers.

In college, I met several upper-middle-class children who grew up without siblings and with parents who worked long hours. We all ended up playing MMORPGs in our middle school years. And we all had to acknowledge and address our addictions to these games – never returning to these virtual worlds after graduating high school.

Why did we all grow out of these comfortable spaces? My hunch is that living in college dorms and building in-person social communities within these spaces weaned us off MMORPGs. A few other less outgoing students who lived in my dorm holed themselves up in their rooms playing video games though, and virtual spaces like League of Legends seemed like a convenient escape and/or coping mechanism for socioemotional struggles.

Johann Hari, author of Lost Connections spoke a bit on technology’s impact on our social relationships during his talk with Ezra Klein: “Is modern society making us depressed?”

According to Hari, reciprocal relationships help loneliness – not just access to people and people who provide services for you. We’re not that individualistic. We want people who need our help and contributions. We don’t want to feel like charity cases. I would rather have a friend who needs me like I need her – rather than a friend who makes me feel unneeded. Since humans are social animals, we need to feel needed by other people (even if that is just one other person).

Depression and anxiety are responses to unmet needs. If unmet, we often resort to virtual worlds, drugs, and other escapes from reality.

A great use of technology is to facilitate in-person interactions, much like how and Tinder operate to bring people together. I’ve been trying to find an app to make friends, but there’s a strong stigma where people assume that people who need an app to make friends have severe social issues (which is not entirely untrue, depending on how you define social norms).

Given all this, I think board games may be a much better tool for mental health, education, and social change than video games. Social relatedness is a huge intrinsic motivator, and this can be leveraged naturally by in-person board game interactions. If we could use VR to bridge this gap to successfully trick the brain and mimic in-person interactions, this may be functionally ideal but potentially over-reliant on technology to stay happy and healthy.

Empathy and Terrible Games

Empathy is needed for design. But all that planning can be for naught if your execution fails to get players to empathize with your designed creation. Ultimately, no one cares about our ability to understand other people and put ourselves in their shoes. We’re wired to be selfish and attend to our personal needs first. Alright, that’s cool and all, but what’s in it for me? Why should I care?

Since the goal of our games as game designers is to make players feel a certain way, I argue that designing and playing games are both acts of empathy. Not only do we have to think from our players’ perspectives to design an enjoyable experience, but our players also need to empathize with the characters, story, and world we’ve built to really immerse themselves into gameplay and achieve a state of flow.

If our players do not suspend themselves in the illusion of gameplay, this often leads to an unpleasant, jarring experience. We want to play pretend that feels real, while still maintaining a tiny semblance of agency in the back of our minds that reminds us that none of this is actually real (save for our personally felt experiences). This is sort of like lucid dreaming, where everything still feels right and okay – up until the point where we are forced to acknowledge that our dream is a lie that we made up. Maintain the illusion, and everyone’s happy.

Once the curtain goes up on the Oz act, our sense of wonder gives way to pessimistic adult realism and/or curious fascination (How can I do that? How can I recreate the magician’s trick and do it even better? What does this imply about our ability to be tricked as humans?) “Even I can do what this phony did.” And sometimes this leads to great results, such as not-yet game designers suddenly realizing that they can design their own games. Being able to view our heroes in a more humble light allows us to more seriously consider our own personal abilities to succeed – perhaps even where our heroes could not.

We only care enough about the design of something if it either does really well or utterly flops. Since research in psychology shows we’re more attuned to negative emotions, I’d say we’re more likely to leave a negative rating in reaction to something bad than express a positive reaction to something good. If all is as it seems it should be, we tend to take the design for granted and go on with our lives as usual.

Great game design is great. There’s no question about that. But I argue that terrible game design is also great. Maybe not as great, but practically speaking, there’s long-term payoff where there is little short-term reward. Terrible games contribute to community growth and the “creation” of new game designers. With good or decent games, players may think, “If it ain’t broke, they don’t need me to step in and fix it.” But making a task or goal seem achievable inspires actionable thoughts, such as, “Even I could do better than this.” And then someone takes on that challenge.

A few minutes to weeks pass by, during which we as novices realize seemingly simple tasks have a bit of a learning curve to them as we transition from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence. But often enough, many of us are stubborn enough to persist through the journey and then go on a few more (due to passion, curiosity, ego, whatever our reasons may be) – which more often than not results in a set of refined skills. Then lo and behold after a few months (or years), one of your indie efforts makes it big and draws people’s attention to your work. Ta-da, you are now recognized as a skilled expert who designs good games. No pressure. Remember, even if you do a bad job, you’re encouraging new minds to enter the field because they’re now empowered to design their own games.

Interactive Storytelling for Education: “The Evolution of Trust”

Interactive storytelling can be a powerful medium in the realm of educational games. How do you pack a great deal of conceptual knowledge in an e-learning experience – while also keeping learners engaged and giving them increased opportunities to learn from their experiences with your instructional content? Amidst a crowd of PowerPoints, lectures, videos, quizzes, MOOCs, and other e-learning media, I believe game designer Nicky Case has found/created a happy medium in “explorable explanations.”

Game: “The Evolution of Trust”

A piece of design that touches my heart as a fledgling educational experience designer is Case’s “The Evolution of Trust” (2017). (Try out this browser-based experience on your device before reading on!) “The Evolution of Trust” is an interactive guide to the game theory of trust based off Robert Axelrod’s 1984 book, The Evolution of Cooperation. After taking two advanced game theory courses in my undergraduate economics program, I really appreciated the playful yet educational experience Case created here.

In “The Evolution of Trust,” Case boils down game theory – what economics professors often present as an esoteric subject – to several core ideas and makes them readily consumable for the mass public through playful drawings and meaningful interactions (e.g. animation, scoreboards, and narration which correspond to the learner’s chosen actions) that allow for “learning by doing.”

In the education literature, “The Evolution of Trust” can be described as supporting generative processing: “cognitive processing aimed at deeper understanding of the core material (consisting mainly of organizing and integrating) and is created by the motivation of the learner to make sense of the material and can be supported by instructional methods that promote engagement with the material” (Clark & Mayer, 2016).

“The Evolution of Trust” is a great example of interactive storytelling for educational purposes, and this post is dedicated to exploring this example.

Game designer: Nicky Case

Nicky Case is the designer and creator of this interactive experience. Case was born in Singapore and moved to Vancouver with his family as a child. He came out as bisexual at 16 years old to his “manipulative, abusive, and violent parents” (Eyeo Festival 2015 talk) and was essentially disowned shortly after. Case later went on to create the game, “Coming Out Simulator” (2014), as a result of this experience.

After Case moved out of his family home at sixteen and started interning at a video game startup, one of his fellow game developers had a mid-life crisis in the middle of a project deadline and asked Case: “Is what we’re doing important?” In his 2015 Eyeo Festival talk, Case responded to his coworker by sharing his perspective that video games are art, and art can really affect people. Case’s most recent art, which includes “The Evolution of Trust,” focuses on helping people understand and learn, and the following quote of his aptly describes his design philosophy:

“Because when people don’t understand something, it leads to hate, helplessness, or worst of all, apathy. With interactive art, and learning by doing… maybe we can get people to understand the world, each other, and themselves.”

Design leading up to “The Evolution of Trust”

How did “The Evolution of Trust” come into being? It all started when Case published his first interactive explainer, “Coming Out Simulator,” and became internet-famous almost overnight.

He was then invited to an interactive education workshop – where he met fellow educational experience designer Vi Hart. They collaborated and created the explorable explanation (see Bret Victor’s 2011 essay that coined the phrase “explorable explanation” in reference list), “Parable of the Polygons” which illustrates how individual biases can turn into more systemic, collective biases.

Eventually, Case gave up on his big indie game project that he had been planning and working on for years after choosing to further explore this side project idea of explorable explanations (Nicky Case, Explorable Explanations – XOXO Festival 2015) and interactive explainers. Case is now inviting designers and developers across the world to join in and make their own explorable explanations. He and his collaborators developed the Explorable Explanations website to share explorables that “reunite play and learning” and also provide resources for visitors to make their own explorable explanations.

Design of “The Evolution of Trust”

Case’s “How I Make Explorable Explanations” blog post describes the process of how he designs explorable explanations that help people learn by playing:

You’ve got to make your reader / viewer / player curious – you’ve got to make them love your question… In ‘The Evolution of Trust,’ I posed the question in the form of a story: why & how did WWI soldiers create peace in the trenches?”

True to his word, Case starts the “The Evolution of Trust” by presenting the WWI Christmas story to explore the “epidemic of distrust” many of us perceive:

During World War I, peace broke out.

It was Christmas 1914 on the Western Front.
Despite strict orders not to chillax with the enemy, British
and German soldiers left their trenches, crossed No Man’s Land,
and gathered to bury their dead, exchange gifts, and play games.

Meanwhile: it’s 2017, the West has been at peace for decades, and
wow, we suck at trust. Surveys show that, over the past forty years, fewer and fewer people say they trust each other. So here’s our puzzle:

Why, even in peacetime, do friends become enemies?
And why, even in wartime, do enemies become friends?

I think game theory can help explain our epidemic of distrust –
and how we can fix it! So, to understand all this…

…let’s play a game. →


The audience of “The Evolution of Trust” is anyone with access to the internet, since the experience is designed to run on any web browser. Accessibility seems to be at the forefront of this project, given the universal web app design, Creative Commons Zero license, and open-source nature of the base code.

Case makes public domain playables, and this is another public domain dedication. The license for this project is Creative Commons Zero, which Case describes as: “Basically, do whatever you want! Attribution is super appreciated, but I’m not gonna send legal goons after you or anything.”

This explorable explanation was originally created in English, but open-source (via GitHub pull requests) fan translations are encouraged, tested, and linked to the game’s homepage. The following languages are currently supported: Japanese, Chinese (Simplified), Chinese (Traditional), Brazilian Portuguese, French, Spain Spanish, Latin American Spanish, Russian, German, Italian, Turkish, Polish, Vietnamese, Greek, Persian/Farsi, Hungarian, Catalan, Arabic, Bulgarian, Korean, Romanian, Ukrainian, Croatian, and Swedish.


“The Evolution of Trust” is an example of interactive storytelling. When Case creates interactive stories, he wants the interaction to really matter. He also gives the learner a concrete experience to certain their gameplay around: in this case, playing a Prisoners’ Dilemma type game against a variety of virtual opponents:


Following along this line of storytelling, Case describes his thought process when designing the story framework for “The Evolution of Trust”:

“Matt Stone & Trey Parker once said that instead of making stories like this: ‘this happens, and then that happens, and then that happens, etc’… you should make stories like this: ‘this happens, THEREFORE that happens, BUT that happens, THEREFORE this happens, etc’.

I tried to connect as many points as I could with BUT: ‘You can both win if you both cooperate BUT in a single game you’ll both cheat BUT in a repeated game cooperation can succeed BUT in this scenario cheaters take over in the short term BUT in the long term the cooperators succeed again BUT…’ and so on, and so on.”

Although this simplified story structure looks confusing in run-on sentence form, this logical continuity of ideas that continue to reinforce and build upon each other lends itself well to an educational context.

Design details and effectiveness

At a superficial level, the calming instrumental background music and sound effects (which are all Creative Commons-licensed) for interactive activities are well-suited to learning and focusing a learner’s attention to the interactivity at hand in “The Evolution of Trust.” The cute drawings, colors, tournament web diagrams, buttons, and sliders also act as visual guides to understanding and interacting with the interactive experience. 

Even the first section which introduces the game of trust serves as an intuitive pseudo-tutorial to explain the general premise of the game and get players familiar with the mechanics and score tracking.

For example, in the next section titled, “2. Repeated Game,” we learn there is a different strategy for a repeated game playing over multiple rounds (where players do not know which round will be the last) from the strategy for a one-time game or known set of rounds. In the following section (“3. One Tournament”), we learn about how the original Christmas Truce example was a repeated game since “players” played the same game against the same specific people while clicking through individual tournament round results:


Here, the game introduces the concept of multiple tournaments using both text and visuals, and then provides an animated example, which learners can either see animated or click step-by-step through (by clicking on the “step” button):


Additionally, support is built into the design for learners to use (or not use), such as the hover-over descriptions for the character choices below:


After establishing the case for reciprocating behavior, the game draws our attention back to the original question posed at the beginning:



“The Evolution of Trust” then has learners tinker with the underlying logic behind the game theory concepts of a “zero-sum game” and “non-zero-sum game” before introducing this terminology to learners:


I particularly appreciated Sandbox Mode, since you can easily test theories you might have, even as a user with limited technical/coding abilities, by clicking arrows or moving sliders to adjust values. You can just as easily skip this optional section.


The summary that recaps the high-level lessons of the explorable explanation is also quite helpful, since the interactive experience covered several different topics and variations on this topic (e.g. single game, repeated game, one tournament, repeated tournaments, mistakes). It is nice to have this scaffolded guidance for final reflection, synthesis, and a call to action. The last “slide” representing the Christmas Truce mentioned in the beginning of “The Evolution of Trust” also does a great job of completing the circle of the story and providing closure to the experience.


Room for improvement

Although it is nice that a learner can navigate by section across the explorable explanation (e.g. “2. Repeated Game,” “3. One Tournament,” “4. Repeated Tournament,” “5. The Evolution of Distrust”) via the bottom menu, I think it would also be helpful to be able to go back and revisit the last screen the learner has seen. This way, the learner can revisit specific information or a specific activity more readily. I found myself skimming and clicking the “next” button too quickly and wanting to go back to the previous screen several times. While repeating a short section may not seem too bad, being forced to repeat extra material is associated with feeling a lack of agency and control – which does not align with the nature of this voluntary learning experience.


I believe “The Evolution of Trust” accomplished its overall design purpose of teaching basic game theory concepts to literate internet users with no prior knowledge of game theory – through the medium of interactive storytelling. Through worked examples, guided discovery, practice, and open exploration (Sandbox Mode), many learning opportunities were provided to learners during the explorable explanation. Significantly, the call-to-action at the end of the experience gives learners a sense of agency to create an environment more conducive to trust (rather than distrust) and closes out the experience leaving learners feeling smarter and more in control of their social environment.




Case, N. (2017, July 25). The Evolution of Trust. Retrieved from

Case, N. (n.d.). NOTES. Retrieved from

Case, N. (2017, September 20). How I Make Explorable Explanations. Retrieved from

Case, N. (2017). Ncase/trust. Retrieved from

Case, N. (2014). Coming Out Simulator 2014 by Nicky Case! Retrieved from

Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. (2016). E-learning and the science of instruction (4th ed.) Wiley.

Explorable Explanations. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Eyeo 2015 – Nicky Case. (2015, August 6). Retrieved from

Hart, V., & Case, N. (2014). A playable post on the shape of society. Retrieved from

Nicky Case, Explorable Explanations – XOXO Festival (2015). (2015, November 05). Retrieved from

Victor, B. (2011, March 10). Explorable Explanations. Retrieved from

Educational Games

People play games all the time. Chances are, you’ve probably played many a game on the device you’re using to read this blog post. Children in particular have a wonderful tendency to make up games on the spot – using their imagination to incorporate elements of their surrounding environment into an entertaining game.

We naturally learn through play: how to throw a ball, how gravity affects us, how to fight off a would-be attacker, how to trick people into a trap, how cheating affects others’ perceptions of us. It seems that nature has wired us to enjoy play as a way to incentivize practical learning.

Despite the bad rap video games get in the educational community for being violent and/or harmful, many teachers acknowledge the effectiveness of well-designed games. For example, as a 90’s baby in the American public school system, I noticed several schools loved Reader Rabbit and Math Blaster (even though they did not have the resources to incorporate this into the primary curriculum).

People choose to play games. No one (hopefully) forces us to regularly play any game (disregarding any super intense friends who might have sent you barrages of Candy Crush requests in yesteryear’s Facebook). The decision to play games is intrinsically motivated.


Motivation is crucial for learning. If your kid loves to play basketball, she is going to learn to play well soon enough because of all the practice she will gladly put in. Conversely, a child who hates basketball and is forced into playing by his parents will probably not experience much improvement in his basketball skills. Extrinsic motivation can also drive learning (which will ideally become intrinsically motivated to be sustainable). For example, the current job market for software engineers, data scientists, and other technologists has extrinsically motivated many college students to study computer science.

Motivation refers to the personal investment that a person has in reaching a desired outcome. Motivation creates, directs, and sustains what students do to learn. It influences the direction, intensity, persistence, and quality of students’ learning behaviors (Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett, & Norman, 2010).

Intrinsic Motivation

When people are intrinsically motivated, they pursue activities because of the enjoyment of the activity itself – not because of the promise of extrinsic reward. This can lead to sustained, self-driven learning – contributing to the dispositional goal of supporting students as life-long learners.

According to Schwartz, Tsang, & Blair (2016), there are three foundational intrinsic motivators: autonomy, competence, and social relatedness:


Autonomy relates to learners’ feelings of control over their own decisions and actions.

Great games are designed to give players autonomy and feelings of control (except in certain games where feeling  a distinct lack of control is the intended player experience).


Competence relates to learners feeling capable of achieving their desired goals and gaining mastery.

Generally, games scaffold players through a tiered level system that allows players to experience an optimal level of challenge – which supports players’ feelings of competence.

Social Relatedness

Social relatedness taps into the human desire to connect with others. Related to this is the concept of belonging. Belonging is the perception of being accepted, valued, and included. Learning is social. Improving belonging helps learning by increasing effort, decreasing negative distracting thoughts, and creating greater persistence in face of challenges.

Many games foster belonging and social relatedness. If all of your friends are playing a game, you naturally have a reason to also play that game. Multiplayer online games build upon this idea and can really hook in groups of players who have built in-game communities where they feel like they belong.

Ultimately, my personal goal as an instructional technologist is to make learning fun, and educational games are my media of choice.

What is an educational game?

According to Wikipedia:

Educational games are games that are designed to teach people about certain subjects, expand concepts, reinforce development, understand a historical event or culture, or assist them in learning a skill as they play.

Unfortunately, this definition is still quite broad. We could argue that all games teach players skills: how to shoot a your opponents in a first-person shooter, how to strategically place blocks to clear rows of blocks in Tetris, and so on. But many of us would agree that these kinds of games don’t seem very educational.

So what makes a game educational?

Goals & learning objectives?

Learning transfers out of the game to “real life.”

So long as the knowledge and skills that players learn in-game transfer to information players use in real life, a game can be considered educational. Serious games are good examples of this concept: games designed for a primary purpose other than pure entertainment, such as military simulation-based training games and citizen science games to discover new proteins and diagnose malaria-infected blood cells.

Understanding players’ prior knowledge and their gameplay context are crucial to setting appropriate learning objectives for your game.

Design? Gameplay?

What will be the main thing that players do to have fun in your game?

If this “main thing” does not directly support learning that transfers out of the game to new scenarios, perhaps your game is only marginally educational.


Several games can be touted as educational depending on the way they are marketed. For example, one CNBC columnist argues that Monopoly teaches kids math skills, risk/reward, long and short term investing, negotiation, learning from mistakes, and how capitalism works at a basic level. Most of us, however, would not immediately consider Monopoly when coming up with a list of educational games.


Ideally, an educational game will support robust learning for a wide range of players of different experience levels and backgrounds in a short amount of playtime. How we can accomplish this as designers of educational games is the million-dollar question. Until next time!



Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. John Wiley & Sons.

Schwartz, D. L., Tsang, J. M., & Blair, K. P. (2016). The ABCs of how we learn: 26 scientifically proven approaches, how they work, and when to use them. WW Norton & Company.

Leap of Faith: Frogger

After hearing about friends visiting relatives in congested Asian cities and then coming back to all the jaywalking that happens on a college campus, I’ve been thinking lately about Frogger. “Real life Frogger” (Thankfully, I have yet to witness anyone suffer the same fate as the unfortunate pixelated frogs that were left in my care.) It’s one of those games that everyone my age or older has at least heard about or seen. Developed by Konami and published in 1981, the game is considered a classic.


Even young kids these days are likely to encounter references to Frogger in pop culture, such as in a Teen Titans Go! episode, thanks to older content creators who pay tribute to nostalgic memories. Journalists and dank meme creators alike are quick to point out instances of “real life Frogger”.

reallifefroggerOnce these kids are old enough to drink, functioning Frogger arcade cabinets will likely still exist in several arcade bars. If not, plenty of fans have created tribute Frogger clone games for people to play for free online.


The game of Frogger is easy to understand and just “makes sense.” I think the simplicity of the game is what makes it so well-loved. There is no introductory cut scene to explain what is going on. No written instructions or tutorial showing you how to play. A simple design translates to anyone trying out the game for a few minutes and subsequently understanding how to play through trial-and-error.

froggergameplayAnyhow, back to the game design. There is a high degree of perceptual salience that Frogger’s pixelated objects and environment offer the player.

Visual clues and cues to our prior knowledge of similar objects and environments allow us to naturally understand the rules of the game. Moving cars can run you over. Movement is predictable. Stay away from a crocodile’s snapping jaws. Frogs eat bugs. Snakes eat frogs. Crossbones mean death.

Audio cues also gives us some indication of whether something is good or bad. Short higher-pitched sounds or celebratory high-pitched melodies play when you get a frog to its home. Escorting a lady frog triggers an ascending sound effect. Flat, longer, low-pitched sounds play when your frog dies.

Many people play their first round of Frogger assuming that the game’s mechanics stay pretty consistent after making their way past the cars and trucks and into the purple midpoint “rest area” with no obstacles. Keep calm and carry on hopping on the black pavement.

… I died?

Oh wait, floating logs and turtles are found in water, aren’t they?

In this way, this seemingly simple game defies our expectations and forces us to think. Although the black game environment does not visually change, the surrounding objects hint towards black pixels representing water instead of road now.

Admittedly, it took me a while to get my frogs to the top of the screen without dying. “Since water = death, let’s get the frog to the land at the top of the screen. Look – it even has these cute red flowers! … RIP.” Lilypads in the intended “home spaces,” as seen in’s unofficial game clone, would have been a helpful hint. Parking my frog in an unnatural square pool of doom never quite made sense to me as a kid; it still doesn’t now. Perhaps this is another context switch, where now I should go back to the “cars on a road” metaphor and think of “parking” my frog into designated parking spaces.


There’s an element of challenge in Frogger. The ever-moving nature of objects in the game contributes to a short timeframe to act within.

The game acknowledges your efforts by incorporating a rest space at the midpoint (which also serves double duty as a representational divider and clue for the context switch). You can’t stay here for too long though, as the ominously dwindling green “Time” bar will remind you.

Like most games, the game gradually gets more difficult as the players successfully advances. Game designers understand that players are looking for a certain level of challenge – not too easy so as to become bored but also not too difficult so as to seem virtually impossible.

challengeThis is presented in the form of:

  •  Fast-moving cars that make whirring noises when they zoom onto the screen
  •  Crocodiles that cleverly blend in with the logs in their corresponding lanes (and that can be used similarly as platforms if their snapping jaws are avoided)
  •  Slithering snakes


Ultimately, Frogger is a great example of effective design. Across the world, anyone can easily pick up on how to play the game despite being thrown headfirst into the experience. Frogger also shows us that game elements can be flexible, since players are observant and learn quickly from experience. That is in essence the nature of gameplay: observe, play, learn, fail, adapt, learn, and repeat. This brings us to some food for thought: Are we addicted to learning, challenge, or something else? What makes games so fun? I don’t have a good answer to this question yet, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.