The Importance of Feedback

People are often surprised when I tell them I came to game design through teaching. “Wow, that’s a huge switch!” they’ll say. But if you examine the core of teaching and game design, they’re really not all that different.

Sure, I used games in the classroom. On any given day, you could’ve walked into my classroom and seen my students engaged in a scavenger hunt, team trivia tournament, or math race. And let me tell you, any time I brought up the word game, even the most reluctant student would perk his ears up, eager to try something new.

But I’m not just talking about using games to enhance teaching. I’m talking about teaching itself. The very act of teaching is, in itself, a form of game design. A teacher has a specific goal in mind (e.g., having her students pass the state math exam) and creates a structured experience to guide students toward that goal.

So what do I do as a game designer? The same exact thing. I have a goal in mind, and I structure an experience to teach players the skills they’ll need to master the mechanics and succeed.

And what I’ve discovered thus far is that, aside from a clear goal, the most important element of games is clear and immediate feedback. And that’s what my students responded to most in the classroom. Homework exercises required waiting until the next day to figure out if they got the answers right, but games allowed them to immediately correct any misunderstandings and level up their skills.

If you think about it, the variety and intensity of feedback is the single biggest distinction between games and the real world. In the real world, you don’t get a +1 above your head when you take out the trash, and your tasks don’t adjust their difficulty based on your performance.

That’s where games have the upper hand. Games are extremely attentive to your performance, so they constantly provide feedback and adjust difficulty to match your skill level. In games, you’re always playing at the edge of your skill level, in a state called flow, with all your faculties fully engaged.

So the next time you find yourself trapped in a real world task you dread, think of the feedback you could implement to improve it. Even taking out the trash can be fun with proper goals and feedback in place.