image: Andrew Stawarz
from social games to the
classroom: educational design
inspired by Farmville
an ePaper by sidneyeve matrix
In a year‐end presentation for the Social Games Seattle
meeting, lead designer of FarmVille Amitt Mahajan of Zynga
discussed what's involved in
that millions of people will want to play.
A blockbuster game must be designed to have wide appeal and
good retention—keeping players coming back and actively
There are many insights from Mahajan’s talk that transfer
neatly from the world of game development to instructional
design in higher ed.
In what follows we’ll highlight three of them.2
image: Thomas Hawk
Don’t turn people off is the first rule of the day,
according to Mahajan.
1. select material
with broad appeal
Building for engagement requires using material that
many people can relate to. Using people’s common
knowledge as a lever is about developing products and
experiences that they can connect to and understand
instantly—no steep learning curve involved.
For the FarmVille game developer, that might mean
opting for a gameworld ﬁlled with growing crops and
tending to livestock—the same imaginary scenarios
children have grown up playing, with plastic toys from
Fisher Price and Mattel.
But what about the classroom—where creating learning
curves, and often steep ones, is our business?
To design lectures and lessons that are engaging, the point about
building in commonly known, quickly graspable, highly relatable
concepts might mean:
(1) using more case studies to humanize the material,
(2) incorporating news of the day from daily headlines (captured via
newsfeeds and delivered to your inbox), or
(3) adding in some pop culture references, from celebrities to
television to YouTube.
All of these research/lesson prep tasks could be delegated to an RA
or TA, if available. If not, set up some Google News Alerts with
keywords to catch newsworthy stories in a trendwatching net.
image: Rennett Stowe
“Every time you play a game, you
build up relationships”
Addictive and highly engaging social games on Facebook are so
compelling because they leverage people’s social graphs. In fact,
like it or not, social gaming and socnet connections are
increasingly seen as a viable alternative to oﬄine face‐to‐
Watering someone’s crops on FarmVille is quickly becoming a
bona ﬁde and acceptable mode of microsocializing, and “a
replacement for having to go out of your way to keep in touch
with someone” observes Mahajan.
Back in the classroom, building educational
experiences that are more social means incorporating activities
and assignments designed to encourage interactivity and class
cohesion. How? The key here is shareability. Designing
opportunities for students to give and take with their peers and
enabling reciprocity. This allows students to increase their value
and contribution to a social network, by trading cultural capital.
One way to use the web to accomplish this: build a free site (a
Blogger blog, Ning social network, Netvibes pagecast, or
Facebook page) where students curate and share their research
(links to articles, news, videos, anything). If you ascribe to the
view of millennial students as eager for attention, recognition, a
little microfame, and constant feedback, it’s easy to see how this
kind of public, socially‐networked instructional design is purpose‐
built to engage GenY.
image: Brian Hathcock
“Bright beautiful graphics in a
social game are tantamount to
3. add visual
Engaging game design requires massive graphic
appeal. The power of visual pleasure is not to
be underestimated when spectacular imagery
can keep gamers online and enraptured.
Back on campus, some time invested in designing truly great
PowerPoint (or Keynote, if you’re a Mac) slides can work magic
and infuse the classroom with a degree of that same pleasure,
fascination, and joy that game designers speak of.
Treat yourself to a copy of Garr Reynolds work Presentation Zen 3
or one of the books he recommends to increase the visual and
emotional impact of your slide design.
1. Here is a link to the slides from Amitt Mahajan’s
2. For even more helpful ideas and insights from this game
developer, visit his website: http://www.amitt.com
3. Excellent resource on presentation design is Garr
about the author
Sidneyeve Matrix, PhD.
Queen's National Scholar, Film & Media, Queen's
University, Canada. Professor of digital culture, mass
communication & marketing, pop culture, television,
& film courses. Website: sidneyevematrix.net
Alike 3.0 License.