Overlapping Goals

March 15, 2015

I just finished reading Kurt Squire’s, Video Games and Learning: Teaching and Participatory Culture in the Digital Age, and I’m still unpacking the overwhelming multitude of new ideas in this book.


My favorite part of the book was actually the discussion about video game design, and in particular, the design of overlapping goals.

A second design rule is to provide overlapping goals. When a Pirates! player sails into town for the first time, the governor instructs him or her to visit a neighboring city and receive a reward. So now the player has a long-term goal (earn fame and riches) and two short-term goals (attack a ship and visit a neighboring port). The short-term goals compete with one another, which gives the player an interesting choice: Do I attack that ship on the horizon, or do I sail to the next port? (pg. 7)

As I continued reading, I began to realize that the sidebars and footnotes in Squire’s own book serve as their own sort of overlapping goals. Should I finish reading this section or should I pause and read the sidebar on the next page? That got me thinking about my own half-baked criticisms of print as a participatory medium, and how maybe hyperlinks do invite participation in ways that regular print does not. After all, a hyperlink is the ultimate overlapping goal, whisking you away to another part of the internet to read a related article before you’ve finished this one.

Why are overlapping goals so important any ways? It seems that they create a situation where the user has to make a choice. Do I continue the course I’m on or chart a new one? Even if you choose to ignore the footnotes in a book, you are still making a choice not to engage with them, and that’s a choice you couldn’t have made in the absence of footnotes.

Many board game critics say that the best games require players to make interesting decisions. Hyperlinks, sidebars, and footnotes are just tiny snippets of what could be very interesting decisions. Looking back over Mike Caulfield’s original post about “users,” I began to realize that digging through hyperlinks is one way that “lurkers” participate in digital media. It’s not a form of participation that creates “makers,” but it’s still a form of participation.

So what about the decisions we ask our students to make in the classroom? My students usually work in groups on handouts during class. I try to design questions for these handouts with multiple points of entry and no right-or-wrong answers so that students will be forced to employ their classmate’s help. I’m thinking of differentiated instruction with menus, but that is giving students different choices about where to start a problem. We’ve completely overlooked choices about where a student ends a problem. What are their goals and do we want every student to have the same immediate goals?

I’m sort of imagining a choose your own adventure handout. Give the class a long-term goal (say developing their proportional reasoning,) and then let each group make decisions about competing short-term goals as they work through the handout. There could be sidebars and diverging projects that lead different groups off in different directions. That’s fine. It actually makes class discussions more interesting afterwards. Rather than rehashing work they’ve already completed, we’re telling stories about our own personal experiments. Your classmates might have taken a different path so there’s actually value in listening to them and hearing what they discovered along that alternative path.

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