The Games Industry Perspective

Through interviews with the developers behind commercial titles including Borderlands, Portal and Lara Croft, Chapter 7 explores how such games are designed to exercise certain skills and competencies in players, which may also be valuable beyond the games. Here’s an excerpt…

Do commercial game developers think of their games as having the capacity to develop useful skills in those who play them? Or, do they believe video games present players with opportunities to learn something about the world, or about themselves? Might developers consciously include such opportunities in their games, despite their remit to entertain and – in most cases – generate revenue? To explore some of these questions, games industry personnel responsible for developing the games used in the previously described study were interviewed. The interviews began by asking developers if they had considered that their respective games might develop useful skills or experience in players.

Paul Hellquist, Creative Director and Lead Designer on Borderlands 2 (Gearbox Software 2012), is clear that the development of such skills was not a goal on that game. However, in retrospect, Hellquist identifies how the player’s application of critical thinking is embedded in the game’s design:

That was certainly not a goal, to make a game that encourages people and helps them learn how to collaborate or whatever. But I definitely can see how the game could help with that. Certainly, critical thinking was important to me. My goal wasn’t to teach or to train, but from my game design standpoint, critical thinking was important to me.

Players combine forces to take on a pair of ‘Bullymongs’ in Borderlands 2. Source:
Players combine forces to take on a pair of ‘Bullymongs’ in Borderlands 2. Source:

Hellquist describes how forcing the player to think critically about the weapons and other loot that they obtain in the game is actually part of the fun. During the development of Borderlands 2, this philosophy led to an internal debate about just how much information players should be given about each item they encounter. For weapons, in particular, there was an argument in favour of reducing their on-screen statistics to a single ‘damage per second’ figure, in a manner similar to Diablo (Blizzard North 1996). Hellquist resisted such a move, explaining that because attacks on an enemy in Diablo requires nothing more than a click of a mouse, it makes sense to reduce such a transaction down to a simple ‘damage per second’ calculation. In a shooter like Borderlands 2, the outcome of an enemy encounter is affected not only by weapon statistics but also by factors related to player skill. So, from a game design perspective, reducing weapon statistics down to a single ‘damage per second’ stat made little sense. Instead, players were to be presented with a number of different stats for each weapon, requiring a degree of critical judgment to determine their relative merits:

What I thought was a really important and core element of the fun of looting in Borderlands was forcing the players to actually look at two weapons and say, ‘Hmm, is it more important for me to have a faster reload time or a higher rate of fire? How do I compare those two things? Which one do I think, as a player, will result in a higher damage per second?’ I wanted those questions to be unknown, so that players could do that critical thinking and make their own decisions.

One of the intended side effects of obfuscating the absolute merits of in-game items was to encourage online debate within the player community, which Hellquist feels paid off. Certainly, the game has inspired innumerable online forum posts, player guides, and wiki entries which address – in significant detail – the strengths, weaknesses, and strategies associated with the weapons, characters, enemies, and maps featured in the game. Such collaborative efforts are not uncommon in online gaming communities, of course, and discussion around the more opaque titles is particularly lively.

Karla Zimonja, Director on Gone Home (The Fullbright Company 2013), also connects that game with critical thinking. Here, players are provided with incomplete – and perhaps conflicting – information, which also forces them to think critically:

I feel as if there should be a certain amount of critical thinking that Gone Home could help develop, sure. We definitely tried to not fill in all the blanks, fictionally, but instead to allow room for the player to make the mental leaps themselves. This investment of mental work is much more enjoyable and interesting than just giving the information would have been. Learning is fun and working to understand a thing is super rewarding and satisfying when you succeed.

For Matt Charles, Producer on Borderlands 2, having players develop new skills was a personal goal, although, like his colleague Hellquist, this goal was closely coupled with a desire to make the best possible game.

I believed that I had noticed that really great games challenge you in a new way, and a challenge is really just an opportunity to learn something new. Or, it’s a mechanic presented in a new way or maybe it’s a recurring mechanic from another game presented in a creative way, in an unexpected way. But either way you’re learning, right? You’re being challenged by it; it feels fresh and new.

So, for Charles – echoing a sentiment expressed by the likes of James Paul Gee and Raph Koster – part of what makes a game fun is the learning it is designed to elicit. This also chimes with what Zimonja says above in relation to Gone Home: learning is fun. As Charles goes on to suggest, if a game feels stale, “that probably means that, well, we’re not really engaging the player, they’re not having fun, they’re not learning anything new”. In line with Hellquist’s comments above, Charles acknowledges that teaching players anything that might be applicable beyond the game was not the objective on Borderlands 2:

The mission for Borderlands 2 was pretty much more, better Borderlands. We’re trying to expand the audience, we’re trying to gratify more people to a greater degree than we did with the first one, and we’re going to do that by refining the things that worked, adding new things to keep people entertained and maybe grow the audience a little bit, and honestly cut the stuff that doesn’t work.

However, Charles is optimistic that some of the design decisions made on Borderlands 2 might have facilitated personal growth in those who played the game:

Maybe they related to a particular character that had a struggle that was represented in a light that they had never considered before. You know, some way of empathising with somebody struggling with something that had never really occurred to them. That’s what I’d consider a useful experience, that they might take with them out of the game.

The empathetic learning potential of games to which Charles alludes here is a phenomenon that has already generated interest amongst academics and is touched on elsewhere in this book. In Chapter 4, for example, participants involved in the study on which this book is based discussed how playing games such as Gone Home had presented opportunities to explore new perspectives. Gee’s Identity Principle, which states that “learning involves taking on and playing with identities in such a way that the learner has real choices (in developing the virtual identity) and ample opportunity to meditate on the relationship between new identities and old ones” (Gee 2007 p. 67) is also relevant here, as is the growing body of research on games’ potential to develop empathy (Bachen et al. 2012; Belman and Flanagan 2010; Harrington and O’Connell 2016). What is interesting to note here is that game developers are aware of such potential.

Mike Ambinder is Principal Experimental Psychologist at Valve, creators of both Portal 2 (Valve Corporation 2011) and Team Fortress 2 (Valve Corporation 2007). Ambinder’s role involves applying knowledge and methods drawn from the discipline of Psychology to game design; for example, “to foster cooperation or communication among players or to manipulate visual attention on screen or to design experiments for in-game economy”. However, like Hellquist and Charles, Ambinder’s focus is entirely on making the best possible game, rather than creating an experience that will develop skills:

The underlying goal is always to make something that is entertaining to our customers. Make something they enjoy playing. And that’s a nebulous description, but it ends up being something that players will come back to and continue to play over time.

That said, Ambinder can also see potential for exercising skills such as cooperation in Valve’s games, citing the acclaimed zombie-themed multiplayer titles in the Left 4 Dead series (Valve Corporation 2008-):

Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 were specifically designed to enforce cooperation. That was a very specific part of the game design where we did not want to encourage players to go off on their own, so there are consequences for doing that. And we wanted to encourage players to work together, so there are game mechanics that are implemented that directly work to that end. So, when a player is incapacitated, some other player has to save them. You get higher bonuses for getting your entire team to the end of the level as opposed to just one person surviving, for example.

The Left 4 Dead games are designed to encourage cooperation. Source:
The Left 4 Dead games are designed to encourage cooperation. Source:

So, for Ambinder, it comes down to “what kind of game we’re making and what kind of behaviours we want to foster”, citing a King of the Hill type scenario as an example where encouraging cooperative behaviours would be counter to the goals of the game: “your game mechanics would not encourage that and then you wouldn’t get to see those benefits”. In general, though, Ambinder suggests it may be possible for games to develop useful behaviours in players:

But I think that with games, they are interactive and dynamic and adaptive and constantly changing. So, you do have the ability to elicit certain forms of behaviour that are ancillary to playing the game, but actually end up having better benefits outside the game.

However, Ambinder is very clear that neither he nor Valve would make any such claims about their games’ potential to develop useful player behaviours without investigating them thoroughly, citing an “innate scepticism about claims I haven’t directly investigated”.

Speaking to Daniel Bryner and Jeff Wajcs, level designers on Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light (Crystal Dynamics 2010), a similar picture emerges: while the game was not designed with the intention of developing useful skills in players, the application of certain skills is central to the game’s design. Bryner explains that the game was built “from the ground up for couch co-op“, meaning that players must communicate constantly in order to succeed – as was observed and commented upon by participants in the experimental study. Wajcs also highlights the cooperative nature of the game:

The Guardian of Light is a cooperative game that encourages players to work together to solve its puzzles and working cooperatively is another valuable skill in the real world.

Players must work together to traverse the obstacles presented in Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. Source:
Players must work together to traverse the obstacles presented in Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. Source:

Wajcs is clear that The Guardian of Light was not intended to develop attributes like communication skill, resourcefulness, or adaptability, expressing surprise that this may be the case. He can, however, see the potential for the transfer of related skills, such as problem-solving:

Certainly, using a bomb to knock a boulder onto a pressure plate is not a skill that has many real-world applications, but problem-solving and ‘thinking outside the box’ are two very valuable skills in a wide range of fields. Perhaps in solving these puzzles, the players are waking up and exercising specific problem-solving muscles in their brains that they could then apply in other contexts.

However, while the developers “worked very hard to add plenty of moments of player cooperation“ to the game, Wajcs notes that the potential to subvert this spirit of cooperation might result in a life lesson of a rather different sort:

At the same time, The Guardian of Light also encouraged players to ‘grief‘ each other relentlessly. My favorite moments in that game have been using bombs to knock my partner into a pit of spikes or letting go of the rope and letting my partner fall into lava. Hopefully, learning to never trust another human being ever again was not a lesson that players were taking away from our game!

This post originally appeared at Gamasutra.

Barr, M. (2019). The Games Industry Perspective. Graduate Skills and Game-Based Learning, 181–204. doi: 10.1007/978-3-030-27786-4_7

Playing Games at University

In Chapter 3, an experimental study is described, in which students were randomly assigned to either a game-playing intervention group or a control group. The intervention group were asked to play selected video games over the course of a semester, while the control group were not. The students’ communication skill, resourcefulness and adaptability were measured at the beginning and the end of the semester, and differences in attainment between the two groups compared. As described in the chapter, the gains in skills attainment for the game-playing intervention group were significantly greater than those for the control group. These data are analysed in detail in the chapter, but the excerpt below details the games selected for use in the study.

Selected games

Games were selected with input from colleagues in the games industry and academia, who were presented with a list of graduate attributes and asked to suggest commercial titles that might exercise each. This list of games was then filtered through practical concerns including cost, compatibility with available hardware, and quality. A poor-quality game is of little utility here: well-received titles are more likely to be representative of those that players would choose to play on their own time, and a particularly poor game is likely to impact negatively on the participants’ willingness to engage in the study. While game quality is somewhat subjective, aggregated review scores published on sites such as Metacritic are used by industry and consumers alike to determine a game’s excellence (Graft 2011). Metacritic scores – which convert the scores awarded by critics to games, films and music into a convenient, if opaquely calculated, percentage value – are not without their critics (Dring 2010) but they undoubtedly provide an easily quantifiable means of determining the relative merits of a game. For the purposes of this study, no game with a Metacritic score of less than 80 was considered, with scores ranging from 82 to 95. A brief description of each of the selected games is provided below.

Borderlands 2

Borderlands 2 (Gearbox Software 2012) is a cooperative role-playing first-person shooter game, which allows up to four players to “team up with other players for online co-op goodness”. Importantly, the game also allows for LAN (Local Area Network) multiplayer, meaning the cooperative elements function without an internet connection where institutional firewalls prohibit access to games servers. The game also permits players to drop in and drop out as required. This allowed participants who arrived after others had already embarked on a mission to join the team without being forced to wait for the beginning of the next mission or requiring the others to start again from the beginning. One player, however, must host the game, to which the other players then connect.

Borderlands 2
Figure 3.1: Players combine forces to take on a pair of ‘Bullymongs’ in Borderlands 2. Source:

Borderlands 2 players work together to obtain loot and weaponry while battling a range of foes against a colourful cartoonish backdrop and attendant story. A variety of play styles are supported through the choice of character classes presented to the player, ranging from a tank-like “Gunzerker” to a stealthier assassin. The emphasis is very much on cooperation and, as such, there are no overtly competitive elements, although players receive points for completing missions that they may use to ‘level up’ their character.


Minecraft (Mojang 2011) is a procedurally generated sandbox game with construction, exploration, and survival elements. In single player mode, players are free to explore the world and collect (‘mine’) resources such as stone, wood, and metal to create (‘craft’) a virtually limitless range of buildings, tools, and weapons. Multiplayer mode is similarly non-prescriptive in terms of what it permits (or requires) players to do: the main difference is that the world is shared, so players may choose to work together, often on very large collaborative projects (see ‘All of Denmark virtually recreated’ 2014). Here, a Minecraft server was created to facilitate player cooperation in a persistent world that permitted all participants to share the same space and did not require an individual player to host the game.

Figure 3.2: Players cooperate on some construction work in Minecraft. Source:

The game server was left running indefinitely, with participants logging in from their individual workstations as and when they arrived in the lab. The persistent game world meant that structures constructed by players, along the lines of that seen in Figure 3.2, could be used and extended (or, indeed, destroyed) by anyone, and returning players were not required to start from scratch each time. The persistent, shared nature of the world also provided greater scope for more ambitious collaborative efforts, given the larger pool of collaborators and increased cumulative duration of play.

Portal 2

Valve’s Portal 2 (Valve Corporation 2011) is described by the developer as “a hilariously mind-bending adventure that challenges you to use wits over weaponry in a funhouse of diabolical science”. The game features a particularly robust and inventive cooperative mode, which requires two players to work together to traverse a series of challenging virtual spaces. Both players may create a pair of joined portals, through which either player may pass, thus opening up possibilities for reaching new areas and creating opportunities for physics-based interactions with the environment. For example, in order to advance through one cooperative level, the first player must create a pair of portals for the second player to continually fall through in order to gain momentum until they exit the portal with sufficient velocity to reach a raised platform. Cooperating players are afforded their individual views of the action via a split screen, such that a player may observe what their partner is doing while controlling their own on-screen avatar. In order to aid collaboration, players are also granted the ability to ‘point’ to important aspects of the game world, for example, to indicate where they believe their partner should go next.

Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light

The cooperative, isometrically presented Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light (Crystal Dynamics 2010) also places emphasis on cooperation to solve puzzles and progress. The game is something of a departure from previous titles featuring the eponymous heroine, which are traditionally branded as Tomb Raider games and typically feature a third-person perspective and single-player gameplay. For the Lara Croft titles, a fixed isometric view of the world is presented, and the game is intended to be played with a friend. One player assumes the role of the gun-toting Lara while the other plays as Totec, a Mayan warrior who comes equipped with a spear that is useful for creating impromptu ladders and bridges.

Lara Croft
Figure 3.3: Players must work together to traverse the obstacles presented in Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. Source:

Cooperative players share the same screen (although online co-op is an option in most versions of the game) and for this study both players were provided with a game console-style controller. This arrangement was intended to provide a more convenient means of cooperative play than crowding two players around a shared keyboard. The game’s design clearly encourages verbal communication between players, often taking the form of one player solving the puzzle at hand and explaining to the other player what is required of them. Of course, if the solution to the puzzle is plain to both players it is still beneficial, and usually essential, for the players to communicate their intentions. Figure 3.3 provides a simple example of the cooperative nature of the gameplay, where Lara has used her rope to create a precarious-looking bridge for Totec to cross the spike-filled pit below. Once Totec has crossed, he will be required to create a bridge for Lara to follow him by throwing his spear into the wooden planks that adorn the wall behind the pit. Only Lara possesses a rope and only Totec can throw spears – spears too weak to support the weight of the hulking warrior himself – meaning that this and numerous other obstacles may only be traversed by means of carefully planned teamwork. While the demise of a player’s on-screen avatar results in little more than a brief inconvenience, there is an element of competition introduced by a points system that rewards players for their individual success in collecting artefacts and dispatching enemies. This dynamic does not lessen the fundamentally cooperative nature of the game, but it does add some small significance to the quick-fire negotiations that mediate the allocation of spoils such as health.

Warcraft III

Released in 2002, Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos (Blizzard Entertainment 2002) was the oldest game used in the study. The rationale for its inclusion was based on its strategic multiplayer mode, which may be played over a local network without an internet connection. While Warcraft III was not mentioned specifically by the panel of experts involved in selecting the games, a number of its derivatives were, namely: the ubiquitous World of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment 2004) and Dota 2 (Valve Corporation 2013).These are quite different games, belonging to different genres: Warcraft III is a Real-Time Strategy (RTS) game whereas WoW is a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG) based on the lore of the RTS series which preceded it; Dota 2 is a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) game and sequel to a mod (‘modification’) of Warcraft III. However, certain shared elements – the online cooperation of WoW and the strategic combat of Dota 2 – made Warcraft III an interesting candidate for inclusion in the study.

Warcraft III is played on a pseudo three-dimensional map with up to four races (Orcs, Humans, Night Elves, and Undead) vying for domination. Each player controls one of these races and must collect resources – gold and lumber – to develop and construct buildings, units, and weaponry with the ultimate aim of obliterating their opponents from the map. The game’s multiplayer mode supports team play, meaning that participants in the study could work together (even as different races) to defeat a computer-controlled adversary. Unlike Lara Croft, many different multiplayer configurations are supported, from the previously described two-versus-one scenario through to any combination of human and computer teams.

Warcraft III
Figure 3.4: A Night Elf (turquoise) encampment comes under Human (blue) attack in Warcraft III. Source:

Participants were instructed to play cooperatively (i.e. on the same team) in pairs or groups. If sufficient participants were available, competitive play was permitted (for example a team of two participants against another two) but cooperation was encouraged.

Team Fortress 2

Valve’s Team Fortress 2 (Valve Corporation 2007) is the multiplayer-only sequel to a popular mod of the 1996 first-person shooter, Quake (id Software 1996). While it does feature in-game purchases – players may opt to buy particular upgrades and other content – the core game is free-to-play, making it an attractive option where budgets are limited. The free-to-play tag is often synonymous with lower quality titles; however, the game was also critically well received, with a Metacritic score of 92. Crucially, multiplayer games may be hosted on a local server, again avoiding the need for an internet connection to facilitate matchmaking.

Gameplay in Team Fortress 2 is, as one might expect, team based. Players may join the game at any time by dropping into the current match and choosing to side with either the RED (‘Reliable Excavation & Demolition’) team or the BLU (‘Builders League United’) team. Similar to Borderlands 2, players may select from a range of character classes that allow for experimentation with different play styles, ranging from the slow but formidable Heavy to the elusive Spy.

Team Fortress 2
Figure 3.5: BLU versus RED combat during a Capture the Flag game in Team Fortress 2. Source:

The structure of the game sees competing teams thrown into conflict on a time-limited or objective-based map. When a team meets the victory conditions – or time runs out – the next map is loaded, and a new objective pursued. Each map operates in a pre-determined game mode, such as Capture the Flag, Payload, or King of the Hill, with the objective of each mode explained by means of a short video shown at the beginning of play. In Capture the Flag mode, for example, both teams are tasked with stealing a briefcase of intelligence from the depths of the opposing team‘s base and transporting it back to their own, with the briefcase standing in for the titular flag. Players must therefore decide how much emphasis to place on defence of their own intelligence versus making an offensive move to capture the enemy’s briefcase.

Regardless of game mode, the team-based gameplay means that communication is critically important. At a basic level, communication may comprise little more than desperate pleas for assistance when an enemy agent gains the upper hand. However, a successful team will communicate in a more sophisticated manner to convey strategies and status updates, often under the direction of a de facto leader.

Papers, Please and Gone Home

Described by its developer as a “dystopian document thriller”, Papers, Please (3909 LLC 2013) is a BAFTA-winning game in which the player is cast as an immigration officer, deciding whom to let in and whom to turn away from the border of the fictional former communist state of Arstotzka. The player performs this role by critically (and increasingly quickly) assessing the documentation presented by each potential immigrant in light of the ever-changing rules and regulations imposed by the state. As well as exercising critical judgement and dealing with change, the player is presented with an opportunity to reflect on the ethical and social consequences of their in-game actions. A player may reflect on how their actions impact the lives of the fictional immigrants and citizens of Arstotzka (terrorist attacks are a distinct possibility, should the wrong person be permitted access to the country) and also on the personal price to be paid by the family of the player’s character. Failure to meet state-imposed quotas for processing immigrants results in reduced pay and, ultimately, a choice to be made between paying fuel bills or buying life-saving medicine for a family member.

Papers, Please
Figure 3.6: Players must analyse evidence presented in Papers, Please and respond accordingly. Source:

Fullbright’s Gone Home (The Fullbright Company 2013) might be described as a first-person interactive story or adventure (the designers term it a “story exploration video game”) wherein the player, assuming the role of a young woman returning to her family home after a yearlong absence, explores an apparently abandoned house. In doing so, the player may uncover a number of storylines, the most significant of which relates to the protagonist’s younger sister. There are no explicit goals and interaction is relatively limited – such games are occasionally, and somewhat derogatorily, referred to as “walking simulators” – with plot developments uncovered by reading discarded letters and examining ephemera such as concert ticket stubs and television viewing guides.

These two single player games differed in nature from the majority of the titles used in the study, which emphasised cooperation and communication in a multiplayer environment. However, both games may be viewed as requiring the player to exercise critical thinking, and to demonstrate resourcefulness and adaptability. While these latter attributes were measured here by quantitative means, it was thought useful to discuss the possibility of these games being used to develop less tangible attributes – such as ethical and social awareness – with participants in the interviews that followed.

Barr, M. (2019). Playing Games at University. Graduate Skills and Game-Based Learning, 65–73. doi: 10.1007/978-3-030-27786-4_3