A Bit Puzzled


I spent this past New Year’s Eve revisiting the classic mystery board game, Clue.

A few weeks later, I was reading this fascinating article that a friend sent me about an alternate reality game that leads its players into the darkest recesses of the Internet.

And, for quite some time, I’ve been thinking about the problem of content in game-based learning — namely, how do you make a game in which the primary goal is simply to uncover content while, at the same time, respecting the integrity of game play?

Can you decode a common theme here?

It has to do with puzzles, which are all about decoding. In fact, what defines a puzzle and sets it apart from most other varieties of games is that it has a single correct answer or set of answers, facts to be solved for.

This is what Clue and the alternate reality game described in the article have in common. Clue, for one, is a game with a variable set of three facts at its center — the perpetrator of the crime, the weapon used, and the location in which the crime was committed. These facts are drawn from three blind decks and placed in an envelope before the game starts. The remainder of the cards are dealt to the players. None of the players know which cards are in the envelope, but they know there are a finite set of possibilities. By questioning other players about the cards that they hold, a player can eventually deduce the three cards in the envelope and win the game.

What I love about Clue is that it is essentially a puzzle, but it is structured in such a way as to overcome one of the biggest issues with puzzles — the problem of failure. In contrast with puzzles, most games support the player when they fail by allowing them to replay and providing multiple paths to victory. The player is rewarded with mastery over time and his or her frustration is limited. On the other hand, if you hit an impassable wall while decoding a sudoku or crossword puzzle, for instance, you must simply stop working on it, unless you can uncover some hints that allow you to break through. This can be terribly frustrating, and it can turn some players off. Of course, for a game like the internet alternate reality game, this merciless feature of puzzles is put to deliberate use, serving a sort of winnowing function which ensures that only the cleverest and most dogged of players advance.

In Clue, however, one player will almost invariably arrive at the answer. This is because players have multiple rounds in which to ask questions and receive hints until one of them figures out the mystery. In fact, this process of questioning and hint-giving constitutes almost the entirety of game play. In this way, the creator of Clue baked the hints to its variable puzzle directly into the design of the game. Other puzzle-based games, such as alternate reality games and adventure games, also typically build in hints and workarounds in order to ensure that they are accessible to players.

So what does this mean for us? Well, it seems we can make more deliberate use of puzzles and puzzle-based games in game-based learning and gamification. I see at least couple of opportunities:

  1. When content is king in the training or education program that you’re gamifying, you have a prime opportunity to create some puzzles and/or a puzzle-based game. Unlike most other types of games, puzzles hold facts that are directly discernible to the player. If, for instance, one central purpose of an onboarding experience is to impart to the player the names and functions of the various departments within the organization, then it seems to me that a puzzle-based game is best suited to this purpose.

  1. Whenever reasoning is a central part of the learning experience, you can design puzzles that align to the reasoning skills you want to instill. In some ways, in fact, puzzles are more about reasoning than they are about the facts at the center of them. After a game of Clue, for example, the exact set of cards in the envelope is far less memorable to me than my reasoning strategy and the breakthrough moment in which the mystery was solved. When it comes to gamification, I can think of few better modes for challenging your learners’ reasoning abilities.