Five Key Moments: A Litmus Test for Game Design

Katie Salen

Will Wright once gave a talk in which he described two key moments that would occur during the demonstration of a new game with a group of players if the game is well designed. He looked for these moments because they helped him assess a game’s ability to engage players. Key moment Number One is when a player unconsciously reaches for the game controller or mouse and asks, “Can I try?” Key moment Number Two arrives the moment a player turns to ask, “Can I save it?”

While these two moments are certainly critical indicators of good design, several others have emerged in our search to consider the design of games as the design of learning systems more broadly. From key moment Number Three (“Want me to show you?”) to key moment Number 4 (“How did you do that?”) to key moment Number Five (“I know a better way.”) these moments create feedback loops within the ecology of gaming that cycle through levels of engagement, agency, mastery, expertise, and back again.

One meta-theme that has emerged again and again both from the design and academic trenches is the power that peer-to-peer learning affords the evolution of a knowledge system and the range of guises in which such learning is currently cloaked. This suite of key moments helps us design frameworks from which such learning can emerge, and points to one of the most basic reasons that games are recognized, without reservation, by players as learning systems — trust. Players trust that the game system will teach them everything they need to know to play. When games don’t, players walk away. The term system refers not just to the game itself but to the entire toolset available to the player within a gaming practice, including FAQs or strategy guides, cheats, forums, and other players in and out of multiplayer settings.

Significantly, this contract of trust represents a fundamental change in the way people relate to systems, particularly technological systems. Ask someone who has not grown up with games to play a game like Super Mario Bros. for the DS and they will spend the first 30 minutes pouring over the instruction book. Gamers know this is a waste of time since reading a line like “If Mario gets hit by an enemy when he’s not shell dashing, he’ll lose his shell and become Super Mario,” means nothing out of context, which is the play of the game. Designers of cell phones, operating systems, and new learning spaces would do well to learn from games. When the stakes are so high, a system can’t afford not to teach.

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