My Life in Video Games, Now that I’m an Instructional Designer and Developer


When I was a kid, there were few things that made me happier than playing video games. From even my very first gaming experiences, where I remember sticking cassette tapes into my grandparents’ Commodore to play something very similar to PONG, I was amazed at the thought of being able to interact with digital images on a TV screen.

I remember going bowling with my family and just wanting to play the arcade games (does anyone else remember being awestruck by After Burner?), I remember playing Rygar at a friend’s house all weekend long only to have the dreaded “parent turned off my Nintendo and we lost all our saved progress” experience, and I’ll always think fondly of playing my favorite space simulators X-Wing, TIE Fighter, and Wing Commander III.

As a teenager and young adult, I pretty much only played games on my PC. Of course I played Wolfenstein 3D and DOOM and Duke Nukem. I also played tank simulators – I can’t remember the name of the game but it was about an M1 Abrams, which was a relatively new tank at the time (I remember that back then I had a hard time not referring to the tank as a Mauler). I played flight simulators. Yes, I played Microsoft Flight Simulator. I loved the Gunship series (Gunship 2000 was awesome!).  And you haven’t played a worthy flight sim until you’ve played A-10 Tank Killer and nearly jumped out of your seat the first time you lined up a column of tanks and let your midi speaker rip with the sound of your GAU-8 Avenger cannon (just remember to turn that music off!).

I played real time strategy games. I really got into Dune 2, I fell in love with Blizzard playing the original Warcraft and Starcraft games, and who hasn’t been influenced by Command and Conquer?

As for role playing games, I consider The Legend of Zelda and Rygar to be my favorite early RPGs, and I don’t remember playing many others growing up.

Since then, games have continued to be a significant part of my life. When I joined the Navy in 1997, Star Wars, Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II became my favorite game on the first PC I purchased with my own money. I had so much fun playing this game! I also began playing RPGs more seriously during this time, as I thoroughly enjoyed playing Diablo, as well as Baldur’s Gate and its sequel, Baldur’s Gate II.

Around this same time I remember going to the sailors’ MWR center and practically blowing my paycheck there playing Tekken, Soul Calibur, Mortal Kombat, and a lot of Laser Tag. My first gaming experience on a console was with the Sony PlayStation (that I purchased from a shipmate who didn’t want to take it with him). On it I spent way, way more than 99 hours playing Final Fantasy VII. I played some of the other games he had, like Crash Bandicoot, Pitfall 3D, and Tomb Raider, but I never really spent a lot of time with these games, and I considered the console experience vastly inferior to the PC gaming experience. In truth, there was very little comparison. I think Half-Life epitomized this concept.

And then Microsoft released the Xbox, and with it, Halo: Combat Evolved. Bungie worked with Microsoft (although you can still find the footage where it looked like they were going to release their game on the Apple) to release Halo with the Xbox, and Halo became the reason to get an Xbox.

Since Halo’s release, it’s hard to underestimate the effect this game had on the first-person shooter (FPS) genre. Just about every single FPS that has come since has taken cues from Halo. To be fair, every Halo that has come out since the first has taken cues from the rest of the game industry (yeah, I noticed that 343 took some notes from Bungie’s Destiny in Halo 5).

Halo has become, without a doubt, my favorite video game of all time. My wife and I used to play it regularly – before we had kids – and now the whole family plays some version or other of the game on a pretty regular basis. I noticed, though, that my gamer score reputation has taken a pretty hard hit since I started letting my kids play online with my profile. C’est la vie parentale.

Short, somewhat related story of note: A friend of mine at church looked pretty sad. I asked him to come have lunch with me. So, during lunch, he tells me, “Today’s my birthday.” I ask him what his plans are, and end up inviting him over to my place, where my wife and I encourage him with a birthday cake and we played Halo 3 online with my brother and our band of misfits.

I don’t know how it happened, but my friend and a young lady of our group, the most awesome gamer I’ve ever met, really hit it off during our play session. He got her gamertag and went out that night and bought an Xbox 360 with controllers, headset, and every copy of Halo available. Then he met up with her that night again on Halo and played the rest of the night together.

One month later they were married. He used Halo’s Forge system to create a level and propose to her. That moment appears below.

Years later, they’re still married, and we still play together when we have the opportunity.

In the last few years I’ve played Dark Souls, Mass Effect, every Halo FPS (I haven’t beaten the latest Halo yet because we’re holding off on upgrading to an Xbox One [thanks Dave Ramsey – we’re almost on baby step 3!]). But I got to play Halo 5 a bit at my brother’s house (where I captured this strange clipping-related moment – What happened, indeed?) this past weekend.

You can see a lot of the Xbox games my family and I play these days here.

So, as an Instructional Designer and Developer, what have I learned from my gaming experience?

There’s a lot that instructional design can learn from games – and we still have an awful lot to learn

Gamification. Sure. If you’re an instructional designer who’s been on the internet in the past few years, you have heard that term. These days I see it bandied about as a buzzword every day. However, unless your name is Karl Kapp, Jane McGonigal, David Michael, or Sande Chen (with very few others besides), you more than likely need to listen very carefully to what these gamification and gaming experts are saying and doing before blasting off about how much of a gamer you are or how amazeballs your boxing security robots/crossword puzzle/drag-and-drop-with-scoring eLearning course is.

Don’t get me wrong. Can learning experiences benefit from games? Undoubtedly. But we’re like babes from the crib who just figured out that those blocks on the floor are for us. We’re so enamored with the C block we’re chewing and drooling on, and our parents are so proud that we accidentally spelled the word “ONE” with our feet when we made that AMAZEBALLS GAMIFICATION from that template we found online.

We’re playing with toys. We’re a long, long way from making that super cool Death Star Lego set that our learners will want to play with.

Here’s a question I’m thinking about: What does LegoLand look like for instructional designers? For our students?

By the way: do not for a second think I am maligning any of the work done for the eLearning Challenges or by people who are bold enough to share of their playtime experiences designing and making awesome things, or people refining and practicing their craft.

However, in the same way that Michael Allen winces at the vast majority of eLearning out on the market today (if you read any of his books you pick up on this pretty quickly), the vast majority of what most people in our profession are claiming as gamification makes anyone who plays the kinds of games I’m talking about on this post roll their eyes and prepare for sleepy drool time. And they ridicule said “gamification” mercilessly.

In fact, speaking of Michael Allen and gamification, Allen Interactions’ Context, Challenge, Activity, and Feedback Model, or CCAF Model, is a really good model to use when building scenarios and environments for “gamified” eLearning courses, and I think it should be considered when designing gamification interventions. No matter what, if it’s not meaningful, memorable, and motivational, an Allen adage if ever there was one, don’t do it.

Here’s a good heuristic on this matter: In the same way we constantly ask instructional designers if they would take the courses they’ve crafted, would you take the “gamification” you’ve made? Would you play it? Would you play it to learn about that content?

Make your courses in complete alignment – unless you don’t do so intentionally

I mentioned that I played Dark Souls earlier. It is the best example I can think of a game that employs discovery learning. True discovery learning is challenging and “dangerous” in that you have no idea what your learners are going to learn from the experience, or even all the things that they are going to experience on their journey.

From Software seems to take great pleasure in tormenting their players. I beat Dark Souls, but I died an awful lot doing so. And I hated it. And that was why I loved it. I enjoyed discovering things on my own (Look! I’m a baby giant eagle egg!) and figuring out how to navigate and succeed in this brutally difficult and nefarious (“Try jumping.”) world. As for the story? And even how to complete the game? I would really have no idea what to make of Dark Souls’ whatsoever if it weren’t for the efforts of people like this guy.

But Dark Souls is the exception to the rule. Before Halo 4, how Halo perfectly prepared you to be successful in both the final events of the campaign and most of what you would experience in multiplayer is something of an art form unto itself.

First, I was taught how to look and move in the game, and that my basic settings were correct. Then, I’m “taught” – in the form of being provided a weapon – how to shoot and manipulate that weapon. First with the pistol. Then with the assault rifle. Next with the sniper rifle. And then with the missile launcher. By the time I finish the campaign, I know how to use all the weapons, drive/fly every vehicle, and I’ve had a ton of practice using them. When I start multiplayer in these games, I’m not being “thrown to the wolves.” I’m confident and competent enough to compete as a lone wolf.

Do I really need to make a direct illustration of how this applies to teaching and learning experiences provided by eLearning and gamification?

Regarding this kind of teaching and learning and/or performance alignment that happens in games, listen to what Edmund McMillen says while being interviewed for the movie Indie Game: The Movie.

The best video games let you have fun in unexpected ways – and they let you have complete control of that experience

Not so long ago, if you had told me that Halo was a jumping game, I would have laughed at you outright.


These guys from Jump Theory proved me wrong. And don’t even get me started on all the things you can do in Forge.

I think we have a long, long way to go in the learning field before we really appreciate giving learners control and variety of this caliber. I think we’re going to start seeing this level of dynamic, spontaneous, truly satisfying, and fun gaming experiences in a learning context when we start combining our disciplines even more than they already are. We can do this by spending more time together as game designers and instructional designers to collaborate and learn from each other. These guys are a good example of people doing just that.

Wasn’t instructional design founded, at least in part, because of the need for a linking science?

One of the best gamification/serious games experiences I’ve seen involves the multi-million dollar simulators I got to interact with while working at the Aviation Training Center in Mobile, Alabama. There, I got to interact with advanced simulators and teach instructors how to use those simulators to facilitate great learning experiences in simulated environments. You can read more about that here.

In closing, we as learning professionals have a lot more to learn from the gaming industry, especially if we’re going to continue throwing around words like gaming and gamification.