Crystal gazing, GUIs and making computer games fun

Last week, I read a couple of fascinating papers from the early 1980s by Thomas Malone (formerly a research scientist at Xerox PARC, but now the Patrick J. McGovern Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management) who put forward a “set of heuristics or guidelines for designers of instructional computer games” (Malone, 1980, p. 162) that were largely made up of three core elements:

  1. challenge
    • goal
    • uncertain outcome
    • multiple level goals
    • hidden information
    • randomness
    • self-esteem
  2. fantasy
    • intrinsic & extrinsic fantasy
    • affective aspects of fantasy
  3. curiosity
    • sensory curiosity (e.g audio & visual effects)
    • cognitive curiosity
    • informative feedback

Greenfield would pick up and comment upon Malone’s studies (1984, pp. 88-89) a few years later, whils ?Gee’s 36 Learning Principles (2007, pp. 221-227) wouldn’t be a million miles away from Malone’s initial ideas. Indeed, much of Malone’s early work is echoed in much later works by other games and play theorists and commentators.

Malone goes on to highlight some potential gender differences (1982, p. 64) that game designers would ultimately need to think about if they were going to attract and exploit the potential female games market.

Whilst I suspect Malone wouldn’t like to be labelled as a “futurologist”, he makes a startling prophecy when he talks about the “different ‘personalities’ to different parts of a system” like the computer operating system, in short the Graphical User Interface (GUI) which was being pioneered by Xerox PARC at the time and was later adopted by Apple for their Macintosh devices. Malone (1980, p. 67) is quite emphatic when he says that:

I think fantasies have two important aspects for designing user interfaces: emotions and metaphors.

It has to be said that Malone makes some very astute observations as to the nature of games, games playing and what designers need to think about when developing computer / video games. Whilst the Malone papers are quite short, they do pack an immense number of ideas, suggestions and themes that, I suspect, have influenced the games industry for many years.

Interestingly, like Gee (2007, p. 215) after him, Malone (1980, p. 162) goes on to infer that:

…these same ideas can be applied to other educational environments and life situations.


Gee, J.P. (2007). What Video Games Have To Teach Us About Learning And Literacy (Revised and Updated Edition). New York, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Greenfield, P. M. (1984). Mind and Media: The effects of television, video games, and computers. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Malone, T.W. (1982). Heuristics for Designing Enjoyable User Interfaces: Lessons from Computer Games. Proceedings of the 1982 conference on Human factors in computing systems table of contents. Gaithersburg, Maryland, United States.

Malone, T.W. (1980) What Makes Things Fun to Learn? Heuristics for Designing Instructional Computer Games. Proceedings of the 3rd ACM SIGSMALL symposium and the first SIGPC symposium on Small systems table of contents. Palo Alto, California, United States.


Savage, D. (2008). Game of Suspense. Savage Chickens. Available at:? [Accessed 17 March 2009].