What can we learn from playing ‘casual’ video games? October 26, 2015 January 25, 2017 Gill Brabner

Do you play games on your PC, or iPhone or other device?  Do you take a few minutes out of your day to login to Facebook and play a game? And does part of you feel a bit guilty about wasting precious time playing a seemingly meaningless game?  Well you can stop worrying, for you are in good company!  According to Jane McGonigal author of Reality is Broken, 70% of executives are doing just that.

So what is the attraction of blasting balls across the screen or zapping fruit and can we learn anything from what the industry calls ‘casual’ games?

To find out I have been taking some time out of my hectic schedule to play Zuma’s Revenge.


With Zuma’s creators emphasizing fun and play I turned to Nicola Whitton’s book: Digital Games and Learning published last year.  She cites Brown and Vaughan’s (2010) definitions of play. Their definition suggests that the millions of people playing games, which have ‘apparent purposelessness’ are doing so in order to have ‘fun, provide relief from boredom’ and make them ‘feel good’. They also say that play ‘provides freedom of time’, which I recognise as being in flow, and ‘creates a diminished consciousness of self.’ It seems there may be potential benefits for Zuma enthusiasts.

For the uninitiated here is a brief summary of what the game entails:

The player is in the role of ball-shooting frog, with the aim of shooting all the balls to prevent them disappearing into the skull at which point you lose your frog. Players need 3 or more balls of the same colour in a chain which are created by shooting the same colour ball at two or more together. Some balls in the chain are known as power-ups and have specific qualities such as slowing the movement of the chain, reversing the movement or providing a precision tool for accurate shooting. A Zuma bar fills up as balls are cleared and points gained and once full, the player can simply clear out the remaining balls to reach the next level. Tri shots and bombs provide the player with the satisfaction of blasting through the chains and extra points and a Zuma bar boost are available by shooting fruit. My favourite technique is the gap shot where you shoot through a gap in a chain to earn additional points. All of which sounds a bit pointless!

So what is it about this game and others like it that makes it attractive to so many people?

Casual games are designed to meet some very powerful principles which L&D practitioners can use to good effect when designing learning programmes.  Here’s some examples from Zuma:

  1. The player receives instant feedback and metrics.  A score card appears at the end of each level detailing the player’s performance, providing the ‘impetus to complete the game faster or …achieve a better score.’ (Whitton 2014).
  2. Different learning styles are catered for.  The basic rules of the game are provided but the game design means it is possible for the player to decode it and move through the levels without reading the rules.
  3. We keep practicing the skills we need because being persistent is part of our enjoyment – and we know we will be rewarded for our success.  The game is designed to build skills through the repetition of levels, creating an effective skill and drill process so by the time the player achieves each new level, they are prepared for the next challenge requiring faster and more accurate play.
  4. The learner benefits from the immersive quality of games and the opportunity to experience the cathartic quality of flow. 

The last point is particularly important for all of us working in L&D, OD and HR.  McGonigal (2014) claims that 70 per cent of executives are taking game breaks during the working day to relieve stress. Workplace stress and absence is a major concern to UK organisations. ‘Two-fifths of organisations report an increase in stress-related absence over the past year, rising to half of the public sector’ (CIPD’s Absence Management Report 2015).
The attraction of using Zuma or similar games to enable learners to experience ‘being in a state of optimal experience’ (Whitton 2014) is because they take very little time. Ideal therefore for stressed out executives and for the rest of us for that matter.



CIPD Absence Management 2015 Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development http://www.cipd.co.uk/binaries/absence-management_2015.pdf    Retrieved 24.10.15

Gee J. P.  (2007) What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy Palgrave Macmillan New York

McGonigal J., Reality is Broken (2011) Vintage London

Whitton N (2014) Digital Games and Learning Routledge New York