Culture & SocietyBecoming a #GamedevInterview

From instructional design to game development: an interview with Ellen Johnson

For the last decades, gaming has found its way into education and academic discussions about learning have become increasingly more interesting ever since. After all, games in education present one more way, among many others, of establishing a fruitful dialogue of humanities with technology. In fact, isn’t the game development field all about that?

We have already addressed this topic on this blog here, here and here. However, this time, we talked to an instructional designer in the hopes of finding out what a professional in the field of education expects when trying to find a doorway into game development. We talked to Ellen Burns-Johnson, who currently works as an instructional designer in Minnesota and has been trying to become a game developer. Check out our interview with her below.

IndieWatch: Who are you and what do you do? Where are you from? What did you study in college?

I guess the best way to define myself is as a learning junkie. I’ve always lived in Minnesota, but my interests wander. For instance, I didn’t go to school to be an instructional designer. I landed here in a roundabout way. I started out studying music education; I play the trombone, among other things. Then switched to secondary Language Arts education, but after a couple years of teaching, I knew that wasn’t the right fit, either. After I left teaching, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I had studied web design in college, so I applied for a writing position with an e-learning company.

That stuck for me. The world of instructional design really clicked, and I’ve been doing it ever since. I guess the lesson here is: if you don’t love what you do, keep poking around. Eventually, you’ll find the right niche.

IndieWatch: What does an instructional designer do? What does it take to become one? 

The short version is that an instructional designer is someone who structures and sequences content so that it has the greatest impact on learning. I think that’s kind of a boring definition that leads to boring experiences. For e-learning, which is my speciality, bad design is the kind of course that makes you click a “Next” button fifty times while some voiceover drones on in the background. Boring!

The better version is that an instructional designer crafts an experience that helps a learner construct knowledge or practice a skill. I use everything I can think of to engage people in the learning experience: narrative, animation, audio, challenges. I try to find the puzzles in whatever we’re training, bring them to life, and then make the learner figure out how to solve it. Sometimes, the end product looks like a minigame.

Instructional design
A sample of Ellen’s work

IndieWatch: How long have you been an instructional designer for? Where do you work?

I’ve been an instructional designer for about three years now. I work at Allen Interactions, a consulting and development firm in Mendota Heights.

IndieWatch: What have you done so far in game development? What’s your area of expertise in this field? Any links for your portfolio?

Gosh, I’m such a newbie! I have done very little in game development so far. I did the 2017 Winter Immersion program through GLITCH, which was a very helpful orientation to the game industry. I gave a talk at GLITCHConnect this spring on using learning theory to analyze gameplay.

Then I had to take a few months off, but I’m starting a partial residency at GLITCH this week. So I hope to have a working prototype of a game by the end of the year. Check back in a few weeks!

IndieWatch: When and why did you decide to work in the game industry?

I love designing interactivity and, in general, experiences that encourage people to think or do something interesting. I love watching that spark of energy that happens when something clicks for a person. Searching for ways to create that spark led me to game design, which I started exploring about a year ago.

I still feel really new, but when I first began I knew absolutely nothing. I went to local Meetups and GLITCH events, watched people playtest, and asked questions.

A sample of Ellen's work
A sample of Ellen’s work

IndieWatch: What are you bringing to games that you learned while working with instructional design?

There’s a model that I use in instructional design called CCAF. It’s a method for breaking down a real-world behavior into smaller components that are easier to analyze and work with for creative purposes. Each behavior is formed of:

  • Context (the sounds and sights that trigger the behavior)
  • Challenge (the thing you want to accomplish)
  • Activity (the physical actions you take to accomplish it)
  • Feedback (what you see and hear that lets you know whether you did it right)

With instructional design, I’m usually thinking about ways to approximate real-life behaviors with CCAF. I’m excited to experiment with this framework in game design, because I think it might be an effective way to create ideas for games that try to evoke real-life behaviors in a fun and authentic way.  


IndieWatch: Is it possible to blend those two fields? How?

I absolutely think it’s possible to blend these two fields. In fact, game-based learning is a hot topic in the training and education industries right now—and I’m not talking about the kind of superficial experience where a learner gets meaningless points and badges just for sitting through a video. More designers and educators are recognizing that games require problem-solving, patience, perseverance, strategic thinking, teamwork, and other habits of mind that are important for success in school and in life.

It’s hard to do it right, though. No one likes to be “tricked” into learning. A game designed with learning in mind still has to work as a game; it has to be fun and authentic, not just a sugar-coated pill. Yet I think this is where the connection is made between game development and instructional design. Good instructional design results in experiences that help people learn complex ideas and systems. Games do this all the time! They teach their players how to play.

I think the best examples of game-based learning are ones in which the rules of the game reflect the rules of the real-life system you want to teach. Then, learning the game is the same thing as learning the real-life system.

A sample of Ellen's work
A sample of Ellen’s work

IndieWatch: What are you reading/playing/studying right now?

Right now, I’m splitting my time between three games: Gunpoint, my weekly Dungeons & Dragons session, and an occasional round of Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game with some coworkers.

I’m re-reading Design for How People Learn by Julie Dirksen. If you’re interested in instructional design or learning theory at all, this is a great book to start with. I’m also slowly making my way through the handbook for Fate Core (which is another tabletop RPG system).

As for studying, well, I think I’m going to be spending a lot of time with tutorial videos over the next few months as I get started with my prototype. Wish me luck!

You can find out more about Ellen on Twitter.

Ellen Instructional Designer
Ellen Burns-Johnson

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Fernando Telles

A PhD in Instructional Technology, a psychologist, an entrepreneur, and editor for!

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