Thursday, August 11, 2011

Lessons Learned from Some Angry Birds

This summer, I watched as my five year old nephew and his eight year old sister played Angry Birds on a mobile device. Both were surprisingly good at the game and equally addicted. When I got my own smart phone, it was the first game my teen-aged son downloaded for me.
The premise of the game is simple – you need to shoot tiny birds into buildings and knock them down in order to eliminate the pigs living there. Angry Birds home page justifies the destruction: “The survival of the Angry Birds is at stake. Dish out revenge on the green pigs who stole the Birds’ eggs. Use the unique destructive powers of the Angry Birds to lay waste to the pigs’ fortified castles.”

With over 140 million downloads, Angry Birds’ availability on mobile, tablet, Windows and Play Station makes this one of the world’s most popular games to date. Angry Birds has been rated number one in arcade games, action games, top apps and top games by TopAppCharts as of August 4, 2011.
Its popularity is echoed in the multitude of Angry Bird comments on internet game forums and on Twitter:
     “The game is really well made, and gives you plenty of challenge and fun along the way."  4.5/5 - Appadvice
     “One of the best things about this game is that it is fun for all ages.  The concept is simple enough, and yet carries enough depth with it to be both easy to get started and yet difficult to master.  Whether you are looking for a game to keep your kids entertained or you are looking for a quick diversion for those dead times in your life I would highly recommend “Angry Birds!” Appshouter
     “Toppling each castle, however, is often a challenge. This is one of many things I love about Angry Birds: the levels are never impossible, but usually challenging. You’ll need to shoot your Angry Birds at just the right angle and intensity in order to strike the weak spot in the pigs’ castle. Controls are super-simple.” Bonnie Eisenman  

What makes this game so appealing to such a wide range of audiences?
Charles Mauro, a usability engineering consultant and website author, explores Angry Birds from a cognitive perspective, exploring the connection between brain research and game design.

Simple yet engaging interaction concept:
According to Mauro, games where learning the rules and the controls is quick and easy is called simplification. “Simplification means once users have a relatively brief period of experience with the software, their mental model of how the interface behaves is well formed and fully embedded. This is known technically as schema formation.” Angry Birds allows users to learn the basic rules in a short period of time which immediately appeals to users of all ages.
But, in the world of gaming, simple does not always equate to engaging. “What makes a user interface engaging is adding more detail to the user’s mental model at just the right time. Angry Birds’ simple interaction model is easy to learn because it allows the user to quickly develop a mental model of the game’s interaction methodology, core strategy and scoring processes.”  
Cleverly managed response time:
By making the birds’ flight slow enough for users to problem solve and correct errors, game developers of Angry Birds have considered how experience can help teach users to improve their performance. Mauro applauds the timing of the pigs’ demise (3-5 seconds in length) because it gives users “time to relax and think about how lame they are compared to their 4 year old who is already at the 26th level. It also gives the user time to structure an error correction strategy (more arc, more speed, better strategy) to improve performance on the next shot.”
Short-term memory management:
Angry Birds developers have also accounted for user’s short term memory (SM) when designing this game to ensure that users are not overloaded. Mauro suggests that “the subtle, yet powerful concept employed in Angry Birds is to bend short-term memory but not to actually break it.”
Unanswered questions that occur throughout the game also lead to engagement and keep users coming back for more. For Mauro, the addition of an element of mystery needs to be “created with just enough context to consume mental resources in subtle and compelling ways. … Angry Birds is full of these little mysteries. For example, why are tiny bananas suddenly strewn about in some play sequences and not in others? Why do the birds somersault into the sling shot sometimes and not others?” By integrating little clues, users are engaging more deeply with the game to discover these answers.

Lessons for Education
Are there lessons to be learned from Angry Birds for instructional design in the classroom? Let’s take a look at some of the features …
  • Simple yet engaging interaction concept: Means: Make instructions simple; challenge students when they are ready. Students get frustrated if they cannot understand what is expected of them. And rightly so! Clear, concise directions that are not too difficult or overwhelming can help ensure a good start to any activity. As students are ready, more information can be provided. But students want some challenge as well. Tasks that are too easy are boring; those that are too difficult will lead to frustration.   

  • Cleverly managed response time: Means: Slow down, provide time for reflection. Giving time for students to reflect on what has been accomplished and what needs to be done next is beneficial for learners. Speed of instruction also plays a role in student learning. In the classroom, as in the game, there is a fine balance between racing ahead too fast and plodding along too slowly.

  • Short-term memory management: Means: Not too much at one time. When students try to retain too much information in their short term memory, cognitive overload can occur! Providing opportunities for review and processing of information can help move both knowledge and skills into long term memory.

  • Mystery: Means: Encourage a sense of wonder. Curiosity is at the heart of learning.  Creating a classroom environment where wonder, exploration, and questioning are valued can help motivate and engage our students. When students have the opportunity to explore questions and topics that are interesting to them, even higher levels of engagement can occur.

People all over the world are addicted to Angry Birds because it is fun, yet challenging - without being impossible.

Our task as educators is to take lessons from one of the world’s top games and apply them to our own classrooms.

Then, maybe we too can get our students "hooked" on learning!


  1. You did it again, Jade. What a terrific post, and the lessons for educators are terrific. I think with Angry Birds, it has hit the sweet spot of simple interaction, but really perplexing challenges. There's also the element of strategy, and the occasional lucky pass. I've gone back several times to the same events to try to move up from one to two or three stars.

    And it often requires very different strategies.

    Now, how will I build this into 802 next summer? :-)

  2. Fantastic parallel and I think you are bang on with your observations. My only issue that I am about to download Angry Birds and now you have ruined my afternoon.

  3. LOL!:)
    As soon as I am done my video for 879, I plan to reward myself with uninterrupted hours of Angry Birds!