What Mega Man can teach us about fairness
I LOVE Mega Man games, especially 2 and 3. Mega Man X is pretty great too.
I wasted way too much time recently reading this forum thread about level design, which goes through every Mega Man game in great depth analyzing what makes each level fun or not fun. Since the Mega Man games are so similar in basic mechanics, the level designs (and weapon selections) make all the difference. You can learn a lot about very subtle points of game design from analyzing the level designs.
Key among these is the difference between a difficult-but-fair challenge and a "cheap shot". A cheap shot is when the game hits you with something you had no way to see coming. Either it's not dodgeable, or it's dodgeable only if you died to it once already and you know it's coming up.
The latter type of cheap shot is no fun because it makes the game into an exercise in memorization. When something's not dodgeable without prior knowledge, it feels like the game is cheating.
I want to examine that feeling, because it gets at a sort of implicit "social contract" between the player and the game designer. The feeling that the game cheated means that we as players feel a rule has been violated, even though that rule is not written down anywhere. What would that rule be? Obviously there's an implicit assumption when we buy a game that the game is completable, otherwise it's broken. But more than completable, an action game such as Mega Man should be completable without damage, at least theoretically. Every danger should be dodgeable with enough skill. A hypothetical infinitely-skilled player should be able to complete the game on the first try without getting hit.
We want that to be the social contract, because somewhere in our minds we want to feel like we could, if we practiced enough, become that perfect player.
The Mega Man games uphold this contract reliably enough that the exceptions really stand out. (E.g. I think the last boss of Mega Man 7 is technically impossible to beat without using an E-tank.)
When that contract is being upheld, you get hit and go "Oh, that was my fault, I should be ready for next time I see one of those". It makes you want to get better at the game so you can take less damage. When you get hit with a cheap shot, it breaks the spell a little. You go "Hey, no fair! How was I supposed to dodge that? Why am I even playing this game if it's just going to cheat?" It makes you care less about playing.
A lot of the fun in games comes from improving your skill (Raph Koster's theory is that fun is intimately tied to learning). So it's important to always hold out the hope of improvement to the players. Show them a path to improve. Give them a situation that says "this looks hard now, but if you were a little bit better you could be totally awesome at it".
For that, there must be the promise that the game is playing fair, and improvement is always possible. Challenges should never be designed just for the sake of making the game harder! (You listening, ROM hackers?) They should be designed to give the player the thrill of victory when they are at last overcome.
The application to educational game design should be obvious.