Sailing around ‘Proteus’: Notes on ‘Insistent Design’, RAFT, and crafting assignments

[Yesterday, I was part of a workshop organized around the ideas of ‘insistent design’ (Ruggill & McAllister 2011) and R.A.F.T. (Bean, 97 – 100) to help instructors craft assignments and engage students in their classes. As part of the workshop, two person teams ran micro-sessions designed around showing certain games and helping to highlight how their mechanics could be used later as part of applying the themes of games-based learning to their classrooms and syllabi. I was part of the group presenting Proteus; others showed Diablo 3, Plants Vs Zombies, and Portal.]


As part of their essay on “Aimlessness” in Gaming Matters: Art, Science, Magic and the Computer Game Medium, Ruggill and McAllister state that “computer game designers deploy an array of techniques that insist players forget about the tedious medium they are engaged with and perceive it as quite the opposite: as addictive, thrilling, and fun” (40). Since computer games are often composed of a series of monotonous actions, they write, their designers compose ways of ‘insisting’ various information to players. Using the design insistences of “‘go here’ and ‘do this'” (41), for example, games direct players to take on missions, quests, and other impositions that are the “price of admission for playing” (42).  Because computer games encode these themes so frequently, most players internalize the structures and look for the objectives of a particular session to be presented in such a way; they look for the game to tell them what to do next.

Using this as a basis, we paired it with what Bean presents in Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom on the best design practices of designing assignments: the acronyms of R.A.F.T. and T.I.P. These acronyms, presents Bean, arose out of a response to trying to create “meaning-constructing tasks” as part of a section on the best practices for designing assignments. These are tasks that serve to “bring . . . critical thinking to bear on problems that matter to both the writer and the intended audience” (97). The acronyms of R.A.F.T. and T.I.P. are a way to present problems to students along with mnemonics to guide them in solving them in the process.

Role (or purpose)
Format (or genre)

Task as

At the start of the workshop, we divided the participants into four groups based around the themes of play we were presenting in each game and how they intersected with Ruggill and McAllister’s ‘insistent design’: Builders, Explorers, Collectors, and Detectives. Rotating each group through roughly 10 minute sessions with each game, they were to look at how each game did (or did not) match up to their theme by writing things down on a worksheets given to each group. At the end, once they had experienced or at least seen someone else play each game, we set aside time to reflect on each and then apply them to a scenario created by each group of how to change the R.A.F.T. to shift the perceived context of an assignment.

Playing Proteus

I didn’t suggest Proteus. I know that seems odd to read for those who know me and my love of that game, but I wasn’t the one who initially thought to add it. It became part of a number of suggested indie games we might let people play (among them Brothers – A Tale of Two Sons and Thomas Was Alone as well) and it just happened to win out. Something, of course, I was happy about, but about which I didn’t necessarily direct myself.

One of the main reasons I didn’t suggest it at first, and is maybe obvious from the inclusion of the phase ‘insistent design’ several times so far in this post, is that it doesn’t do that. If Proteus is definitively something, it’s that it isn’t insistent about anything. You can, and many people have, never progressed to another season in the game or ever seen any other plant or animal life but those present at first. Since Proteus doesn’t ‘insist’ you progress, or ever do anything at all really, many people are confused about their objectives in the game. They are used to games being explicit in their instructions, but Proteus purposely does very little to point the player in any direction or suggest a course of action.

That was the most common question, too: “What do I do?” It was followed in a close second by “Where do I go?” The other three games explicitly told people what to do next. They should go search some area. Attack these enemies. All matching up to the design insistences of “‘go here’ and ‘do this’.” All things, if you know Proteus, it doesn’t do at all.

This became an interesting teaching moment for many of the participants too. Since a player of Proteus isn’t being yelled at, attacked by zombies, or at the risk of having their lawn invaded, they got to take in the game at its own pace. And since people showing up to the workshop were generally teachers, instructors, or staff in some capacity or another, they also got a chance to learn (hopefully) that not all games are about violence and conflict by being shown Proteus. (There was a very nice moment for me personally where one participant actually said those words to me, “Oh. Not all games are violent in some way.”)

However, since Proteus isn’t explicit in its conflict, both in the literal and metaphorical sense, we also had to explain what was going on and that, yes, one of the aspects to the game is in producing your own ‘language’ for the objects within its world. Since it doesn’t tell you about things, you end up, as every group did, in fact, deciding upon your own labels for things on the island and what they are doing. The lower resolution of game assets forces people, in the same way the lack of text does, to constantly deconstruct what they are viewing and interacting with in the process of building their own narrative of the experience. Much of the player’s experience is in discovery this island’s world and exploring various interactions and their effects.

Reflecting and Applying

While my opinion of Proteus‘ usefulness for this workshop changed once I started to talk with groups and had to instruct them in how to play, it still didn’t work as well during the reflection part of the workshop at the end. Since the player is given so very little information about their avatar, it becomes hard to make out what exactly the ‘role’ of the player is. And since the audience for the game is, to some degree, those already familiar with its controls and systems (Proteus is very much a response to its contemporaries and corollaries in the FPS genre), it doesn’t work as a great example of making explicit demands and ‘insisting’ players do certain things.

However, since the workshop was about games-based learning (or, if you prefer, “gameful design”) in general, most of the reflections of the group I ended up working with were connected to creating ways to integrate assignment scaffolding into their preexisting processes. Using the ideas they had seen, they were able to make up a more fantastical version of investigating a system and assigning different people missions as part of a larger quest into the body to check for illness. Each ‘station’ would have a task and the information would be shared and reported back to a ‘mission control’ person. By pretending their were really inside a body, they could imagine what synonyms might look like up close and try to diagnose things from the inside out.

As a round-up of what we presented through the different games they saw or played, we tried not to use the games themselves as what participants should take away from the workshop, but more the themes they presented and how the mechanics of ‘insistent design’ could be leveraged to change what are sometimes often potentially boring tasks of researching or cataloging information as part of an assignment. Even the writing of different papers and reports are not necessarily the exciting parts. It’s the discovery of new ideas and connections and then the sharing of those discoveries, often not the containers of the information themselves. By using games-based learning techniques, it was hoped instructors help create assignments that would benefit the student and help them to see material from a different perspective.


Bean, J. (2011). Engaging ideas : the professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ruggill, J.E., & McAllister, K.S. (2011) “Aimlessness” in Gaming Matters: Art, Science, Magic and the Computer Game Medium, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press. pp. 32-49