Instructional Design Lessons for Today from 1980s Edutainment Software: Gertrude’s Secrets

I grew up in a unique time in the history of educational technology, being part of the first generation to grow up with personal computers in the classroom. For context, my kindergarten classroom (circa 1983) had a TRS-80 computer (in the back corner of the classroom, naturally), and the following year my first-grade classroom had an Apple II (undoubtedly part of Apple’s initiative to get their computers into classrooms across the United States). At the risk of vastly oversimplifying the trajectory of my life and career to this point, I have become convinced that these early experiences with computers in the classroom, and what was then known as “edutainment” software (game-based or play-based educational software), are to some degree responsible for my then future career path, whether as a college philosophy/logic instructor, a digital content author and creator, or as an instructional designer.

In retrospect, almost none of the teachers at my elementary school, who were essentially handed these mysterious silver and beige boxes, knew what to do with them or how to use them effectively as educational tools. Even in kindergarten, however, I already had some experience with computers at home (such creating programs in the BASIC programming language with my dad on our Texas Instruments TI-99/4A Home Computer). As a result, I was naturally selected by many of my various elementary school teachers to help them, and help other students, do something (anything!) productive with the classroom computers. In reality, much of the time spent at these early 1980s computers was spent playing various edutainment games, one of which I want to draw explicit attention to as having been particularly formative for me, and still relevant from an instructional design standpoint today.

Gertrude’s Secrets

Gertrude’s Secrets, published in 1982 by The Learning Company, was a problem-solving and logic-puzzle game in which the object was to solve various puzzles involving sequential and categorical reasoning using objects of various shapes and colors. For example, you might be asked to categorize puzzle pieces by shape and color in what I now know to be a squarish-looking Venn diagram. Or you might be asked to arrange puzzle pieces into a sequence where each subsequent piece varies by only a single attribute (shape or color, but not both), and various other puzzles of this nature.

(A playable emulated version of Gertrude’s Secrets is available here and below: Gertrude’s Secrets Emulated Apple II Version.)

Even after well over 30 years, Gertrude’s Secrets, in my eyes, is still a gold standard in terms of usability, game design, instructional design, and educational value. A quick survey of various design aspects of Gertrude’s Secrets reveals many instructional and game design principles that are still applicable today, especially in game-based learning or what we now call “gamification.” This list of design aspects reveals exactly how much thought was put into the user experience and educational value of this edutainment title:

Learning in Disguise:

The hallmark of any good edutainment game was what I call “Learning in Disguise,” learning something essential by playing a game without realizing that the true purpose is to teach you something important. In this case, the puzzles in Gertrude’s Secrets are designed to teach various forms of sequential and categorical reasoning, both of which are the basis for modern formal logic (in the form of deductive logic proofs and Venn diagrams, respectively). I didn’t realize at the time that my young mind was being prepped with the tools that would serve me well when I later took my college-level logic and critical thinking courses, or when I eventually became an instructor of formal logic a few years after that. Gertrude’s Secrets was training my mind in basic patterns of reasoning that are broadly applicable and used in almost every problem-solving context.

Learning the Tools is Part of the Game:

The opening sequence in Gertrude’s Secrets is essentially a tutorial, using the control interface of the game itself, that teaches you the various mechanics you will need to know in order to play the game. (Remember, this is back in the early 1980s when you had to know things like which keys to push to navigate around the game, how to pick up and drop objects in the game, and so on.) In beginning to play the game, the user learns the mechanics of playing the game without the need to read (heaven forbid!) any sort of instruction manual. The user can jump right in and start playing (and learning!) without the technology itself getting in the way.

Progression of Difficulty Level:

Although puzzles in Gertrude’s Secrets can be completed in any order, the first puzzles the user encounters are naturally fairly simple, designed both to teach students the essential concept (sequential reasoning, categorization, or arrays) in their simplest, purest form and to further reinforce the mechanics of playing the game. Subsequent puzzles build on the basic concepts with more complex examples (more complicated arrays of puzzle pieces, more nuanced categorization, and so on). But there is a natural progression to the difficulty level from puzzle to puzzle, each building on what the user has learned and accomplished in a previous puzzle, but invoking the same core concepts and reasoning principles.

Rewarding Success:

After successfully completing each puzzle, the main character of Gertrude’s Secrets, a flying Goose named Gertrude, rewards the user with a “treasure,” a randomly generated item with some interesting shape or color. As the user completes additional puzzles, these treasures are collected in the “Treasure Room,” where the user can see the various treasures he or she has collected in the course of playing the game and solving puzzles.

Not Penalizing Failure:

If the user fails to complete a puzzle correctly, there is no serious consequence: there are no points to lose, there is no “Game Over” end-state, no harsh message to the user in flashing red letters, or anything of the sort. All that happens is that the puzzle pieces slide gently away from their incorrect positions within the puzzle back to their starting positions, where the user is free to continue attempting the puzzle until it is solved successfully (at which time success is rewarded with a treasure item, as described above). This emphasis on positive reinforcement while minimizing negative reinforcement results in a largely positive learning experience in which failure is not punished but viewed as an opportunity to keep trying, with the promise of reward for the additional effort.

Open-Endedness:

Each of the different puzzles in Gertrude’s Secrets is placed in its own unique “room” in the user-navigable game map. Although for each puzzle type there is an intended sequence of puzzles with increasing difficulty level, the user is free to navigate to any room he or she chooses, and to attempt the puzzle in that room. This open-endedness makes it easy for the user to find the appropriate difficulty level for his or her level of expertise in completing each puzzle type, and to increase or decrease the difficulty level as needed in order to master the basic concepts inherent to each category of puzzles.

(Incidentally, the open-ended, room-based, user-navigable game map was designed by Warren Robinett, cofounder of The Learning Company, who is famous for having developed the original Adventure Atari 2600 game, which used a similar open-ended game map system.)

Customization:

In what was a genuinely innovative type of user-customization for the time, Gertrude’s Secrets has a “Shape Edit” room in which the user is free to edit the pixels that make up various game pieces or treasures inside the game. This customization added yet another layer of open-endedness and intrigue to what might otherwise have been a static and unchangeable experience, although of course the customization of the game pieces or treasures has no effect on the nature of the puzzles themselves. But Gertrude’s Secrets did introduce the concept that an edutainment experience is more fun and a more effective learning experience if there is some degree of customization. After all, the more students play the game, even if it’s only for the purpose of trying the puzzles with customized puzzle pieces, the more likely a student will master the fundamental concepts of the game.

Instructional Design Principles for Today

Many of the design principles that came so naturally to a deceptively simple edutainment game like Gertrude’s Secrets in the 1980s are still applicable today in what we now call “gamification.” For example:

  • The user should not have to spend so much time figuring out the mechanics of playing again that the fun or learning is delayed.
  • There should be a logical progression of difficulty level, so the user can ramp up to more complex examples (or levels or puzzles) after mastering the applicable basic concepts and simpler examples.
  • Success should be rewarded in a fun way that encourages additional effort and time spent on the game experience (i.e., on the learning experience).
  • Ways should be found to avoid unnecessarily penalizing failure, such as the punitive concept of “losing points,” whether in an educational game or in terms of earning a grade in a course.
  • There should be an open-ended adventure-like quality to navigating an educational game or, by extension, to the learning experience in general.
  • It should be easy for the user to find the correct level of difficulty and the parts of the game that help the user identify what he or she has already mastered, or has yet to master.
  • The game experience or learning experience should be customizable, whether to increase the replayability (and hence increase the opportunities for learning) or simply to make the learning experience more fun.

Many of these edutainment and gamification design principles apply not only to educational game design, but to a learning experience in general, even today in the world of online courses and degree programs. For example, in an online course, the navigation and workflow should ideally be so intuitive that little training or instruction is needed for students to know how to do everything they will need to do in a course. Ways should be found to reward success while minimizing the punitive aspect of failure, to turn failure into an opportunity to keep learning. Students learn best by doing, which sometimes means making an attempt, failing a few times, and having the incentive to try again, to put in additional effort to achieve a goal and earn a reward, whether in the form of a grade, an academic credit, or even a diploma to hang in your own personal Treasure Room.

Zachary Fruhling is a senior instructional designer at HotChalk Inc. where he is responsible for the design and implementation of graduate-level online course materials. Zachary has over 15 years of experience in higher education, both in the classroom as a university-level philosophy instructor and in educational technology as a digital content author, instructional designer, and creator of interactive online course materials and media for a variety of disciplines.

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Instructional Design Lessons for Today from 1980s Edutainment Software: Gertrude’s Secrets

by Zachary Fruhling
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