Diana Hughes is an alumna of USC Games’ Interactive Media & Games graduate program. She has worked on a multitude of serious games, including training games for the US Military. Currently, Diana is Vice President of Product at Age of Learning, where she crafts adapted and personalized learning experiences for children through educational software.
Here are some highlights from our talk with Diana, edited for brevity and clarity.
What drew you to create educational games?
It started mostly with my extensive background in serious games. I’ve done a lot of educational game design, but it was mostly for adult players. In the past, I designed training simulations for the military. One of the things that drew me to more classic educational games is that it’s more fun. Kids are such a delightful audience to make games for. I work with a lot of people who talk about their childhood games that became formative experiences. So it’s really cool to know that the things I’m doing now could potentially be brought up as a source of inspiration during someone’s job interview 20 years later.
Also, children’s education is an evergreen market. We’re never going to run out of kids. And they’re always going to have to learn how to read. It’s more stable than a lot of other serious games, which are driven by securing a grant or funding for development. I wanted to be able to settle into something and really dig into the problem. I thought, “How do you employ games and gameplay to change the world?” This gave me that opportunity.
What does your average day as a VP of Product look like?
Well, I go to a lot of meetings because my job is collaborating with people. When you move far up enough in an organization, it’s no longer about being an individual contributor who makes things–whether those are design documents, or code, or art assets. Your work outcomes involve people. Do they know what they’re supposed to be doing, and why they’re supposed to be doing it? Are you empowering them to make their own choices? A lot of my time is spent making sure that the people on my team understand what we’re supposed to be doing, why we’re doing it, and when we need it by. And if the team needs help, I’ll step in and start the conversation of how we’ll go about a project.
Has your role changed as a result of COVID-19?
The day-to-day work hasn’t changed, but I think the stakes have. We were supposed to be supplemental to children’s primary education, something that was on the side as practice. And now it’s like “Oh wow, we’re school.” The pressure is much higher.
Before the pandemic, we were already thinking about kids learning and retaining information effectively. We made sure that we did studies and proved that our games worked. We wanted them to be something that kids could do on their own, so that they could have that agency and independence. That’s really serving us well now, because there isn’t always an adult to sit next to them and make sure they know how to play. That investment is paying off.
What are “adaptive games”?
Adaptive games are games that change based on what the user is telling you that they need. Certain features can be turned on or off, depending on what the player is telling us about their current knowledge level. My Math Academy, which is one of the products that I work on, has a library of mini games. The mini games’ mechanics are designed so that if you’re good at the math, you’ll be good at the game. And if you’re not good at the math, then you will not be good at the game. There’s no state where you’ll be good at the game but not good at the math.
Because we’ve done that, the games tell us a lot about whether you’re learning or not. So if we think that you’re learning, then we’ll make the game harder. Or we’ll move you to a different mini game with a new topic. If you do poorly, then we’ll modify the game to make it easier, so that you can learn at a level that’s more appropriate for you. The games are very malleable.
The game and the system are modulating difficulty and even modulating topic in response to the player.
Do you have any advice for USC Games students or anyone else making serious games?
Have a player-centric approach. At the end of the day, a game is a collaborative effort between you and your player. So you have to always be testing through live analytics, user research, or user testing. I think that is really important for all game designers, especially in a role like mine, where my players aren’t anything like me. That’s something I took with me from USC that has really served me in my career.
Also, make sure you’re connecting with a subject matter expert when you’re doing a project. Serious games inherently have another “thing” you’re bringing in. Bring someone who’s an expert in that “thing”, so that your focus is turning that topic into systems and mechanics that will naturally direct the player. You’re going to make a much more effective game that way.