A quiz on the difference between Arial and Helvetica

Ever wondered about the difference between Arial and Helvetica? Then I encourage you to play this amazing quiz.

I do this partly because I love typography, partly because the quiz is super fun, and partly because it’s the most effective teaching game I’ve ever played.

I actually learned something. Something I’ve tried and failed to learn before. Putting the information in the context of a game somehow made it easier for my brain to digest. And it has nothing to do with making the subject fun; I already had an interest in this, I just couldn’t get the knowledge to stick.

I think the key is that using the information in a game forces you to apply your knowledge and rewards you for it both extrinsically (with messages like “You got that one right!”) and, even more important, intrinsically, because as you get farther along in the quiz you’re able to identify very subtle clues you probably couldn’t have spotted in the beginning. The combination of all that is surprisingly powerful.

Incidentally, if you’re not into typography at all and want to take the quiz here’s a hint: look at the ends of letters like “t”, “s” and “a”, Helvetica has perfectly vertical and horizontal lines while Arial tends to use diagonals.

I think another reason the quiz is so effective is that it puts the relevant information side by side for us to compare, and that’s something humans are freakishly good at. We’re so good at doing it that it doesn’t even feel like work, it’s actually fun. Kind of strange, really. As game designers we’re often trying to find ways to make an experience more fun but we rarely think about information density as a source of enjoyment.

And why does our brains like finding stuff? My guess is that it’s at least partly a result of our being genetically engineered to find bits of food in the wild. Two examples of this type of ancestral gathering behavior come to mind: one, the bafflingly popular hidden object games genre, and two, my parents, who spend half a dozen weekends each year out in the woods picking mushrooms and huckleberries. For fun.

James and Shirley Dallas
James and Shirley Dallas
Shirley Dallas and her mushrooms
Shirley Dallas and her mushrooms

Edward Tufte mentions a second reason why information density can be fun in Envisioning Information:

[Putting information side by side enables viewers] “to select, to narrate, to recast and personalize data for their own uses. Thus control of information is given over to viewers, not to editors, designers, or decorators.”

In other words it’s a way of making the data more interactive, of creating interesting choices. Which is another goal that certainly comes up a lot in game design.

It’s odd. As designers we’re usually trying to make things simpler, to get rid of all the non-essential bits so players can get right to the good stuff. Most of the time when a game presents me with dense information I have to wade through I think it’s pretty annoying, but sometimes a little confusion can be fun. God grant me the wisdom to tell the difference.

And thanks to Swiss Miss for the link (Swiss Miss is an eclectic, highly recommended design blog that covers everything from playgrounds from the 70’s to foam clouds to surreal painting games).

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