ASTD ICE learning game design workshop resources

Play to Learn: Designing Effective Learning Games

Karl Kapp and I had a fantastic workshop last week at ASTD ICE. We did a one-day pre-conference workshop on getting started with learning game design – and had participants creating some amazing game prototypes by day’s end. We promised to share a list of the resources we referenced from that workshop. I also wanted to post some pics of the game prototypes. So here we go:

Games to Play and Evaluate

The first step in becoming a game designer is to play games. We played several during the day; here’s the list of what we played – and what to evaluate by playing them. Every game I picked for game play was picked with a purpose – because it showcased something positive or negative about game design.

Settlers of Catan – This is one of my all-time favorite games. It is a board game, though the App Store does have an iPad version of it that you can play as a single player or do pass-and-play format. Caveat – I think it is easier to learn Catan using a traditional board game first before venturing to the iPad version.  Catan does several things well:

  • Allows for several different win strategies. I’ve leveraged ports, focused on acquisition of Development Cards, pushed to build the longest road and acquire points that way, or focused on building cities as quickly as I could. I’ve won – and lost – with all strategies, depending on what my opponent chooses to do. I do not get tired of playing this game.
  • Uses chance (in the form of a non-playing character called The Robber) to even out the playing experience – or to force the use of an alternate win strategy. A player who has been doing well can have the Robber placed on one of his resources, cutting off the flow. This forces the player to consider an alternate tactic. Conversely, a player who has been doing poorly can roll a 7, and get a chance to derail another player.
  • Has a board design that allows for a  variety of different play experiences and allows for different skill levels. There is a board set up for beginners and different setups for advanced players.
  • Requires collaboration and competition. It’s difficult to win without collaborating at some point in the game.

Forbidden Island – Okay, this is another favorite game of mine. It, too, is a board game that is also available as an app via the App Store. Forbidden Island has these neat elements:

  • Collaborative focus. There is NO competition in this game. All players have to work together to steal treasure and escape from the island before it sinks. As the game gets tougher, it’s neat to see how people get more and more focused on working together to achieve the goal.
  • Levels of difficulty. Through the use of a simple “water level” slider, players can adjust the game’s difficulty, going from novice to master level.
  • Use of distinct roles. Each player gets a unique role in the game – with each role able to do something that no other player can do. This is a simple way to get people thinking about how to leverage each other’s strengths – and eliminates any focus on weaknesses.
  • An ever-changing game board. Like Catan, Forbidden Island can be set up in a myriad of different ways, ensuring different play experiences each time.

Machinarium – This game is available for the desktop as well as the iPad. I’ve only played the iPad version. Things to note about it while playing:

  • The complete lack of any achievements or rewards in this game. One of Karl’s “rules” for achievements and rewards in his book The Gamification of Learning and Instruction, is that you don’t need to reward people for interesting tasks – only boring ones. Machinarium is an old-style adventure game. Your goal is to move your robot through a series of obstacles. To get across each one, you have to figure out what resources to access and how to use them to cross the obstacle. The reward is in the problem-solving and strategizing. You don’t need badges or point tallies to motivate you. The sense of satisfaction you get is reward enough (if you like strategy games).
  • The aesthetics. The landscapes you cross are super cool and fun to simply look at.
  • The focus on exploration to discover “how to play.” There are no game directions. Traditional elearning wants to tell you what you are going to learn, give you explanations and orientation to the course, and basically hand-hold you through the experience. This game dumps you into the first landscape. You figure everything else out from trial and error. There is one hint available for each landscape…which you also have to figure out.

The Grading Game – This is a learning game designed to help build people’s skill in proof-reading.  It’s available for the desktop or as an iPad app. It builds knowledge of grammar rules as you “grade” papers for Professor Snerpus. It is snarky, mean, and funny to play. And…you will learn grammar. Things to play attention to from a design perspective:

  • The use of time. Everything you do is timed – and each time you are successful, the difficulty level ratchets up with you getting LESS time for your next grading task.
  • The use of negative feedback. Traditional wisdom dictates that feedback should be positive and reinforcing. Professor Snerpus constantly berates you – and you keep playing to see what new snarky comments he will direct your way.
  • The use of story. There is a nice backstory to this game revolving around your voluminous student loan debt and your need for indentured servitude to Professor Snerpus to help pay down the loan.
  • The aesthetics. They are super-simple but captivating. The use of Facebook posts to offer scathing commentary from Professor Snerpus’s students is humorous.
  • The scoring mechanism. The use of a loan that needs to be paid down to show your game progress is clever and different. The target audience – college students – can relate.
  • The use of levels – there are a variety of levels of play and types of play, keeping the game interesting.

On the negative side, there isn’t a strong enough correlation between the “teach” moments in the game and the activity. Professor Snerpus delivers periodic lessons on grammar rules. These lessons don’t necessarily line up with your next grading activity, which is a weakness that could easily be overcome with a design adjustment.

DragonBox – this digital game teaches algebra, but I will bet that none of you would realize this if I hadn’t shared this fact. Things to note:

  • Measurement achievements coupled with completion achievements. DragonBox does what several games do. It gives you a star rating based on how well you solve the problem. One star indicates you did solve it – but not very efficiently. Three stars indicates you solved the problem with as few steps as possible. Another rule given in Kapp’s book is to focus on the use of measurement achievements instead of completion achievements when designing learning games. This game offers a great example of this. A single star does indicate completion – but the goal is to get three stars, not just one.
  • Simplicity. This game uses a simple technique for teaching and requires no upfront explanation on how to play. A tutorial round at the start of the game helps guide you to how to play. After that, you are off and running.
  • Aesthetics. The dragons are really, really cute.

On the negative side, there is NO explanation of algebraic principles – just illustration via the game play. I’m not sure how well a student would “learn” algebra simply from playing the game. I think it would be a terrific complement to a teaching experience where concepts were explained (solve for X, isolate X, etc. ) and then students were allowed to play.

Rise of the Blobs – this is an example of what NOT to do with rewards and achievements. You get some sort of reward or achievement for practically anything you do – and they are so numerous as to become confusing. Play this game for an example of what not to do when designing a learning game.

Mystery Math Town – this iPad game lets you evaluate how well they establish levels in a game, aesthetics to draw you in, compelling nature of game play, use of levels, and repeatability of game play. I think the game is well-designed. I think it appeals quite a bit to a narrow segment of players – elementary school students learning basic arithmetic. A couple of things to evaluate via play:

  • The game goal – does it appeal to a wide or narrow audience? I’ll let you decicde whether you think the goal of capturing fire flies will appeal to a broad segment of the target learners/players – kids in elementary school.
  • The use of resources – players acquire numbers or symbols that they use to solve problems. They can only keep a certain amount of them in their bank at any one time. I thought this incorporated some strategy in game play. What do you think?

Knowledge Guru- I used the Knowledge Guru game engine to create the “Game Design Guru” game we played to reinforce game design lingo and techniques. The game goal and mechanics are explained throughout this site, so feel free to explore if you are interested.

Other Resources

  • The Forgetting Curve is a phenomena I discussed where people “forget” what they’ve learned within specific amounts of time. It’s explained in this Wikipedia article. Will Thalheimer questions its exactness in one of his Will At Work blog posts. Regardless of specific percentages, people do forget – and it can be a ton that they forget very quickly. Well-designed games can help people retain content and retrieve things from memory.
  • The Gamification of Learning and Instruction. This is Karl Kapp’s book. It has a wealth of information. Chapter 4 is devoted to research on games.


Prototypes from the Workshop

Every group successfully created and play tested a prototype at the conclusion of the workshop. We snapped photos of a few of the boards, and the are displayed in the gallery below:

Our Next Workshop

We will be delivering “Play to learn” again August 28th in Indianapolis, Indiana. The session will be held downtown. If you have a colleague who would benefit from this workshop, pass the link on.

Learn more and register