Learning Game Design: Game Elements


In my last post, I talked about game mechanics. These are the rules and procedures that guide the player and the game responds to the player’s moves or actions. Now we’ll move on to game elements.

Every game has “elements” or features that keep people engaged. Some games have a lot; others have very few. The choice of what to include should be deliberate. With learning games, you should consider how each element supports the learning process. There are many game elements you can include; this graphic shows 12 common ones:

game elements chart

Note: Because there are so many, this post focuses only on the first five. I’ll be covering the others in my next posts.


For a game to be interesting, there needs to be some sort of conflict. Conflict comes in many forms, but it always represents a challenge for the player to overcome. The challenge could be physical obstacles, it could be combat with another player, or it could be a puzzle that has to be solved.

Things to ask yourself about incorporating conflict as an element in your learning game design:

  • Given what I want people to learn, what conflict is most appropriate? Should I incorporate a conflict that arises with other players or should I incorporate challenges that all players work together to overcome? Or should I include some sort of challenge against the game itself? Example: puzzle-style games are really a challenge that pits you against the puzzle.
  • How can I best represent the real-world conflicts I want people to deal with? Example: conflict between quality and time constraints or quality and budget.
  • What game mechanics can I create to simulate the real-world conflicts/challenges players encounter?

Cooperation and/or competition

With learning games, cooperation is often a better element to use than competition alone. Direct competition with other players can demotivate learners or set up a negative dynamic. In contrast, cooperation between players to overcome a game challenge can often motivate players and foster teamwork. Cooperation gets people working together; competition pits people against one another. Only one person or team wins—while everyone else loses. The players’ focus is very different depending on which element you employ or how you combine the two elements together. Competition can be appropriate, but you need to consider the outcomes it can produce.

Questions to ask yourself when designing a learning game:

  • Do my players need to compete in the real-world or is competition not a factor in using the skill or knowledge I want people to learn?
  • If competition is part of the real-world context, do I incorporate it into the game as players working together to beat the game or as players competing against each other within the game?
  • Will competition motivate or demotivate the target group I’m designing the game for? What negative consequences might occur if only one person wins and everyone else loses, and how do I manage those emotions?

Strategy and chance

Strategy puts control into the player’s realm in the form of decisions they can make that affect gameplay or their odds of achieving the goal. On the other hand, games that are heavily based on chance put the player in a highly reactive mode, one where they have little control over the outcome.

A game can have neither strategy or chance, it can combine both, or it can only focus on one. Gambling games are largely games of chance. Games with little or no strategy or chance built in can be less interesting to play than those that use these elements.

Questions to ask yourself when designing a learning game:

  • Is my game unintentionally creating win states that are largely achieved by chance or a specific sequence of events? (This can happen more easily than you think. We recently played a board game where it became clear over several game plays that the person who got to go first—which was determined by age—had a much greater chance of winning than the person who went last.)
  • Do I blend strategy and chance in a way that mirrors the skill I want my player to learn, or the context in which they will have to apply the skill?
  • What control do players have  in the real-world over decisions? How do I design that into the game?

Case in Point

Example: We devised a coaching game for a global company that wanted to reduce its product development and launch timeframe from 10-12 years to 8 to 10 years. They felt coaching was one means of reducing this timeline. We also knew, though, that sometimes factors outside someone’s control would affect the development timeline… so we included chance as an element. When players landed on specific spaces on the board, they drew a “Life Happens” type of card that either positively or negatively influenced their timeline. Strategy played no part in the effect. These cards simulated things such as an economic downturn, a hiring freeze within the company, a loss of budget dollars, etc.

Coaching Game Example

Example: I designed a game to simulate the pressures of maintaining the company value of ethics and honesty while dealing with last-minute requirement changes from a federal agency. In essence, if players hadn’t planned well, they ended up not having enough time to test their products before the regulatory agency arrived to inspect things. Many players signed forms in the game indicating that tests had been performed. The game mimicked a real-world issue, and my strategy elements were designed to support this.

Example: The cards below are from A Paycheck Away. They are chance cards that players have to draw on each turn. These simulate real-world things—good and bad—that can happen but which the player has no real control over.

ChanceExample_BadOutcome      ChanceExample_GoodOutcome