How to Link Game Mechanics to the Learning Experience

If you want to design a learning game, you need to know about game mechanics and game elements. This post is about mechanics.

Game mechanics are the rules players follow… and rules the game follows. In the board game Ticket to Ride, you can choose between four possible actions but only perform one of them on every turn. In Settlers of Catan, you have to move the Robber if you roll a seven. These are all game mechanics.

It takes tons of hard work and play testing to make game mechanics balanced and fun in commercial games… and learning games are even tougher. That’s because the game mechanics need to carefully link to the learning experience, and help learners achieve the learning objectives in your design. You have to think like a game designer and an instructional designer at the same time.

“The best mechanics link to the learning experience, or at a minimum, don’t distract from it,” says Sharon Boller in her new white paper on Learning Game Mechanics and Game Elements. The secret is to have players complete the same mental tasks they will do in the real world. This does NOT mean your game has to be hyper realistic!


You’re designing a game for a sit-down pizza restaurant to teach the wait staff customer service basics. Your learners are mostly college-aged. Before you start designing the game, think about the context learners will need to apply skills on the job: waiting tables is time-based, involves multitasking and requires teamwork. Your game mechanics should imitate this by including rules such as timed turns, chaining multiple activities together quickly and measuring success or failure based on how the group performs.

While the game mechanics need to link carefully to the way learners need to think on the job, this does NOT mean your game’s setting must be hyper realistic! What if the game involves serving up finger foods in an underwater resort? What if it was mob-themed? This is where creative use of game elements come in… and I’ll talk about that more in another post.

Bottom line: make your game mechanics match up with how people will need to think on the job, but get creative with everything else to fit your audience.

Learn More in Our White Paper

Learning Game Design White Paper - free downloadI’m really just scratching the surface here. Sharon Boller, BLP president and creator of Knowledge Guru®, has written a white paper on Using Game Mechanics and Game Elements in Learning Games. The white paper is full of case studies taken from real learning games we’ve designed for corporate clients. It’s a great starting point if you (or the people you manage) are ready to implement a game-based learning solution. Download it now.