This post focuses on the first step to design learning games: play and evaluate games. If you don’t like playing games, don’t try to design a game because you’re going to hate this step. Game design is a bit like writing a book; you’d never attempt to write a book if you first hadn’t spent time reading and evaluating several books. Those who would attempt to write a book without having ever read one probably wouldn’t create any great work of literature.
So step one is to play a lot of games—and play a lot of different types of games. If you focus on one particular genre (video games, board games, etc.), then you should expand your horizons and explore different genres and game forms. As you play all these different kinds of games, think about what makes them “fun” to play and how the game’s mechanics and elements make them fun. (If they aren’t fun for you, what makes them fun for others? You’re not the target audience for every game you play.)
Read on to learn:
- Why fun matters
- How to evaluate games you play to learn more about game design and get ideas for designing your own games
- Six games to play and evaluate to help you get started
Why fun matters
Why the focus on fun? Because the fun in a game helps learning happen—or is the learning. Fun is not frivolous; it’s integral to a successful game. Kevin Werbach, in his Coursera MOOC on gamification, identifies eight types of fun in games. These eight types of fun all happen to integrate nicely with learning, or are things people need to learn to do.
You think this doesn’t link to the workplace? We all like to achieve a win state – over a challenge, over a competitor, over ourselves – beating a previous personal best, for example.
2. Achieving goals
Humans are goal-driven creatures. Goals are highly motivating to most of us and achieving them is very satisfying. Goals in games that link to the real-life learning we want a target group to do can be powerful and effective. You can find goals everywhere in business: reducing percentage of scrap, reducing number of safety incidents, increasing sales by X, adding X customers. There’s behavior change required to achieve most goals; that frequently requires learning how to do something differently or better than you currently do it.
This can be triumphing over a competitor, or the game itself, or over individual challenges within the game. Many of us enjoy feeling victorious, particularly if we gained victory by mastering a difficult problem or challenge. We have feelings of triumph in the workplace as well: vanquishing a difficult project, prevailing against difficult business odds or challenges, etc.
A highly valuable business skill, this is a fun element of many games, too. People get social and emotional satisfaction out of collaborating with others. Often people enjoy collaboration much more than they enjoy competing. And organizations want people to collaborate in the workplace to achieve business results.
5. Exploring and building
Games like Sims, Minecraft, and Civilization are about doing these things – and many people find exploration and building powerfully motivating and “fun” to do – so fun, in fact, that they can spend literally hours of time doing these things within a game. These are key skills inside the workplace. Exploration is an underrated business skill that closely links to something more people understand within business: research.
Lots of games feature a collection “dynamic” where players’ goal is to collect certain things. Poker is essentially a collection game—collect the best cards and you win. The Pokemon card craze of a few years ago is about collection. The board game Risk combines collection—acquiring territories—with strategizing. How will you gain those territories? Collection appeals to many people’s sense of fun and can be incorporated easily into learning games. In the business world, we often have to collect information before we can move forward with decisions.
7. Problem-solving or strategizing
These are higher-order thinking skills that lots of people enjoy doing. Consequently games that feature these elements have lots of fans. Chess is a classic example of a strategy game. World of Warcraft is a modern-day example. Games in the adventure genre are all about problem-solving—figuring out how to get from Point A to Point B. Problem-solving and strategizing are part of growing and managing any business, and most jobs within a business.
8. Role playing or imagining
Many games allow us to do one or both of these things and people love doing them. Second Life, a once-popular virtual environment, leveraged people’s desire to role play by allowing people to create avatars to represent themselves. Fantasy can provide a powerful means of letting people feel free to try new behaviors and acquire new skills while feeling safe and minimizing fear of failure.
Okay, so you have a list of fun. Now, how many games should you play to help build your skill set? My answer? A lot—and never stop playing new ones! I have three folders on my iPad labeled Games, Games 1, Games 2. Here’s a view of one of these folders:
This folder contains a mixture of traditional games (Scrabble), popular games (Words with Friends, Cut the Rope), puzzle-type games, adventure games, arcade style games, etc. It’s highly eclectic. Some of these games I may only play once; others I will play multiple times (even if I don’t like them very much). I still want to understand what makes them popular, why some people think they are fun, and what mechanics within them might trigger an idea I could use in a game I create.
Evaluating what you play
Playing games for enjoyment is different than playing games to evaluate the quality and efficacy of the game design. Here’s a laundry list of questions that go through my mind as I play games with evaluation of them on my mind:
- What’s the game goal? Is it clear? Is it compelling to me? Why or why not?
- What’s the game’s core dynamic? Is it exploration, collection, “race to the finish,” solve—or a blend of two different dynamics such as collection AND race to the finish?
- Are the rules clear? How do I learn them?
- What game mechanics (aka rules) make the game most fun? Which one(s) would I change? What would happen if I did?
- Do the aesthetics of the game draw me in? What emotional reaction do the aesthetics elicit in me?
- Is the game “balanced” in the sense that it accommodates different player levels? How?
- What’s the balance between strategy and chance? Do I feel like I have control over the outcome by the choices I make in the game or do I feel the outcome is almost all chance?
- Is the game cooperative, competitive, or a blend of both?
- If the game is competitive and I lose, how does this make me feel? Does it motivate me to play again or do I want to avoid playing again so I can avoid losing?
- If it’s a digital game, how easy is it to navigate? Can I quickly learn by exploring?
- Finally, as a learning game designer, what elements from this game could I use in a game I design?
Games to play
Here’s a starter list of six games to play and evaluate. One of them is a board game, the other five are digital games. In my suggestions I’ve included some notes of my evaluation of the game design and game play to show you how I do it. (I’m not saying this is the only right way—just my way). Keep in mind I am including games in this list that I do not consider to be fun. You have to play some bad with the good. It helps you contrast and compare.
Settlers of Catan
This is one of the best games I’ve played and I admit to loving it. Here’s some of my notes and evaluative comments:
- This game leverages both cooperation and competition. I like that. I also notice that it is pretty difficult to win this game without cooperating with others. The strategy is figuring out when to cooperate and when to refuse to cooperate.
- This game offers a lot of possible ways to win/strategies to employ. I consider this to be a plus. I can focus on earning achievements that can help me toward victory (longest road or largest army). Or if I want, I can blend a variety of these strategies.
- The game isn’t easy to learn from reading the rules—if we translate “easy” as taking 5 minutes to learn (aka Apples to Apples). I don’t take this as a negative because the game offers a rich playing experience. However, I do think I should be able to master the basics with one or two game play experiences.
- The game incorporates chances to even out the odds and allows players to trip each other up. It does so via a nonplaying character – the Robber – who can mitigate the power of any one player or to help a player who is losing shift his/her fortunes.
- The Robber works best when there’s four or more players. It doesn’t work as well with only two players. Many players have figured out how to adjust the rules for the Robber to offset this, which is interesting to me.
- The game communicates the odds of any dice role as part of the playing board, which is interesting. I can factor those odds into my decisions on where to place my settlements and cities. This gives an element of strategy to something typically thought of as only chance. Again, a very interesting and useful game design technique that I might want to use myself.
Additional games for you
Now, here’s five other games for you to play and evaluate. I’ve given you one or two things I’ve noted, but you can come up with plenty more on your own.
This is an old-style adventure game. Pay attention to the complete lack of rewards and achievements in this game. Why aren’t there any? Does it need them? (No, the task is the reward. It’s interesting to solve the challenges. The reward is the satisfaction from solving the challenges.) Other things to evaluate are the aesthetics and the contrast between game play on the desktop and the iPad.
This is a horrible game that is the complete opposite of Machinarium. It’s FULL of rewards and achievements because it makes money from in-app purchases. See what you think about the sheer volume of the awards and achievements and how long the game holds your interest.
The Grading Game
I loved this game design. I thought it was very clever. See what you think about the aesthetics, the game goal, the use of negative, almost mean, feedback (traditionally a no-no in learning games), and the very punitive use of time as a constraint. On the negative side, what do you think of the placement of the “teach” info on grammar rules? Could that be improved? If so, how would you do it?
Mystery Math Mansion
This game is targeted toward grade schoolers. Pay attention to the aesthetics, the reward system, and the strategy choice of selecting numbers or symbols. It’s also useful to notice how they incorporate levels of play and achievements. Ask yourself whether you think the game goal (releasing fire flies) is appropriate for the game’s target audience. How much repeat play do you think the target audience would do?
This nifty little game is supposed to teach algebra—even to five-year olds. See what you think. Does it stand alone as a teaching tool or should it be combined with some other form of instruction? Do the aesthetics have broad appeal? What about the 3-star system for letting users track both completion and achievement? (You can progress if you get at least a single star but 3 stars indicate you’ve solved the problem in as few moves as possible.) My opinions? I would use the 3-star system myself; the game allowed for players to progress while also giving evaluative info about how well they performed. The aesthetics were simple but clever. I would NOT have learned algebra with this app alone but it would have been great combined with formal explanations offered by a competent teacher. (I hated algebra, by the way. This game would have really helped.)