How Sharon Boller and Karl Kapp’s Learning Game Design Process Works


Earlier this year, we announced Sharon Boller and Dr. Karl Kapp’s new book on learning game design on the BLP blog. It’s called Play to Learn: Everything You Need to Know About Designing Effective Learning Games. We also kicked off the Play to Learn Book Tour, which blends conference workshops, webinars and guest bloggers to expand the learning game design conversation.

Naturally, the Knowledge Guru blog had to be the first stop on our tour! After all, the learning game design principles outlined in “Play to Learn” have been critical to the creation of Knowledge Guru games over the years. I thought it would be fun to show how the nine steps to learning game design Sharon and Karl outline in their book have guided our team’s efforts.

Here’s the abridged version of how each of the nine steps has shaped Knowledge Guru.

1. Play entertainment games and evaluate what you play

Our product team plays a new board game together at least 1x a week. Our iPads and phones have folders full of interesting games that we use for, um, research.

In all seriousness, playing lots of games and doing that analysis is critical. You wouldn’t write a novel without reading a whole lot on the subject first. So why would you try to design a game without playing them first?

2. Explore learning games

Building on the first, more fun step of simply playing and evaluating lots of purely fun games, we also spend time focusing specifically on educational games. These could be either educational games geared towards an academic setting or brain training games designed as casual play experiences for adults.

3. Set the learning foundation

While Knowledge Guru games can incorporate many different types of content, we spend time up front planning out what types of instructional goals a game is well suited for. For example, one mini-game in Knowledge Guru’s Drive app is specifically designed for learning objectives that use verbs like “compare” or “distinguish.”

We also spend a lot of time analyzing our target learners. We survey customers and create personas that give us a fictitious yet accurate depiction of who the end user is.

4. Link learning design and game design

Some of the most ‘fun’ mini-game ideas don’t make it off the shop floor. Why? Because every game mechanic must support the learning objectives! Our team comes up with lots of fun game ideas, then must slim them down so that only essential game mechanics that help accomplish the desired learning objective make it into the final game.

5. Determine scoring and rewards

Testing, testing, testing. There’s no shortcut to getting a game’s scoring and rewards right. The scoring in Knowledge Guru games goes through many iterations before each release.

6. Build the initial prototype

I’ve participated in paper prototyping sessions as our team has designed new games and user interfaces. Many instructional designers are surprised when they learn the degree to which software and game developers rely on paper to sketch their designs. It’s certainly much easier to draw and scribble than it is to write lines of code.

7. Playtest and iterate on design

Like I said before, testing. It’s a way of life for game designers. Paper prototypes become digital prototypes which become… you get the idea.

8. Develop and iterate

As the development process continues, we often ask for feedback from our account managers to make sure the game designs are matching the needs they have heard communicated from clients. We also rely on user testing to catch UX issues the team might have missed.

9. Deploy

Voila! Knowledge Guru customers get a fun, spunky email telling them a new release is live and ready. Easy, right?

How Will You Use Sharon and Karl’s Game Design Process?

“Play to Learn” explains how to follow this learning game design process in much greater detail. And as this book tour gets going, many great learning thought leaders will share their perspectives, too. Follow along with the tour here, and learn more about the book here.

Access the Webinar

On March 28th, Sharon and Karl shared tips and best practices from “Play to Learn” in a live webinar. Attendees heard their perspective on the three most critical learning game design steps and had the opportunity to participate in Q&A.

Learning Game Design: Game Mechanics


In my last post, I talked about getting familiar with game elements. Specifically, I focused on game goals and game dynamics. Now we’re going to shift our focus to game mechanics.

A game’s mechanics are the rules and procedures that guide the player and the game response to the player’s moves or actions. Through the mechanics you create, you define how the game is going to work for the people who play it. So just to be clear, the mechanics describe rules the player follows and the rules the game itself follows.

Examples of explicit rules or mechanics that players follow

These kinds of rules are examples of what you might find in a written set of rules the players read before playing a game:

  • At the end of each month, players have to roll a die to see if they can stay in the homeless shelter. If they get a one or a six, they stay. Otherwise, they have to leave. (This rule is one we created as part of A Paycheck Away tabletop game.)
  • When players pass Go, they collect $200. (Most of you will recognize this as a rule in Monopoly.)
  • If you are the Pilot, you can fly to any location on the island. (This rule is from the game, Forbidden Island. It’s available in the App Store as a digital game for the iPad or as a tabletop game.)

Examples of mechanics or rules that games follow

The mechanics listed below are all from digital games I’ve helped develop—they are coded into the game. None of these mechanics are explicitly stated for the player. But players can often figure out what the mechanic is as they play the game.

  • A level remains locked until a player successfully completes the previous level. (A publicly available sample would be The Knowledge Guru game. The next two mechanics also apply to this game.)
  • When players respond incorrectly to a question they get immediate feedback on what a correct response should be. This is followed by an opportunity to re-try answering the question.
  • Correct responses to Path A questions earn players 50 points. Correct responses to Path B questions earn players 250 points. And correct responses to Path C questions earn players 1000 points. The scoring algorithm is a great example of game mechanics that the game itself follows.
  • Once the first level is completed, all subsequent levels are unlocked and available for completion in any order the player chooses. (We applied this rule, and the one below, to a sales game we created. A description of the game is available here.)
  • A player earns sales dollars for each appropriate, relevant question they ask the customer. A player loses sales dollars if he chooses an irrelevant question to ask.  If a player chooses to ask a “neutral” question, he doesn’t gain or lose any dollars.

The link between game mechanics and the learning experience

Game mechanics contribute to the fun of the game, but they also are a significant part of the learning experience. Here’s some examples of how game mechanics I’ve described link to the learning experience:

  • In the sales game, the dollars earned or lost by asking the customer questions directly links to the real-world responsibility of sales reps to ask meaningful questions of their customers when issues arise. Sales reps who know their stuff and can ask relevant questions are going to find it easier to meet sales goals. Reps who do not know how to ask good questions may not. This game mechanic supported and encouraged the real-world behavior the company wanted to see.
  • In the Knowledge Guru game, the mechanic is to provide immediate feedback to players who miss a question and then let them immediately try again. This game mechanic supports the learning principles that repetition helps cement memory and that feedback helps people learn. Immediate feedback, coupled with an immediate opportunity to re-try, further cements memory and the ability to recall the information later.
  • In the game A Paycheck Away, we wanted to simulate the real-world experience of being homeless. This includes the difficult choices, the unexpected events that throw a person off course, the challenges of securing housing. Our game mechanics were critical to mirroring these real-world challenges. One example is the roll of the die at the end of each month. This equated to the real-world question of whether someone would be allowed to remain inside a homeless shelter once 30 days elapsed. In the real-world, shelters often have a rule that requires people to leave after 30 days, but they will make exceptions if the shelter doesn’t have a waiting list.

Game mechanics and fun

Game mechanics can also make gameplay more, or less, fun. Don’t assume you can define the mechanics at the start of your game design journey and then never touch them again. It’s critical to test and tweak game mechanics. You may think a game mechanic will be great, only to find out via play-testing that it is hindering the players’ perception of your game’s “fun factor.” Or worse, actually hindering the learning experience. Conversely, you may discover you need to add a game mechanic that you hadn’t considered until you watched people play your game.

Example: In early renditions of The Knowledge Guru, game play occurred in timed rounds. Players got a round of 10 questions with two minutes to answer all 10 questions. They were penalized for failing to answer questions in the two-minute time period. Those who were wildly competitive (and fast readers) liked this mechanic. However, the majority of players did not like this mechanic, and it actually demotivated them. They felt their ability to read fast was a factor in doing well—and fast reading wasn’t the learning point of the game. We eliminated the time element, which improved the learning experience and didn’t detract from the play experience as we feared it might. Of course, we also tweaked other mechanics in the process. It took us numerous variations on scoring to get it to a place we, and the players, were happy with it.


You want your game mechanics to be clear, enhance the game play experience, support your game goal, and contribute to the learning experience.  They are not an afterthought. They are a critical component of a good game design. You will not get them perfect on your first design attempt. You’ll want to test and tweak—but this is all part of the game design process.

Learning Game Design: Game Goals and Dynamics


This post focuses on Step Two of the learning game design process: Get Familiar with Game Terminology and Elements and How to Use Them. Before you can design a good game you need to be able to craft game goals, select game dynamics, create strong game mechanics, and choose appropriate game elements.  Today, I’ll focus on two things: game goals and game dynamics—and how they link together. Here’s a quick review of the 5-step process to design a learning game:

  1. Play games; evaluate what you are playing
  2. Get familiar with game elements and how to use them
  3. Think about the learning first, then the game
  4. Dump ADDIE and go Agile instead
  5. Playtest. Playtest. Did I say playtest?

Game Goal

The game goal is a description of the object of the game. Or rather, what you need to do to win the game. These are all game goals associated with learning games we’ve created:

  • Earn topic mastery across all topics and become a Knowledge Guru.
  • Achieve territory sales of $700K and maximize customer satisfaction.
  • Build and test a bridge that meets all stated specifications within 45 minutes.
  • Get all players out of homelessness within 3 months’ time.
  • Get everyone off of the elevator in as few moves as possible. (This is a brand new one for a game we have under development now.)

What to think about when creating a learning game:

  • The game goal isn’t the same as a learning goal or a learning objective. For instance, in the elevator game (Goal 5 above), the learning goal is to be able to identify the tasks associated with the 5 steps of incident investigation. We’re using a game in which you have to get everyone off the elevator to help people learn tasks and steps.
  • If your game isn’t fun, take a look at the game goal. Is it really a game goal or just a description for how to complete a learning activity? (Match tasks and steps is an example of a learning activity.)

Game Dynamics

You need to be able to recognize and select from different game dynamics. The game dynamic can actually BE the game goal, or the means by which players achieve the goal. A game can focus on a single dynamic or combine a couple of different ones. Common game dynamics include:

Race to the finish

If you use this game dynamic in your game, then you have players competing against each other or against the game system to be the first one to finish a task, reach a destination, hit a specific target, etc. Milton Bradley’s Game of Life is a race to the finish game. MarioKart is a very literal example of a race to the finish game. It’s a common dynamic and it’s pretty easy to design games that use it.


In collection is the dynamic, then the game goal is achieved by collecting one or multiple things. Knowledge Guru uses a collection dynamic. Players have to collect Topic Mastery badges. Once they get all of them, they become Knowledge Gurus. Trivial Pursuit is a combination of Collection and Race to the Finish: first you have to collect a set of colored chips and then you have to be the first player to make it to the center circle and correctly answer a final question.

Territory Acquisition

In this dynamic you are trying to acquire territory, land, or real estate. Risk is a classic example of this type of game. Monopoly is a game that combines Territory Acquisition and Collection dynamics together.


Games that use this dynamic require players to solve puzzles or problems. Players are trying to figure something out. The board game Clue uses the Solve dynamic. Adventure-style games (such as Machinarium) use this dynamic as well.

Rescue or escape

This dynamic is used a lot in adventure games where you have to get to a treasure and then get out of a castle, off an island, etc. Forbidden Island combines collection (getting four treasures) with escape—get off the island before it sinks.


In this dynamic, you have to get things in order. Many puzzle games use this dynamic by having you get all colors or shapes in a certain order to win the game (think Bejeweled).


The game of Sims uses this dynamic. Your goal is to build things. Minecraft also uses this dynamic.


Your goal in Capture games is to capture something that belongs to your opponent. Checkers is about capturing your opponent’s checkers. Capture the Flag is literally about capturing the opposing team’s flag.

What to think about when creating a learning game:

  • The game’s “fun” is partly dictated by how engaging the players find the dynamic you’ve selected. When you are creating initial prototypes ask yourself, “How would the game change if I changed the dynamic from X to Y?” (e.g. from Race to the Finish to Capture) Then try it and see what happens.
  • Sometimes a dynamic will logically align with a learning goal. Think about whether this may be true for your project and leverage dynamics that make sense.


Make sure you distinguish between game goals and learning goals. Get familiar with plenty of different game dynamics, and think about how you can incorporate different dynamics into your learning games. Experiment with blending a couple of dynamics together. Find out what happens if you change a dynamic entirely.

If you design learning games please feel free to comment and share. I’d love examples and discussion!

Learning Game Design: Play and Evaluate Games


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:

  1. Why fun matters
  2. How to evaluate games you play to learn more about game design and get ideas for designing your own games
  3. 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.

1. Winning

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.

3. Triumphing

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.

4. Collaborating

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.

6. Collecting

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.

Rise of the Blob

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.)

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:

[layerslider id=”8″]

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