Learning Game Design Series, Part 8: Dump ADDIE; Iterate Instead

Learning game design is a VERY iterative process. It’s not an approved design document, two drafts plus final—or design, alpha, beta, and gold master.

This post describes (and shows) the iterative design process required to create an effective learning game. I define “effective” as a game that 1) achieves the learning goal set for the game and 2) players describe as engaging or fun to play.

Version 1

We have a project going on right now that includes several different “mini-games.” Below is an early prototype for one of them. (It’s the first version beyond the initial paper prototype.) In its first programmed version, it was called “Story Shuffle.” The learning goal was to be able to identify the data you need to collect as part of an incident investigation.



Note that even this early version includes content. Unlike other kinds of learning designs, a game has to include content from the beginning. When we “played” this initial programmed version (v1) we quickly decided it wasn’t fun – and wasn’t “game-y” enough to suit us.

Version 1.1

We brainstormed—and came up with a new way to approach the game—but we thought we could streamline our process by NOT putting in the content. Instead, we thought we’d do the Michael Allen SAM approach and just build the interaction out so we could see if we liked it. Here’s our V1.1.


We had five people play test it, and all of them concluded: “We can’t tell whether it will be fun or not because there is no content.” We also have no idea what it will look like aesthetically. If you remember from my game elements post, the aesthetics are part of the fun factor. We need something to show us what this game will “feel like.”  Our lesson learned. With learning games, real (or at least realistic) content has to be part of every iteration because you can’t assess the game without it. We also agreed that, for us, art assets need to be included relatively early so playtesters get a sense of the look/feel of the game. Aesthetics are too important of a game element to not start fleshing out early.

Version 1.2

Here’s V1.2 of the game, now renamed “Late for Lunch.” The game goal is to get to lunch before you pass out from hunger. The learning goal is the same: to be able to identify the appropriate data to gather for an incident investigation.


In this version—which is still not done—we included aesthetics. Our testers concluded this version is pretty good, though we still have more revisions to make. In contrast to the previous version, we now have CONTENT, which lets us evaluate the playability of the game. Never again will we try to shortcut and omit content from an iteration of a game.

As you iterate in learning game design, consider this as a possible sequence for a digital game. If it’s not a digital game, then you obviously won’t create digital outputs. You’ll simply keep refining the components of the table-top game:

  1. Conduct Game Design brainstorming meeting. Define your instructional goal and objectives, your audience characteristics, select a theme, a game goal, and a core dynamic. Identify possible content you can include. Build a paper prototype, including some content that would actually appear in the game.
  2. Play test this paper prototype in the game design meeting. Document player reactions; identify the first list of revisions.
  3. If revisions are extensive, build a second paper prototype. Playtest again. Identify revisions.
  4. Build initial digital version of game, perhaps in PowerPoint. Create enough art assets to give testers a sense of the game’s theme and look/feel. Include enough content that playtesters can evaluate the game for its fun factor and its learning value.
  5. Play test this digital version with 3-4 play testers. Document feedback. Determine next steps. If needed, revise this digital version again. Play test again.
  6. Build initial programmed version (V1) of game with enough game levels or game loops within it for players to fully experience the game mechanics and assess the core dynamic. Include sufficient content to support the levels or loops you create. (If your game is going to have multiple rounds or levels of play, this means you don’t develop ALL of them – you develop enough to let players assess the playability and learning efficacy.)
  7. Play test. Document feedback. Determine next steps.
  8. Revise to V1.1. Play test again.
  9. Etc. When we go “live,” we are at V2.

How far do you iterate?

How far do you go with the iterations? You iterate until you get satisfactory answers to these questions from players who truly represent your target audience:

  • What did you learn? (Responses should mirror what you wanted them to learn.)
  • Did you remain engaged in the game throughout play? (You want a “yes,” here.)
  • Did anything confuse you about game play? If so, what was it? (You want to unearth any major confusion. You may not act on everything someone finds confusing. It depends on how many people cite it as a problem, and if the confusion hinders learning or engagement.)

Learning Game Design: Think About the Learning and Then the Game


I am a firm believer that most games teach. However, not all games are explicitly designed to be learning games. If your intention is to create a learning game that achieves specific learning outcomes for the players, then you have to think about the learning before you begin crafting the game design.

It’s critical to have a strong understanding of game goals, core dynamics, game mechanics, and game elements—but that understanding doesn’t guarantee you a learning game if you don’t also have solid instructional design skills. Why? Because an effective learning game requires a solid instructional goal and learning objectives, as well as a clear understanding of the backgrounds and preferences of the target audience for the game.

The phrase “learning game” says it all—you are creating games that help people learn. What distinguishes a serious game from a commercial game is its intention to help people learn something specific. Players will either know something or be able to do something as a result of playing the game. In many instances, there may be attitudinal adjustments you’re seeking as well.

Questions You Need to Answer Before Designing Any Game

As part of our Play to Learn book, Karl Kapp and I put together a checklist of questions learning game designers need to answer before starting on game design. Here are the questions, which are pretty straightforward needs analysis kind of stuff:

What is the business need that is driving the use of a learning game?

  • A need to increase sales or to support the launch of a new product?
  • Customer complaints or ineffective customer service?
  • A need to comply with gov’t regs?
  • Quality issues?
  • Safety issues?
  • A need to build knowledge or skill on a business-critical process?
  • Something else? What is it?

After playing this game, what will learners be able to do in their jobs? (This should be your instructional goal).

  • As part of achieving the instructional goal, what do learners need to know, do, and believe? (These statements convert into your game’s learning objectives.)

Want the full checklist? Pick up Play to Learn: Everything You Need to Know About Designing Effective Learning Games.

Learning Game Design: Rewards and Scoring


In preceding posts on learning game design, I’ve focused on game goals, game mechanics, and a variety of game elements. Continuing with game elements, this post focuses on rewards and scoring. Let’s look at rewards first.


Rewards can be anything players earn via game play. Some games have them. Many games don’t. The new wave in learning games—and in gamification of learning—is to give players achievements for accomplishing certain tasks or hitting certain milestones. There is a general trend toward giving a LOT of rewards—and this isn’t necessarily a good thing in learning games. Here are some general rules for rewards:

  • Reward people for completing boring tasks but not interesting ones. If the task in a game is interesting, the task itself (or the accomplishment of it) is the reward.
  • If you choose to give rewards, give them for performance rather than completion. Giving someone a badge for completing a section, for example, isn’t a good idea. (This is sort of like the school rewards given for perfect attendance; being rewarded for showing up regardless of how well you performed while there.) Instead, give a reward if they could complete the section to a certain standard of proficiency.
  • Let your reward, such as points, be a form of feedback to the player. Only allow the player to earn points (or resources) if they perform to a certain standard. This is a form of feedback. Have the player lose points if they fail to achieve that standard.

An Example:

We have an achievement case in Knowledge Guru. Players can earn badges for reaching certain milestones in the game. On first glance, you might think, “Well that’s completion.” But in order to actually earn a milestone, a player needs to avoid some of the costly point deductions from wrong answers. Answering a question in the game isn’t sufficient. This is because answering wrong and correcting yourself (especially on the final path) could mean you won’t make it to the point level for a certain milestone.

After we tested the game many times, we concluded that these achievements matter to a significant subset of players, but not at all to others. Having them in the game doesn’t really hurt the game and appeals to a certain demographic. We noted some players responded positively to their existence in the game (“Oh, I hit another milestone”). So we decided to keep them in the game. Players who don’t value badges simply tended to ignore them.


Scoring is crucial to how a game is perceived by players. A good scoring algorithm helps hook players in the game experience. A poor one demotivates, sometimes dramatically.

Scoring typically correlates to how well/poorly someone is doing in the game. It ties to their progress in the game. It can be points (as in Knowledge Guru), dollars earned, resources accumulated, etc. In a learning game, scoring should offer your players clear feedback on how they are learning. Players often view the scores they receive as a form of reward, and good scoring can motivate continued game play.

Play-testing a game is an invaluable way to find out if your scoring is increasing player motivation, decreasing it, or having no influence at all. The example below illustrates this.

An Example:

We developed a game for sales reps called Formulation Type Matters. The story in the game is that a predecessor decimated sales in your newly-assigned territory. Your job is to regain customer satisfaction and sales by successfully resolving a variety of issues related to formulation type. When players entered their territory, they discovered five customers, each with a different issue. Players had to find/locate the appropriate information to resolve each of the issues.

Behaviors we were trying to cultivate in players included:

  • Asking relevant questions to clarify the problem and to understand customer’s needs and past behavior.
  • Seeking out relevant expertise within the player’s real organization, which had technical team members in place to support sales rep in the field.
  • Reviewing past issues in an effort to understand what might have occurred in the past that is driving current customer behavior.
  • Responding appropriately to the customer the first time.

Our feedback and scoring mechanisms included:

  • Territory sales, which could go up or down based on player’s decisions in the game. As player worked through a customer’s scenario, everything was expressed as “potential sales.” When player actually responded to the customer, the sales shifted from potential to actual.
  • Customer satisfaction, which could rise or fall based on player’s actions.
  • Customer complaints, which could rise or fall based on player’s actions.

Good Intentions, Bad Results (This Is Why We Playtest)

In an early iteration of the game, we rewarded players with an increase in potential sales for every question they asked the customer. The client wanted to emphasize the importance of asking questions so we made sure every question players could ask was a good question that provided valuable information. Our intent was to reinforce question-asking behavior. Good idea, right?

Wrong. When we playtested, players focused intently on each question they could ask the first customer they’d selected in their sales territory. Players took notes on the customer’s responses. However, once all questions had been asked of this customer – and players got an increase in potential sales for each question they asked – they noted, “So I get points for every question? There’s no strategy in selecting which questions to ask?” On subsequent customers, players focused much less on the questions they asked their game customers, a response we did not want.

Based on the playtest, we redesigned the scoring and varied the customer questions. For one customer, we made ALL the questions good ones. For the others, we included good, neutral, and poor questions. This forced the player to truly think about the value of asking each question.

Additional scoring things we did that increased player motivation:

  • Rewarded people with potential sales for accessing resources since this was a key behavior we wanted players to do in the real world.
  • Gave players a significant negative impact for selecting an incorrect response to the customer issue. We always made sure there were four response options – and every one of them was realistic. If players responded incorrectly, half of their sales potential got lost. While they had to try again before they could get back to their main territory map, they could not regain all the sales potential lost. This scoring choice helped us reinforce the real-world need to give accurate information to customers or risk loss of customer satisfaction and loss of future sales.

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Think very carefully about both rewards and scoring. These two elements require as much thought as your game mechanics and more “fun” elements such as theme, story, and aesthetics. Rewards and scoring should also correlate to what you want people to learn and the feedback you want to offer to them re: their performance.

Learning Game Design: Game Elements to Consider


The game elements you choose to include in your game should be carefully selected, with a focus on making the play experience fun and facilitating/enhancing the learning experience. In last week’s post I introduced game elements as a whole, and provided a more in-depth description of  conflict, cooperation/competition, and strategy/chance. This week’s post focuses on the next four game elements to consider when developing your learning games: aesthetics, theme, story, and resources—with time considered to be a fairly significant resource.


Aesthetics, or visuals, are one means of engaging players and helping to immerse them into the game experience. In video games, aesthetics are a huge part of the game experience. Even board games rely on aesthetics to pull players in, as well as to offer visual cues that guide game play. With learning games, however, the temptation can be to cut corners on aesthetics and not realize the impact this has on the learning value of the game. If you are a one-person band, you may simply say, “Well, I don’t have a graphic designer to help me.”

Compare these two game boards, for example. Which one would you rather play?



If you have no budget for a graphic designer, there are online resources for helping with aesthetics. Here’s a couple to check out: — has some nice graphics bundles you can download and use in your digital games. — has cutout people and graphics as well as some “game” templates (they aren’t really games, but are gamified activities.)


A theme can add interest and create engagement. In the game Forbidden Island, the theme is conveyed through the visuals and a “back story” that is included in the rules. There is no narrative running through the game, but the back story and the aesthetics convey the theme of a mythical, mystical island. Knowledge Guru uses thematic elements to convey the idea of theme even though there is no real story.

When creating a learning game, ask yourself whether a theme can enhance the learning experience and create interest for the learner.


Story offers a narrative thread that pulls through an entire game. It’s far easier to remember facts when they are part of a narrative, rather than when we simply have the facts devoid of any “story” or context around them. A game can have a theme but no story, a theme and a story, or no story and no theme (think Scrabble). If you elect to create a storyline for your game, keep in mind that a strong story has four elements:

  • Characters
  • Plot (something has to happen for it to be a story)
  • Tension (often thought of as conflict)
  • Resolution

Example: We’re working on a game story right now that uses the theme of an alien invasion. We have a detailed story to go with it. Players have to successfully demonstrate knowledge of incident investigation to thwart the aliens and rescue their fellow workers. Our story has characters: the player who represents a worker, a learning agent who represents an expert cohort, and the Martians who have invaded with Dr. E.L. Snatcher as their leader. It has a plot: an invasion has happened, workers have been captured. It has a conflict: Martians against the human workers. And it has resolution: the resolution comes if the player can successfully use knowledge of incident investigation and rescue all his co-workers.

Notice how the images below help evoke emotion and interest in the story itself—hence, the relationship between story and aesthetics.





Questions to ask yourself as a learning game designer:

  • Should I use a story?
  • Should I couple my story with a theme?
  • Will it help my game or make it too complicated?
  • How much story do I need?
  • Do I need just enough story to convey a theme? Or do I need to immerse players in the story to provide the right learning experience?
    • Example: The stories used in Settlers of Catan or Forbidden Island are really “back stories” used to set up the game. The story doesn’t drive the game itself. This contrasts with some of the intense video games.
  • How do I integrate story?
  • Do I make each player a separate character?
  • If so, who do they represent? Is it a fantasy character or does it represent something with real-world context to their job or situation?


Resources are often defined as part of game mechanics, but they are the tools the player has available within the game to help them achieve the goal. Common resources include money, tools, building materials, etc. In the game of Monopoly, resources include money, real estate, houses, and hotels. All have value within the game and all contribute to helping a player win. In Settlers of Catan, players very literally have cards called resources. These include sheep, ore, wheat, and bricks. Players can use resource to purchase buildings or Development Cards, or they can trade for other resources.

When designing a learning game you should ask yourself:

  • What resources make sense given the skill or knowledge you’re trying to teach?
  • Do I need to include currency to represent something, or would that be a distractor?
  • Do you need resources in your game? (Perhaps not.)
  • Do you want to incorporate time: time can be a resource, it can be a constraint (e.g. you have to complete a task within a specified amount of time), or it can be a means of compressing real-world time into a more manageable amount of game time.
    • Example: In A Paycheck Away, we compress three months of homelessness into a 90-minute game play experience.
  • If I want to incorporate time, do I want to use it as a resource, a constraint, or a means of compression?
    • Example: In Knowledge Guru, time is not a factor at all. We originally designed it as a constraint—giving players two minutes to complete a round of play—and we found out that this actually detracted from the game play rather than enhancing it. Consequently we eliminated it.

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

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.)

Game based learning and serious game

Getting Started in Learning Game Design

If the sign-ups for our learning game design workshops and Primer on Play workshops are any indicator, learning and development professionals are clamoring for solid guidance on how to get started in learning game design or “game-based learning.” I love designing learning games, and I also love helping others design learning games. But because not everyone is going to be able to come to our workshops—or wait for one—I’ve decided to do a blog series to help folks get started.

Here is the 5- step process we cover in the workshops and webinars we offer:

Learning Games Flowchart

This post offers a brief summary of each step while my subsequent posts in this learning game design series will drill down into each one separately.

Pre-series disclaimer: I’m going to write about these steps individually, but they are actually quite iterative. Steps 1 and 2 work together—playing games without learning game design terminology makes it difficult to evaluate them well.  Steps 4 and 5 also go together because dumping ADDIE means you are play testing a lot as you design and develop. Step 3 (think about the learning) happens by itself as an initial analysis and design task, and then continues throughout Steps 4 and 5. As you iterate your design, you constantly have to reconsider how well you are achieving the learning goals. I will introduce the steps separately and describe them, but it’s up to you to integrate them and make them work together for you as you design your learning games.  That’s part of your mission!

A quick overview of the steps…

Step 1: Play games; evaluate what works and what doesn’t work in terms of “fun.”

If you don’t like playing games then you probably shouldn’t try to design one—unless you want to be miserable. Although most people do like games, there are people out there who simply do not like game playing. These people will NOT make good game designers. If you do like playing games, then you are at a good starting point for designing one. Game design is a bit like writing a book; you would never attempt to write a book if you first hadn’t spent time reading and evaluating several books.

So we’re clear that you need to play games, and you need to play a lot of different types of games. Even if you think of yourself as a card player, but not a videogame player, you still have to be willing to expand your horizons and explore different genres and game forms. You need to evaluate whether the games are fun, why they are or aren’t fun, and what elements might be usable in a learning game.

Step 2: Get familiar with game elements and how to use them.

I told you the steps were iterative. As you play games, know what you’re looking at and what you’re doing. Get a good book (or two or three) on game design and learn the terminology used in the industry. Elements to know include game dynamics, game mechanics (fancy word for rules), resources, levels, reward structures, etc.

Once you know these elements/words and what they mean, then you can think about how you might use them in a learning game. You’d be able to say, for example: “I’d like to create a game that uses a collection dynamic. I want to have at least three levels of play within it to accommodate different levels of player skill, and I think we need a reward structure that encourages repeat play over time, rewarding for time in game as well as performance on tasks.”

Step 3: Think about the learning first—and then the game.

This is a blog series about creating learning games. The part of ADDIE that you definitely don’t want to dump is the “A”— analyzing what your learners need to know or be able to do, and what they already know and can do. Your game will fit into those gaps. Your instructional objectives should drive the game’s design. The game design should NOT drive the learning design. The biggest mistake novice learning game designers make is to insert too many game mechanics into the game simply because they are fun. Example: it can be really fun to go to an in-game store and purchase supplies with currency you earn. However, if there is absolutely no learning point to this game activity, then you shouldn’t do it.

Step 4: Dump ADDIE. Go agile instead.

Creating a game is different than creating a workshop or a traditional “click NEXT to continue” eLearning course. You want to start with very rough/quick paper prototypes, play them, refine them, and then build another, more robust version. You keep refining as you go. In ADDIE, there is some room for “formative evaluation,” but it is limited. The assumption is that things will progress in an orderly fashion from analysis through final evaluation—with limited re-work between steps. With a game, you iterate fairly quickly and add layers of complexity and sophistication to the aesthetics as you go. You add and subtract game mechanics based on what you see as you have people play. You need to be okay doing this and not feel like you failed if you dump a design idea after you are three iterations into it.

Step 5: Play test. Play test. Did I say play test?

It is not enough for you and your buddies to like the game you design. Having a group of subject matter experts play your game, and pronounce it good, is not enough. You have to have actual target players play your game, and you need to do a solid debrief with them to inquire about what made the learning experience good or bad (and what made the play experience good or bad). When I blog on this topic, I’ll share a detailed process on how to play test well.

So fasten your seat belts, my mission is set to take off. YOUR mission—should you choose to accept it—is to read the blogs, execute the steps, and start designing learning games.