Instructional Design vs. Learning Game Design: What’s the Difference?

Your manager decides to include games and gamification as part of this year’s training strategy. As the instructional designer, she expects you to create the learning game. You’re already on staff and it’s your job to create training content… so it seems natural that you would have the skills to design a serious game or gamification system as well. But do you know where to start?

Many instructional designers are now asked to investigate serious games and gamification for use in their training. The problem? Few instructional designers have real game design experience or skills. They are excellent at what they do, but sometimes do not recognize that learning game design requires a different set of skills. Game-based solutions have great potential for learning, but only if they are designed well.

In reality, learning game design is unique from instructional design. It requires skills and experience that, while sometimes similar, differ from instructional design. Without proper tools and training in game design, instructional designers commonly produce “eLearning games” that are either too simple or needlessly complex. Others are not really a game or don’t align with the learning objectives. These endeavors are a waste of time and money.

We’re here to help. Continue reading for an in-depth look at instructional design vs. learning game design and how to expand ID skills to create an effective learning game.

What is Instructional Design?

I’m guessing you already know the answer. Instructional design refers to a systematic approach to designing instruction and basing that design on adult learning principles. It facilitates the transfer of knowledge, skills and attitudes to the learners. Instructional design uses analysis to reveal learning needs and goals and creates a delivery system to meet those needs. It includes development of instructional materials and activities, as well as trial and evaluation of all instruction and learner activities.

The Role of an Instructional Designer

Essentially, instructional designers are skilled researchers, writers, and facilitators. They are highly familiar with learning theories and know how to apply those theories to all kinds of learning solutions. In a corporate environment, it’s the instructional designer’s job to understand what enables employees to learn best… and design training that maximizes engagement and retention.

Most instructional designers are experts at creating solutions like eLearning courses, videos, presentations, instructor-led sessions, and even large curriculums. The eLearning courses an instructional designer might create can range from fairly simple to extremely complex. Some may include branching scenarios and even immersive interactions.

What is Learning Game Design?

Like any other instructional solution, a game should be carefully designed, developed, and implemented to facilitate learning. However, designing a learning game is different than designing an eLearning solution. Compared to instructional design, learning game design aims to create a much more exciting and engaging experience for learners. If you’re thinking “But can’t an eLearning course be gamified?” the answer is yes, it can. However, there’s a difference between game-based learning and gamification.

Designing a learning game is also different than designing a commercial game; the two are not one-in-the-same. Commercial games like Call of Duty or Apple to Apples are designed to be fun. They incorporate challenges, rewards, collaboration, competition, and other game activities. Players may learn from a commercial game, but learning is not the goal. If any learning occurs, it is a by-product or incidental to the goal of enjoyment.

Learning games like Knowledge Guru ‘Drive‘ or this mobile learning game are designed to be “fun enough.” They incorporate all the same game activities that people find fun along with one additional feature: they help players develop new skills or knowledge or help reinforce existing skills or knowledge. The goal of a learning game is to not only engage learners and immerse them in the learning process, but also for them to achieve a specific learning outcome. Typically, learning games rely on reality abstraction and elements of fantasy in the learning process, and often are not an exact replica of a real-life situation. The fun within the game should link to what’s being learned as much as possible.

Sharon Boller and Karl Kapp use a nine-step process to design learning games. We used this same process to create our Knowledge Guru platform.

The Role of a Learning Game Designer

Game designers have a strong understanding of game goals, core dynamics, game mechanics, and game elements. But this understanding doesn’t guarantee you a learning game if game designers 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.

According to Karl Kapp, “Instructional designers tend to think content first and then action. Game designers think action first. As a result, most games are engaging, intriguing, and immersive. Most instruction tends to be boring and perfunctory.” By simply altering your mindset from instructional designer to game designer, you can create more engaging and effective training.

Want to learn more about learning game design?

If you are new to learning game design, you may also consider using a learning game engine to build serious games without prior game design knowledge.

Or… ask the experts! Order your copy of Sharon and Karl’s new game design book, “Play to Learn” or watch the webinar on the nine steps to effective learning game design. You can even attend one of their upcoming game design workshops.

Using Game Elements to Improve Learning Outcomes

Sharon Boller, Knowledge Guru® creator and BLP prez, has written a new white paper on Game Mechanics and Game Elements. I gave some of my own general ideas on game mechanics in a previous post, and this one’s all about game elements. Sharon identifies 12 common ones in the white paper:

  • Conflict
  • Cooperation
  • Competition
  • Strategy
  • Chance
  • Aesthetics (ooo, pretty!)
  • Theme
  • Story
  • Resources
  • Time
  • Rewards
  • Levels
  • Scoring

Are these the only game elements? Of course not. They ARE the most common ones, and chances are you could analyze any game you’ve played and find at least a few of these. The white paper goes into detail for each one of these elements, covering a few key points:

  • What type of learners/players will respond well to each element.
  • What learning objectives work best with each element.
  • What questions you should ask as a learning designer when attempting to use each element.
  • Specific examples of game elements found in commercial games, as well as learning games we have created.

No matter what game elements you use, always think about how they will work together with your game mechanics to maximize the learning experience for your players. You’ll need to play test a few times to get everything just right, but that is just a part of game design.

Learn More in Our White Paper

Learning Game Design White Paper - free downloadUsing Game Mechanics and Game Elements in Learning Games is 25 pages of specific advice and examples for creating learning games. It’s designed as a practical guide rather than a collection of theories. You can use it to make your learning game design efforts better right away. Download it now.



4 Must-Have Books for Learning Game Designers

4 Must-Have Books for Game Design

Looking for a more updated list? Here’s our most recent article on top learning game design books.

This post focuses on the “old school” information resource: books. The Knowledge Guru team is always reading up on games and gamification. So we thought we’d curate some of the best books for anyone interested in learning game design.

So without further ado, below are 4 must-have books for learning game designers:

Play to Learn: Everything You Need to Know About Designing Effective Learning Games

As a trainer interested in game design, you know that games are more effective than lectures. You’ve seen firsthand how immersive games hold learners’ interest, helping them explore new skills and experience different points of view. But how do you become the Milton Bradley of learning games? Play to Learn is here to help.

This book bridges the gap between instructional design and game design; it’s written to grow your game literacy and strengthen crucial game design skills. Bottom-Line Performance president Sharon Boller and Dr. Karl Kapp share real examples of in-person and online games, and offer an online game for you to try as you read. They walk you through evaluating entertainment and learning games, so you can apply the best to your own designs. You can order Play to Learn here.

Challenges for Game Designers: Non-Digital Exercises for Video Game Designers

“Finally! A book that talks about HOW to become a good game designer instead of merely addressing WHAT game design is.” — Amazon Reviewer

That’s only one of a myriad of reasons this book is a must-have for current or aspiring game designers. Beyond being one of the only books to address how to become a good game designer, Challenges for Game Designers stands out by offering hands-on challenges. None of the challenges in the book require any programming or a computer. However, many of the topics in the book feature challenges that can be made into fully functioning games. So if you’re a professional game designer, aspiring designer, or instructor who teaches game design courses, then you should definitely get this book. You can order a copy here.

Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games

If you liked the idea of challenges from the previous book, then you’ll love Game Design Workshop by Tracy Fullerton. This book puts you to work in prototyping, playtesting and redesigning your own games. It includes exercises that teach essential design skills. The description even states: “Workshop exercises require no background in programming or artwork, releasing you from the intricacies of electronic game production, so you can develop a working understanding of the essentials of game design.” It’s the perfect book for taking a deep dive into game design and truly learning how to be a great game designer. You can pick up a copy of Game Design Workshop here.

The Gamification of Learning and Instruction: Game-based Methods and Strategies for Training and Education

Another great read from the co-author of the first book on our list, Dr. Karl Kapp. In this book, Kapp introduces, defines, and describes the concept of gamification and then dissects several examples of games to determine the elements that provide the most positive results for the players. He explains why these elements are critical to the success of learning. The Gamification of Learning and Instruction is based on solid research and the author includes peer-reviewed results from dozens of studies that offer insights into why game-based thinking and mechanics makes for vigorous learning tools.

Kapp gets practical in this book, too. He discusses how to create a successful game design document and includes a model for managing the entire game and gamification design process. This is definitely a book you want on your bookshelf if you have any interest in learning games or gamification. You can get a copy here.

Using Game Mechanics and Game Elements in Learning Games (White Paper)


Sharon Boller, creator of Knowledge Guru and co-author of Play to Learn: Everything You Need to Know About Designing Effective Learning Games, has authored a white paper on using game mechanics and game elements in learning games. Through a variety of case studies and real-life examples, the white paper demonstrates how learning game designers can design game mechanics and game elements that support real learning outcomes.

When a game’s mechanics—or set of rules—are too complicated, it detracts from the learning. But if the mechanics are too simple or predictable, players will not find the game fun. And even when the game mechanics are figured out, you’ll still need to choose appropriate game elements (we list 12 common ones) that link to your desired learning outcomes.

Sharon explains all of this and more in the white paper. She also shows that the secret to a good learning game is to play test and iterate, always seeking the right balance with game mechanics and game elements.

Game Mechanics

  • Learn to choose the right game rules for players to follow. (And the right set of rules for the game itself to follow.)
  • See examples of learning games used in corporate and non-profit settings and examine their game mechanics.

Game Elements

  • See an overview of the 12 most common game elements, including competition, collaboration, strategy, chance and more. Most importantly, you’ll learn how each one of these game elements can link to learning… and which learners will respond best to each element.
  • See examples of each game element being used in a real-world learning game… mostly in corporate settings.

Written for Designers, Developers and Managers

If you play a role in designing, developing, or managing the creation of learning solutions and are ready to include games in your learning mix, this white paper for you. Look for a recurring series of “Questions to Ask as a Learning Designer” to challenge yourself, or your design team, to think differently about learning game design.

Download the White Paper

You can download the white paper here.

About the Author:

Sharon BollerSharon Boller is the president of Bottom-Line Performance, Inc, an Indianapolis-based learning design company. She is also the lead designer of Knowledge Guru, a platform of games for training reinforcement.

Sharon founded BLP in 1995 when online learning was a blip on the screen of the T&D industry. Now, there are hundreds of digital learning solutions and games under the company’s belt. Sharon’s primary area of interest is games and the gamification of learning. In addition to her work with Knowledge Guru, she has been the lead designer of numerous other digital and tabletop learning games.

Sharon considers herself very much a learner rather than a teacher, and her presentations are geared toward this. She likes to show her own lessons learned and point to other “gurus” in game design.

Sharon speaks at numerous conferences on the topic of learning game design—including ATD, DevLearn, and Training. She also co-facilitates a learning game design workshop with Dr. Karl Kapp, author of The Gamification of Learning and Instruction. She also co-authored Play to Learn with Dr. Kapp.

Want to learn more about game design? Pick up a copy of Play to Learn: Everything You Need to Know About Designing Effective Learning Games.

Learning Research by Annie Murphy Paul: Distributed Practice, Repetition and More

Interested in spaced learning and distributed practice? Then download our free Primer on Spaced Repetition and Feedback Loops. This guide will teach you everything you need to know about these concepts so you can incorporate them in your own training.

Annie Murphy Paul header

For the past year, Knowledge Guru® creator Sharon Boller has been a recipient of Annie Murphy Paul’s Brilliant Report, a weekly newsletter on the science of learning. As a result, many an article has been forwarded around the company, and it’s always an interesting read.

Annie Murphy PaulAnnie Murphy Paul’s bio tells us she is a “book author, magazine journalist, consultant and speaker who helps people understand how we learn and how we can do it better.” Most importantly for learning professionals, she has sifted through loads of research on the science of learning, synthesized it, and presented it to us in easy-to-read chunks, (usually) once a week.

I’m highlighting two specific studies found in Murphy Paul’s Brilliant Report, as they are particularly relevant to the learning principles we use in our Knowledge Guru game engine.

Distributed Practice

It turns out that the learning tactics most commonly used by both students and professionals are also the most ineffective. A 2013 report by the Association for Psychological Science examines ten learning tactics, rating their utility based on evidence gathered by five leading psychologists. The team was led by Kent State University professor John Dunlosky. Re-reading material, highlighting and underlining key points were all deemed “ineffective” learning tactics by the research, showing little value beyond simply reading the text.

Murphy Paul notes that “the learning strategies with the most evidence to support them aren’t well known outside the psych lab.” A prime example is distributed practice, or intentionally breaking learning into chunks and spacing study sessions out over time. The report shows that multiple repetitions, spaced out over time, build long-term memory better than other study methods. Murphy Paul also notes that “The longer you want to remember the information, whether it’s two weeks or two years, the longer the intervals should be.”

Takeaway: Instead of delivering training all at once, space it into smaller sessions. No cramming!

Practice Testing

The Association for Psychological Science report also noted Practice Testing as a highly effective learning tactic. Giving learners more evaluations, often not graded, will aid in further learning. Because learners must bring information to mind multiple times, they are more likely to remember it. Murphy Paul notes that flash cards are a familiar method to use for practice testing.

Takeaway: Have learners retrieve information multiple times in a “practice” setting.


It might seem counterintuitive, but giving learners a pretest before they have studied the material will actually enhance long-term memory. In Issue 14 of her Brilliant Report, Murphy Paul explains how completing a test on information you do not yet know, then receiving feedback afterwards, is an effective learning strategy. She cites three studies, one of them authored by Williams College psychology professor Nate Kornell and published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. She explains:

Kornell and his coauthors theorize that searching our minds for answers (even if we come up empty) creates “fertile ground” in the brain for encoding the answer when it is eventually provided.

Takeaway: Allow learners to try, and possibly fail, before learning your content.

Learning Principles at Work in Knowledge Guru

Annie Murphy Paul’s research dovetails nicely into the work done by John Medina for his book, Brain Rules. We based the design of the Knowledge Guru game off of learning principles discussed in Medina’s book, and they are further validated through the research Annie Murphy Paul has compiled. Some examples:

  • Distributed practice sessions, accomplished via the separate Guru Grab Bag mode. Players return to the game to play the new game mode, with repeat content, after they complete the regular game.
  • “Practice Tests”, accomplished via multiple repetitions. Each learning objective in Knowledge Guru has one or more question sets, which include three iterations of the same question. Learners must successfully answer all three questions to master the topic. The multiple repetitions enhance long-term memory.
  • “Pre-Tests”, accomplished via asking questions, then providing immediate feedback. When Knowledge Guru is used as the primary learning method, learners answer questions they may not yet know the answer to. When they get the question incorrect, they receive immediate feedback and then try to answer the question again.

Read Annie Murphy Paul’s Upcoming Book

If you’re interested in learning more about, well, how we learn, then have a look at Annie Murphy Paul’s blog and keep an eye out for her upcoming bookBrilliant: The Science of How We Get Smarter. You can also subscribe to The Brilliant Report, her email series on learning science.

Final Step in Learning Game Design: Playtest, playtest, playtest

Previous posts in this learning game design series have focused on sexy stuff such as game goals and core dynamics, game mechanics, game elements, or scoring and rewards. This final post is about the critical importance of playtesting your game as you move through development.

Playtest Playtest Playtest

Designing  a game is different than designing an eLearning solution. There is a totally new term that comes into the process: playtesting. Playtesting is NOT usability testing, focus group testing, quality assurance testing, or internal design review. Playtesting is what you do to evaluate whether your game is really playable and that it  functions the way you intended for it to function – as a game and as a learning solution.

Playtesting helps you answer these questions: Is it fun? Is it balanced (e.g. not too hard and not too easy)? Is it complete? Did people learn what you intended for them to learn? Playtesting is not something you do once or twice. You do it several times, each time further refining your game play experience and the learning experience. For mega-games like Halo or The Sims, designers may have done up to 3,000 hours of playtesting to verify that their game worked. For a learning game you craft yourself – or with a small team – you should assume at least 30-40 hours of play testing. Gulp – that’s right. 30-40 hours of testing time.

Phases of Playtesting


Your first playtest is with the very first version of the learning game you create, which should be a paper prototype. The image above is a paper prototype participants created in the Play to Learn workshop that Karl Kapp and I do together.  It’s rudimentary, but it gets the job done. The game designers and learning designers very quickly discover what works and where the holes are – and there will be holes. They’ll also come up with new ideas or ways to tackle problems. Here’s an overview of the three major phases of playtesting you should plan to go through. You may do multiple rounds of playtesting within each phase.

Phase 1 –  Self-test. You and your design team play the initial prototype and evaluate it. It’s okay to do a lot of discussing while you’re playing – and modifying rules and ideas on the fly as you go. You should keep game materials very basic for this test. Paper is best. If the paper test goes well, you can shift to online formats. If it doesn’t, re-do the game on paper and playtest it again as a paper version before going online.

Phase 2 –  Play test with friends and colleagues. Once you go through initial playtests with your design team and refine your game a few times, you’re ready to pull in some outside perspectives. Ideally you will include someone from your target audience.  Your team’s job  is to sit back and observes (quietly!) while others come in and play the game. At this point, you want there to be some legitimate game assets – artwork, programmed interactions, real content, scoring, and rules to follow.  You’ll debrief the experience and then decide what changes to make.

Phase 3 –  Play test with (gulp) strangers. Ideally all these strangers represent your target audience. These folks will be 100% objective, which friends and colleagues are not. I’ve learned the hard way (by going too far with internal playtesting and getting “great” results) that you need to loop in people who do not care about your feelings or the amount of time you’ve spent on the game. However, they SHOULD reflect people who really need to learn the stuff in your game. Otherwise, they can rate it lower simply because it’s not of interest to them.

6 Tips For a Good Learning Game Play Test

  1. Don’t share the background of the game before people play. That’s part of the playtest. Can your players “get it” without you explaining what the game is about?
  2. Do tell them what to expect: 15-20 minutes of game play followed by Q&A.
  3. Emphasize the need for playtesters to “think out loud” as they play. You want to hear their internal thoughts spoken aloud. Things such as “This is really confusing.” “I don’t understand the rules.” “I wonder what would happen if I make this choice? ” are all good things to say aloud.
  4. Keep your own mouth closed as much as you can. Do help players if they get truly stuck, but try to limit your interactions with players during the game.
  5. Stop play after about 20 minutes and conclude with debrief questions. Take copious notes.
  6. Keep a playtesting journal or log that documents the results of each playtest you do and chronicles the decisions you make about game changes.

Post-play debrief questions

We used to have a pretty big list of questions we asked. We’ve distilled the list down to five:

  1. What did you learn? Compare responses to what people were supposed to learn. Rationale: if people didn’t learn, the game doesn’t work – no matter how fun people think it was. It’s critical you get people to tell you what they learned in their own words so you can compare it against the learning goal and learning objectives of the game.
  2. On a scale of 1 – 5, with 1 being low and 5 being high, what was your engagement level in the game play experience? Rationale: if people weren’t engaged, then they aren’t having fun – and games should be fun. They should intrigue or interest the player. Otherwise, the player will mentally check out pretty quickly and not learn much of anything.
  3. Did your engagement level change at any point during play (going up, down)? Rationale: There could be a confusing game element, a rule that needs to be changed or enhanced, or some other game element that requires adjustment to maximize the experience. Conversely, the game could start slow and really build for players. You want to assess all of this and determine if and how the game goal, the core dynamic, the game mechanics, or the game elements need to be tweaked. Careful listening can help you decide if you need to adjust a game element, a rule, or even the game’s goal or core dynamic.
  4. If it did change, why did it change?
  5. What, if anything did you find confusing or hard to understand as you played? Get people to explain their responses. Don’t accept a “Yes. The rules were confusing.” Rationale: even on a good game, there can be some confusion about how to play. Your job is to figure out whether the player’s confusion warrants action on your part. Did their confusion affect their learning or the engagement factor? If not, you may decide to do nothing. Was confusion limited to a single player or did many players report the same confusion?

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: 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 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!