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.

Bloom’s Taxonomy and Learning Games


You have a clear business problem, a related instructional goal, and a desire to incorporate learning games to help you achieve your instructional goal. But which games are best? To answer the question, focus on crafting relevant learning objectives. These objectives should outline what learners need to know, do, or believe/feel to achieve whatever instructional goal you have defined.

Use Bloom’s Taxonomy to help you craft your objectives and accurately assess what level of cognitive skill learners need to use to produce your goal. Bloom’s levels don’t function in isolation of one another, even though we tend to think of them as doing so. Most complex tasks require us to use multiple levels within the taxonomy. However, Bloom’s provides a reasonable way of organizing the learning experience so learners can build skills in steps.

Bloom’s Taxonomy categorizes learning into six levels of thinking, with each level adding complexity. The original taxonomy is from 1956, with a revised taxonomy developed in 2001. The revised version flips the final two levels and uses different synonyms to describe the lowest level of cognition.

Building a Knowledge Guru Drive game? The Drive authoring tool uses Bloom’s Taxonomy to ensure good objectives. Read the full tutorial in our Knowledge Base.

Your task as the learning game designer is to choose a game type that enables the player to achieve the cognitive skill required. Most of all, make sure your learning objectives map to your instructional goal, and your game type enables players to achieve the objectives.

Once you know the skill level you want players to achieve, you can choose a game type that can best help them achieve targeted skills. Table 4-4 summarizes the original taxonomy and offers suggestions on game types appropriate for each level. The left column defines the cognitive skill. The middle column lists examples of behaviors you might include in a learning objective that targets that level. The right column identifies game types that work well for that level. The list is not comprehensive; it merely provides starting ideas.

You’ll also see that some game types can work for multiple levels. In addition, the content within your game can dictate what level of cognitive skill is required to play it successfully. A quiz-style game such as Knowledge Guru’s Legend or Quest game types can focus primarily on recall, or it can require higher-level skills in analysis, synthesis, or evaluation, depending on how you structure the game questions and what content you include. Knowledge Guru’s Drive game type includes different mini-games that each work for different levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Learn more here.

 Bloom’s Taxonomy and Game Types
Cognitive Skill Sample Verbs for Learning Objectives at This Level (Barton 1997) Game Types to Consider
Level 1: Knowledge

Know and remember facts or ideas.

List, identify, recognize, name, match, select, recite Quiz-style, arcade-style, matching, game-show styles
Level 2: Comprehension

Understand the facts or ideas; be able to explain them accurately.

Explain, describe, compare, contrast, distinguish, summarize, rephrase, tell Quiz-style, collection and classification games, exploration games, storytelling games
Level 3: Application

Use facts or ideas to solve problems or respond to situations.

Use, demonstrate, choose, solve, organize, develop, build, make use of Story- or scenario-based quiz games, matching games, role-playing games, decision games involving scenarios, simulations
Level 4: Analysis

Break information into parts and identify causes; make inferences and form generalizations based on examination of facts.

Analyze, compare, infer, categorize, classify, distinguish, conclude, describe relationships Strategy games
Level 5: Synthesis

Organize and combine information to form alternative solutions.

Compile, create, estimate, invent, choose, design, predict, combine, develop Building games, simulations
Level 6: Evaluation

Judge information and facts against a set of criteria. Form opinions and ideas based on this judgment and be able to defend them.

Determine, critique, decide, prioritize, assess, evaluate, deduce, justify Simulations, role-playing games


The instructional goal targets level 3 skills (application), but to be effective the sales rep may also need to use some level 4 skills (analysis). We identified each objective’s skill level. You might create a game for one of these objectives or craft multiple games targeted to several. Or, you might formulate a single complex simulation that requires the learner to demonstrate all these objectives.

Instructional Goal: Account managers can fluently communicate the right product value propositions to customers using stories.

The learning objectives learners need to master to achieve the goal include:

  • Select the appropriate tools to support the system. (Level 1)
  • Explain the features, associated benefits, and stories. (Level 2)
  • Given a customer need, choose the right features and articulate the associated benefit. (Level 3)
  • Ask the right questions to uncover the customer’s needs. (Level 3)
  • Tailor the value proposition and stories to the customer’s needs. (Level 3)
  • Contrast the [product name] methods with other methods of the past. (Level 4)
  • Given a real customer, put together an appropriate story. (Level 5)
  • Overcome customer objections. (Level 6)

The bottom line? Formulate your learning objectives first, and then consider what types of games best support the objectives.

Commercial Games vs Learning Games: Avoid the “Bling”


I recently had a conversation with a game developer who was interested in becoming a subcontractor for us. While we do almost all of our development in-house, I thought I would entertain the conversation to see his capabilities.

This developer shared several examples of games he had developed. All the sample games featured gorgeous graphics and lots of “action” in the games. This included things flashing, scores popping, and new game elements introduced as I advanced through levels. On the surface, it was quite impressive!

“Candy” Isn’t Enough

The trouble was that, while these game elements can be very addicting and engaging in a commercial game, they can get overdone and distracting in a learning game. The commercial developer’s goal is to keep players engaged in their game. The problem is that game developers tend to use a lot of “wow” factor and eye candy to keep the player interested. They will intentionally try to frustrate the player just enough to be motivated to make in-app purchases so the player can more easily progress through levels. And, if it’s well-done, this approach works well. Heck – even when it is NOT that well-done many players stay connected.

Candy Crush is a game that exemplifies “sensory overload” and millions love to play it. Other mobile games have followed the Candy Crush format, some more successful than others. I evaluated various commercial games, including a lesser-known game that is very similar to Candy Crush, here.

However, when devising a learning game, you have to carefully balance the complexity of your game mechanics and elements with the learning needs of the game. And your game developer needs to understand this and believe that less really is better.

When it Comes to Learning, Less is Better


“Less is better” is one of the four lessons of game design that I explained in my ATD blog post, Lessons from the Trenches of Digital Game Design. Less is better is all about managing learners’ cognitive load. Novice learning game developers often design a very “fun” games that make learning harder rather than easier. They load their games up with rules, pile on different game elements, and incorporate multiple dynamics (e.g. the “how” of achieving a game goal) to keep player interest high.

However, in typical corporate environments, players may have limited time to play and multiple distractions competing with their attention. Game play that is too complex will either frustrate learners if it’s too hard to learn quickly, or distract them from the learning they need to do. They can become engrossed in winning the game while failing to focus on the learning. Instead, they get distracted by collecting resources, competing against time constraints, or accumulating lots of points. The rule complexity or an overwhelming amount of game elements ends up overshadowing the learning.

The job of a learning game designer

A learning game designer’s job is to combine solid instructional design and game design so the learning is incorporated into gameplay. The game rules support the learning need and the game elements function as reinforcers. Commercial game developers may not embrace this “less is more” philosophy.

There is a misconception with learning games that it’s the fun of the game that keeps learners engaged. It’s almost as though we’re trying to hide the learning. It’s sort of like chopping up vegetables and pouring chocolate sauce over them so no one realizes they are eating vegetables. This typically doesn’t work. Even if we do eat the concoction we made, the “bad” of the chocolate sauce outweighs the benefit of any vegetables we might have consumed.

When I play test learning games, I always see that engagement comes when players love the challenge and goal associated with the game – not whizzy-wig game mechanics, graphics, or game elements. A learning game with well-managed complexity provides solid game play AND an optimal learning experience. Be cautious of any “learning game design” that has people do a bit of “learning” and then offers up game play as a reward for doing the dull learning part. Instead, look for (or try to design) a learning game that incorporates learning into the game play experience itself. Learners will appreciate it.

Build Your Skills at Designing Learning Games

Want to build your own skill set at learning game design? Karl Kapp and I co-authored a new book called “Play to Learn: Everything you need to know about designing effective learning games.” We share real examples of in-person and online games, and offer an online game for you to try as you read. We also walk you through evaluating entertainment and learning games, so you can apply the best to your own designs.

5 Keys to Success with Legend and Quest

Want to make your first Knowledge Guru game roll-out a success? While the platform itself is easy to use, a bit of planning and preparation goes a long way. The following “keys to success” will help you make the right decisions before you start designing your Legend or Quest game… and help you make your game content instructionally sound.

1) Choose the right game “type” for your endeavor.

Knowledge Guru offers you three options: Drive, Quest or Legend. Each one can a give you an impactful learning experience, but this article focuses on Quest and Legend. Sometimes either option is equally good. Here’s a few of the major things to consider:

  • Do you HAVE to support IE8? If so, use Legend. Quest will not work within Internet Explorer 8. If users cannot switch to a modern browser (IE9 or higher, Chrome, Firefox), then you’ll have problems.
  • Do you want people to play as part of a live event? Either game type can be used. Legend is the optimal choice if you want to break up game play throughout the day and have players focus on a single topic per play session. Quest is a strong option if you want the game to serve as an overall review of the day. You can have players complete a single world within the game, which would include all the day’s topics. They can then finish their games on their own – getting two additional repetitions of your content following your live event.
  • Do you have a theme? Legend gives you 8 different themes to select from; Quest gives you three. Some customers even opt for a custom-made theme. Which one is right for your event/learning experience?
  • Do you want to incorporate video? Use Quest. Legend does not support video within the questions.
  • Do you want to include “performance challenges” as well as the question/answer format? If so, choose Quest.

For more detailed comparisons, you can check out these Knowledge Base articles that do a detailed comparison of Legend and Quest.

2) Make your game smaller as opposed to bigger.

Both Legend and Quest are designed to maximize learner retention of content. However, if you overload your game with too much content, you will hurt your players’ ability to remember.  Novice authors can go a bit crazy on crafting questions and suddenly find themselves with 8, 9, 10 or even 11 question sets within a single topic. The result is player fatigue and overload on their brains. They end up remembering very little.

If you truly have lots and lots of content to cover, consider crafting several “mini-games” that can be spaced out. The Legend game type is particularly good for designing this type of solution. You can have a highly effective Legend game that has only three topics with three question sets in each topic.

3) Get good at writing question “sets”

Question Set

The single biggest challenge novice game creators have is recognizing when they are not writing iterative questions. Our Knowledge Base has a great article on how to write iterative questions. We encourage you to read it before you create a game, or to evaluate a game you’ve already created. Here’s a terrific formula to think about when you craft a question iteration:

  • Make the  question on the “A” path (Legend) or “A” world (Quest) a recall of the fact. This can be done as a true/false or a multiple choice option.
    • Widget A has three benefits. Two of these are durability and low cost of operation. What’s the third?
  • Make the question on the “B” path or world a bit more difficult by crafting a fill-in-the-blank or having them reference.
    • When you sell Widget A to customers, you need to share three benefits: ______ , ___ _____ of operation, and _____ease of________.
  • Make the question on the “C” path or world scenario based. Have them incorporate the fact into a job situation they would typically encounter.
    • You are meeting with Joe at ACME construction. He is concerned about replacement costs of Widget A. Which of the three benefits below is the one you should communicate to Joe? (NOTE: The answer would be durability. The distractors would be the other two benefits.)

4) Make your questions contextual to the players’ jobs and personal to them.

We all care about what matters most to us. So make sure your questions place your players in their jobs whenever possible. Here’s a terrific “formula” to think about when you craft a question iteration:

  • You are in a lab….
  • Your manager wants you to….
  • Your customer asks….

5) Incorporate visuals and video.

People respond well to images and they like watching short videos—just think about the popularity of YouTube. If you can show them instead of tell them, do it! Here are things you can do with an image, even one made in PowerPoint:

  • Give the player a context or “setting” for a scenario or a visual of what a customer might look like.
  • Present data that a player needs to analyze before responding to a question.
  • Show the flow of a process or the steps in a process.
  • Present a vignette of a selling situation, a feedback session, a customer inquiry, etc.

Designing a Learning Game? Play these 3 Games First


At Bottom-Line Performance, we have a “learning game design peer group” that meets a few times per year. I started the group three years ago to help build game design skills and to foster deeper knowledge of the power of games as learning tools. People who design games need to play games to gain perspective and understanding of core dynamics, game mechanics, and game elements and how these all weave together to create a good or poor game experience.

Here are three great games we have played within our peer group. All three are commercially available; one is marketed explicitly as a learning game. I’ve made a few comments about each one to help people understand the value of playing and evaluating the game design of each one


This is a cooperative game rather than a competitive game, which is one reason to play it and evaluate it. It is a complex strategy game where the players work together to stop the spread of four diseases. It’s a difficult game to play—and difficult to learn—but it’s also incredibly fun. I think playing it brings out a few key questions a learning game designer should ask:

  • What’s the impact to learning the actual knowledge or skill when the rules (game mechanics) are complex?
  • When does rule complexity actually enhance learning? When rules are part of understanding process complexity, it can be a good lesson.
  • How would you debrief an experience such as this one with players?
  • Is a game such as this realistic to create for the workplace if players don’t have at least 1/2-day to a full day to play and then debrief the experience?

Ticket to Ride

There are a ton of versions of this game, each with slightly tweaked game rules. The basic game goal, regardless of version, is to score the most points by executing the most lucrative train routes.  We explored mechanics that made this game a bit different. These are key questions to ask as you evaluate this game:

  • You didn’t have full knowledge of how you were doing in comparison to your opponents as you didn’t know what tickets they were trying to complete. How could you use this concept in a learning game?
  • There were no limits as to the number of cards you could hold in your hand. You could acquire unlimited resources but you had to give up the opportunity to create a route if you opted to collect a resource. How could you use this concept of choosing between two good actions as a concept in a learning game?
  • You had to gamble a bit when deciding to take a ticket and attempt to complete it. If you failed to complete a ticket by the game’s end, you had to deduct the value of that ticket from your score. Again, how could you leverage this concept within a learning game?

Robot Turtles

This game is actually designed for ages 4 and up. It’s a cooperative game as well. No competition involved at all. It is a bona fide learning game designed to teach players programming logic. You have a “game master” who moves turtles on a board at the direction of the players. The turtles and the game master are a metaphor for programming code and a computer. (The computer only does what the code specifies.).

We had a group of non-programmers play the game, which was designed to have several “levels” of play. As players mastered a basic level, the game master introduced a more complex element. Key questions we discussed:

  • Would players “get” the comparisons to the true skill being taught without a facilitator/instructor making the connections with them? (We decided “no,” which brings up an interesting question about using a learning game as a stand-alone event where there is no set-up or debrief of the experience.)
  • Was the use of levels effective in helping people get started playing fast and then building complexity as people got proficient? We decided yes. We strongly advocate learning game designers to consider the use of a tutorial level or advancing levels of complexity to make it easier for players to learn.

Continue the lesson with Play to Learn

Want to dive deeper? Pick up a copy of Play to Learn: Everything You Need to Know About Designing Effective Learning Games. I co-authored this book with Dr. Karl Kapp, another expert in game-based learning. 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.

Six Truths About Implementing a Learning Game that Gets Results


I love games—but that does not mean I think a game is the appropriate option for every learning situation. I do not think it will always equal the most effective or efficient means of helping people learn. In fact, I wrote a post recently clarifying how games differ from learning games because a lot of people are thinking about commercial video games when they contemplate incorporating games into their learning strategies.

If you are a chief learning officer or training manager/director who is trying to figure out whether games should be part of your learning mix—or how best to use them—here are six truths for you to consider:

1) Games and simulations require expertise to design well; you have to understand game design as well as instructional design. They require several rounds of play testing and iterative design to produce a game that fully engages your target audience AND achieves the desired learning and performance outcomes. They do not fit well into a “let’s draft it, pilot it, and finalize it,” three-step process. You may need to go through 5-8 iterations to get a custom game right. If you attempt to implement a game that you have not thoroughly tested, you are likely to be disappointed by the results you get.

2) Games are not a panacea. They do not spark crazed excitement in learners just because you say the word “game.” You have to market a game and plan its implementation just as carefully as you would any other type of learning solution. A game is not a cure-all for everything that might ail your training initiatives. Ideally, you have defined a clear purpose for the game and carefully integrated it into your learning solution—rather than inserting it as an afterthought to try to incorporate a “fun” activity in the learning experience. Make the game meaningful and tightly linked to your desired knowledge and skill outcomes. Learners are smart people. They will figure out if a game lacks relevance pretty quickly, and they will reject the experience.

3) A game is best suited as PART of a learning solution rather than as the entire learning solution. For optimal learning, games need to be set up and debriefed in some fashion. They can be a great reinforcement for learning, a great opportunity to practice a skill, or a great opportunity to create a shared experience that then transitions into something else. If your implementation does not include integration with other learning components, the game will be less effective as a learning solution than it otherwise could be.

Example 1:  Several years ago I designed a daylong workshop for a pharma company on single-payer systems (the rest of the world vs. a multi-payer system, which is the U.S. model). The day began with a 45-minute game/simulation called Access Challenge. The game objective was to get your drug onto a customer’s formulary. What made the simulation unique was that the pharma teams were selling to government agencies on different planets, who each had a different type of payer system and different population issues/concerns. The simulation was a level-setting experience for participants so everyone had a shared experience of working with single-payer systems before we got into the details of the day. After learners completed the simulation, we had an excellent foundation for the remainder of the workshop, which was not game-based.

Example 2: We recently were fortunate to earn a Brandon Hall Award in the games/simulation category, along with our client partner, ExactTarget. ExactTarget used Knowledge Guru to create a game called MobileConnect Guru, which was part of a training initiative designed to prep employees, resellers, and distributors on the launch of a new product. The game provided multiple repetitions of key content and was the last component learners completed prior to the product’s launch. ExactTarget’s results were impressive, but the game alone would not have gotten them these results. They designed a highly effective multi-method approach to helping people learn and remember. We describe this “recipe” for learning and remembering in a Bottom-Line Performance blog you can find here. 

4) Your stakeholders are often poor judges of what the target audience will like and find useful. Do not trust the stakeholder group to deem what should and should not be implemented. Your stakeholders are not your target. What they themselves are intrigued by might be deadly dull to your target learners. Conversely (in our company) what the product dev team likes might be way, way too game-y for anyone else in the company. Match the game to the audience, not the people paying for it. This is a tricky business, but it can be done.

5) Recognize the power of games in helping people learn AND remember. A well-designed game incorporates many elements that foster long-term retention. A well-designed game has high replayability, which means learners will naturally get numerous repetitions and practice sessions—which is essential to remembering. They provide frequent and voluminous feedback, which is essential to learning something correctly in the first place. They will incorporate a variety of game elements that foster a desire to play. Some games will even leverage a strong story or narrative, which has a high correlation to long-term memory. (Stories engage our entire brain; the brain literally “lights up” when a story engages it.)

Example: Cisco uses the Knowledge Guru game engine as part of its new sales association program (CSAP). Players consistently rate the games extremely high in terms of their value in learning AND remembering (4.93 on a scale of 1 to 5). A game can combine knowledge recall with scenarios that allow the player to apply the knowledge in a job context, which is a powerful memory-builder.

6) The more effort required to learn to play the game, the less cognitive space available to learn the content. If you feel strongly that you only have 30 minutes available for learners to play a game, then do not implement a game that easily requires 30 minutes just to figure out the rules of play.  Unless you are designing an immersive simulation, keep your game’s objective and rules pretty simple.  The game’s complexity needs to match the amount of time you believe learners will spend playing the game. If you are planning a complex, immersive simulation, then your implementation strategy needs to allow time for players to fully engage in (and learn from) the experience. This probably means 3 hours, not 30 minutes.

If you want a deep dive into learning game design, I wrote an entire white paper on designing learning games. You can download it here.

If you want more info on learning and remembering, check out my white paper titled When Remembering Really Matters. It talks about games and much, much more.


Three ways learning games (aka serious games) differ from just “games”

ForbiddenIslandLast weekend, I was with friends and I introduced them to the game Forbidden Island. I figured they would enjoy it as much as me. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

The game is a cooperative one rather than a competitive one. Players have to work together to locate hidden treasure and fly off the island before it sinks. The focus is on problem solving, strategy, and cooperation as you work together to figure out the best moves for each player to make. To me, the game is a lot of fun to play. To two of my four friends playing, the game was torture. It was “too complicated.” It had “confusing rules.” (The game is designed for players 10 and up so it cannot be THAT complicated, but you DO have to pay attention. The game has won a ton of awards and millions have played it. It’s been play-tested extensively.)

Learning games can be a terrific learning tool. They can also be a major source of shut-down in a target audience. My friends are intelligent people, but they have both told themselves stories about how they view games. That story is, “I don’t like games. I am not good at games.” Or worse, “I only like certain kinds of games…ones that do not require strategy or too much thinking.” In my experience, I run across a lot of learners who are like my friends. A game becomes fraught with risk rather than something fun that engages them.

Here are three things you really need to do when you create a learning game:

1. Make the game’s design and play experience consistent with your learning goals.

One of the decisions we made early on with Knowledge Guru was to make the game very, very easy to learn to play. You do not risk looking “stupid” because you cannot figure out the rules. You answer questions. The strategy is limited to recognizing that feedback screens are your friend. Paying attention to them helps you on subsequent paths or levels in the game. Why did we limit the strategy? Because Guru is designed as a knowledge acquisition or application game – not as a strategy or problem-solving game. Its focus is on getting players to have a pleasurable way to reinforce knowledge or to focus on how knowledge gets used in their jobs.

Competition is used as a game element, but because the game is largely played online, the competition is more abstract. We don’t have Susan trying to thump Peter in the game. We have people focusing on having the highest score or specific achievements they can celebrate. With a Legends game type – the one we recommend for live play experience –  you can also set up competitions to be team-based, which is typically better than pitting one person against another person.

2. Consider the characteristics of YOUR players  – not the general population.

If someone were designing a game for people like ME, they would create a high-strategy game, possibly with role-playing elements. This would NOT be the game designed for my two friends, who are distrustful of games…worried that those games will magnify their perceived intellectual flaws or personal shortcomings. For these gals – or people like them – I needed a game with very few rules, a very narrow focus, and a short playing period. Learning the game needed to take minimal time and energy.

You want to design a game that will appeal to as many members of your target population as you can. Be aware that probably NO game will appeal to every single member of your target learning group. This does not mean the player will learn nothing from playing, but he or she may not “love” the experience.

3. Recognize that set up is crucial.

A lot of novices in the learning game design arena assume that the game takes care of itself. If you say the word “game,” your learners will automatically be excited and ready to play. This is so NOT true. A certain percentage may enthused, but others will be resistant for a variety of reasons. Your set up of the game experience is crucial to successful implementation and maximum  learning from the game. A few things:

  • Clarify how the game play will fit into everything else they need to do in their jobs. A learning game differs from a recreational game in that players are not CHOOSING to play; they are expected to play. They view the game as a job requirement in most instances. The hope is that once they begin playing, they find the experience pleasurable…but they are not going to assume it’s pleasurable just because you use the word “game.”
  • Help players understand how it benefits them; be clear about how it will help them. Examples could include a game’s ability to reduce job stress, make customer interactions easier, make a process quicker/safer/easier to do, etc.
  • Acknowledge people’s efforts and performance. In Guru, we have a variety of leader boards as well as a Standings tab. It is very, very easy and transparent to see how people are doing. As an implementer, you can acknowledge effort via broadcast emails, Intranet banners, closed-circuit TV, a personal VM message, a team meeting, or a variety of other ways. This acknowledgement goes a long way toward incentivizing continued play or emphasizing the value of play.
  • Consider tangible incentives – but keep them small. Handing out large prizes for game play is probably NOT a good idea because those who are lower on the score board quickly become discouraged. However, small incentives for being the first to play on a given day, for the first to hit a specific milestone, or for achieving mastery or a given topic by a specified time point can be useful acknowledgements and incentives.

So, you want to create a learning game?

I’m teaching a game design course online with Karl Kapp that begins next week. There is a lot of interest from instructional designers, teachers, and sundry others in designing learning games. This, of course, is heartening to me since I am a major proponent in the use of games as a learning tool. Part of what we discuss in this course (and every course we do on game design) is the importance of playing and evaluating lots of games as part of learning to become a game designer. For those interested in learning games, in particular, I think it is important to play and study LEARNING games as well as regular, commercial games.

It can be tough to find a diversity of examples when you start hunting for learning games. Apps are easy to find. Games for older students and for adults are really tough to find. Here are a few learning games I can suggest for evaluation purposes. Some are better than others. The games are primarily for adults, but I also included some K-12 games.

One thing I think should immediately leap out to you is that few of these games are a complete learning experience by themselves. Most benefit from being PART of a larger experience without being the sum total of the learning experience:

  • Moneytopia – this is an older game I found several years ago, but still point people to for evaluative purposes. Its target audience is young veterans or military personnel. The goal is to make these people better at managing their money and planning their financial futures. You decide how effective you believe it will be. It definitely mirrors the trend of lots of learning games I see that spend lots of time telling people how to play before they actually get to play.
  • Bezier pen game  – This game is amazing. Its target audience is visual designers who need to learn to use a Bezier pen with online applications. It has NO “tell.” It is 100% learn by doing.  It offers a completely opposite approach to Moneytopia. The tutorial is beautiful. The game goal is simple: create images using the fewest number of nodes possible. Replayability is very high. Feedback is continuous. If you are a non-artist (like me), it’s frustrating but very engaging.
  • Spent – this is technically a game for change, but I can see this game used in a variety of ways. The game is a conversation starter. I doubt that by itself it changes anything, but used as part of an education campaign or a classroom experience, I think it can have quite an impact. Notice that you get into the game immediately and it’s a very quick play. Replayability is high.
  • The Undocumented/Migrant Trail game – This is an educational experience designed for middle-school and high-school students. The goal is to educate students on the  immigration policy controversy. It flips things, though, and casts students in the role of the undocumented immigrant trying to gain access to the U.S. (Be aware you have to select “Migrant Trail” from the navigation menu. The URL does not take you straight to the game.)

Now for a few great apps:

  • Dumb Ways to Die – I LOVED this game! It is a mobile phone game (playable on tablets, too) that was part of a train safety campaign done for Melbourne, Australia. The game is sassy, funny – and not meant to be the sole learning experience. It IS a way to engage the audience and get a few points across in a humorous way (such as do not touch the red button and stand behind the white line). The link I provided goes to App Store. The app is also available for Android devices.
  • Dragon Box – this game supposedly teaches algebra without mentioning algebra at all. I enjoyed the game, but I do not know if I could successfully complete high school algebra again. I think the game would make a fabulous companion tool in an algebra class. I’m less clear it replaces algebra class.
  • Grading Game – This is a personal favorite of mine. It has a simple, but effective, back story, and I love the feedback mechanisms.

Finally… let’s look at what folks are doing using rapid authoring tools. These templates were posted by the Rapid eLearning Blog several months ago. If you looked at some of the other links I listed above before you look at these templates, you will notice a big shift. The game design elements you can use – and the game play experience you can create – is limited when you attempt to use an eLearning authoring tool to produce the game.

Most designers agree that eLearning course authoring tools are not the best tools for creating games, but this is often the only tool eLearning folks have to use. They want to create a game…and the only tool they have is their rapid authoring tool. So…. review these and decide for yourself what you think. They may spark other ideas or they may inspire you to explore a game creation tool such as Construct2, whose output can be embedded INTO an eLearning authoring tool such as Storyline or Lectora.


Chance vs Strategy: Which Works Best in Serious Games?

Chance vs Strategy

If you are creating a serious game to help your employees improve their performance, the type of game you create depends greatly on the type of job your employees have. Are either of the following statements true?

  • Day-to-day work is highly reactive in an “anything can happen” environment. Employees complete tasks such as responding to varying customer needs or emergency situations.
  • Work is based on organization, planning and foresight. This might be the case for sales managers, executive leadership or even individual contributors who must carefully plan and execute project work.

Depending on your situation, you should include an appropriate amount of chance or strategy in your serious game that reflects the work environment. As always in game design, you’ll want to avoid game elements that are irrelevant to learners. Gadgets and gimmicks within a game serve as more of a distraction than an engagement tool.

Sharon Boller talks about this at length in her learning game design blog series. With so many different game elements and game mechanics to potentially include in a game design, instructional designers new to game design often struggle to find focus and direction. We think about the “fun” of commercial games we have all played and enjoyed and try to incorporate all of this into games for our learners.

The result? Games that are distracting, out of focus and ultimately ineffective for learning.

The two game elements most commonly misused are chance and strategy. The usual mistake? too much chance. Would-be designers add lots of “surprises” to their games thinking it will make the experience more fun. The other mistake is to include strategy or chance in a game when the real answer is to use neither. Sometimes, the best corporate learning games focus on just a few game mechanics and game elements so mastery of the content can be brought front and center.

Consider the following examples Sharon gives in her blog post on game elements:

  • 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?

Don’t forget that chance and strategy, while seemingly very important, are only two of the many game elements available to you. A game does not need chance or strategy to be fun or effective for learning.

game elements chart


Case In Point

Knowledge Guru’s game play is essentially simple and straightforward. Why? Each game is really a template of sorts for whatever content you put into it. If the game had too much chance, it would undermine scenario questions where learners must formulate a strategy. And if the game had a strategic focus, it would distract learners who need to learn how to respond to seemingly random situations in real time.

Instead, Knowledge Guru includes the following game elements:

  • Story
  • Aesthetics
  • Rewards/achievements
  • Levels
  • Theme
  • Competition

So, what about strategy and chance?

You probably already know if your learners’ jobs involve more chance or strategy. Whichever is more true for them, be sure to include the appropriate game element in the game they will play.

The bottom line: When designing a game, you should never include a game element or game mechanic if you do not understand how it is linked to the desired learning outcome.

How We Get Ideas for Serious Games


Previously, I shared out the game evaluation worksheet I use when playing games. It’s more than just a fun pastime for me—although I definitely love to play. It’s also part of the idea generation process for the games I design. I’ve said it many times: “you can’t design a great game if you don’t play games.”

What does it mean to evaluate a game? What format should you use? Read on.

Sample Game Evaluation


Scurvy Scallywags is a game I recently spent hours playing over a period of weeks (along with Candy Crush, which I did not enjoy) so I could evaluate the game elements within that made the game so addictive. Both Scurvy Scallywags and Candy Crush rely on the same core dynamics of alignment and exploration, but the play experience is quite different. Here’s my game evaluation of Scurvy Scallywags, using the game evaluation worksheet that I’ve evolved to help me analyze games I play.

What is the game goal? Was it fun?

The game goal is for you to find the “ultimate sea shanty” (which has amazing powers). Yes, it was very fun!

What were the core dynamics? Were they fun?

The two main dynamics of  Scurvy Scallywags and Candy Crush are exploration and alignment, and the concept is very simple. In Scurvy, you have a large map with numerous islands  on it. You direct your ship to various islands and then select specific locations on the island to explore. Once you select a location, the second dynamic, alignment, comes into play. Specifically, you have to find three in a row of the same object (a coconut, a spider, flasks, etc.).

Swiping these items helps you align power swords that increase your character’s power in the game and lets you defeat other pirates. This, in turn, earns you gold as well as a cache of objects you can sell for gold.  We start learning pattern matching in preschool, so this is not complex game play. Neither is the exploration dynamic in this game as you are merely tapping locations on a map.

  • I found both dynamics to be fun. However, the “fun” in it is not the dynamics by themselves. It is the game elements incorporated into them,  You could have a very un-fun game that relies on pattern matching. The fun comes from the rewards and achievements you earn and in the problem-solving you do to identify the most strategic matches to make to get at least three power swords to align, which increases your power rating.

What were three game mechanics that stood out as good/bad?

  • You start with three pirate hearts in the game. Battling against a pirate who is more powerful than you will cost you one of those lives.
  • If you accrue sufficient gold, you can purchase an additional pirate’s heart.
  • The direction in which you swipe your “three of a kind” items will dictate how you and your enemy pirates shift around on the game board, which makes it possible for you to dodge or evade enemies with carefully considered moves.

Which game elements did you notice as you played? Write a note on one that stood out and explain why:

  • This game contained many different game elements: great aesthetics with lots of varying game boards and items to swipe, a clear theme (pirates and a treasure map), a backstory and continuing narrative thread, numerous different resources that you could purchase or earn by progressing through the game, levels of difficulty, strategy, some chance (you never knew when a new enemy would appear), and competition (against the enemy pirates in the game).
  • The game element that stood out most to me were the resources. These varied quite a bit in terms of their cost and their benefit so I spent time considering which resources would be most advantageous to me.  If I were to pick a second item, it would be the feedback in the game, which was voluminous.

How did you know how well/poorly you were doing in the game? What feedback did you get?

  • There was a display that showed me the number of pirate hearts I had remaining.
  • There was a power rating that showed me my current power level, which was critical to monitor so I did not prematurely attack an enemy who had more power than me.
  • I had a display that showed me how much gold I had accrued on any game board.
  • I had an “enemy pirate” counter to show me the number of pirates I had to defeat. As I defeated an enemy, the counter would track that, too.
  • I had various dashboards available within my menu that showed me status info regarding what level of ship I had, what I had available to purchase, etc.

So what?

How does this game evaluation help you? This level of analysis can help you consider game elements you might incorporate into a learning game. It can also help you think about how to provide feedback to players, how to reward players during game play, and how to increase the “fun” factor in a game. You might discover an amazing game mechanic (rule of play) that you can incorporate into a learning game. Here’s what I took from Scurvy to incorporate into a game we have in development:

  • The idea of a clothing item for an avatar as signaling progress in the game and rewarding the player for achieving a certain level of performance.
  • The ability to evaluate how much complexity is going to be too much complexity for a learning game. In Scurvy, it’s very fun to have so many resources to consider and incorporate into a strategy. By playing the game, I could see that the number of resources and options needs to be winnowed way down to avoid too much cognitive load on the player.
  • The element of surprise in terms of earning a reward you didn’t realize was possible to earn. Several times in the Scurvy game, I received bonus points due to a great action I’d taken – but I didn’t know beforehand that the potential to earn these points was possible. This element of positive surprise kept me playing. I want to incorporate that same idea into the learning game we are developing.

Download the Game Evaluation Worksheet

Download the Game Evaluation Worksheet for yourself! Use it to evaluate game mechanics and game elements for use in your own serious games.