You Built a Great Learning Game… Why Aren’t You Getting Results?

You built a wonderful learning game. So why aren’t you reaping results from it? Before we dive in and diagnose why your learners didn’t learn, grab a piece of real or digital paper. I’m going to ask you to write down things and answer some questions.

Before I do, take 30 seconds and write down everything you need to get done today. Then write down everything you need to do this week. Did you have “complete an eLearning course,” or “play (insert name) learning game that my boss recommended to me” on your list? Perhaps you do – and perhaps you fully intend to do that course or play that game.


  • What barriers hinder your ability to spend time in a formal learning activity? The activity could be an online course, a learning game, or even reading blog posts on a particular topic. How many unplanned things are likely to creep in today or tomorrow that will turn good intentions into fantasy?
  • If you do complete the learning activity, how much “think time” will be available to you today or next week to reflect on what you learn?

I assume you are reading this post because you are a training manager, a sales manager, or some type of learning and development professional who produces learning games or learning solutions for others.

So the really important question is: How do you think your target learners would answer all these questions?

Everyone of us in the work world has the tsunami that we call the “work day” and our “personal life.” Most of us have days that start between 5:30 and 7 a.m. and often don’t end until 11 p.m. We spin lots of plates and our learners are no different.

However, unlike us, they may not be super excited by all things connected to learning new things. They may actually be resistant to learning new things. Resentful of learning new things. Stressed out or fearful of learning new things. Simply not interested in learning new things because their heads are so full of what needs their attention right now.

What are you going to do about it?

Creating a relevant, well-designed learning solution, unfortunately, is not even close to enough. You have to tear a page from a marketer’s book and develop a full-blown implementation plan. These are the three ingredients you need to produce broad-spectrum results from your learning game:

Most of you will create the first item (a great game), but fail to fully map out logistics or think about having to market the game. There is a fallacy that a great game sells itself, and the game itself will intrigue learners enough to motivate game play.

Think back to the start of this blog and that to-do list you wrote down as well as the “unplanned things” that derail the to-do list. Playing a learning game is not going to be high on most learners’ list without some planning on your part.

If you do things right and include all three elements of a good implementation strategy, you greatly increase the odds of people playing. Being able to put together those three elements requires you to do a bit of legwork and info gathering.

Getting Started

So before you start creating your game or crafting any strategies, make sure you ask – and get answers – to questions like these:

  1. How does the game help achieve business and learning goals?
  2. What are the learner/manager/stakeholder anticipated reactions (positive and negative)? How do these reactions influence messages you need to deliver as part of implementation?
  3. What realities exist in learner population that affect implementation? How do these influence game elements that you emphasize/leverage? How do they affect logistics/deployment?
  4. What effort, skill, time, and planning is required to design, produce? How does this impact your timeline and what you can produce?
  5. What ongoing effort and creativity are required to maintain long-term interest in ongoing game play or to keep things “fresh” over long-term?
  6. Are there constraints that limit or direct decisions on frequency?
  7. What analytics and data can the game solution provide to showcase benefits and cost-effectiveness? What metrics do we want to see? How should data be filtered for analysis? (If you can’t answer #1 in this list, you won’t be able to answer these questions.)
  8. Who needs to see this data and how will data be used?

How to create a learning game experience that gets performance results

1. Create a well-designed game. This means the game:

  • Is relevant to learners’ needs and actually has value for them. The game goal and the play experience clearly link to the skill or knowledge the player will find helpful to acquire. (Note that I said player will find it helpful. It’s not enough for someone else, such as you or a stakeholder, to believe it will be helpful. The player has to find value in it.) The design choices you’ve made have a learning purpose to them. (Example: Using chance in the game to mirror something in the real-world that learners cannot control.)
  • Has a complexity level that matches learners’ use case. (Example: Don’t create a multi-hour play experience with tons of rules for a learner who needs a game they can quickly get into/out of. Make game play extend over periods of time rather than all at once).
  • Uses game elements that appeal to the the player types you have playing your game. (Consider Amy Kim’s social action matrix to figure out your player types and what game elements might appeal to those types.)
2. Plan out the logistics required to deploy the game effectively.

This means you’ve thought about what it will take to get your game into learners’ hands – and mapped the process out step-by-step. You have a rollout schedule that includes:

  • Timeline and key activities for pre-launch, launch, and post-launch of your game.
  • Specifics of distribution/delivery. (How will they locate/download your game? On what device? With what possible browsers? Is download required or can they stream the content?)
  • Tactics for mitigating risks/barriers to play (Yes, you have to think about the fact that they have many, many distractors in their lives. You also have to decide how you intend to grab their attention despite those distractions.)
3. Develop and implement a marketing/communication plan.

Those tactics you ID’d for mitigating risks in Item #2 help shape the marketing tactics you design and deploy. You need to think and act like a marketer:

  • Brand your learning experience; use imagery and a logo to burn your game’s promotion into the minds of your learners. When I say “Coke” I suspect you all either think of the logo itself or a bottle/can of coke. You can literally see it in your minds. How do you do that for your game?
  • Consider incentives. Who pays full price for a Coke? How many of you love a coupon or a “free prize.” An incentive adds some spice and some fun. If the initiative you are working on really matters, then incent it. It doesn’t have to be a huge incentive, it just needs to grab attention.
  • Map out a communication plan for each of your targets – including the stakeholders as well as the learners. Figure out what the message(s) need to be for each target, the timing of those messages, and the distribution channel.

ExactTarget and Johnson and Johnson both had highly successful game implementations because they created strategies that used all three components outlined above. Here are a few images that represent some of what they presented to their learners. Don’t waste all the time, energy, and $$ you spent creating your amazing learning game by failing to plan out implementation. Make sure you get the return on investment your company deserves and should expect.

Exact Target embedded a game within a larger experience and promoted it on its Intranet. It regularly updated messages, brought attention to those on the leaderboards, and eventually awarded someone the title of “MobileConnect Guru.”


J&J had a focused, weekly campaign. They gave accolades to weekly winners, shining a spotlight on them. Like ExactTarget, they integrated the game within a larger curriculum.

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.

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.


Games vs Simulations: Choosing the Right Approach for Learning


The word “game” is a big one… and it really refers to a category of activities that can look many ways. There is some natural confusion that arises around this topic, particularly on the difference between games, simulations, and gamification. I’ll focus on games and simulations in this post.

Here’s the definition I always give when asked to define what I mean by game:

An activity that has an explicit goal or challenge, rules that guide achievement of the goal, interactivity with either other players or the game environment (or both), and feedback mechanisms that give clear cues as to how well or poorly you are performing. It results in a quantifiable outcome (you win/you lose, you hit the target, etc). Usually, it generates an emotional reaction in players.

Categorizing Learning Games and Simulations

With the definition in hand, we can then think of how we might sub-categorize the word “game.”


Within the classification of games, you have a subset labeled “learning games” or “serious games.” Games created with the explicit intent of helping someone learn a specific set of knowledge or skills belong in this category. On the education front, you have things such as Treasure Math Storm, Oregon Trail, and Where in the World Is Carmen San Diego. In the corporate world, an example would be our Knowledge Guru platform. We’ve also designed card games, mobile games, computer games, and board games to help people learn new knowledge or skills or to reinforce knowledge or skill learned via other means.

Then we’ve designed simulations—sometimes we design them to be games, and sometimes not. Simulations can be designed as games, but they don’t have to be. (Confusing, isn’t it?) A simulation is a re-creation of a situation you could encounter that requires you to problem-solve and make decisions that mimic what you would have to do in the real-world. Simulations provide a safe means of practice when practicing in a real-world situation would be either too costly or harmful. (e.g. No one practices flying in a real jet. You learn first in a simulator.)

An Example of a Simulation

Here’s an example of a simulation we created that is not a game. The learning goal was for patients to be able to respond to common troubleshooting alarms when doing home hemodialysis, and then safely resolve the alarm. Here are some screen grabs of the simulation with notes about what we did:

Dialysis Simulation

The image shown above is the actual face of the dialysis equipment. The learner will practice resolving “Alarm 20,” which is an actual alarm that can go off during treatment. They get a situation cue: “You were 30 minutes into your treatment when a 20 Alarm sounds.” We set this simulation up with levels so the patient can be guided through resolving the alarm the first time. In this novice level, the patient practices with a lot of guidance. The red circle shown here prompts them to turn the alarm sound off and the options to the right offer possible causes of the alarm.

Dialysis Simulation 2

Once they go through the demonstration level, they come to a screen that simply lets them choose what they want to practice.

Dialysis Simulation 3

The screen above looks very similar to the novice level. They once again get a situation prompt: “You started treatment about 3 minutes ago and just finishing resolving a Check for Aterial Air 11 alarm when the Cycler started sounding again. This time you need to resolve Alarm 10.”

The big difference, however, is that there is no red circle pointing out where to start or what to do.

Simulations contain many game elements

For instance, simulations can:

  • Have levels of difficulty just like games do
  • Be graphically rich
  • Provide a lot of feedback regarding how you are doing.
  • Present as a challenge that you have to resolve.
  • Generate a lot of emotion within the participant.

When simulations are not designed as a game, the thing that typically keeps them from meeting the full-fledged definition is the fact that there is no explicit win/lose state. In the dialysis example, there is no scoring and the learner is not trying to “win.” They are also not competing against anyone else or cooperating in order to beat the computer opponent.

An Example of a Game

Is a simulation the “holy grail” of learning games? Are simulations the best way to do learning? Not always. Here’s a mobile game we designed to help sales reps get ready to work directly with customers in selling a new software product. It definitely helps them practice positioning features and benefits of a product… but it is not simulating their real-world environment. They play it in a workshop around a table. Here are three side-by-side screenshots of the smartphone app:


You play this game like Apples to Apples. There is a Round Master who takes the role of a customer. He presents a challenge to the other players, which is an objection or a question. The Round Master can view the optimal response to the situation by tapping FLIP CARD. The other players have access (on their phones) to a variety of responses they could offer. They choose the response card they want and tap LOCK CARD to select it. They must then present this response to the Round Master as though he or she was the actual customer. The Round Master gets to score the response based on how well it matches the optimal response and how well they delivered it. The player who earns the highest point total wins the game.

This is not a simulation but it does let players practice using their selling skills and knowledge of product messaging. It was a big hit with the target players and a very effective way for them to practice their salesmanship.

Hopefully now you a grasp on the differences and overlaps between simulations and games. This spectrum of engaging learning activities covers a wide range of possibilities for your own training. Use these examples to help evaluate whether your training needs call for a simulation or game, or some blend of the two.

Review of Karl Kapp’s newest book on learning games aka serious games

urlI first met Karl Kapp in late 2012. I was a fan of one of his early books, Gadgets, Games, and Gizmos for Learning, which he published in 2007, and I’d also read and enjoyed his recently published The Gamification of Learning and Instruction.. Consequently, I was pretty thrilled when he visited the Knowledge Guru booth at DevLearn 2012 to learn about our newly-launched game engine. He was intrigued enough by its design to check out a session I co-presented with Scott Thomas of ExactTarget on the use of a Knowledge Guru-created game within ExactTarget.

Based on what Karl heard about ExactTarget’s business results, he asked me to contribute a case study to a forthcoming book he was writing with two other main co-authors, Rich Mesch and Lucas Blair. The book, titled The Gamification of Learning and Instruction Fieldbook, was going to pick up where its predecessor left off. It would offer more in-depth “how-to’s” and include numerous examples of games or gamification being successfully used as a learning strategy.

I contributed my chapter about a year ago. A few weeks ago I was rewarded with a copy of the finished book.  I read the entire book (not just my chapter), and I was impressed by the wealth of knowledge it contains. It offers detailed explanations of the terminology of games as well as solid definitions of what a learning game is and how a learning game differs from gamification of a learning solution. Here are several highlights or nuggets from various chapters. If you are serious about wanting to implement learning games or creating a gamification strategy, get the book.

Chapter 4 – Critical Questions for Creating an Interactive Learning Event (aka game)

The section on scoring will be hugely helpful to any new learning game designer.  In my own experience, scoring is one of the most difficult aspects of game design to get right. This chapter offers  excellent guidance.  Karl helps the reader think through the measurement criteria that could be used within a game – and how to decide which ones are relevant for a particular learning game. He specifically speaks to being able to articulate the rationale for the scoring – and keeping it simple enough that the learner/player can understand how a game is scored. He also points out that optimal scoring matches the desired learning outcomes. There are questions and guidelines galore to help the designer figure out how to create a good scoring system within a game.

Chapter 5 – Foundational Elements

First, it’s helpful to a novice game designer to even know what constitutes a “foundational element:”  things such as  constructs, game mechanics, feedback, challenge, story. Secondly, there’s some key tips here that I’ve learned from experience are absolutely worth listening to:

  • Never add things to a serious game or simulation because you think they are cool.” This is a rookie mistake, and you don’t have to make it if you pay attention to this book. In a  game, complexity can be fun to design – but complexity can be deadly to the learning process. Your learners/players get so consumed with trying to understand the rules that they have no brain space left for actually learning anything you intended. Yes, I’ve learned this the hard way! (I’ll speak to this at my upcoming session, “Lessons from the Trenches of Digital Game Design” at ASTD TechKnowledge 2014 and Training 2014.)
  • You have to play games – lots of games – before you can realistically design a good game. Playing games exposes you to the array of game mechanics you can use. As the author notes, “Often when creating a game or simulation, you will…repurpose, recombine, or modify game mechanics from other games that already exist.”  You can’t do this if you don’t have experience playing – and evaluating – a ton of games. I’m constantly amazed to find people in our learning game design workshops who don’t play games. It’s tough to design a game if you don’t play them frequently yourself.
  • Feedback is one of the reasons games are such a powerful learning tool. As players play a game, they constantly get feedback on how well or poorly they are doing, and they get cues on what they can do to adjust their performance. The Fieldbook talks about the impact of feedback on the player and identifies a variety of feedback types that a designer can incorporate into a game. This section is going to be very helpful to the novice designer.

Chapter 6 – The Importance of Narrative/Context/Story

Story helps immerse a player into the game experience AND a story can also help a learner remember the key take-aways from a game experience long after play ends. The author reminds readers that good stories have a beginning, middle, and end and they chart a logical progression of conflict, resolution, and conclusion. This chapter includes a simple template for creating a story, a useful tool for novice and experienced designers alike.

Chapter 7 – Make the Case

This chapter summarizes the research on the efficacy of games as a learning solution. If you want details on a large array of studies you can find them within Chapter 7. For a brief summary,  check out this infographic created by our team at Bottom-Line Performance, Inc.

Chapter 13 – Technology Tools

This is a useful chapter for organizations looking to discover what development tools are out there for creating serious games. The delineation between template-based authoring tools, game engines, and gamification platforms is particularly useful.

Chapters 15 – 22

Here you’ll find EIGHT (!) different stories of organizations who implemented a learning game or a gamification strategy related to a business initiative. Readers get the background on the business situation that led to a decision to create a game or gamified strategy, a description of the solution, a summary of the business results achieved, and lessons learned. For folks who need examples to help support their efforts to convince their own organizations to adopt the use of games these chapters will be very helpful.


I recommend you get the original book (Gamification of Learning and Instruction) and the Fieldbook if you want to have a robust package on your shelf re: learning game design and gamification of learning. You’ll use them again and again in either of these scenarios:

  • You manage a learning function that wants to implement a game-based solution and you want to sell stakeholders on the idea of using a game or gamification.
  • You are a designer and you want to build skill in creating learning games.



Learning Game Design: Play and Evaluate Games


This post focuses on the first step to design learning games: play and evaluate games. If you don’t like playing games, don’t try to design a game because you’re going to hate this step. Game design is a bit like writing a book; you’d never attempt to write a book if you first hadn’t spent time reading and evaluating several books. Those who would attempt to write a book without having ever read one probably wouldn’t create any great work of literature.

So step one is to play a lot of games—and play a lot of different types of games. If you focus on one particular genre (video games, board games, etc.), then you should expand your horizons and explore different genres and game forms. As you play all these different kinds of games, think about what makes them “fun” to play and how the game’s mechanics and elements make them fun. (If they aren’t fun for you, what makes them fun for others? You’re not the target audience for every game you play.)

Read on to learn:

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

Why fun matters

Why the focus on fun? Because the fun in a game helps learning happen—or is the learning. Fun is not frivolous; it’s integral to a successful game. Kevin Werbach, in his Coursera MOOC on gamification, identifies eight types of fun in games. These eight types of fun all happen to integrate nicely with learning, or are things people need to learn to do.

1. Winning

You think this doesn’t link to the workplace? We all like to achieve a win state – over a challenge, over a competitor, over ourselves – beating a previous personal best, for example.

2. Achieving goals

Humans are goal-driven creatures. Goals are highly motivating to most of us and achieving them is very satisfying. Goals in games that link to the real-life learning we want a target group to do can be powerful and effective. You can find goals everywhere in business: reducing percentage of scrap, reducing number of safety incidents, increasing sales by X, adding X customers.  There’s behavior change required to achieve most goals; that frequently requires learning how to do something differently or better than you currently do it.

3. Triumphing

This can be triumphing over a competitor, or the game itself, or over individual challenges within the game. Many of us enjoy feeling victorious, particularly if we gained victory by mastering a difficult problem or challenge. We have feelings of triumph in the workplace as well: vanquishing a difficult project, prevailing against difficult business odds or challenges, etc.

4. Collaborating

A highly valuable business skill, this is a fun element of many games, too. People get social and emotional satisfaction out of collaborating with others. Often people enjoy collaboration much more than they enjoy competing. And organizations want people to collaborate in the workplace to achieve business results.

5. Exploring and building

Games like Sims, Minecraft, and Civilization are about doing these things – and many people find exploration and building powerfully motivating and “fun” to do – so fun, in fact, that they can spend literally hours of time doing these things within a game. These are key skills inside the workplace. Exploration is an underrated business skill that closely links to something more people understand within business: research.

6. Collecting

Lots of games feature a collection “dynamic” where players’ goal is to collect certain things. Poker is essentially a collection game—collect the best cards and you win. The Pokemon card craze of a few years ago is about collection. The board game Risk combines collection—acquiring territories—with strategizing. How will you gain those territories? Collection appeals to many people’s sense of fun and can be incorporated easily into learning games. In the business world, we often have to collect information before we can move forward with decisions.

7. Problem-solving or strategizing

These are higher-order thinking skills that lots of people enjoy doing. Consequently games that feature these elements have lots of fans. Chess is a classic example of a strategy game. World of Warcraft is a modern-day example. Games in the adventure genre are all about problem-solving—figuring out how to get from Point A to Point B. Problem-solving and strategizing are part of growing and managing any business, and most jobs within a business.

8. Role playing or imagining

Many games allow us to do one or both of these things and people love doing them. Second Life, a once-popular virtual environment, leveraged people’s desire to role play by allowing people to create avatars to represent themselves. Fantasy can provide a powerful means of letting people feel free to try new behaviors and acquire new skills while feeling safe and minimizing fear of failure.

Okay, so you have a list of fun. Now, how many games should you play to help build your skill set? My answer? A lot—and never stop playing new ones! I have three folders on my iPad labeled Games, Games 1, Games 2. Here’s a view of one of these folders:


This folder contains a mixture of traditional games (Scrabble), popular games (Words with Friends, Cut the Rope), puzzle-type games, adventure games, arcade style games, etc. It’s highly eclectic. Some of these games I may only play once; others I will play multiple times (even if I don’t like them very much). I still want to understand what makes them popular, why some people think they are fun, and what mechanics within them might trigger an idea I could use in a game I create.

Evaluating what you play

Playing games for enjoyment is different than playing games to evaluate the quality and efficacy of the game design. Here’s a laundry list of questions that go through my mind as I play games with evaluation of them on my mind:

  • What’s the game goal? Is it clear? Is it compelling to me? Why or why not?
  • What’s the game’s core dynamic? Is it exploration, collection, “race to the finish,” solve—or a blend of two different dynamics such as collection AND race to the finish?
  • Are the rules clear? How do I learn them?
  • What game mechanics (aka rules) make the game most fun? Which one(s) would I change? What would happen if I did?
  • Do the aesthetics of the game draw me in? What emotional reaction do the aesthetics elicit in me?
  • Is the game “balanced” in the sense that it accommodates different player levels? How?
  • What’s the balance between strategy and chance? Do I feel like I have control over the outcome by the choices I make in the game or do I feel the outcome is almost all chance?
  • Is the game cooperative, competitive, or a blend of both?
  • If the game is competitive and I lose, how does this make me feel? Does it motivate me to play again or do I want to avoid playing again so I can avoid losing?
  • If it’s a digital game, how easy is it to navigate? Can I quickly learn by exploring?
  • Finally, as a learning game designer, what elements from this game could I use in a game I design?

Games to play

Here’s a starter list of six games to play and evaluate.  One of them is a board game, the other five are digital games. In my suggestions I’ve included some notes of my evaluation of the game design and game play to show you how I do it. (I’m not saying this is the only right way—just my way). Keep in mind I am including games in this list that I do not consider to be fun. You have to play some bad with the good. It helps you contrast and compare.

Settlers of Catan

This is one of the best games I’ve played and I admit to loving it. Here’s some of my notes and evaluative comments:

  • This game leverages both cooperation and competition. I like that. I also notice that it is pretty difficult to win this game without cooperating with others. The strategy is figuring out when to cooperate and when to refuse to cooperate.
  • This game offers a lot of possible ways to win/strategies to employ. I consider this to be a plus. I can focus on earning achievements that can help me toward victory (longest road or largest army). Or if I want, I can blend a variety of these strategies.
  • The game isn’t easy to learn from reading the rules—if we translate “easy” as taking 5 minutes to learn (aka Apples to Apples). I don’t take this as a negative because the game offers a rich playing experience. However, I do think I should be able to master the basics with one or two game play experiences.
  • The game incorporates chances to even out the odds and allows players to trip each other up. It does so via a nonplaying character – the Robber – who can mitigate the power of any one player or to help a player who is losing shift his/her fortunes.
  • The Robber works best when there’s four or more players. It doesn’t work as well with only two players. Many players have figured out how to adjust the rules for the Robber to offset this, which is interesting to me.
  • The game communicates the odds of any dice role as part of the playing board, which is interesting. I can factor those odds into my decisions on where to place my settlements and cities. This gives an element of strategy to something typically thought of as only chance. Again, a very interesting and useful game design technique that I might want to use myself.

Additional games for you

Now, here’s five other games for you to play and evaluate. I’ve given you one or two things I’ve noted, but you can come up with plenty more on your own.


This is an old-style adventure game. Pay attention to the complete lack of rewards and achievements in this game. Why aren’t there any? Does it need them? (No, the task is the reward. It’s interesting to solve the challenges. The reward is the satisfaction from solving the challenges.) Other things to evaluate are the aesthetics and the contrast between game play on the desktop and the iPad.

Rise of the Blob

This is a horrible game that is the complete opposite of Machinarium. It’s FULL of rewards and achievements because it makes money from in-app purchases. See what you think about the sheer volume of the awards and achievements and how long the game holds your interest.

The Grading Game

I loved this game design. I thought it was very clever. See what you think about the aesthetics, the game goal, the use of negative, almost mean, feedback (traditionally a no-no in learning games), and the very punitive use of time as a constraint. On the negative side, what do you think of the placement of the “teach” info on grammar rules? Could that be improved? If so, how would you do it?

Mystery Math Mansion

This game is targeted toward grade schoolers. Pay attention to the aesthetics, the reward system, and the strategy choice of selecting numbers or symbols. It’s also useful to notice how they incorporate levels of play and achievements. Ask yourself whether you think the game goal (releasing fire flies) is appropriate for the game’s target audience. How much repeat play do you think the target audience would do?


This nifty little game is supposed to teach algebra—even to five-year olds. See what you think. Does it stand alone as a teaching tool or should it be combined with some other form of instruction? Do the aesthetics have broad appeal? What about the 3-star system for letting users track both completion and achievement? (You can progress if you get at least a single star but 3 stars indicate you’ve solved the problem in as few moves as possible.) My opinions? I would use the 3-star system myself; the game allowed for players to progress while also giving evaluative info about how well they performed. The aesthetics were simple but clever. I would NOT have learned algebra with this app alone but it would have been great combined with formal explanations offered by a competent teacher. (I hated algebra, by the way. This game would have really helped.)

Get the Facts on Game-Based Learning (Infographic)

We know how effective serious games and game-based learning are. That’s why we’ve developed an entire game-based learning platform focused on making game-based learning easier to implement. But some people are still on the fence about using games for learning. Compliance training isn’t supposed to be entertaining, right?

Are you interested in learning more about this topic and want hands-on experience designing your own game? Sharon Boller and Karl Kapp’s new book, “Play to Learn,” is a great place to start. You can order the book on Amazon or ATD’s website.

We know that if everyone had the information we have, they’d realize the true efficacy of game-based learning. If only they could see our successful case studies and hear what those learners had to say. That’s why we created this detailed infographic to break down the facts on game-based learning and serious games, and why they should be your next learning solution.

Want more information?

We strive to educate the instructional design community on serious games and game-based learning in fun ways. If you’d like more detailed information on implementing game-based learning at your organization, please contact us. We would love to hear from you.