Using games to educate adults isn’t just a trend, it’s a compelling way to help people learn strategy, resource allocation, and innovative thinking. In fact, there is a large body of research that shows that games are more effective than lecture-based approaches to learning.

The reasons for using games are obvious. Sharon Boller and Karl Kapp explain it best in their new book, Play to Learn: Everything You Need to Know About Designing Effective Learning Games, “Games provide an opportunity for each learner to have a personalized learning experience in which the learner can choose to review content, attempt different strategies, experiment, and experience the game differently from co-workers and still reach the same learning outcome.”

What’s not so clear, however, is how to build effective and engaging games. “Instructional design and game design are different disciplines,” explain Boller and Kapp. “Most instructional designers and training professionals do not possess game design skills or even game literacy, which is knowledge of game lingo and structure.” That’s the bad news.

The good news is that Play to Learn presents a nine-step process for developing learning games. And the first step on your path to building great games is playing games. That’s right. Boller and Kapp tell L&D pros to play games, lots of games. They identify critical reasons why this is an important step:

  • Playing games help you identify what makes games fun—or not—for the target audience. 
  • Playing games help you learn the lingo of games. 
  • Playing games help you get ideas on game elements, rules, and dynamics to use.

But can you play just any game? Will playing Monopoly or Pokemon Go really make you a better a game designer? The authors say yes, but the key is to evaluate the pros and cons, as well as engagement factors, of each game while you play. The authors recommend you pay attention to:

  • complexity of graphics; use and readability of the text 
  • choices on when to use text and when to use images 
  • navigation and how it helps players figure out where to go and what to do next 
  • use of play to teach play as opposed to a bunch of text “tells” that precede game play 
  • use of levels to mark progression of play 
  • achievements and scoring 
  • how replay is encouraged through the scoring system.

“You’ll find that each type differs in how it explains the rules, incorporates story and aesthetics, and manages scoring and complexity. Compare and contrast how game designers handle these game design decisions,” write Boller and Kapp.

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Play to Learn also reminds readers to look beyond just playing for fun: “Playing games for enjoyment is different from playing games to evaluate the quality and efficacy of the game design.” As you play games, consider the following questions:

  • What’s the game goal? Is it clear? Is it compelling to you?  
  • What’s the game’s core dynamic? Is it a single dynamic or a blend of two, such as collection and race to the finish? 
  • Are the rules clear? How do players learn them?  
  • What game mechanics make the game most fun? Which ones would you change? What would happen if you did?  
  • Do the aesthetics of the game draw you in? What emotional reaction do they elicit?  
  • Is the game balanced? Does it accommodate different player levels? How? 
  • Is the game a good match for its target audience?  
  • Is there a story associated with this game? How does it enhance the game-play experience? How did the designers weave the story throughout the game?  
  • What’s the balance between strategy and chance? How does the chance factor affect how you feel about the game?  
  • Is the game cooperative, competitive, or a blend of both? Does this increase or decrease your motivation to play?

In the end, the point of playing all these games should lead to one question: As a learning-game designer, what elements could you use in a game you design?

Ready to get started? Boller and Kapp advise new game designers to try playing a new game every week. Make sure you play games through more than a level or two so you truly get a sense of their complexity and richness. (A list of games broken down by phone, PC, console, and table top is available in Chapter 2 of Play to Learn.)

Okay, it’s not all just fun and games. Play to Learn will also show you how to link game design to your business needs and learning objectives and then test your prototype and refine your design.

Read a sample chapter at www.td.org/Play2Learn.