Design and develop a learning game using these nine steps.

A growing body of research supports games as superior to traditional lecture-based approaches in helping people learn and retain content—as long as those games are well-designed and well-implemented. In addition to surpassing the efficacy of lecture-based approaches, games offer compelling ways to help people with strategy, resource allocation, and innovative thinking. They can help people understand alternate points of view. Games also provide an opportunity for each player to have a personalized learning experience, where 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.

The challenge of tapping into the power of games is in execution. Instructional design and game design are different disciplines, and most instructional designers do not possess game design skills—or even knowledge of game design nomenclature. The process of producing a great learning game can be capsulated into nine steps. This methodology is one we've used over several years to create learning games ourselves and to teach others how to do it, too.

Play entertainment games and evaluate what you play

Before you do anything else, you need to play games of all kinds: board games, video games, card games, mobile games, and experiential games. Play games you like as well those you would never choose as a form of entertainment.

As you play, evaluate what you are playing. Assess what makes the game fun—or not fun—and build your game design vocabulary. Notice the core dynamics that enable you to achieve the game goal. Are you aligning things (as in Candy Crush) or are you outwitting an opponent or the computer (as in chess)? Or are you collecting cards and acquiring territory as in the game Ticket to Ride?

Take note of each game's mechanics, or rules, and how these affect the clarity and fun of the game. Pay attention to the variety of game elements you see, such as story, competition, chance, strategy, rewards, themes, and aesthetics. Consider how these game elements contribute to the overall play experience and your desire to keep playing.

Through game play, you'll build skill in recognizing how the different design decisions influence the level of engagement a player feels. Keep a diary or a game journal as you play. Write down what you find interesting about the game, as well as any ideas you have on how a game element or mechanic could be used in a learning game.

Explore learning games

Next, immerse yourself in games designed for learning outcomes. Assess how the games you play achieve the learning goals (or in some cases, fail to achieve them). Pay attention to how learning is introduced, reinforced, and tested during the play of the game.

Some learning games put a thin veneer of a game on top of boring, uninspired content. Others focus heavily on fun and action and place minimal importance on helping learners achieve desired learning outcomes. Work toward building a literacy around learning games so you can understand, at a deep level, what works and what doesn't work when creating a learning game.

Set the learning foundation

Before you jump to game design, first complete instructional design. You need to have an instructional goal, terminal objectives, and enabling objectives. You also need to have a clear idea of your audience.

We advocate crafting a "learner persona" much as product managers craft "customer personas" when developing products. A persona creates a clear picture of who the target learner/player is. It identifies the person's needs, drivers, game play preferences, and probable attitudes toward games and the instructional purpose of the game. It helps you see a person and not just a list of demographic details.

Link learning design and game design

After you define your instructional design elements, link those elements to game design choices.

Core dynamic. What will your players do to win or accomplish the game's challenge or goal? Entertainment game designers choose a core dynamic based on what they believe players will find fun. As a learning game designer, consider which core dynamic best supports the learning needs of your target learners.

Game mechanics (rules). Rules dictate how players achieve the game goal, how they interact with other players, and, in digital games, how the system responds to actions players take. Choose simplicity over complexity, and contextual rules over random ones. Complicated rules hinder people's ability to learn or dissuade them from even wanting to play. Contextual rules enable learners to more easily make learning connections.

Game elements. Every game has elements or features that keep people engaged, such as cooperation, competition, strategy, chance, resources, themes, or stories. Most games use a mix of elements that work together to help maintain interest and encourage replay of the game.

Your job is to choose ones that balance learning and fun. They should make instructional sense. For example, chance is a great element to use if there is an element of chance in the real-world context. Collaboration is better than competition if collaboration is required in a real-world context.

Determine scoring and rewards

A subset of game design decisions revolves around scoring and rewards. Consider these carefully. A game that has a strange scoring algorithm or a scoring system no one understands torpedoes learning. Follow these six rules to ensure a successful scoring system:

  • Keep scoring simple. Avoid making learners keep track of complex details related to score.
  • Make scoring transparent. Anyone playing the game should be able to quickly figure out how to score and what it takes to win.
  • Tie scoring to learning outcomes. If players are learning the content in the game, they should be doing well in terms of score. If players are not learning, they should not have a high score. Don't let chance dictate who wins in a learning game.
  • De-emphasize a "winning is most important" focus. Scoring should not push people to focus exclusively on winning. This focus hinders learning. If competition is a game element, emphasize learning as more important than winning. Competitive games have winners and losers. If the losing experience is so terrible, then losing becomes the only thing losers remember.
  • Provide for scoring variability if a game is competitive. For example, if you create a question/answer game and everyone gets the same points for answering questions correctly, then theoretically every person could have an identical score at the end if no one misses a question. If your game is a competitive one, this one-dimensional scoring algorithm makes it difficult to create a leaderboard or competition because everyone could achieve the same score. You need to add a second dimension to introduce variability, such as time or number of tries required. Two learners can both learn the content but not obtain the same score.
  • Reinforce on-the-job realities as appropriate. The actions and activities required for the job should be echoed or mimicked within the learning game. You don't want the scoring of the game to work against what the player is attempting to learn.

Build the initial prototype

A prototype is the first playable version of your game. This prototype is a rudimentary version of the game with enough content included for evaluation purposes. Your goal is to create a quick, easy, and inexpensive test of your game design idea.

A prototype helps you identify if your game idea is engaging, if the game mechanics and game elements are working properly together, and whether players are learning from the game play experience.

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Paper is the cheapest, easiest, and fastest prototyping tool. Start with paper even if your ultimate goal is a digital game. When designing digital games, it's tempting to start in a digital tool, particularly if you are the coder or the artist, or just like working with PowerPoint. Resist the temptation. Prototyping on paper prevents rework later and enables you to quickly spot problems you miss with digital prototypes.

This prototype also helps you assess the technology needs and production needs of your game, something you need to know for the next step. Think forward to eventual development of your game and the tools required to produce it. For digital games, consider what programming or authoring tools you need. For tabletop games, consider what game components are needed. Based on these decisions, identify the resources needed and the time required for development.

Play-test and iterate on design

You love your game idea, but will others? Play-testing helps identify game irregularities, mistakes, and leaps in logic.

A key part of game development is doing multiple play-tests as you iterate on your game's design and content. Test how the game experience "feels" to the players. Does the game make sense? Is it easy to understand how to play? Are the rules easy to follow? Are the players engaged? Is it balanced (not too hard and not too easy)? Is it complete? From the learning perspective, do players learn what you hope they will learn?

Play-testing is how you refine and craft your game so it plays the way you intended—as a game and as a learning solution.

Develop and iterate

After you hone your initial prototype, the next step is to develop the first "real" version of the game. You then test and revise from this first build. Regardless of whether you are developing the game yourself; as part of an internal team of artists, writers, and designers; or are overseeing a supplier, keep your hand on the pulse of the process to ensure the final product meets the learning needs of the organization.

Throughout development, continue to play-test after each build of the game to verify that you are maintaining the instructional integrity of the game and an appealing game design.

Deploy

Your final step is to deploy the game. Deployment means executing on an implementation plan that defines logistics and marketing. Logistics encompass the technical aspect and address questions such as: How will employees access the game? Do they have the right plug-ins for browsers? Can they download the app? Where do we ship the deck of cards? What's the rollout schedule going to be? Is there a train-the-trainer?

Marketing helps you avoid the rookie mistake of assuming learners will be so intrigued by the idea of a game that simply getting to play creates sufficient motivation for learners and gets their attention. Push out a variety of communication about the game to intrigue learners and pique their desire to play.

By using these nine steps, you can tap into the power of game-based learning. The process helps you execute with confidence and produce games that are instructionally effective as well as engaging to your learners.


Go Phish: The Game Development Process in Action

We follow our own process in creating learning games. Bottom-Line Performance needed an innovative way to help its employees learn, understand, and apply its information asset protection (IAP) policies. One of our internal teams drew on its previous experience playing two games: Go Fish, the children’s card game; and Gloom, an intriguing card game for teens and adults where you play on each other’s cards. (This draws on step 1 of our process model, which is about playing a variety of games.)

We discussed our desire to use a game as our means of helping people learn dry content and plotted out our instructional goal: Recognize situations requiring application of IAP policies and choose a course of action that complies with these policies. We then identified three learning objectives, each of which related to one aspect of IAP: passwords, storage, and security (step 3 of the process, setting the learning foundation).

Armed with this instructional information, we spent 90 minutes crafting an initial prototype. We reviewed our learning objectives, considered our audience, and chose the game title “Go Phish” because it offered a fun play on words. The idea of matching scenarios and actions also linked to job contexts where employees are faced with a variety of situations for which they have to choose if and how they will protect company data and assets.

We used blank index cards to create game cards. We aligned scoring to real-world consequences: scores decreased when a player made decisions that were security risks and increased when a player made positive choices. Also, we incorporated some chance by dealing cards out and having a draw pile. We play-tested and identified changes we needed (steps 4, 5, 6, and 7 of the process, which focus on linking learning with game design, considering scoring, building prototypes, and play-testing).

The team then shifted into early development and built out a full version of cards without pretty graphics or icons. We tested again and discovered more changes we needed, particularly to scoring. The team revised the card deck yet again, and we pulled in team members who weren’t part of the original design process and watched them play. Based on where they got confused, we identified final modifications to make and then produced our final deck of cards (step 8, develop and iterate).

We used the cards at a company event. Prior to this event, we spent time planning out our timing, how we should set the room up for game play, how to set the game up with participants, how to organize people into teams, and how to debrief the game play experience (step 9, deployment).

Go Phish is now a standard part of our onboarding experience. All new hires play it and it can be used for annual IAP refresher training as well.