A framework and taxonomy to help workplace learning professionals design games for e-learning.

In recent years, there has been a lot of excitement about using games in e-learning. While everyone understands the concept of games, we see different interpretations when used in a learning context.

A definition

Games, when used appropriately, provide an excellent learning aid. Games can help clarify abstract and difficult concepts, provide a fun way to practice what is learned, and offer the variability that is necessary to keep the attention of learners. In short, games serve a two-fold purpose in the learning process: understanding and motivation.

Understanding. Using games to teach helps learners practice essential formulas, facts, and processes. They can be used as a strategy to apply what the learners have learned. Games also can be used to address topics that learners have difficulty grasping.

Motivation. Lack of interest in a topic or subject leads to a lack of motivation. Using games to teach such topics can make the topics more interesting, and adds a fun element to the learning process.

To that end, the term instructional game implies an activity that is embedded in any learning material for the purpose of enhancing the teaching-learning process and motivating the learner to go through the learning material.

Game structure

Think about any game you have enjoyed playing. It had an ultimate goal, a way to keep score, rules to constrain the game, some type of difficulty or challenge, and a strategy element to increase your chances of winning. Instructional games must have similar attributes to be successful (see Figure 1).

  • Score: This is the element of winning or losing. It is the core of any game, including the instructional game.
  • Strategy: This element has a direct bearing on the score. If built into an instructional game, it allows the learner to manipulate the game so as to maximize the score. This element can be designed in the form of bonus points, rewards, and so forth.
  • Message: This element has a direct bearing on the learning objective of the learning material. In other words, if the game is designed to communicate a concept to the learner, we can say that it has a message component.

The framework

Using the above structure as the base for instructional games, we can identify four types of games that are included in e-learning (see Figure 2).

In Figure 2, each quadrant represents a game type, which is based on the combination of the two components of instructional games—strategy and message. Note that, within this framework, the score component is common to all game types.

Quadrant 1: Score Only, No Strategy, No Message

A game type that falls in this quadrant captures score, but does not contain either a strategy or any instructional message. The game only has the score component, and the purpose of including it is to merely provide a “play” value to the e-learning material. Although one would think that Quadrant I games would not find many applications, many designers include such games in their courseware.

For example, Figure 3 illustrates how to use a basketball metaphor to provide options for selection. Upon clicking an option (a labeled basketball), the basketball either goes through the basket (if correct) or drops back. There is no relevance of the basketball game to the subject being tested.

In the same quadrant, we identify another type of game, which doesn’t have a strategy or message, but has a strong context. For example, a course on information security includes a game in which players must protect a gem from a thief. The game design does not have a strong focus on the message of information security, but in a subtle manner, the presence of a strong context reiterated that information assets are precious and must be protected (see Figure 4).

Yet, another example of this type of game to illustrate the importance of context in learning is included in an anti-money laundering course for casinos. In this instance, the game revolves around catching a couple of money laundering criminals as they escape to various parts of the world. The context is very strong and relevant (that money launders are criminals), but there is no strategy and no message derived from playing the game (see Figure 5).

Quadrant 2: Score & Strategy, No Message


Games that fall in Quadrant 2 have the additional element of strategy to increase motivation. While the game by itself does not actually teach or communicate a message, it is included as a wrapper to motivate the learner to address content that otherwise may be perceived as boring and dull. The strategy element enables learners to control the game based on some skill or technique that makes the exercise exciting and interesting.

In a course for investment bankers, the traditional quiz was wrapped in a format that allowed learners to place a bet before answering a question. They could view the question and choose to select a bet before answering. This way, even without knowing all answers, they could strategize and gain a high score (see Figure 6).

Another example of Quadrant 2 game lets learners seek help from an expert three times, but the score they gain is lower than if they answered without help. Learners can choose to seek help strategically. In each example, the element of strategy added to the “fun” element in the game, and encouraged learners to play it several times to improve their scores.

Quadrant 3: Score & Message, No Strategy

A game type that fits into Quadrant 3 has the message component, but no strategy. It is designed to help learners meet a learning objective—to demystify and simplify abstract concepts, and thereby make them easier to learn and understand.

To explain the concept of stages of money laundering and how it becomes more difficult to detect as the money moves through the stages, a game was designed that had dirty money being washed in a washing machine. The objective was to detect and catch the dirty money as it spun in the machine. The game was designed so that in each progressive stage, it became more difficult to detect the dirty money. The game drove home the message that it is very important to detect money laundering at Stage 1, when the criminals first deposit money in a bank.


In another example, a course that tackled the concept of objective setting for performance improvement used a game in which learners were supposed to do something without being given any clarity and scoring instructions. What they chose to do (catch all golden apples) was based on their background and past experiences. In the next stage of the game, clear instructions and scoring mechanisms were described. This game drove home the message that unless objectives are clearly set at the start of a project, staff will be unable to perform to their best abilities.

Quadrant 4: Score, Strategy & Message

A game type that falls within Quadrant 4 has within the game itself, the two instructional components (strategy and message) apart from the core component (score). This is the highest form of game design because it provides motivation, as well as an opportunity to strategize while at the same time learn something.

For example, a course on quality required a game that would define terms, which in this case meant meeting customer requirements. The game also focused on the message that if a customer’s requirements are not met, you are likely to lose him.

In this game, learners took on the role of a florist and had to take orders from several clients and meet their requirements within a specific timeframe. The element of strategy came from how one chose to remember the orders and what sequence of actions to use—since there were many possible ways in which to be successful.

Table 1 summarizes of the different types of games, as well as when, why, and how you should design them. Note that the order in which they appear in the table also indicates the level of difficulty in game design.

Game Type   Purpose Description   Possibility for Reuse
Wrapper Only

Quadrant I

Play value

Just Like That!

The wrapper dresses up regular quiz questions in a non-contextual wrapper. Once designed, these games can be used in any context.
Contextual Wrapper

Quadrant I

Play value

Provides subtle messaging and relevance

The wrapper is contextual and addresses the subject being covered in a subtle manner. Since the wrappers are contextual, reuse is not easy, though possible if used in similar contexts.
Additional Strategy Element

Quadrant 2


For content perceived as dull/boring

The game anchors the main content, and allows the learner to strategize in order to maximize his/her score and earn rewards. Possibility of reuse is similar to Contextual Wrappers

Focus on Message

Quadrant 3

Communicate an instructional message

For communicating abstract concepts

Games designed around a key message, where the content itself is built into the game. However, such games are only meant to communicate an instructional message and do not have any major strategy to maximize the score. Reuse is very difficult because the game is designed to communicate a specific message.
Combination of Message and Strategy

Quadrant 4

Motivate and communicate an instructional message

For communicating tough concepts.

Games designed around a key message, with an opportunity to strategize and maximize the reward/score. Reuse in other contexts is not possible.

Final score

Before you include a game in your learning material, determine the purpose for including it. While you may include games for their play value—or fun factor—it is important to know that such games rarely motivate learners or communicate an instructional message.

Motivation and communication of an instructional message are two important components for making a game instructionally meaningful. Either of these two components must be present in a game for it to qualify as an instructional game. While motivation can be addressed by creating a game as a separate layer from the content and building a strategy within it, communication can be addressed by building the game as part of the main content layer itself.