Core Dynamics: A Key Element in Instructional Game Design

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Imagine you are sitting down to play a game with friends, such as Cards Against Humanity, Mario Kart, or even the old family stand-by, Monopoly. Beyond getting together with people you know and enjoy, what makes the game itself fun? The answer, though you might not know it, partially lies in the game's core dynamic. In layman's language, it's the how of winning that game. The how might be collecting resources, exploring, building, racing against others, acquiring territory, aligning items, or just making your friends laugh the most. 

When designing an instructional game, it’s critical to ensure that the activities of the game align with the desired learning outcomes. What a learner does to win a game should align closely to activities and skills required on the job. One method of ensuring this alignment is to make sure the game’s core dynamic reinforces the real-world context, need, or preference of target learners.

The core dynamic of a game is also a key reason why some people like one type of game and others like another. Some people like the core dynamic of alignment, like in the games Candy Crush, Timeline, or Bejeweled. Others like a core dynamic of outwitting an opponent, like in chess or Stratego. Choosing the right core dynamic is critical to the success of the game.

Most games have one or two core dynamics. When you are starting out designing learning games, it’s easiest to select one core dynamic and design your game around it. As you add dynamics, you add complexity and the game becomes confusing to the learners. They will not understand what they are supposed to be doing to achieve the game goal. Table 1 below contains a list of common core dynamics and how they align with particular learning outcomes.


Cognitive or Behavioral Objectives or Learning Purpose

Race to the finish: Get to the finish before anyone else or before time runs out. (Candy Land, Mario Kart)

This is a great dynamic to use in combination with a second one. It’s useful when the learner’s real-world application has some sort of time-boxed restraint (e.g. a process that must be completed within a specified period of time, or a goal that employees must achieve monthly or quarterly).

Territory acquisition: Acquire land, typically to create an empire or own the most of something. (Risk, Civilization)


This, too, is a great dynamic to pair with another one. Use it to emulate real-world situations where dominance is a factor. In-game success increases territory; failure causes it to shrink. This concept correlates well to business success or failure, employee success or failure, sales success or failure, and so on.

Exploration: Wander around and check out various aspects of your game world to see if you can find things of value. (Tomb Raiders, Clue)

This dynamic is useful with learning objectives related to tasks that require one to compare and contrast, explain, describe, or analyze. Exploration dynamic offers an interesting way for learners to acquire information they need to do something else within the game. Consider pairing it with territory acquisition, collection, or race to the finish.

Collecting: Find and get specified objects or people. (Trivial Pursuit)

Collection is extremely popular as a dynamic. Use it when you want to help learners make associations—for example, matching customer types to specific products, steps in a process to specific tasks that must be performed, or safety behaviors to specific signage.

Rescue or Escape: Get out of a situation or place you are in. (Capture the Flag)

Many people find rescue or escape fun to do. The dynamic is great for knowledge recall games where mastery over knowledge enables you to either rescue someone or something or escape from someone or something.

Alignment: Arrange game pieces in a particular order. (Candy Crush, Solitaire)


There are tons of mobile, casual games that use this dynamic because players tend to find it very addictive. This dynamic is a good partner for learning goals related to helping people identify, recognize, choose, and select. It can be useful when you want to help employees put things in order, execute things in sequence, etc.

Matching: Recognize things that are alike or that fit a specific description; create pairs or groupings. (Spot It, Memory)

Matching has lots of use. Use it to help learners build skill in linking features to benefits, objections to customer types, objections and appropriate responses, and more.

Construct: Create something using specified resources. (Catan, Minecraft)

This dynamic can link well to learning situations where you want to reinforce the idea of successful use of knowledge or skill helping the learner create something in the real world (such as an expanded sales territory or increased business success).

Solution: Solve a problem or puzzle. (Chess, Clue)

This dynamic is excellent for higher-level thinking or skill practice. It is good for simulation-style problem-solving and role-play activities where learners practice closing a sale, resolving conflicts, making decisions that affect outcomes elsewhere, and so on.


It is not uncommon to combine core dynamics in a game. For example, the poplar card game Go Fish includes the core dynamics of both collecting and matching. When combining core dynamics, keep these concepts in mind.

  • A significant part of your game’s fun depends on how engaging players find the dynamic you choose. When you create your initial prototypes for your game, ask yourself, “How would the game change if I changed the dynamic from X to Y?” (for example, from race to the finish to rescue or escape). Or, “What would happen if I combined a second dynamic with the one I have?” (such as combining race to the finish with capture). Then try it and see what happens.
  • Consider whether there are some core dynamics that are better suited to your learning goal than others. Use the ones that make the most sense for your purpose. For example: We developed a game that focused learners on the challenges of applying company values (excellent communication, ethics, teamwork, and so on) while also managing project constraints such time, money, and regulatory requirements. We used two major dynamics in this game: race to the finish (people had a specific amount of time in which to complete the game) and construct (they had to build an object that conformed to specified requirements). These dynamics tightly aligned with their real-world work environment. In the real world, learners faced tight time constraints, making race to the finish realistic for them. Learners’ jobs focused on commercializing a product, which links nicely with the core dynamic of constructing something.
    Core dynamics are a critically important element of learning game design. Chose the core dynamics that match your learning outcomes and support the skills, knowledge, and behaviors you want supported on the job.
About the Author

Karl Kapp has a worldwide reputation as one of the pioneers in the gamification of learning and instruction, having literally written the book on the topic. He's making headlines with his newest book, Microlearning: Short and Sweet. Kapp is an expert in the convergence of learning, technology, and business, was named one of LinkedIn’s Top Voices in Education in 2017, and is the recipient of the 2019 ATD Individual Contributor Award. He works all over the world helping employers (from Fortune 100 companies to start-up organizations) deliver effective, meaningful instruction using a game-thinking approach. He is a TEDx speaker, an international keynoter, and the author of several LinkedIn Learning courses as well the creator of Zombie Sales Apocalypse and Zombie Instructional Design Apocalypse, popular card games for learning. Follow Karl on Twitter @kkapp..

About the Author

Sharon Boller is president and chief product officer of Bottom-Line Performance, Inc. (BLP), a learning solutions firm she founded in 1995. Sharon has grown BLP from a single-woman sole proprietorship to a $3M+ company with 30 team members. Under Sharon’s direction, BLP created the Knowledge Guru™ learning game platform. Knowledge Guru is the recipient of numerous industry awards, including the coveted Brandon Hall Gold award for best innovation in gaming and technology (2014). BLP has also produced a wide array of other award-winning learning solutions. They earned Brandon Hall awards for best advance in sales training, best use of games and simulations for learning in 2014. They've earned numerous Horizon Awards as well. 

Sharon frequently speaks on game-based learning and learning design topics at the local and international level for eLearning Guild, ATD, CLO, Training Magazine, and other industry groups. She is also the author of numerous articles on game-based learning, learning science, and instructional design, as well as a book featuring team building simulations and games, Team Training. She also has an authoring credit for one of the chapter’s in Dr. Karl Kapp’s book, The Gamification of Learning and Instruction Field Book.

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Thank you for sharing the information in a table format. I found that to be most helpful.
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