Lessons from the Trenches of Digital Game Design

Thursday, November 5, 2015

I’ve been designing learning games for a long while, and I teach others how to do learning game design as well. Over the years, I’ve gleaned several truths that novice learning game designers frequently ignore or underestimate.

You Need to Play Games to Make Good Games

I am consistently amazed at the people who attend game design workshops lead by Karl Kapp and myself who DO NOT PLAY GAMES. It is very hard to be a good and creative game designer with little to no experience playing games. The more games you play, the more your horizons widen on possible game elements and game mechanics you can include in your own games. You’ll be able to identify a really neat scoring idea from one game with an intriguing element from another to form a new, unique usage in your own game. 

Novice designers whose exposure to games is mostly limited to family standards like Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit, Clue, or Wheel of Fortune will tend to create learning games modeled on these commercial games. That’s not awful…but it is limiting. It means you are not aware of many other terrific games that could provide a more meaningful learning experience for your players.

Here are two blog posts I wrote specific to this topic that both recommend games to play and evaluate:

Playtest Your Game Several Times—Not Just Once or Twice

Game design isn’t like creating a workshop or an e-learning course. It functions best when it is done in iterations. You craft a prototype and test it. Based on that test, you revise it and test again. You may then revise a third, fourth, or fifth time to make sure it does two things very well:

  • It engages the learner in the game play. 
  • It achieves the learning objectives you intended.

This blog post, “Once Is Not Enough: How to Playtest Custom Learning Games” describes the iterations we went through to get “Five Star Facility” to truly be a great game. Ironically, it started out looking a whole lot like Clue. It ended up being a solid game that matched learners’ job context while being really fun to play.

Choose Game Elements That Support Learning Goals

Most novice designers want to create a competitive game. Competition is fun for many people so what’s wrong with that, right? Well…competition is usually NOT an element of most people’s jobs. Most of the time, people need to cooperate or collaborate rather than compete. So if you choose competition as a game element, you can be putting your learners at odds with what they need to do in their jobs.

Another common mistake is to fail to consider how the elements of chance and strategy can work to support your learning goals. These game elements are common to many games and they greatly enhance the fun of games when used well. You can leverage these game elements very deliberately in a game to mirror real-world elements of chance or strategy.

For example, if your game is designed to help players do a better job of executing a process, then what chance elements in the real-world hinder process execution? Is it someone being sick and failing to show up for work? Is it a piece of equipment that breaks down? If so, figure out how to make that a chance occurrence that players must deal with during the game.

Less Is better in Terms of Design Complexity

Often when a people start designing a game, they unintentionally add complexity in terms of the rules. Their intention is to make things more fun for players; the result can be confusion or frustration. Even when players say the game is “fun,” they may not learn much. That’s because all their cognitive energy goes toward understanding the rules, leaving very little available for learning your content.

Your complexity needs to match these things:

  • The time you anticipate people playing your game. If you expect people to play the game for 10 to 30 minutes, your rules need to be kept SIMPLE. People need to be able to get into game play quickly and understand how everything works without spending too much time on it.
  • The complexity of your learning objectives. If a lot of mental energy is required to learn the content, do not make matters worse by designing a game with tons of rules and complexity. If complexity is required, then gradually introduce it via levels of play rather than requiring learners to master all the rules at one time.
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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