Essential Elements of Learning Game Design

Written By

Pamela Hogle

September 12, 2017

The essence of a learning game is tough to pinpoint—and it can be an even bigger challenge to identify which aspects of learning games actually enhance learning.

Some L&D professionals believe that it is sufficient to simply add some game-like features to learning content and, voilà, they have a learning game. But gamification is not sufficient to turn eLearning content into an eLearning game. And there are no guarantees that turning something into a game makes it a better learning tool.

Elements of a game

Game designers, such as Sharon Boller and Karl Kapp, authors of Play to Learn, and researcher Richard Mayer list several essential elements of games:

  • Players must face a challenge or be asked to reach a goal
  • The game’s rules govern how they may go about meeting the challenge that forms the heart of a game
  • The players interact with the game environment, with other players, or with both
  • Players receive feedback and are able to assess their progress in the challenge or toward the goal
  • The game results in a defined outcome—all players know what it means to win, to lose, and to meet the challenge
  • Ideally, challenges become more difficult as players progress and/or they are faced with short-term and longer-term goals and challenges, offering opportunities to learn from errors

A learning game, as distinct from gamified eLearning content, is a unit of eLearning that has been specifically designed as a game and that comprises the above elements. Dressing up an eLearning course with badges and scavenger hunts might make it more engaging for some learners, but that gamification does not quite bring the content into the realm of serious learning games.

What sets learning games apart from recreational games is that the content is built around a set of learning objectives and a body of knowledge that players are expected to master. While it is possible to use a well-known game framework to present eLearning content, perhaps creating a Jeopardy-type game whose questions all pertain to content that learners need to know, this may not be the best approach for real learning.

Build better learning games

According to Ruth Clark, president of Clark Training and Consulting, gamification of content tends to be less effective than true learning games. “As a general rule, games that are designed specifically to require learners to respond in ways that match the cognitive requirements of the learning objective are more effective than games that use a predefined frame such as Concentration or Jeopardy,” she said in an email interview.

If a learning game is designed well, learning through play becomes inevitable. “The power of games is to create a learning experience in which, by simply engaging with the game, learning will happen,” Clark said.

An important consideration in game design is cognitive load. If a game requires learners to expend effort to learn and remember intricate rules, those learners have less mental energy to invest in the actual content. On the other hand, players may quickly lose interest in a game that is too simple. “Much learning will depend on repeated play—at an optimal level of challenge, which can increase as learning occurs through mechanisms such as levels of play,” Clark said. Thus the game design and the challenge must strike a balance: compelling enough to hold learners’ interest over time, but not so complex that learners are overtaxed.

Other game features can help or harm learning. Clark cites researcher Richard Mayer, whose work looks at the “value added” when an instructional method, such as explanatory feedback, is added to a learning game. His research was a response to strong claims for games’ ability to enhance learning—but little evidence backing up those claims. Mayer:

  • Measured whether people learned from playing a game
  • Evaluated which features of a game enhanced and which detracted from learning
  • Compared the performance of learners who had played learning games with that of learners who used conventional instructional media

Mayer’s work “has assembled a growing list of methods (many already shown to enhance traditional tutorials) that improve learning from a game,” Clark said. “For example a base game responds with a ding and points for a correct answer, while the enhanced game adds explanatory feedback: ‘Yes, that is correct because …’” Another finding was that players learned more when game instructions and content were presented in a conversational style, rather than using formal language.

Many gamification proponents emphasize the lure of winning or beating colleagues in focusing on game elements like points and leaderboards as a way to engage learners. But, according to Clark, competition could be detrimental. “Mayer’s research so far has actually shown that competition can reduce learning compared to the same games that do not have a competitive element,” she said. But she cautions: “We do not yet have enough research on competition versus non-competition to make a definitive statement.”

Rather than trying to best colleagues, learners might focus inward. “A better form of ‘competition’ might be self-comparison of scores or outcomes over time,” Clark said.

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