Think Like a Game Designer to Create Meaningful Learning

A game designer routinely creates engaging, compelling, and repeatable experiences that keep players riveted for hours. These experiences don’t happen by accident or by some cosmic alignment; instead they occur because of a specific methodology and the application of game design thinking. If you design online learning, you may want to think like a game designer in order to create meaningful learning.

First, it’s important to understand that a game designer doesn’t actually create the game experience itself. Instead, she creates the conditions under which the experience occurs. The game designer chooses interesting game dynamics, creates the appropriate game mechanics, and determines the best mix of aesthetics and game elements to set the stage for a particular experience. The players then use those dynamics, mechanics, and elements as tools to create their own game-playing experiences. The elements of the game are always the same; however the experience is different each time.

For example: Monopoly is never the same game twice. Each time the dice rolls the numbers are different, the Chance cards order is different, you land on different properties, and, often who you play with is different. The game of Monopoly doesn’t change. The cards are the same, the pieces are the same, and the properties are the same; however the experience of playing Monopoly changes each time you play. The game designer doesn’t create the experience; she creates the conditions such as the cards, game board, and mechanics under which the experience occurs.

The same concept applies to learning. Instructional designers, online learning developers, and others who create instruction create the conditions under which learning can occur, but do not create the actual learning. The instructional elements enable the learning, but are not the learning itself. The actual learning comes from engaging with the experience, reflecting upon that engagement, and then applying the knowledge or performing the behavior.

Game designers go well beyond determining basic game elements such as badges or leaderboards. They create worlds to entertain people; drawing on the ideas of building a system, providing a compelling reason to participate, and forcing players to take action.

A learning designer can learn to think like a game designer, applying similar methods to create engaging and meaningful learning experiences that result in desired learning outcomes. Here are a few ways to think like a game designer:

Systems thinking

Systems thinking means the game designer takes into account how all the elements she’s assembled and created work together to bring about the desired experience and outcome. A good example of this is a game called Forbidden Island. It is set on an island that sinks as you play the game. The goal of the game is to gather treasure and get off the island before it sinks.

The game has many elements that contribute to the sinking process; these elements are part of an interrelated system. The game has tiles that turn blue, indicating they are starting to flood, and the tiles disappear altogether when they’ve sunk (the tile’s card is drawn twice.) The tiles flood when certain cards are drawn. The tiles that flood are based on what cards are drawn from the deck. The actual number of cards drawn from the deck is indicated by a Water Meter. The Water Meter moves up when a player draws a Waters Rise! card. Players interact within this system by determining which tiles to save from sinking. Each part of the system—the tiles, the Waters Rise! card, the Water Meter, and even the players interacting with tiles—is critical to the overall game system. If one piece is missing or changed, the entire game system changes.

The design of instruction needs to follow a systems-thinking process. Understand how each part of the system interacts with or influences other parts, analyze how seemingly unrelated elements of the system are actually related, and make an effort to look at the big picture. Rarely can one learning event influence a behavior or skills of a learner alone. Instead, as a designer of instruction, you must design a learning system.

Once a learner receives the initial instruction, how will you create reminders of the desired behavior or skill application? What reinforcement actions will you take? Is it possible to hang posters or in-office reminders of the desired behavior? Are managers aware of the desired learning outcomes, and what are they doing to reinforce the actions? Is something in the learner’s workspace preventing the application of the skills learned in the online module? If learning is treated as an event rather than part of a system, then the possibility of sustainable behavior change or skills acquisition is minimal at best.

Reason to participate

The video game Assassin’s Creed Origins is set in ancient Egypt. When logging on, players immediately begin exploring the environment and learning how to use the tools, weapons, and modes of transportation (a camel) needed for the entire game. Players figure out the environment as they learn to play the game. Every action reveals new information or capabilities, and each reveal draws the player further into the game. They want to participate because the game engages them with adventures, new places to explore, and new gear.

Entertainment games must be compelling; otherwise no one will play them and their designers won’t make any money. Game designers work hard to create a reason to participate. They design interesting stories, unique game elements, and mechanics that lead to immersion and engagement. Game designers add elements of chance, interesting player capabilities, and intriguing aesthetics and environments. They also create actions and activities to keep players returning. In games like Candy Crush, players can earn bonus points by logging in daily. In Assassin’s Creed, players are driven to participate because further on in the game they can obtain new outfits for their characters, gain new equipment, and see how the story unfolds.

When designing learning, think like a game designer and ensure that you are giving learners a reason to participate. Simply creating a game doesn’t mean learners will flock to the game or stay engaged, especially if it’s only based on points, badges, or leaderboards. In the same way a game designer finds innovative combinations of elements to keep players engaged, you need to create reasons for learners to participate in your instruction. Are you reminding them of the intrinsic value of the content? Are you giving them opportunities to apply the learning successfully? Are you challenging them to overcome obstacles? Are you providing surprising and new information the further the learner progresses in the content?

Like a game designer, create a personalized user experience and wrap the learning outcomes in the right context—such as a meaningful story or scenario—and have it unfold over time. Consider allowing the player to choose what his or her avatar looks like, give the player the ability to name him or herself, and/or provide daily incentives to log in and continue playing the game.

Action orientation

Games draw players in through action. Card games begin by dealing cards to all players, board games start by rolling dice and moving pieces on the board, and video games start by running a character from point A to point B. In games, players make decisions, move pieces, or do something immediately.

Thinking like a game designer means you start with action. Players rarely need to read a screen of instructions before playing a well-made game. They are carefully and deliberately eased into new variables and game elements that may arise. In The Legend of Zelda, you start with a black screen that tells you to wake up and come downstairs when you are ready. This gives you the chance to explore the room until you are comfortable with the movement and the way that you interact with your environment. Going downstairs, you are then given mini-trainings by being asked to locate an item that you then learn how to use. Before you know it, you understand the game mechanics without having to think about it because you’ve performed the requested actions!

Follow the same format when designing learning. Do not start with a list of objectives. Start with the learner making a decision, moving from point A to point B, or selecting a plan of action. Involve the learner immediately in the learning process. Have them make decisions and take action. Ask yourself: What action am I requesting of the learner? Is the action I am requesting related to the tasks performed on the job? What actions make sense to apply the knowledge from this learning module? What actions are different between successful and unsuccessful people in this position?


Thinking like a game designer is a little different than thinking like an instructional designer. A mistake many instructional designers make when trying to create learning games or gamified learning experiences is focusing on the points, badges, and leaderboards. These elements don’t require a great deal of game thinking. Thinking like a game designer requires you to think in terms of action, participation, and systems. The combination of these game-thinking elements applied to instruction ensures that you’ve created the conditions for an engaging and meaningful learning experience.

Glossary of game terms and terminology

To think like a game designer requires an understanding of basic game terms and terminology. Here are some frequently-used terms.

Game goal —What the player(s) must achieve to win the game. Some examples might be collecting all the Pokémon, capturing all the zombies, or taking over the world. The game goal leads to the win state.

Core dynamics—Activities or actions players must perform to achieve the game goal. It might be completing a task faster than any other player, outwitting an opponent, or collecting or matching items in a certain sequence. Many core dynamics can be applied to learning games.  Read Core Dynamics: A Key Element in Instructional Games for more examples.

Win state—A situation, condition, or state within a game that designates successful completion of it.  The win state of Pokémon GO is to capture every Pokémon. The win state of Pandemic is to cure every disease on the game board. The win state typically ends the game. 

Lose state—A situation, condition, or state within a game that designates a failed attempt at reaching the goal of the game and ends the game. The lose state of Forbidden Island is that the players do not leave the island before it sinks, or that one of the four players “drowns” in the game. Some games have more than one lose state. For example, in Pandemic, if there are more than eight outbreaks or you run out of player cards or disease cubes, all the players lose.

Learning goal—The desired learning outcome of playing a learning game. It is separate from the game goal. For example: the game goal might be capturing all the zombies or getting rid of all your cards, while the learning goal might be applying the right sales opening in the right sales situation.

Mechanics—This term is another name for rules. There are rules the players must follow, rules that are inherent in the game (i.e. the rule of physics in an online world,) and rules of chance, such as rolling a dice.

Game elements—Features that immerse players in the game play, such as the element of chance or the aesthetics and artwork of the game.

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