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It's All in the Game: Considerations for Designing Effective, Engaging Instructional Games

Posted by Dr. Stephen Slota

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Jul 7, 2015 1:00:00 PM

Dr. Stephen SlotaGames have been a hot topic in education and industry since the early 2000s, with more organizations seeking to apply games as a way to motivate and engage clients, trainees, and professionals seeking new learning opportunities. But, even though the design process might seem all “fun and games” on the surface, it’s more nuanced than it looks.

When it comes to effective instructional game design, much relies on how we define games and instructional roles they can fill. It might help to think of gamification as applying particular game elements or mechanics (e.g., badges, points, leaderboards) to a learning environment as a form of behavioral reinforcement (something learning scientists call “operant conditioning”). By contrast, game-based instruction describes a comprehensive game environment (i.e., virtual, board game, or other) through which learners interact with and demonstrate particular occupational skills. Both are playful by nature, but gamification is primarily about behavioral training, and game-based instruction is primarily about situating learners in environments that trigger critical thinking, problem solving, and other skills that align with their real world jobs.

Of course, games are very good at one thing: teaching people how to play them. That means if your game and learning objectives are properly aligned, you can more easily move learners closer to the target skill or content using the game's mechanics as leverage. If you're considering building a game-based instructional tool from scratch, it’s ideal to start with an Understanding by Design model (i.e., a top-down approach beginning with the development of program, course, unit, and lesson objectives, in that order). Many instructional game designers mistakenly overlook the alignment of game and learning objectives, so learners end up lacking necessary guidance to transfer their learning to the real world. The most effective way to avoid this problem is to pair game and learning objectives at a 1:1 ratio, have learners fulfill the objective(s), and then reflect on it/them with the help of a more knowledgeable other (e.g., instructor).

My team generally starts the creation of a new instructional game using core instructional design principles, including a needs analysis:

  • Who are you designing for?
  • What are the learning objectives you want to fulfill?
  • What's the timeline you're working on?
  • Is there an existing story/narrative that aligns nicely with your instructional goals?

Once we're confident in our answers, we begin structuring course objective(s) above unit objectives above individual lesson objectives. This gives us an idea of how everything should fit together and serves as a backbone for the game’s narrative. Additionally, we try to work from the learner’s perspective: if you're a learner in the course, what's the story you're going to tell once the instruction ends? Taking something like Star Wars as an example, the linchpin moments might be structured as:

  • Primary Story Arc (i.e., Course-Level Objective): Three individuals come together to save the galaxy
  • Secondary Story Arcs (i.e., Unit-Level Objectives): Boy overcomes his lot in life to become a hero; Woman meets others and recruits them to her cause; Man overcomes personal flaws to assist the hero; Villain defeats hero's mentor but falls at the hands of the hero
  • Tertiary Story Arcs (i.e., Lesson-Level Objectives): Woman saves strategic information in a robot and helps him escape from her invaded spaceship (etc.)

At that point, we start building a story and characters to provide learners with the scaffolding necessary to meet our learning objectives. I've found in the course of my research that engagement is at least somewhat governed by the quality of story and character development, so it might be helpful to recruit a solid creative writer (if available). If not, it shouldn't be a major issue--you'll learn through iterative design what works and what doesn't with or without a professional writer.

The key is to make sure you never lose sight of your learning objectives. All of your game’s prompts or “missions” should be identical to real world skills/learning objectives—if you want participants to learn persuasive communication skills, the associated prompt would be "Persuade [Insert Character Name Here] to join you." I can't overstate the importance of this 1:1 alignment enough--it's the single-biggest missing element I find when evaluating instructional game mechanics (despite how obvious it might seem).

Next, we consider how everything fits in action. You won't be able (and shouldn't try) to predict how learners will control their characters, but you should consider how you might respond to positive, negative, and neutral behaviors. If a learner gets off track, how will you re-engage them? If they attack a non-player character, how will you respond? If they positively contribute to the story's development, will there be an in-game incentive to continue doing so? We call this a sandbox-on-rails system: learners can act freely within the game environment, but we continue pressing ahead to meet the linchpin moments, learning objectives, and prompts described above (i.e., the equivalent of riding in a sandbox traveling on a train track—you can do what you like in the sandbox, but you'll always be moving ahead to the next station stop).

Finally, we try to outline reflective discussion that follows play. What questions will you ask to help learners make connections between the game experience and the real world? How will they transfer their newly learned skills? What relationship do the ideas/concepts from the story have with their day-to-day lives? This is the make or break moment for an instructional game since it determines how and to what extent meaningful learning has unfolded. It's where you (as the instructor) do the bulk of the teaching—via leading group discussions about practical application and relevance to your learners’ jobs.

Dr. Stephen Slota holds a Ph.D. in Education Psychology: Cognition, Instruction & Learning Technologies from the University of Connecticut and currently serves as a game design and learning sciences consultant for Arizona State University's Center for Games and Impact. He is also a full-time Game Design Scientist at the University of Connecticut and has been tapped to advise on a variety of game-infused projects for corporate entities including Intel Corporation and Pfizer, Inc. Separate from his other ventures, he co-owns and operates an educational game development and training company, The Pericles Group, LLC, with colleagues Kevin Ballestrini and Dr. Roger Travis.

Topics: Design, Gamification


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