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Updated: Nov 4, 2020

I fervently believe that everyone in the learning industry should study game design. No matter if you design training, develop training, manage training, or facilitate training. Okay, you get the picture.

Games, as defined by Salen and Zimmerman (2004) is “a system in which players engage in artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.” Of course, learning games have an extra element. Specific learning goals should be included in the game design.

Games for learning are difficult to create because getting at the correct intersection of game balance and learning content is at the heart of it. Lean too heavily on the game play and you may lose the learning objective. Tilt too much toward the learning objectives and you will end up with a game that isn’t fun to play and may inhibit learning.

As mentioned, games include clearly defined rules, cumulative progress and ways of motivating the player to engage. Playfulness and player choice are also important elements.

So, why does this mean that everyone should study game design?

Spending time focusing on the cross section of learning goals and game play is a requirement during the design phase. The actual task involved in that work can bring the designer to a deeper understanding of the learning objectives for a learning game design project.

It seems that learning objectives are generally well-crafted but are rarely well executed. In other words, the learning intervention used to match the learning objective rarely illicit the learning outcome that we really want a learner to achieve.

This happens because it is easy to gloss over the objectives during the design of the course and it can be difficult to use a learning matrix to determine which level of learning you want the learner to achieve. And which learning intervention should be used for it.

A well-hewed game must influence specific design decisions. Those decisions must calibrate the learning objective to the gameplay as an elearning course and an ILT course should do the same. It is easier to write words in MS PowerPoint and throw in an interactive element and feel good about the course design.

A game requires you to dig deep and think about the actions the player should take during the game. Those actions must match the objective and make sense with the game element.

You wouldn’t, for instance, want a learner to pick up a card and match it to the correct meaning or definition if your point is to affect a learning behavior change. But a matching game or quiz is generally what designers insert into a course.

If you follow the design methodology that Step Away recommends, or another game design methodology, you will be forced to think through the objectives in a meaningful way. Designing a reward system or narrative structure that works with the course should not look like an add-on. That’s what the airline industry does to encourage you to book all your flights with them.

Constructing learning games also has a way of eliminating “fluff” or extra information that SMEs sometimes ask to add into a course. That fluff just doesn’t fit in a well-constructed game.

When you redesign your living room, would you think it’s okay to throw in an extra end table just because you have it? Or add that pillow that you used on the other couch even though it no longer matches?

In conclusion, by the very nature of game design you as a designer are forced to dig deep into the behavior change that you want a learning game player to practice. By doing so, you are very close to designing a good game. But, if you choose to simply create an elearning course you can use this new found understanding to your course development.

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