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Know a Good Game Mechanic?

What do you do when your game is broken? Check your game mechanics.

How can learning professionals find a good game mechanic and apply it to the appropriate learning objective?

From the standpoint of a game system, game mechanics are used to describe how players interact with game rules, goals, player actions and game states.

Game mechanics is a term that gets volleyed about like a tennis ball. It is such a racket.

In tennis, the object of the game is to maneuver the ball in such a way that the opponent is unable to play a valid return over the net, creating a scoring situation: that is a game mechanic.

Each tennis match is made up of two to three sets. To win a set, you must win at least six games. That is a victory condition. We will cover that in an upcoming blog.

Let’s think about game mechanics for a minute. We know that game mechanics are how the players interact with game rules and goals. So, what does that mean to serious game designers.

When using a game mechanic in a serious game, it must map to at least one objective—clearly, self-evident. That intersection is the most difficult part of serious game design. Adding a tennis theme quiz game that doesn’t support the course objectives only detracts. Adding one of your favorite action cards from a favorite game may not be applicable.

It may make the learning game fun because it satisfies core compulsion, but it will not necessarily produce learning results.

Core compulsions include things like collecting, organizing, exploring, and completing, to name a few. These are things that we have a compulsive instinct to do, and it is part of the reason people want to play a game again and again, even after failure. Because of that core compulsions are game mechanics that work well in serious games.

So, how will you know which mechanic to use in your course?

I have compiled a list of some familiar and popular game mechanics. This is a subset of a much longer list. Some mechanics are combined with other mechanics.

Game Mechanic: Game turns


Learning Goal: Game turns allow learners to consider their move. They may need to make a decision within a time frame. Depending on the topic, you may want to allow learners time to think about the decisions they need to make. Or not.

For example, if they are call center representatives, for instance, you may want them to make decisions in a split second to mimic real life.


Game Mechanic: Cards


Learning Goal:

Cards are important game elements used to strategize or engage gameplay. Choices can be used to dictate how the game is played.


The cards should tie to the learning objective, for instance, selecting a card that says “pass” is not useful if the learner cannot “pass” on that event in real life on the job. However, maybe an employee should pass a problem customer to a manager or technical issue to a lead to expedite resolution of the issue. That would be an appropriate use of a “pass” card.

Game Mechanic: Movement


Learning Goal: This mechanic dictates how learners move around the board or game area. It is useful to move the game forward and in sequence.


Sequence can be critical in some procedural training. In rental industries for example, if an associate at a company is helping a customer check out a rental item there is a contract associated with the sale. Since contracts make the process more time intensive it is important that the associate follow the procedure and say, check for ID and validity of credit prior.

Game Mechanic: Dice


Learning Goal: Dice are used to determine how many moves a learner will make or how many points someone gains.

So, for learning games it can be used to control movement. For example, a player may need to throw a dice repeatedly to get out of a sandbox to proceed correctly in a new business procedure.


Game Mechanic: Time Pressure


Learning Goal: Timed activities such as decisions based on selected action cards or collecting a set of cards or other resources are useful for procedural training.

Think of safety training where the process for turning things on or using lockout/tagout tags to remind workers of critical safety measures to prevent unexpected machine startups during maintenance.

If it is imperative that the learner grasp the concept of completing an activity in a particular duration of time, it can be practiced in a learning game.


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