Designing Learning Games with Players in Mind

Designing Learning Games withh Players in Mind

This article was originally published at UniversityXP and is re-published in Ludogogy by permission of the author.

Games are powerful tools for teaching; entertaining; and learning. Playing games is almost always an enjoyable activity. However, designing educational games with the audience (players) in mind can be incredibly challenging.

This article will address how to design games with players in mind. There are multiple things to take into consideration when designing games. They include player diversity; learning styles; and player motivations.

Likewise, it’s important that players have goals in any game. However, the accomplishment of those goals comes s secondary to the establishment and pursuit of them.  Game tutorials and basic competencies will be addressed as well as the experiential learning cycle of trial and error and its impact with the the feedback loop.

Both games for entertainment and educational games benefit through player assessments and challenges. Likewise, game theme and storytelling play critical roles in engaging players and learners through the structure of the game; narrative; and magic circle.

Socialized learning environments are important for games and play an important role in educational game design; structure; and modeling. This is where creating a workflow for learning game design takes a prominent focus. However, no matter what or how you design a game you should take into account player feedback and assessment through the process. This article will close on applications of educational and learning game design and how they can be used for teaching, training, learning, and development.

Player diversity

There are a wide and diverse population of gamers and learners.  Before jumping into player focused game design; designers have to first ask themselves who the game is for. What learners will this game help the most? How will players best engage with the game? And most importantly: what other games is this game similar to?

It’s often easy and convenient to think about player and learner types. Richard Bartle is perhaps the best known person for defining different types of gamers. However it’s useful to understand that humans aren’t binary. We don’t all fit neatly into specific boxes or containers. Therefore, it helps to design games that address and cater to multiple different types of learners and players.

This is useful because each player will be different and have a preference for a specific pace and style of play. Likewise, each player will have varying levels of competencies; pre-conceived notions; and game literacy on which to build their understanding of your game.

Specifically, educational or learning games must cater to players’ unique tolerances for performance stress curves. This is the degree of difficulty or challenge that these players are willing and able to tolerate and surmount when engaging with your educational game.

Learning styles

Learning styles will play prominently in designing learning games for specific students and gamers. There are of course debates about learning styles and how students prefer to engage and learn. This article won’t go into depth and detail here. Rather, this article’s focus will be on applying and catering to different students’ and players’ preferences for engaging and interacting with your game.

Instructors are advised to use different mediums to engage and demonstrate concepts to students. Those could include visually focused styles with maps, diagrams, charts, graphs, and other hierarchies.  This is where many games typically excel: particularly when it comes to graphical representations of concepts and their relationships to one another. You can of course learn about supply and demand using a graph; but trading commodities with other players and seeing valuations for different stocks change in a simulation is much more visceral.

Acquire Board
Image of Acquire Board by Mikko Saari from Flickr, with thanks

Likewise, learning game designers should give their players adequate opportunities to engage and play in the game. Those could come from making different moves on a player board to instructing players to draw pictures; diagrams; or other different means of communication or information to others. Games such as Pictionary and Telestrations focus on this format of communication and engagement almost entirely.

Additionally, the ability to move and engage in a gamified environment provides what many would consider the ultimate agency for engagement. This is most viscerally demonstrated in Dungeons and Dragons or other role playing games where characters and avatars make their way through a dungeon. Similarly X-Wing and Warhammer 40k players enjoy seeing their units move and engage with opponents across the table.  Games such as Just Dance provide an option for players to actually move and physically interact and control their avatar in the game through captured camera interactions. This is perhaps the best way to engage and cater to kinesthetically focused learners.

Savage Orruks group

What’s most important to consider is that learning games cater and accommodate players of multiple different learning and play styles and provide opportunities and avenues to select their preferred format. Doing so ensures that your game is as accessible to players as possible.

In the end it’s important to note that not all mediums (games included) will reach and cater to all learners and students equally or favorably. That’s why it’s important in games-based learning to take a mixed methods approach to teaching and learning. This means that while games are an important part of your overall curriculum; they are not the ONLY part of your curriculum.

Player motivation

What is important to address in learning game design and games-based learning is player motivation. Specifically: what makes players want to play your game and keep playing your game? Perhaps one of the most important aspects that drives games-based learning in the classroom is the socialization aspect. That is the cooperation; competition; or otherwise engagement with others players in the learning environment.

This engagement can be further implemented by making sure that your game provides adequate opportunities for players to interact and play within the game. Different learning styles, abilities, and preferences affect this.  The result of which addresses accessibility for gamers by making your game easy to use; easy to learn; and motivating to play.

These motivations could also be expanded to include different thematic elements about games. Not all students will be enthralled with a stock market simulation game. However elements of fantasy, story, and narrative DO help students engage in the game based on their abilities to represent characters and avatars in role they wouldn’t normally fulfill.

What makes excellent learning games enthralling and successful is that they are designed and cater to more than one type of motivation as well as to different learning styles and abilities.

The importance of goals

Perhaps one of the most consistent structures of games are goals. Goals are important because they give players direction and reasons to pursue a particular action; strategy; or activity within the game.

Providing clear goals to your players also provides them purpose. The same can be said for any class, course, or session with students. Learning outcomes and learning goals provide a structure and framework for determining what they are supposed to achieve.

Goals alone don’t provide engagement in games. Rather, goals provide a framework for actionable agency within a learning game. Agency inspires players to not only act within the game; but also provides an authentic sense of accomplishment.  This is particularly evident when game goals are structured in line with agency in order to provide players the ability to accomplish them.

In Among Us players are given tasks to accomplish prior to the imposter eliminating the entire crew (or sabotaging the entire ship). The goal of the players is to accomplish those tasks. The agency provided to them is the ability to explore and move about the ship to accomplish them. If that ability is hindered; then their agency to accomplish those tasks is also hindered.

Mario Kart
Photo by Ravi Palwe on Unsplash

Goals alone provide great feedback to players when they are accomplished. In addition, game designers have further reinforced this positive feedback by providing some additional bonuses for players when they achieve those goals. In some games this has included “earning” some extra health back after eliminating the last hit points from a monster and eliminating it. This provides players with extra incentive to “finish the job” once they embark on the goal of defeating the monster. Doom takes this one step further with the “glory kill” mechanic by dropping extra health for the player when performing these up close and personal killing blows.

Likewise, both games for entertainment and games for learning benefit through a “catch up” or “rubber band” mechanic which often helps players in very precarious positions remain competitive in the game.  Perhaps the most notorious catch-up mechanic is the nefarious “Blue Shell” in Mario Kart 64 which helps the player in last place catch-up with the rest of the players in the pack.

While these mechanics often work in tandem with goals; they are not the only game structures necessary for helping players expediently navigate your learning game. Tutorials for basic concepts also help players engage and continue playing your game.

Tutorial to learn basic competencies

Game literacy addresses players’ basic competencies when playing a game. Players who have played first-person shooters before have no problem picking up and playing Call of Duty or Halo. Likewise, your learning games should provide some structure or tutorial for helping players learn how to play your game. This is necessary as successfully supporting the on boarding of your players makes them more effective and engaging throughout their time with the game.

Games that use common interfaces; controllers; or mechanics will be familiar to gamers who are used to playing those types of games. However, you will always have players for whom this type of game will be new for them. In that case, the designer often has to mitigate the difficult learning curve for these players while still incentivizing them to engage and participate.

Game tutorials often address this learning curve. Super Mario Bros World 1-1 stands as a testament to well developed and structured tutorials. In the absence of this (and for table top games) experienced and well prepared hosts can also serve as the tutorial for new players learning how to play a new game for the first time.

Hosts serve the additional function of catering to the specific needs; experiences; and challenges of working with players one on one. This is particularly helpful since some players  will learn how to play the game differently from others.  As such, each player progresses in the game in their own unique way.

One way to help new players is to design a control scheme or methods of engaging with the game that are established and familiar to them. If your game “plays” like other games of the same genre or theme; then it’ll be easier for players who are already familiar with that genre or theme to pickup and learn your game more easily.

Learning through trial and error

The heart of the experiential learning cycle is learning through experience. That experience in games is often reflected through trial and error. Sometimes the consequences of those errors can be rather shallow – or even comical. I’m constantly reminded of the laughing dog from Duck Hunt. Other times errors could be brutal; even game ending such as with games like Food Chain Magnate.

Post-its and coffee mug
Photo by Ferenc Horvath on Unsplash

The instructional needs for each learning game will be different. Therefore, it makes most sense for educational game designers to create games that help players learn as a result of playing the game. This is different compared to didactic or traditional approaches of teaching and learning. This is because games-based learning transpires through a student centered experience; rather than an instructor or content specific one.

The part of the experiential learning cycle that makes most sense for learners is to experiment and try. Trying a game is one of the best ways to learn. Trying is playing and playing is experimental. We never quite know how the game will react to our engagement.

However, designers should take caution with designing everything about their game relying on trial and error. Doing so often results in dry, unappealing, and grinding experiences that can turn off many learners. These lead to unappealing learning conditions where players are no longer incentivized to keep playing and learning.

Feedback loop

While trial and error is often a good framework to work with; a better one is to create a core player experience through the feedback loop. The feedback loop is what makes it so that games that have an easy basic mechanic (but much depth) often stand up against test of time. That’s because these “easy to learn but hard to master” games function in two respects: they help onboard (even beguile) learners with very simple game play. Yet they appeal to advanced players by providing avenues and actions that constantly challenge and explore the depth of their decision making capabilities.

Learning games can take advantage of this framework by iterating on it and expanding a step further. While “easy to learn and hard to master” games provide some framework for student progress; educational games can utilize level systems and progress bars as a way of identifying and displaying players’ progress throughout the game. Doing so demonstrates to players that they are succeeding; they are progressing; and they are making headway in the game.

This is one way of combating the dry and unappealing nature of games built entirely on trial and error. While the “learn by making mistakes” structure provides a route for designers to rely on the experiential learning cycle; gamification mechanics such as player levels and progress bars provide a way for players to see the progress that they’ve’ made in the game and the learning experience.

You can see this already in learning games such as The Oregon Trail where the player progresses visually on the journey. Tableau building games such as Capital Luxe 2: Generations also provide a form of visceral feedback to the player by seeing their own progress develop.

Acknowledging this feedback loop also respects your players’ time as their investment is honored through deliberate gamified mechanisms that connect player behavior to educational content.

Assessments and challenges

All great learning activities have opportunities for assessments within them. Oftentimes these get mistaken for just “knowledge checks” which are most often seen as tests and quizzes. Academia is full of different assessments such as projects, presentations, and papers. But, learning games don’t have to include these types of traditional assessments. Instead, learning games can implement challenges and other types of objectives and goals in order to better align the game design with learning outcomes.

Assassins Creed Revelations
Image by Joshua Livinston from Flickr with thanks

Assessments in learning are difficult because not all students begin with the same background; experiences; or general understanding. The same thing can be said about games. However, games provide players with agency in order to pursue their own path towards success. These challenges often come up within the framework of games ranging from the open world of Assassins Creed to the action selection mechanism of Scythe. Both of these games provide a means for players to choose how they proceed within the game.

Learning games are no different. However, learning games differ from games for entertainment by aligning those assessments challenges, objectives, and activities with the ultimate learning goals and outcomes. Learning games must also cater to the different abilities and experiences of learners. This is often where designers make the mistake of creating only actions that fit with players’ abilities.

It’s important to provide initial feedback and agency within the game. However, only catering to what a player can do and not catering to what they should (and are capable) of doing is a mistake. That’s where assessments and challenges come in. These test players and students alike. This is done through in game challenges that necessitate players demonstrate that they “know how to do this.” We see this in games requiring yomi where players must guess and anticipate opponents’ moves. Likewise, many modern board games provide avenues for players to create the best “engine” for generating victory points which ultimately help them win the game.

Perhaps one of the most popular forms of assessments we find in video games are the “boss fight.” Boss fights are known from adventure games, platformers, and open world games because they serve as the summative assessment: sort of a “test-of-tests” for players. This means that players must use what they’ve learned in the game so far in order to defeat the “boss” and continue playing. There aren’t any ways around it. You have to defeat the boss. IN the process you “prove” you both know how to do it and can actually do it.

Game theme and storytelling

Some of the most iconic games are rich in theme, narrative, and storytelling. There are many differences between stories and games. However, elements of both are combined in order to make a game more relatable and ultimately more thematic.

Theme can be used to great success with designing learning games because theme already evokes certain expectations from students. A game about fighting and slaying dragons in a fantasy world connects a player with the expectations, terminology, and lore of that theme. Likewise, an epic space battle against an alien horde provides a different thematic expectation for players.  Themes don’t always have to be about extremes.  Calico is a game about knitting the best quilt in order to collect sets of icons and entice different cats to sit with you.

Learning games can take on this aspect of theme development by creating the same sort of expectations from players. Learners might not want to learn more about federal policy compliance; but creating a serious game about a character navigating a new job makes the compliance training much more relatable. Likewise, using familiar themes such as slot machines provides a framework for players’ understanding of set collection and random number generation. We may not think about that initially when we see a slot machine; but players who are familiar with one-armed bandits certainly are.

These expectations of themes wrapped up in narrative conventions of storytelling help illuminate, structure, and develop how learning games can be designed for relatability. Almost all individuals re familiar with story conventions and how characters progress linearly through a storyline. This is why series of simulations and “choose your own adventure” provide a familiar means for players to navigate. Learning game designers can use these same structures in order to provide players with a means of progressing through a game as a story in order to achieve a specific goal (learning outcome).

Socialized learning environment

Creating learning games should also focus on the socialized learning environment. Such an environment also includes the input and interaction with other learners in the community. In the traditional classroom these come from other peers and students within the class. The results of which is peer to peer learning – where individuals can share progress and insight with each other.

Of course many games can be played individually or solitarily. However, in order to best take advantage of the socialized learning environment, learning games should include ways for players to communicate and collaborate with one another. For better or for worse these have come to fruition with the chat tool of many online games where players can easily communicate with one another.

Likewise, the ability to see and compare one’s own progress to similar learners is key. This can be seen in friend-ladders which demonstrate players’ abilities against other players who the learner is connected with. This provides a relative comparison between players that may already share overlapping social circles as opposed to ALL players playing a given game. The interaction of which provides learners with an active feedback loop of how their peers are progressing compared to their own game play.

Educational game design, structure, and modeling

There is often a disconnect between what makes a great learning game and what makes great instructional material. But the distinction between them is often smaller than we think.  One of the best ways for educators to begin the process of creating their own learning game is to first understand how other games work by studying them. Likewise, game designers can also examine really compelling classes, courses, or other learning materials that they’ve found useful and applicable.

Game designers are focused on creating a fun and captivating core loop and then building a game around it. This is often easier said than done as fun and captivating mechanic will really differ from player to player and from learner-to-learner.  Likewise, learning game designers need to address this challenge by creating and building for potential learners as well as subject matter experts on the material.

Occasionally, game designers themselves are already subject matter experts on materials; but more often than not they must turn to others in order to gain insight and expertise on the learning material to be covered. Despite this, it’s important to keep the learners (students) themselves involved in the development process as they are the primary audience for such a learning game.  Therefore, their insights are much more useful and applicable than those who may never play it.

A more robust application of this is through Embedded Game Design where the designer and educator create a meaningful learning experience for the student. Such an approach honors the magic circle of game play with the curiosity, wonder, and  interest in teaching and learning.  This is because Embedded Game Design prioritizes learning content and specific learning objectives and creates structures for players to explore them in meaningful ways.

This is a different approach than gamification which applies game-like elements in non-game settings or games-based learning which uses specific (existing) games for teaching and learning. Creating learning games is much more akin to serious game design: an approach where the game is created from the ground up as a vehicle for teaching and learning.

Creating a workflow for educational game design

Creating and designing learning games that are fun, engaging, and meaningful is no easy task. Both designers and educators can more easily break down this confusing process into series of steps necessary for addressing the needs of learners in the process.

Learning game designers should first outline and create a curriculum for learning tasks. Specifically addressing what learners “need to know” at the conclusion of the game. Educators with experience defining and writing learning outcomes will have an easier time than others who lack this experience. However, this is a step that shouldn’t be skipped as defining the outcome for learners is the hallmark of great learning game design.  For example, a learning game whose learning outcome is to help students recognize different animals and their appropriate species will begin with a learning outcome stated as: “Learners will be able to recognize different animal species.”

Next comes the sequence of task classes. This involves creating and designing a curriculum for the game; specifically the order in which students will learn the requisite components necessary for them to continue meeting the game’s learning outcomes.  In order for “learners to be able to recognize different animal species” they first need to be able to tell animals apart from plants and then identify the different characteristics of different species so that they classify them.

After structuring the game’s curriculum in this way; designers should set performance objectives. The first set of which helps students learn to play the game (the objectives, interface, and core loop). Players who now know how to play the game will be able to engage with it thoroughly enough in order to meet the intermediate learning outcomes set by the designer. This would include the aforementioned differentiation between plants and animals as well as the characteristics and differences of different animal species.

Once this step is completed; learning game designers should then create and design supportive information. This feeds into the active feedback loops for players as part of the experiential learning cycle. As such, it should also be part of the game’s core loop which provides support and feedback for players’ actions. For our example game about identifying different animal species we should provide learners feedback for when they correctly identify animal characteristics as well as hints and insight for when they make mistakes.

Different players who play the game may not all learn in the same way. Therefore it is short sighted to provide feedback to players using only one medium. For instance, our game about identifying animal species would only serve a portion of learners if they only provided graphical representation for these different animals. Instead; sound; habitats; and other contextual clues for learners will help them form their own conclusions and engage with the game based on the development of their own cognitive strategies.

This addresses the diversity of mental models that players use and create when playing a game. Some games go so far as to outline this model for players with structures and rules that govern player interactions (i.e. skill trees and restricting communication at specific times). However, these mental models can also be used by instructors applying the game through games-based learning by creating discussion and debriefing outlines and documentation to help students make meaning and create their own knowledge by reflecting on their experiences.

After this, designers should take time to create procedural information for how players are to engage and proceed in the game once they have reached a certain milestone. Most entertaining games already do this through the player progression system with player levels; challenges; and “boss fights.” Learning games should emulate this structure by creating ways for players to further explore and progress through the game in a way that meets the specific needs for learning outcomes and curriculum flow.

These procedures provide a path for players to follow throughout game play. However, it is also beneficial for designers and instructors to review cognitive rules and how players make specific decisions in the game. Those decisions can be analyzed to determine if the learner is following the curricular path set forth by the designer. Following the path helps designers identify and direct learners to different points in the curriculum. However, diverging from this path also creates opportunities for students to find new applications and methods of attaining subject mastery in order to excel in the game.

Learners may be able to progress through the learning game at their own pace and agency. However, it is also useful for designers to examine what prerequisite knowledge is necessary for learners to know in order to play and excel in the game. The differences might be slight; however catering to the needs of players who approach the game with different experiences and attributes addresses accessibility needs for learners.

Finally, learning game designers should review and design activities and tasks for players in modular stages. Not all of the game needs to be developed at one time. Instead, creating single elements which are then tested with learners and players in mind helps both designers and students determine where improvements can be made and the player experience more applicable and enjoyable.

Educational game design assessment

An important consideration for learning and educational game design is the ultimate impact that it has on the learners and what they can gain from playing the game. That’s why assessment (in particular academic assessment) comes into play. There are many ways to asses learners including knowledge checks, projects, presentations, tests, and quizzes to name a few. However, learning games should provide reinforcement and assessment of player activities within the game.

These assessments can take the form of other game elements (i.e. challenges and boss battles). Likewise, learning game designers should also take into account the feedback loop and player feedback from their testing and iterative cycles.  Such feedback forms the basis for small (but significant improvement) in the game design to best meet the learners’ needs.

Applications of educational game design

Both learning and educational games borrow and apply from multiple disciplines. These include psychology, education, design, economics, and user experience to name a few. There are many applications of educational games from early childhood development; to higher education; and corporate learning and development.  However, no matter what the application is, consideration should be made for how large and impactful a difference these games can make in informing, augmenting, and ultimately influencing player behavior. Such changes often affect the balance and the trajectory of issues that society faces now.


This article examined designing learning games with players in mind. When doing so, designers must take into account both player diversity as well as learning styles and individual motivations. Goals are important for games to have; likewise learning games should include goals that best align with learning outcomes.

The earliest goals for players should include tutorials for how to learn the game through a combination of demonstration and trial and error. The results of which influence and affect the feedback loop for players as they engage and play the game.

However, feedback alone doesn’t help learners reach their particular outcomes or for the game to progress. That is where assessments and in game challenges influence and affect player behavior. Game theme and storytelling also affect how players receive and ultimately decide how to play the game. This often goes hand-in-hand with a socialized learning environment with other players and learners.

Ultimately all of these factors influence educational game design, structure, and modeling. A specific workflow to follow for creating learning and educational games was outlined. In the end, specific educational assessments should be included in order to determine if the specific learning outcomes were met. The results of which are player outcomes which can ultimately influence the resolution of many issues facing society now.

This article was about how to design games with players in mind. To learn more about gamification, check out the free course on Gamification Explained.

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Educator / Designer / Researcher at Dave Eng Design
Dr. Dave Eng is an intellectual and creative educator, designer, and researcher who focuses on games, theory, and technology.

Dave studies applied games and teaches others how to use games for education and learning. Dave serves as a faculty member at New York University’s School of Professional Studies (

Dave hosts the podcast Experience Points ( and consults at University XP ( on games-based learning. He also leads the Games-Based Learning Alliance: a community of individuals who use games for teaching, training, learning, and development.

Dave is a founder of Banditos Gaming ( a registered 501(c)(3) social and educational non-profit organization that promotes play, community development, and learning through games. His interests include learning theory, technology, and games.

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