Focus on… Feedback Loops in Games Based Learning

Feedback Loops

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

Feedback is an important part of the learning process. Feedback is also really important for games to be engaging and fun.

Feedback in education is based on providing the student with tangible information that they can use to improve their learning, knowledge grasp, or retention.

Feedback in a game is provided to the player in order to viscerally show them the impact of their actions.

The two can be combined in order to both meet learners’ outcomes as well as provide some interesting and engaging feedback in a games-based learning environment.

Type of Feedback

There are two main types of feedback: positive feedback loops and negative feedback loops. Each one can be used to elicit a certain response from our students and players. Both can be used in balance to shape their experience and steer them towards the learning outcomes and experiences we’ve designed for them.

Positive Feedback

You can think of positive feedback as a reinforcing relationship. In this relationship, we’ve given the student or player something of value.  That item of value can change based on the venue where the feedback is provided.

If it’s a game then we can provide an award for earning a high score. That reward can be some sort of power up that allows the player to achieve an even higher score on the next level. That new high score would allow them to earn a new item etc… This feedback loop continues to reinforce itself.

This is particularly important for learners when it comes to scaffolding. We teach students to create knowledge or master a specific skill or ability. Ideally, we then have them use that knowledge, skill, or ability to tackle an appropriate challenge. That challenge can then be used as a new opportunity to introduce the next skill or ability they will need to know in order to keep progressing.

Whether it’s a class or a game, the properties of positive feedback loops are the same:

Positive feedback loops:

  • Destabilize the game by providing players with an “edge”
  • This edge allows players to get ahead
  • When players get ahead, they cause the game to cycle faster

In a competitive game, this is often what you want. Though, in a classroom it can be difficult to mitigate.  Teachers can often recall that some students will get ahead of the average pace of the class and others students will lag behind. These positive feedback loops are reinforcing of behavior but also promote inequity in a group learning process.

This inequity is demonstrated in competitive real time strategy games like Starcraft where players follow the “4x” style feedback loop of explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate. Here, players explore the map with their starting resources; they expand to attain more resources; they exploit their competitive position against their opponents; and then they move to exterminate them with more powerful units gained from more resources.

The inequity we see embraced in this real-time strategy game can be mitigated through learning. One key to addressing this is to treat learning as a cooperative game: where multiple students can achieve the “win state” simultaneously.

This can be reinforced through feedback when the instructor provides some minimally meaningful information at an assessment stage in the process. I’ve done this before when I taught public speaking by presenting speakers with a visual reminder of where they are on time and pacing. This small, but significant form of feedback, gave those students real time insight on the speed of their speech. They learned to control how fast they were speaking and time their content accordingly.  Other students cooperated by providing them visual feedback on when they’ve made appropriate eye contact with members of the audience.

Negative Feedback

Understandably, negative feedback loops are the opposite of positive loops.  Though in games, we see them as balancing the relationship between the players and the game state.

That balance comes from the game ensuring that the action that a player took to trigger that negative feedback makes it harder for that action to occur again.

That’s just a long way of explaining something that has been included in many popular games: the catch up mechanic.

The catch up mechanic is a negative feedback loop that makes it easier for players who are not in the lead to catch up to the leader. That can be via points, position, or resources.

Mario Kart Figurines
Photo from Ravi Palwe on Unsplash

We’ve seen this in games like Mario Kart where that infamous Blue Shell gets rocketed towards the lead player to unseat them.  When growing up, I learned to race near the middle of the pack where you weren’t such a big target.

This negative feedback loop brought equilibrium to the game by incentivizing players to avoid the extremes of the pack: not in the very front and not at the very end.

We see negative feedback loops like this in the classroom with practices like grading on a curve. When grading on a curve, you’re looking for a normalized distribution of grades. So the majority of grades will be the average number for the class with a few grades as outliers: from exemplary to failing.  Because of this system, students aren’t necessarily working to master the material or the information.  Instead, they are incentivized to pursue a relatively better position than their peers to earn a passing grade.

Whether it’s a class or a game, the properties of negative feedback loops are the same:

Negative feedback loops:

  • Stabilize the environment
  • Cause players and students to move towards the “average”

Using feedback in your practice

Consider how your use of feedback will impact your players or students before using it in your practice.

Scaffolded feedback is important for the classroom.  Highly technical feedback about forms and concepts not yet covered by a student would just confuse and hinder them. By targeting feedback that addresses your current learning outcomes, you can better setup your students for success.

Be aware of the kind of perception built on your feedback loop. Ask yourself: “Would this feel “good” or “bad” by my players / students?”  Are they being rewarded for exploring the game in the way you designed? Are they meeting their learning outcomes? How can you structure your feedback loop in order to prioritize those player experiences?

How observable is your feedback by others players and students? Can others adjust their actions based on the performance of their peers? Is the feedback public? Or is it highly specific to individual players and students?

What is the volume of the feedback that you are providing? Too much feedback can be counterproductive. Instead, focusing on just one or two key elements can be more successful than focusing on the student’s entire performance at once.

This is similar to board games called “point salads” where players earn points for all sorts of different actions. Well balanced games allow players to pursue different, asymmetric strategies, in order for them to compete fairly against one another.

Closing thoughts

As with all games and instructional material: it’s best to test them with your demographic of choice before pursuing a full roll out.

Remember to think about the experience from the users’ perspective by sitting in their seat. What is it like to receive this type of feedback? What can they do now that is actionable? How can they improve their performance? What can they do to play the game better?

This article covered the feedback loops in games-based learning. To learn more about feedback loops in gamification, check out the free course on Gamification Explained.

If you have enjoyed this article – consider getting yourself lifetime access to his Games-Based Learning Digital Library containing all of the content from the past two Games-Based Learning Virtual Conferences; past webinars and courses he’s created; as well as his complete back catalog of articles; podcast episodes; and videos. And more content is being added all the time.

Readers of Ludogogy can get a $50 discount on this valuable resource by using this link.

References and further reading:

Game Design Concepts. (2013, Spring). Retrieved June 12, 2019, from

What are the point salad games? Name the top contenders! (2016, September 09). Retrieved June 18, 2019, from

Wiggins, G. (2012, September). Seven Keys to Effective Feedback. Retrieved June 12, 2019, from

Cite this Article

Eng, D. (2019, June 18). Feedback Loops. Retrieved MONTH DATE, YEAR, from

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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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