Game Mechanics for Learning

Game Mechanics for Learning

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

Game mechanics are the rules and procedures that guide players through the game. These mechanics also provide the structure for how the game reacts to players’ actions.

This definition is great for game designers and developers, but what about for educators, instructors, professors, and teachers? How do they use game mechanics for teaching and learning? How can students benefit from game mechanics through games-based learning?

This article will examine game mechanics as an educator applying games-based learning. The structure of mechanics, how they are used, and the purpose of the “core loop” of games will be examined.

Specific game mechanics used in gamification and games-based learning will be reviewed. Those mechanics include goals & objectives; progress & competency; feedback; and rewards.  The relationship between game mechanics and goals will be examined in relationship to the player experience. Creating relatable content that applies directly to learners experiences is recommended. Lastly, playtesting will be discussed as a way to validate game mechanics for learning.

What are game mechanics?

Game mechanics are part of the formal element of games. They consist of the rules and procedures that guide player through the game. The game’s mechanics also provides a structure for how players respond to other players’ actions.

Because game mechanics are such an integral part of game design they show up in almost all conversations about games and play. Game mechanics are also present in gamification such as loyalty cards, airline miles, and sales leader boards.

Super Mario Bros is one of the most popular implementations of the “platforming” mechanic. Here, players move a character around a screen jumping from platform to platform. Likewise, board games use a number of different game mechanics like auctions and dice rolling to flicking and worker placement.

Games-based learning

Games-based learning is about designing learning activities so that formal game elements and game principles are inherent in the activity, lesson, class or course. That means when educators use games-based learning for their students they need to adapt the game to fit their goals. This is because games-based learning uses existing games in order for student to achieve their learning outcomes.

One of the easiest ways of determining if a game is a good fit for your learners is examining its mechanics. Members of a sales team can benefit from a highly competitive game that pits individual skills against each other using negotiation and bargaining. This is compared to economic students who are attempting to recreate the functions of the industrial revolutions though games that include resource management, worker placement, and stock manipulation.

This is where existing game mechanics connect to learning outcomes for individual students.  A connection is necessary in order to more solidly connect the transformation of experience into knowledge for learners.

However, there are challenges with simply adapting game mechanics for learning outcomes. One of which includes connecting how the specific mechanic assesses and measures the student’s learning. Should this be based on the outcome of the game? The outcome of a single round? The outcome of a single interaction? The answer is best determined by the instructor and how games are used for teaching and learning.

Instructors must always be cautious and deliberate in choosing games for their students. Any games used for teaching and learning must help students meet their stated learning outcomes. Such games need to be clear and enhance student learning through game play. Game goals must also support students’ goals. They must contribute (and not detract) from the educational experience.


We may not think about structure as a format to determine how we will use specific game mechanics for learning. However, structure is one of the most core aspects for determining of a game’s mechanic fit stated outcomes.

This specifically relates to abstraction and how players make sense of their experience; connect cause to effect; and relate “abstract” actions to real life outcomes and implications of what they are doing in the game.

At its basic level game mechanics describe to the player what is “happening” in the game and what players can do. This provides learners with agency to determine what they can do to change the outcome of the game. The answer to this question provides the player direction on how they can “play the game.”

The need to address this makes learning game design and games-based learning an interesting challenge. Game mechanics don’t always provide a clear connection to learning outcomes. This is often the case when teaching non-game players game structures and mechanics. The prospect of learning how a game works – in addition – to the connection to their real life practice can be incredibly challenging.

This effect is doubled when games have an open ended mechanics or where complex games are structured around a system of mechanics where players figure out their effects on their own.

This is why it’s important to realize that it’s okay to have game mechanics whose purpose is to support the player experience and make the aspect of playing enjoyable (or at very least tolerable). That means that not all game mechanics need to be connected  to learning outcomes.

Often the best way to structure games for teaching and learning is to ensure that your explanation of the game and its structure is chunked and presented in a scaffolded manner.  This way your players receive information in digestible and sequential steps. Those steps build on what was explained previously.

This means that one of the best ways of explaining a game to players is to address the “core loop” of game play.

Core loop

The core loop is the primary game system or mechanic which defines the game. This is the element of the game that players remember most frequently or engage with most often. You can think about this as the “engine” of the game. The core loop is what empowers individuals to keep playing.

The core loop is a structure that unifies the game’s mechanics together. The core loop sits on top of other game mechanics and becomes extensions of them. Jenga’s core loop involves taking one piece from the tower and then placing it somewhere else in the tower. Tic-Tac-Toe’s core loop is to always place your symbol in one open space on the board.

These are simple game mechanics that when combined create the core loop of the game. Jenga requires dexterity to take and place a piece without knocking over the tower. Tic-Tac-Toe requires players to first evaluate where there are open spaces on the board before placing their next symbol.  These actions are mechanics that will continue progressing until the game is resolved.

The core loop also forms the basis of all games. Examining, dissecting, and reviewing the core loop of games helps identify the level of interaction that players engage in.

This engagement informs designers how those interactions affect and influence their student learning outcomes.

One of the first ways of connecting learning outcomes to game mechanics is through the statement of goals and objectives.

Goals & objectives

All games have goals. These are objectives that provide the players with direction for play. Likewise, instructors also have learning outcomes for their students. Both game objectives and learning outcomes can be combined.

By setting goals and objectives in the game you’ve created direction for your players to take and embark upon. Those goals could be anything from completing a level before the time runs out; gaining the most resources after 10 turns; or eliminating the rest of the players in the game.

Likewise, learning outcomes provide a goal for your learners to seek. Those outcomes could be reciting every state capital; identifying a mollusk; applying a form of negotiation; or creating a database from scratch.

In both circumstances players and learners have objectives they work towards. That means in learning games its best practice to establish and share these goals with learners early in the process.  Transparency of these goals is paramount for empathizing with learners throughout their journey.

Of course goals alone aren’t the best way to connect students’ learning and development with their growth. However, demonstrating players’ progress and students’ competency aids them in reflecting how far they’ve come.

Progress & competency

Measuring and recognizing players’ and learners’ progress is a hallmark of great design. This is because providing players with a tangible and visual way to see how much they’ve progressed and how far they’ve come is a great example of demonstrated competency.

This is especially helpful for games as demonstrating progress shows the player their mastery of the game and the depth of their involvement.  The same can be said for learners as well – especially when it comes to project based learning where students can offer a tangible product at the conclusion of a course. The project serves a single representation of the achievement as well as applicable concepts they’ve used for its completion.

In the same sense, progress bars provide an abstracted way for players to see how far they’ve come and what is left to go towards completing an objective or end goal. Students benefit from the same application in game mechanics that demonstrate what they’ve completed so far and what remains for them. Patchwork is a simple board game that actively demonstrates to players what they’ve completed so far with the quilt and what missing sections are left for them to fill in.

Ultimately the kind of progress earned by players and their demonstrated competency should help them achieve this kind of intrinsic fulfillment. In addition, it should also help them play the game better. This is most evident in “power ups” earned by players in the game that are unlocked from attaining some kind of achievement. No matter how small that action is, this feedback provides players tangible rewards that they can use to earn more tangible rewards. Thus helping them play the game when it becomes increasingly more challenging.


Progress and competency recognition are two forms of feedback that players are provided throughout game play. Likewise, students should be provided the same kind of active and through feedback throughout their learning journey.

Feedback that is provided regularly and frequently through learning empowers users to self-assess their own path moving forward. This often comes in the features of games where there is a visual representation of player progress (i.e. completing puzzles in Project L) to seeing the improvement of students’ writing in a peer review process.

In both cases users are provided feedback to determine how their past actions have contributed towards an end goal; a resolution; or achievement of an objective. Because of this they are more motivated to accomplish their next steps towards bringing something to a resolution.

Those next steps could be easy or simple. Likewise they could also be difficult and challenging. That’s why with feedback it’s important to recognize individuals’ efforts rather than just the end goal. Usually end goals are standardized. We complete four laps in a racing game. We turn in a finished term paper. However, what is not always standardized the amount of player effort put towards reaching that end goal. Some players could have accomplished the objective easily. Others could have required much more concerted time and effort. Recognizing these individuals for their own level of contribution is a form of feedback that is not always included in games-based learning.


Rewards are one of the most consistent forms of game mechanics. Those rewards appear  in the form of resources, abilities, or access to the player in the game. As with e-learning, developing reward schedules can be used to engage and keep learners returning to educational content.

Those rewards schedules include randomly providing players with rewards as well as setting them up in a stepped and structured format. A random reward schedule could be proving players with rewards based on the results of die roll. Likewise, a structured rewards schedule would provide players rewards at regular intervals.

The type and significance of the reward can vary as well. A random reward type would provide players with rewards randomly whenever they satisfied an event outcome (such as attaining a loot box). Likewise, structured rewards types can also be granted for players who accomplish certain tasks compared to others (i.e. defeating a harder boss provides players with better loot compared to attacking an easier boss).

Of course both types could be combined for a random rewards schedule that provides significant rewards based on a player input (i.e. a slot machine that awards players prizes at random intervals that is also based on how much money they have bet).

Slot machines are an easy way of examining reward schedules. Money is a resource that is most easily understood by players and learners alike. However, player rewards don’t need to be limited to just money. It’s useful to think about rewards as things that also help players continue playing and exploring the game. As such, rewards could include power ups, weapons, tools, access to secret areas, and more in games.

Game mechanics & learning goals

No matter what game mechanic is chosen to advance your learning goal know that the choice is based on the specific outcome that you want for your learner. If that outcome is to help them develop a specific skill or competency, then your game’s mechanics must similarly reflect that outcome.

Alternatively, your learning outcomes could be affective: to change the attitude and views of learners. In this case your game’s mechanics must be address learners preconceived notions before you can begin to change them. This could come about from learning how certain processes work in a simulation or serious game. Alternatively, you can also demonstrate how historical content is viewed from a non-dominant view point in a historical game.

While games are great for helping students and learners achieve metacognition; games are also able in assisting students with psychomotor skills. Those could be achieved via dexterity games such as Flick’em Up, Crokinole, or Jenga.

Lastly, cognitive learning refers to intellectual abilities of learners and how games can best help students grow and develop those skills. These could be from critical thinking or strategic planning that players gain from playing more complex games. These more complex games often include many different mechanics and cooperation with other players who may (or may not) share common goals with the player. Diplomacy comes to mind as a game that rewards players subjectively based on their abilities to interact, reason, and convince other players in the game.

Player experience

The player experience is the primary reason why someone will continue to play your game. Likewise, educational experiences that aren’t mandatory or part of a degree program also need to curate the player experience to keep students and learners engaged and interested.  In the game industry this is built on the initial “hook” for the player that convinces them that this is an interesting game.

In games-based learning we can rely on game mechanics to keep that player continually engaged throughout the process. The game mechanics in this case serve two different purposes: to provide players with structures, rules, and procedures for proceeding throughout their play as well as to provide feedback to their actions.

You can use game mechanics further to curate the learning experience by rewarding players based on success and competency of attaining an objective or goal as well as the effort that they’ve put into the activity. Some games institute a negative feedback loop (also known as the catch-up mechanic) that helps players regain some progress despite setbacks. Games-based learning can implement the same thing by providing active feedback to players based on their interactions within the game.

This feedback can take place in different forms. It can occur automatically from the game as a form as validation for input (i.e. providing a right or wrong answer for test content) or it can also be provided socially with other players and learners in the game. This can come about from project-based or group based learning where multiple people collaborate and cooperate to complete something that they wouldn’t have been able to complete alone. The results of which provides successful players with socially based feedback from their contributions and interactions.

Relational content

Games-based learning provides individuals with aspects of applied experiential learning for content created by the designer and educator. However, creating relational content as it applies to the individual learner makes learning experiences much more applicable.

This can be seen by students when they are able to take course content and apply it back to their personal or professional lives. The meaningful choices that they make in a class or game then take into consideration how they can apply the lessons learned within the magic circle of the game to outlets outside of it.

The way that players also apply these game mechanics inside the game and their relationship with the content outside of the game relate to one another. These formal properties such as goals, player actions, and game states can have real life analogs outside of the game environment. It’s up to the educator to determine how closely those analogies work between players within the game and their real life applications.

One such application is the PR:EPARe game designed to aid discussions in relationships on sexual pressure and coercion. The game provides both abstract and concrete aspects and differences of players’ experiences. These experiences provide relevant and applicable outcomes from playing the game.


Applications of game mechanics for teaching and learning are as varied as any games available. However, there are certain game mechanics that regularly appear in games-based learning.  One such instance is in the use of a game to help sales teams achieve target key performance indicators (KPI’s) in their work. This game revolved around “dollars” earned as an in game resource that were awarded to players directly proportional to questions asked to customers in real-world roles. Such questions were specifically targeted (amongst other things) to help acquire and retain customers throughout the sales process. Questions asked by sales people in this game emphasized how certain questions were more “valuable” compared to others in attaining end game goals.

Likewise, other games use other structures such as “hints” to provide the player with paths towards achieving mastery of target outcomes. These hints do not provide answers to players.  Rather, they help players achieve throughout their own agency and initiative. Classic game boss battles often have the “flashing” part of the opponent which indicates a weakness. This is revealed to players during early level designs.  Later, players seek to find this “weakness” in other bosses after been exposed to this “hint” in earlier levels. In this case, players are not given information outright. Rather they explore and deduce based on what they have learned before.

Unlockable content is perhaps one of the easiest game mechanics to incorporate into existing learning management systems (LMS’s).  This content can be unlocked by reviewing and completing previous content. However, a more tangible way of unlocking this content is through the achievement and mastery of previous content. Such mastery can be acknowledged by providing players with currency, resources, or “totems” that represent player success in these areas. Once players achieve this they “redeem” them in order to access new areas, new content, and new opportunities to gain resources later in the in the game/course.


The use of game mechanics for teaching and learning may seem applicable and equitable from the design standpoint. However, nothing replaces the results that adequate playtesting provides. Providing your game, course, or lesson to others is critical for understanding the player experience and how actual users will play your game. Playtesting can also provide valuable feedback on whether or not game mechanics affect and influence your learning outcomes.

Lastly, playtesting also provides designers and educators feedback on game mechanics that may be difficult for players to grasp or utilize. As such, designers should consider adding, removing, or editing the effects of their game mechanics.


This article examined game mechanics from the point of view as the educators applying games-based earning in practice. The structure of mechanics and how they are used in relation to the core loop were examined in depth.  Specific game mechanics used in gamification and games-based learning were reviewed including goals & objectives; progress & competency; feedback; and rewards. The relationship between game mechanics and goals were examined as they relate to the player experience. Creating relatable content that applies directly to learners experience was recommended in practice. Lastly, playtesting games for learning is an activity that should be included in all educators’ toolboxes.

This article was about using game mechanics for learning.  To learn more about 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 catalogue of articles; podcast episodes; and videos. And more content is being added all the time.

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References and further reading:

Arnab, Sylvester & Lim, T. & Carvalho, Maira & Bellotti, Francesco & Freitas, Sara & Louchart, Sandy & Suttie, Neil & Berta, Riccardo & De Gloria, Alessandro. (2014). Mapping learning and game mechanics for serious games analysis: Mapping learning and game mechanics. British Journal of Educational Technology. 10.1111/bjet.12113.

Bitzer, N. (2019, August 03). Using Game Mechanics In Corporate Learning. Retrieved November 17, 2020, from

Boller, S. (2017, July 17). Learning Game Design: Game Mechanics. Retrieved November 17, 2020, from

Bycer, J. (2020, April 6). Teaching Game Mechanics: A Hierarchy of Learning. Retrieved November 17, 2020, from

Eng, D. (2019, April 30). Gamified Learning Outcomes. Retrieved November 17, 2020, from

Eng, D. (2019, August 06). Meaningful Choices. Retrieved November 17, 2020, from

Eng, D. (2019, December 03). Core Loops. Retrieved November 17, 2020, from

Eng, D. (2019, June 04). Formal Game Structures. Retrieved November 17, 2020, from

Eng, D. (2019, June 18). Feedback Loops. Retrieved November 17, 2020, from

Eng, D. (2019, September 10). The Player Experience. Retrieved November 17, 2020, from

Eng, D. (2020, August 20). What is Player Agency? Retrieved November 17, 2020, from

Eng, D. (2020, February 06). Game Mechanics. Retrieved November 17, 2020, from

Eng, D. (2020, March 05). Play Testing for Success. Retrieved November 17, 2020, from

Eng, D. (2020, March 26). What is Games-Based Learning? Retrieved November 17, 2020, from

Eng, D. (2020, September 10). What is Intrinsic Motivation? Retrieved November 17, 2020, from

Fabricatore, C. (n.d.). GAMEPLAY AND GAME MECHANICS DESIGN: A KEY TO QUALITY IN VIDEOGAMES. Retrieved November 17, 2020, from

Kadle, A. (2019, December 15). 3 Game Mechanics To Include In Learning Games. Retrieved November 17, 2020, from

Norton, |. (2019, October 7). Making Great Learning Games Pt. 2 – Designing Game Mechanics. Retrieved November 17, 2020, from

Plass, Jan & Homer, Bruce & Kinzer, Charles & Frye, Jonathan & Perlin, Ken. (2011). Learning Mechanics and Assessment Mechanics for Games for Learning. 10.13140/2.1.3127.1201.

Proulx, J. N., Romero, M., & Arnab, S. (2016). Learning Mechanics and Game Mechanics Under the Perspective of Self-Determination Theory to Foster Motivation in Digital Game Based Learning. Simulation & Gaming, 1046878116674399. Retrieved November 17, 2020, from

Raymer, R. (2011, September). Elearn Magazine: Gamification: Using Game Mechanics to Enhance eLearning. Retrieved November 17, 2020, from

Ribeiro, P. (2019, March 05). Game Mechanics and Learning Mechanics. Retrieved November 17, 2020, from

Sanal, A. (2020, October 26). 7 Must Include Game Mechanics in E-learning Games. Retrieved November 17, 2020, from

Video Game Mechanics: User Engagement in Gamified Learning. (2016, July 01). Retrieved November 17, 2020, from

W., J. (2020, December 17). LMS Gamification: 7 Key Game Mechanics. Retrieved November 17, 2020, 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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