Games as learning tools are in my mind A LOT these days. And so it happens with this gamefi-learni-cation happening all around that the topic is in many peoples’ minds. A question that comes up when I have conversations about games & learning (which happens pretty often) is what are effective strategies to design a game for learning (the practical stuff). The obvious answer is that games for learning are first and foremost games and in order to make them you should take all the steps you would take to create a fun game. A rule of thumb I apply whenever I design a game for the classroom is to ask myself whether or not a kid would play this again outside of the school context, say at home with friends. If the answer to that question is NO - then it’s time to go back to the drawing board.
The drawing board
So let me start by admitting that designing a game for the classroom is HARD. I mean designing a game to begin with is really hard, yet one that involves integrating learning goals that can sound something like “constructing inequalities and absolute value statements” - could be daunting. A key in this procedure is COLLABORATION - if you are a game designer - working together with a teacher and vise versa if you are a teacher. Another important aspect to consider is NOT being literal; educational games have for so long been content-traps, were playing is so much about a specific piece of content versus the learning experience.
Below are ten steps to help you get started; I would like to underline that this is by no means a recipe that someone can blindly follow to create an effective learning game. I like to think of these steps more as guidelines that you can mix and match to serve your needs and style. They are based on my own personal experience designing such games for the past four years and all the things I have learned making them. So here you go;
Define the learning goals: Start with the big idea or content you want to teach. Learning goals can be combinations of skills and knowledge, i.e. collaboration and/or 6th grade fractions
Create a learning trajectory: Break the learning goals down into smaller goals that can be sequenced. For example, what does your player need to learn first? What do they need to learn second? If you are a game designer, think of the learning trajectory as level design.
Research: Look at other games or activities that support similar learning goals. You don’t have to be literal in your research, sometimes games that are not obvious precedents can be very inspiring, i.e. Settlers of Catan = great game to introduce probabilities
Integrate a “need to know”: Design a concept that creates a need for players to learn the knowledge and acquire the skills you want to teach. The “need to know” can be connected to a fictional story but also connected to a real world needs.
Align the core mechanic: Design a core mechanic that reflects the learning activity and presents an interesting challenge. This is one of the hardest steps when designing a game for learning and a point for pitfalls to occur. So in many “educational games” you see a core mechanic that interrupts the learning instead of supporting it. For example, bubbles with equations are falling from the sky while you are shooting dancing penguins: NOT.
Design Assessment Systems: Consider what kind of feedback and data are used in the game to provide a snapshot of how a player is doing. Be clear on how the game will determine whether or not a player has met a learning goal.
Consider the setup: Be conscious of the context in which the game will be played. Will it be played during a 45-minute class period? By one or many players? What technical or materials restrictions might impact the design of the game—internet, limited space, a need for simple materials? I could not stress enough how important this otherwise mundane step is; designing a perfect game for a classroom that cannot support it, is no fun.
Think of Players as Producers: Design opportunities for the players to contribute creatively in the game. Consider how players can take the game, remix it and make it their own.
Playtest: Playtest your game to see what works and what doesn’t, and if it’s fun! Use the feedback you got from your playtest to improve your game.
Write Simple Rules: Avoid lengthy explanations and write rules that are easy to understand and can be learned by playing the game.
You can download the original size poster here http://chloeatplay.tumblr.com/poster
For a more detailed version of how a game based curriculum piece could look you can check this previous post
Thanks to my friends at the Institute of Play for helping me edit this list.