A classification of game thinking in learning design

Reading Andrzej Marczewski’s (@daverage) excellent and very engaging book “Even Ninja Monkeys Like to Play” has made me analyse more deeply how we try (and succeed or fail) to enhance learning design with elements of game design (#learningworlddesign).

How do we gamify learner experiences and on what level do they connect to learners? How do we design learning worlds that incorporate the best and most relevant elements of game design? Based on Marczewski’s classification of game thinking I have endeavoured  to develop a similar classification for Game thinking in learning design. The MDA framework (Hunicke, LeBlanc, Zubek, 2004) which introduces Aesthetics, Dynamics and Mechanics as three interconnected layers in games helped me analyse the design approach further. This blog post provides a quick examination of each classification and the start of my thoughts! The classification does not indicate any weight or value for each type of game thinking.


Game inspired (‘playful’) design

E-learning courses that apply playful design bolt a gamey coat on top of ‘ordinary’ learning design. They have a fun appearance, or remind of existing games. This can be just an adaptation of look and feel: colourful, funky fonts, cartoonified avatars, or reminiscent of the art work of well-known games. Another playful coating can be the use of snappy dialogue, and well written scenarios or roleplay in classroom to teach skills. Free navigation, or the impression of free navigation via e.g. a central map or plan is another game inspired approach.

Popular examples are also ‘playfully dressed up’ multiple choice quizzes – using quiz show templates like jeopardy or multi-millionaire, or e.g. making a balloon pop when a question is answered wrong. This type of playful design can also be found in non-digital form, where learners play board games which consist of rolling a dice and then answering classic multiple choice questions turn after turn.

Playful design example

I created a Health and Safety course that answers this description exactly: the learner has to uncover problematic situations in a hospital, and accesses each scenario via a cartoonified map. It’s free navigation but all items have to be solved to end the course. The learner is also guided by a funky middle-aged superheroine who can be called by a colourful phone and provides snappy dialogue.
The look, feel, and narrative of this course are playful and (according to user feedback) give life to a dreaded compliance subject, but it’s definitely not to be classified as a game or even gamified learning.

Gamified learning

Gamified learning can go two ways, which I have discussed in two previous blogs.

Outer gamification will use the now almost classic badges, points and leaderboards. The use of these elements can actually be just a variation of playful design (e.g to indicate learner progress in a course).

Meaningful use of badges and scores should correspond to mastering skills/learning insights identified in the training needs analysis, and not be attributed for unimportant achievements. That’s where these game design elements are useful to create gamified learning.

The attribution of different types of scoring depending on the real-life importance of the content is a possible option to achieve this. As an example, in a scenario-based course on a medical subject wrong decisions could either bring down the score on technical knowledge or have the learner lose a ‘patient life’ if a really dangerous choice is made. A three strikes is out approach for ‘lives’ brings home the importance of certain actions and creates the ‘challenge’ pressure that games often provide (part of A in the MDA framework). A challenge can also be created by adding time pressure (countdown) but again, it needs to be related to the learning. If the learner needs to think quickly in real life about the timed actions presented in the learning, it is gamified learning.

Inner gamification uses game techniques and mechanics to bring a course to life, to make a course more engaging for the learner. Storytelling (Narrative in the MDA  framework) that goes beyond simple scenario-based quizzes, where you provide a learner path determined by decisions and consequences is shown in an example that has become a classic:  Connect with Haji Kamal.


Another example is Discovery (also part of A in the MDA framework): freely navigating an environment, trying to solve a challenge set for learning and where there is room to learn by failure.

The screenshot here is part of a learning game I designed. It shows a house plan, where the learner has to go through the rooms, discovering items that may or may not be essential to take on a boating trip. They have space for twelve items, but discovery provides a lot more options than that. Their chosen items then contribute to a score. The discovery is also under time pressure, underpinning the (realistic) narrative that you have to leave at a certain time because of the tides.

Board games designed for learning can go from playful design (as explained above) to gamified learning in the same way as e-learning. A strong narrative, meaningful decision making, time pressure but also fellowship by forming meaningful strategic partnerships with other players are all options to enhance gameplay.

Games for learning

Real educational games should be real games, full stop. They have to be able to attract players with no learning intent as well as the players who play for the learning. In short, it needs to be a good game as it is. In an almost sneaky way, though, it has a meaningful purpose, a measurable goal achieved through playing.

Some basic design premises to achieve this were explained wonderfully by Jen Helms (@jenrhelms)  in a very interesting blog post on Gamasutra. She states that to truly make a good educational game, you must discover the system behind the learning objectives, separate from content. You almost move the content to abstraction, strip out all unnecessary baggage. All your game mechanics attribute to this game learning mission.

One of my favourite examples of a strong learning game is award winner  DragonBox, a game that teaches algebra. The starting point is a scared little dragon in a box, that will only come out when it is alone and the player has to make that happen. This is such a beautiful narrative stripping it all back to the core system of equations in algebra, where ‘x’ has to be isolated with different techniques to solve the problem. The now infamous Plague Inc, where you have to make strategic decisions in order to make ‘your’ virus kill the world is another favourite. News items on the zika virus or ebola will have so much more impact on you after you have played Plague and understood ‘the system’. The game is now also available in  board game format, which must also be exciting to play, as you will play others, not just the computer.

Wrapping up

Although the boundaries between the three branches of the game thinking tree can be sometimes vague (an e-learning course can embrace playful design and approach some topics with a mini-educational game or a small gamified learning piece), it is important to consider the options in the light of what you, as a learning designer, want to achieve by applying game design principles.

To really gamify your learning design you need to integrate it from step 1 in your thinking. It requires a change in your pedagogical approach, it’s not an add-on to your usual way of working. Throw away your conceptions and assumptions, and build the new piece from the bottom up.

Additionally, I find that to create really good gamified learning and certainly to start designing educational games properly the only path is to research real game design and not rely purely on gamification literature and certainly not on the ‘tips and tricks’ widely spread on the net.


Can we break free of slide thinking in e-learning modules?

Corporate e-learning is moving along on a changing path. We see instructional designers trying to avoid information dumps, write up scenarios, work with action based models for design, and ditch storyboards for agile development. OK, I admit, there’s still a lot of information dump out there, but let’s just concentrate on the e-learning that’s trying to move beyond that…

Even with all those efforts, and really cool examples as shown on the great E-learning Heroes site, I constantly feel like I am working within boundaries to my creative thinking. I use Cathy Moore’s action mapping model extensively to uncover measurable outcomes and come up with well-designed real life activities to change behaviour. Why then does it feel like I am still restricted in what I can design? And why am I still slightly unhappy with the results of all my efforts, even if they have won the occasional award?

Do today’s slide-based authoring tools restrict our creativity?

Is this creating boundaries in my head?

After pondering this question for a while now I think I have found an answer. For a number of years we have been forced into what I call “slide thinking”. E-learning is too much forced upon us as akin to a website, a PowerPoint. All the modern authoring tools used by thousands of designers and developers (and I definitely look at the ‘big three’: Articulate, Captivate, Lectora) work in screens, in slides.

Everybody that still uses a storyboard also designs in screens: first you see this screen, then you see that screen. Try searching storyboard templates – see what I mean? The emphasis on clear navigation, knowing how to go to the next thing is imperative in our design thinking. Since when has this restrictive slide thinking happened to us? When I worked in e-learning 10-12 years ago, we didn’t. Makes sense, I guess, as there was no authoring software. We worked with amazing Flash developers who could make happen whatever activity or learning world our ID minds came up with (and they often made the end product even better that what I had in my head!).

I want to break free

So how can we break free of “slide thinking”? Can we have Flash and its wonderful developers back? Not an option. Do we use other software, maybe game development engines like Unity to create worlds in which we discover information, try out actions and learn? This level of software is beyond quite a lot of us instructional designers  – guess I am just lucky to be a programmer too :).

I think we need to learn to step away from the authoring software screens and endeavour to design learning worlds in which you do not think in terms of screens and sequencing information. After all, that is not how we learn in the real world. In a compelling learning world you discover information, you seek explanations if what you discovered is beyond your present understanding, you try out things, you practice, you learn from successes and mistakes, you learn from watching others,  and you learn from sharing with others and being shared with. (#learningworlddesign)

If we are determined to create e-learning ‘modules’ in certain cases – and here I do humbly refer to other, modern day approaches to workplace learning as brought forward by Jane Hart – how do we make those online learning experiences fit into a learning world? Can they still fit into slide thinking software? This example on the Smartbuilder website gives me hope we can.

Developing a #learningworlddesign model

Pulling game world and game level design into our learning design efforts may bring us to what I henceforth call the learning world design model. I want to spend time over the next months trying to develop such a model of thinking and will share my progress on this blog. I’d love to have this design model fit in with the easy-to-use authoring software if I can. But maybe we’ll have to leave development to specialists we closely collaborate with, like in Flash days? I am on a journey of discovery and a journey of model development. Stay tuned for learning world design #learningworlddesign.



Inner gamification techniques for elearning. Part 2: Telling a story

In a previous blog post I introduced the term ‘Inner gamification’ to indicate the use of game development features to enhance elearning that do not use ‘outer features’ like scores or badges. I since came across another term I like – game inspired design in a diagram shared by @daverage on Twitter.

This second part handles some of the storytelling techniques we can learn from games and shares some opinions on good storytelling.


A story does not make itself, the learner makes it

More and more instructional designers move to scenario based learning, which is a great evolution. Doing this well however is still a challenge. Too often the learner is presented with a long background story to read, followed by a decision making exercise.

In many cases it is necessary for the learner to have all the background information to make correct decisions. Like in real life, the learner should assemble this information from relevant sources so they can construct the story themselves, analyse it and draw conclusions to lead to the right decision. Good game design makes sure the player discovers the story of a situation or character during the game play, and takes action accordingly.

Help the learner to construct the story

Let the learner piece together the story by a collection of means: reading an e-mail or note, talking to people involved, overhearing conversations, or observing an action/scene. Try to add emotions where relevant – in the example shown here (with thanks to @moodlelair who designed this course) an overpowering relative keeps a nurse from talking to a patient. The learner draws certain conclusions from this and makes the story in their head.

Real stories are not always complete

Provide realistic information: observation, dialogue and documentation

“But what if they miss pieces of information?”, you ask. “That is intrinsic to good scenario writing!”, I say. Missing a piece of information or interpreting it in your own, subjective way is how things happen in real life. The “safe environment” of a training allows the learner to learn from this. If they make an uninformed decision this can be pointed by consequences that are designed to change the learner’s attentiveness and insights in real life situations. You, as the instructional designer, can point them back to the missed info  and say ‘You did not consult these notes, so your conclusion was based on incomplete information’ or ‘ You forgot to talk to this interested party, so you took the wrong action’.

Do not provide information all at once, no matter what techniques you use. Your learner could discover more information while the story unfolds, by making the right decisions, e.g. order an Xray for a patient providing more medical insight or send an email to someone who provides them with a relevant document.

In a twist of plot, your learner may also be given biased information by some of the ‘players’ in the scenario.  Stan, in the screen example above, explains how the patient got hurt but the learner will feel that they will need to handle this information cautiously in their decision making.


Larger games often use “cut scenes” to move the story along. The player sits and watches a part of the story in which they are not actively involved, but it explains motives, feelings, movement of the action to another background. Game designers know these scenes should be short and to the point as they actually ‘break’ the game play.

cut_sceneAn interactive scenario-based course can benefit from this technique to bring the learner to the next action. A part of your scenario is not in the hands of the learner, e.g. while you are administering first aid someone else calls for assistance. A short cut scene showing this makes your story more complete and lifelike.

As in games, these short scenes should be limited and have a clear purpose to move the story along to the next interaction required from the learner.

The ID knows more… you can feel it

Over the past years, J.K. Rowling has revealed little bits and pieces in her Twitter and blog feeds about Harry Potter and his companions – things that are not in the books, but she knows them (e.g. why Harry named his son after Severus Snape). That these stories are world news, shows the strength of her storytelling.

Good learning and game stories should also provide a feeling of ‘more’. You, the designer, know the full background history, the intimate dreams and aspirations of your main character even when these details are unnecessary to the learning and not revealed. Invisible but powerful, this will make the reader more connected to your story.



Inner gamification techniques for elearning. Part 1: onboarding the learner

‘Inner’ and ‘outer’ gamification? Just terms I came up with to describe my thoughts. Other people have probably invented better terminology, but it works for me. Let me clarify.

Inner and outer gamification

My definition of outer gamification is the visible use of techniques and mechanics from games to enhance your course. The amazing Amy Jo Kim talks about the ‘outer trappings’ of a game: badges, points, earning levels and rewards. I would add to this the look and feel of your learning module – make it look like a board game, a virtual world, cards, or even use a TV gameshow template. I haven’t used outer gamification very much. In one instance I designed badges to bind bite-sized pieces of learning together as 5 tasks to accomplish expert level. So – not really intended as drivers for motivation. More like a gamified progress bar.

Inner gamification however is something that I try to incorporate a lot. I call ‘inner gamification’ the application of more invisible design techniques used to help and engage the player in games: information design, giving instructions and storytelling techniques. In this three-part blog I will elaborate on some of these invisible design techniques I borrow from games. This first part handles the onboarding of the learner into your elearning module.

Surprise! The learner is actually … learning

“Provide clear instructions for the learner” is a recurring warning in all lists for good instructional design. Too often this results in a very boring ‘upfront’ tour of all the navigation elements. A course with extensive instruction as the first slide  is like a thick Russian novel that starts with a three-page list of the characters. There is no context for the learner (yet). A common alternative is the endless repeat of the same instructions on every screen: ‘Click next to continue’, ‘Choose your answer and click submit’ , ‘ Click each … to learn more’.

photo 1In games, you learn the navigation while you play. This is the most visible in social games like the infamous Farmville. Introducing navigation is an ‘onboarding’ activity while you are already in the middle of the fun. Tell the player ‘just-in-time’ what to do to handle the interaction at hand but it counts towards the end result, the score, the actions.

One of my favourite examples is the ‘onboarding’ of a new player in Plants vs. Zombies. The player is guided through the first level with maximum instruction, led by the hand through the first planting, catching sunshine, destroying of Zombies. While this is a tutorial, you also earn the points for that level. You are already playing so the navigation instructions have immediate rewards! The creator of this game dedicated a full talk to the thinking process behind this in his talk at GDC2014. Lots to be learned from that talk for us instructional designers.

infection_control_text_buubleTransferring this ‘onboarding’ technique to an elearning course makes total sense. Guide the learner through navigation items only when they encounter something new, and trust their capability to learn. Indicate with a text bubble what a navigation element does when they need to use it. As it has context and the action happens when they use the element, they will remember. No need to repeat the instruction over and over, and no need for extensive navigation guides up front. Just-in-time learning, in your elearning!

Scaffold interactions

This technique also teaches you to scaffold your different interactions well. Do not overwhelm the learner with lots of different things to do in a short space of time: space them well.  Explain each new type of interaction when they encounter it. Create clear patterns and repetitions in the interactions with small variations to avoid monotony. Slowly guide your learner on the path of mastery!

And that is the icing on the cake for using this technique – it makes for a consistent and clear elearning course where you do not have to be afraid to introduce a more complicated interaction out of fear for the poor digitally challenged learner. You can trust the learner to be learning… because you are teaching them just-in-time.

Guiding the eye

The guide is shown, and then transitions off to the side, changing into the icon that is used throughout the course.

Another tutorial technique I recently applied is also commonly found in social games like Farmville. When you earn coins, or gems, these are in the immediate action field first and then fly off to the corner where you total money is displayed – thus guiding the eye of the player to the place where their fortune can be checked at all times.

When I use a ‘guide on the side’ for scenariobased elearning (aka Cathy Moore’s essential info to complete the activities), I present the guide to the learner first and then make it fly off (animate in Storyline e.g.) to a corner of the screen where it will sit for constant use. The learner sees the guide in its full form, then watches it change into the icon they can use throughout the course. An easy but very effective technique to introduce an important element of the course.

Coming up: Inner gamification techniques (part 2). Ways to tell a story.

Waitemata District Health Board elearning

I am currently employed part-time as a Senior elearning designer and developer at Waitemata District Health Board.

First, some bragging:

Platinum LearnX Award 2015 for Rapid Authoring

Fire safety
Fire safety

Fire awareness training: scenariobased course focusing on actions to take when fire or smoke is detected, dependent on role and situation.

You can view the full course here on the Awhina website


Our Learning Technologies team has brought in a tsunami of changes:

  • scenario-based elearning design derived from Cathy Moore’s action mapping
  • a process of agile elearning development reducing turnaround time for projects to 12-15 weeks
  • intense collaborative working processes
  • move towards a collective learning management system shared by  a large number of DHB’s
  • integrated learning experience on Totara course pages.

Other courses developed:


Privacy: course where we heightened the awareness of the learner about patient privacy issues by placing them in the breach situations directly, using their login to retrieve name.

Infection control
Infection control

Infection control: 5 module scenariobased and gamified course, where the learner needs to solve situations helped by an extensive virtual tablet on the side providing just-in-time information

Health and Safety course
Health and Safety course

Occupational Health and Safety: scenariobased course guided by a comic cartoon superheroine coming in to help the learner solve situations in a gamified hospital environment

Acute Care training – elearning as part of blended learning approach. Learner applies the ABCDE principle in acute situations, to prepare for extensive simulation training in classroom

ECG 12 lead training

Mental Health Information for families

Nursing Code of Conduct