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How to Design an Educational Game, Part 2

Posted in Ed Tech on November 29, 2011 by

Designing an educational game that teaches while it entertains may be a lofty goal, but if you follow the steps in this series, you should be able to make your vision a reality — even if you don’t have a huge budget and a cutting-edge creative team. Along the way, I’ll also tell you about our own experience here at Knewton designing an educational course inspired by the principles of gamification.If you missed the first part of the series, be sure to check it out here.

Step 5: Design your game to yield both quick wins and long-term rewards.

Keep players hooked by providing quick, satisfying wins. At the same time, you shouldn’t give away all your cards at once. Build in an incentive for long-term commitment by teasing players with a sense of what’s to come, building a compelling story line or giving players some reason to take pride in their progress (whether that’s by conferring expert status or some badge of success).

Here are Knewton, we built the Math Readiness Course for CollegeTM with these gaming mechanics in mind. Our points and badges system is designed to provide students with a tangible sense of progress. As students work through the material, more arenas of academic work are “unlocked,” much in the way new levels are unveiled in a game.

Step 6: Embrace the social possibilities.

Encouraging interaction between players of different levels will promote a positive, inclusive sensibility.

Many critics of traditional schooling point to the artificiality of segregating students by age, arguing that this practice does not prepare students for the real world, where people of different abilities often work side by side towards a common goal. Educational gaming expert Kurt Squire articulates the potential for games to illustrate a new model for learning: “Games excel at promoting different levels of expertise, and educators might embrace, rather than apologize for, this capacity.”

Think about how can you design your game to promote this kind of interaction. You might, for example, build in opportunities for players to be deemed “experts” and then insert opportunities for these experts to share their wisdom. This might be achieved through a “hall of fame” board or by structuring expert advice as a reward for novice players. Why exactly does this work so well? In gaming, advice tends to come in action-specific terms (“stay close to the ground to avoid predators” or “save your bonuses for the end”), which is inherently more productive than focusing on intrinsic ability (how smart or slow you are).

We built the Math Readiness Course for CollegeTM with these ideas in mind. The advice and feedback we give students are all encouraging and action-specific to keep students focused on the work at hand. The course also provides a dashboard that allows teachers to create groups of students whose abilities complement each other. For more on how you can bring group work into the twenty-first century by orchestrating meaningful classroom experiences, check out my post on the subject (link here).

Step 7: Encourage critique and design.

If you can stimulate players to talk about your game, you know you’ve done your job as a designer and that you’ve captured the imagination of your players. Take discussion one step further by letting your game universe become self-sustaining and allowing players to produce badges, prizes, or other items that get woven into the game world.

Design itself is cognitively challenging and productive work, so, if you have the technical chops, you might want to consider making design itself an end goal for students. Allow students to tinker with design variables themselves and produce their own versions of the game.

The benefit here is that the work appeals to students of different learning styles. Students who are aesthetically minded might work on enhancing the graphical presentation of the characters and the environment, while students who think like storytellers might reflect on the suspense and mystery in the game and help rewrite any fictional elements.

Here at Knewton we’ve given a lot of thought to the notion of providing a smooth ramp from novice work to expert work. A lot of the research around adaptive learning concerns this very issue. We accomplish this by helping students chunk and organize information differently in their minds (and thus excel towards expert work more quickly) and helping them develop communities where they can showcase original work and receive feedback. Our research in this area is constantly evolving and is inspired by successful examples of gamified learning.