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How to Design an Educational Game, Part 1

Posted in Ed Tech on November 28, 2011 by

Games, like novels and films, are cultural products that inspire loyal fans and followers. The appeal is clear: games are fictional universes that seduce players into alternate realities.

Designing a game that teaches while it entertains may be a lofty goal, but if you follow the steps outlined below, 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.

Step 1: Align game goals with cognitive work.

It may seem obvious, but a good educational game should be educational — that is, success or progress in the game should be aligned with productive mental work. To score points, move on to higher levels, acquire badges, or gain status, players should be required to solve puzzles, demonstrate mastery of some skill, or better yet, demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of relationships between different parts of a system. Why are systems so important? Because no matter what the subject (whether it’s English, math, or science), mastery depends on understanding how details fit into the whole.

In the course of playing a good educational game, users should grasp, for instance, that an increase in taxes may upset certain fictional constituents but increase the amount available to spend on city infrastructure — or that a decrease in the number of wolves in a wildlife reserve will lead to an explosion of rodents and an imbalance in the ecosystem. In other words, it isn’t enough that the game be about something educational — the Civil War, the Renaissance, or the digestive system. In the pursuit of game goals, players should be encouraged to assess the relationship between action and feedback, and this sort of analysis should facilitate a systemic understanding of information.

Step 2: Make your game adaptive.

A game wouldn’t be that much fun if the outcome of the game didn’t vary depending on the decisions you made. The Oregon Trail, for example, would hardly be compelling if it didn’t matter whether you had more doctors than farmers on board, or began with 50 or 30 pounds of food. Part of what makes the game entertaining is that players get to observe what happens if they tinker with the variables. Not only is this fun (because you get to make decisions), but it also encourages systemic thinking, which is at the heart of productive cognitive work.

This step of the game-building process may be the most challenging. After you’ve sketched out a rough vision of the game world as a “system,” you need to develop hundreds if not thousands (or more) of potential paths for players. You can achieve this by building in many opportunities for players to demonstrate skill, make decisions, and reflect on the relationship between action and feedback.

A useful approach is to think about your game as an adaptive system. At Knewton, we thought a lot about the kind of specificity described above when designing our college readiness course to yield personalized learning paths for each individual. Our adaptive learning system responds continuously to thousands of data points on performance, activity, preferences, and learning style. Not only does this ensure that problems are pitched at the right level, it also enhances the connection students feel to their progress and work in the system.

So remember: when you’re designing your game, engineer it so that each player encounters a stream of challenges that are perfectly calibrated to suit his or her levels. If the game is too easy or hard, players are likely to get bored or confused and put the game down.

Step 3: Build in opportunities for suspense, conflict, and complication.

A story without complications is hardly a story at all. Take The Great Gatsby. The plot is simple (poor man wants to gain the heart of rich girl) but what makes it an engaging story are the complications thrown in: whether or not Daisy truly loved Gatsby, Gatsby’s illegal activities, Daisy’s abusive husband and his relationship with a mistress.

In a story, complications tend to stem from character and from the idiosyncrasies of the environment (a storm or a war, for instance). In a game, complications can stem from these and other factors. After all, a game is much more than a workbook or problem set come to life; it should also generate suspense through unpredictable situations. The game may do this by throwing you a curveball (inflicting a natural disaster upon your city, for example) or by randomizing outcomes (so that every time you visit the “king,” you don’t know whether you’ll get thrown in the dungeon or given a thousand pounds).

Complications are also generated through what educational gaming expert Kurt Squire (pictured left) terms “overlapping goals.” Games are much more challenging and interesting when there are multiple goals present to seduce players and divert their attention. In the Knewton Math Readiness for College™ course, we incorporate the gaming principle of “overlapping goals” by providing multiple arenas of academic work for students to enter at any given point, so they never feel stuck.

Step 4: Make sure the game is simple in the right way.

As Squire notes in his book Video Games & Learning, games are often criticized by educators for being inaccurate or biased–that is, for leaving out certain perspectives or promoting a particular view of the world, whether it’s a Critical-Marxist orientation to power or a materialist theory of history. Even something we consider highly accurate, like an anatomical diagram of the human body in a biology textbook, for example, only shows one system at a time. Even diagrams that do show all the systems in one place are inherently simplified, since they do not show every blood vessel, tissue, or cell. And if they did, they would cease to be illustrative. As Squire argues, models, figures, and diagrams are useful in part because of what’s not there. Games are simplified for the same reason: so that the relationships between variables become apparent and so that after a certain amount of activity, players walk away having learned something.

Does this contradict Step #3? Not really.The key is to find the right balance of simplicity (for the sake of illustration) and complexity (for the sake of suspense-generating complication and conflict). Thinking of the game like a story might help. Reading a bare-bones outline of a story plot is hardly interesting. But pad a story with too much description and unnecessary action, and you bore and confuse the reader.

The story metaphor cuts in other directions as well. Just as you would not introduce too many subplots at once in a novel, you should not confuse the players by providing so many goals and opportunities that they are unable to focus. As Squire suggests, you should consider unveiling certain parts of the game only after players hit specified triggers: “A key [World of Warcraft] design decision may be not starting newbies in large, populated cities but instead waiting until they had experienced core game systems, such as combat, quests, and grouping, before lifting the veil and showing the game’s depth.” Not only does this design strategy focus the player’s attention, it also heightens suspense and investment in the game since players get more excited to enter a new world if it’s built up as a reward.

Inspired by these insights into player psychology, we designed our Math Readiness for College™ course so that students can unlock academic work in a satisfying way and experience a visceral sense of progress as they master skills. The process of “unlocking” something doesn’t have to be flashy or complicated, but there should be at least something that signifies the change, whether it’s a sound, an animation, or the accumulation of points and badges, to show students (or players) that they are making progress.

For a lengthier treatment of ways that an adaptive system empowers students, check out 5 Ways to Make Students Smarter.

Check out Part 2 of this post here.