Design Elements for Game-Based Learning

Because Gaming is an activity that can exercise Mind, Body and Soul – III

By: Diego Vásquez

In my previous article I was exploring how games have historically been acknowledged and used as a powerful learning tool. Playing however is as natural as it is voluntary, and not too long after educators started consciously taking advantage of it, they soon discovered that, when playing does not take place as a spontaneous activity, it’s educational benefits are diminished.

The challenge is then – what elements should be there as part of game design so that it stays fun and engaging, but at the same time achieves meaningful learning?

If you remember ever playing an educational game (even one that you enjoyed playing or at least invested a significant amount of time, effort and interest) – and if you do, it is not very likely that you remember even a few of the knowledge elements that the game imparted.

There is a reason for the above: the knowledge acquired in most games is implicit or tacit, and it could be said that will linger in your memory only while playing or shortly afterwards. Most knowledge acquired this way will not stay in your memory, as there will be few or no indexes in your memory for contents outside of the context of the game.

Explicit knowledge on the other hand, will stay in your memory AND will be available to you in a manner that is more similar to the academic learning coming out of traditional, well delivered school teaching.

Prof. Judith ter Vrugte, from the University of Twente in Netherlands made a study that focused on the possible techniques that will convert the implicit knowledge acquired from typical gaming experiences to explicit learning, and we mention them below:

  1. Self-explanation prompts: Are designed into the game that serve the purpose of reinforcing the game activities with the underlying conceptual elements.
  2. Collaboration and Competition: these foster knowledge acquisition through interactions from peers, either when working together towards the game objective or as in-game competitiveness for own victory.
  3. Faded worked examples: Just like your teacher solving a problem in front of a class while explaining a new concept, worked examples present a challenge together with the solution. Faded worked examples go beyond this with an iterative presentation of similar problems where solution steps are omitted until the problem is fully resolved by the student without help.

Most well-designed games already include some of these elements even when the game itself has no learning or educational objective, because in games the rules are of extreme importance. Players need to be introduced to the games’ rules in a way that encourage him to continue playing while promoting him to become better at it. For example:

  1. A game may explain the workings of its own logic by presenting a basic level with a linear solution that the player may (more or less) discover on his own, then at the end of the level prompt the player to analyze how he discovered the solution.
  2. Multiplayer games often bin players of similar game experience together and provide tools of in-game communication, online games even used to provide means of direct contact with a game-master group. In a collaborative and even competitive environment games will teach each other. Around many games (even offline-ones) meta-game knowledge is developed and exchanged via community portals.
  3. Faded worked examples are almost inevitably embedded in game level design, especially in early levels and in those where a new game rules are being introduced, the crescendo of game difficulty is crucial both to keep the game interesting as well as developing skills in the player.

When a game is trying to induce learning beyond the game’s own rules, the same techniques can be applied, changing is only the subject matter that is covered, but the game design elements are almost identical.

Many educational games fail at being entertaining while at the same time providing learning to the player, this has several manifestations in the game market today where educational games remain few and rarely truly successful, and in those infrequent instances the knowledge acquired through playing is almost never meaningful, explicit learning. Through careful selection of game elements together with design values that considers the differences between implicit and explicit learning and the techniques that foster long-term concept acquisition, useful game-based learning can be achieved.


This article was written based on a doctoral paper “Serious Support for Serious Gaming” by Prof. Judith ter Vrugte, PhD (University of Twente, Netherlands).

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