#G4C Part 3: How to Play Test Learning Games

This marks part three of our Games for Change blog series. In Part One, we gave some back story about our game, A Paycheck Away. In Part Two, we talked about our first game design workshop. The game will be an exhibition at the 2012 Spirit and Place Festival in Indianapolis on November 9th. Our goal is to change the conversation on homelessness from hopeless to hopeful. We are armed with a growing body of research in support of games for learning. While many are excited about the power and potential of games, it seems many folks are also hazy about what’s required to actually create a game.

From rough drawing to this first iteration of a game board: we’re off and running on the design of A Paycheck Away

Designing  a game is different than designing an eLearning solution. There’s a totally new term that comes into the process: play testing. Play testing is NOT usability testing, focus group testing, quality assurance testing, or internal design review. Play testing is what you do to evaluate whether your game is really playable and that it  functions the way you intended for it to function. Is it fun? Is it balanced (e.g. not too hard and not too easy)? is it complete? That’s what play testing tells you. Play testing is not something you do once or twice. You will do it several times, each time further refining your game play experience. For mega-games like Halo or The Sims, designers may have done up to 3,000 hours of play testing to verify that their game worked. For a learning game you craft yourself – or with a small team – you might assume at least 30-40 hours of play testing.

So this blog – and a few more to come – are going to chronicle our experience in going from a game concept to a finished game…and the iterations of testing that get us there. Our goal is to help you see how the process works – and why it matters.  We’re going to chronicle our journey from concept to finished game – and the results of our play tests.

Here is Our Learning Game Play Test Process:

The paper prototype – it’s not pretty but it gets the job done. There was lots that we liked about the game play – including all the conversation it generated. But…we have lots of things we want to change before play testing again.

1) Self-test. You and your design team play the initial prototype and evaluate it. You’re doing a lot of discussing while you’re playing – and modifying rules and ideas on the fly as you go. Our game materials and “board” were super basic for this test:


2) Play test with friends and colleagues. This round of testing is happening this week for us. Our design team sits back and observes (quietly!) while other BLPers come in and play our next iteration of the game. We will have a real game board for them to use, a written set of rules to follow, and the opportunity  to listen to their thoughts afterward. We’ll repeat this again in a week, making changes before we do.


3) Play test with (gulp) strangers. Ideally these strangers represent your target audience. We’ve tapped some university classrooms to help us – people who represent our target, but are completely unknown to us. These folks will be 100% objective, which friends and colleagues are not.


6 Tips For a Good Learning Game Play Test:

  1. Don’t share the background of the game. That’s sort of part of the play test. Can your players “get it” without you there explaining what the game is about?
  2. Do tell them what to expect: 15-20 minutes of game play followed by Q&A.
  3. Emphasize the need for play testers to “think out loud.” You want to hear their internal thoughts spoken aloud. Things such as “This is really confusing.” “I don’t understand the rules.” “I wonder what would happen if I make this choice? ” are all good things to say aloud.
  4. Keep your own mouth closed as much as you can. You can help players if they get truly stuck, but try to limit your interactions with players during the game.
  5. Stop play after 20 minutes and conclude with debrief questions. Take copious notes.
  6. Keep a play testing journal or log that documents the results of each play test you do and chronicles the decisions you make about game changes.

Post-play debrief questions:

  1. Overall – what are your thoughts and reactions?
  2. Was the game engaging to you? On a scale of 1 to 5 with 5 being “extremely engaged,” how engaged were you in the game play?
  3. Were the rules clear and realistic to learn?
  4. What, in your words, was the objective of the game?
  5. If you had to describe the game to someone who hasn’t played, what would you say?
  6. What information do you wish you would have had while playing the game that you didn’t have?
  7. Was there anything you didn’t like about the game? What was it?
  8. Was there anything confusing? What was it?

We’ll let you know the results of of our own play test scheduled for this week – and we’ll keep posting photos so you can see the progression of our game from rudimentary prototype to polished game.

This is the third of four installments for our Games For Change blog series. We want to share why we are so excited by the emerging research about how games help us learn…but it’s about more than that to us. It turns out playing a game just might be the first step to true, meaningful
social change. Join us next week for a recap of the results of our initial prototype, and a look at our steps ahead.

Follow A Paycheck Away on Twitter or become a fan on Facebook for updates.