Once Is Not Enough: How to Playtest Custom Learning Games

Once is Not Enough

I believe playtesting is a crucial, and often overlooked, part of learning game design. It takes multiple iterations to determine the right combination of game mechanics and game elements for your target learners. Whether you are an experienced game designer or an instructional designer trying to design a game for the first time, your game will benefit from multiple rounds of playtesting.

Of course, if we are going to tell everyone else to playtest their games, we have to do so as well! The following is the step-by-step story of how we created and play-tested a recent learning game for a client.

Example: Serious Game for Healthcare Workers

We recently created a game called “Five Star Facility,” targeted towards environmental technicians who work in healthcare settings. These technicians clean the patients’ rooms and other areas of a hospital or long-term care facility. It took us four iterations to get the game we wanted and players could most learn from.

We reached a great game in the end, but it took good playtesting and iteration to get us there. Our stellar design team of Amanda Gentry, Matt Kroeger, Kristen Hewett, and Erika Bartlett did a terrific job!

Version One – Let’s create something “sort of like Clue”

This version has similarity to a commercial game called Clue. The design team felt the target learners would be pretty familiar with Clue’s  rules and core dynamics (exploration, collection), and they wanted a game that learners could quickly learn to play. Gameplay was competitive. The game goal was to be the first person to collect all the room tokens, which represented all the categories of information players needed to learn and remember. Players rolled a die to determine how many spaces they moved on the board. Each space corresponded to a different category of environmental protection/cleaning. Players had to answer questions related to whatever category they landed on. Similar to Clue, they had to go into each room on the board. Answering a question in the room earned them a token for that room. The first player to earn all the tokens won the game.

First version of five star facility game.

First version of five star facility game.

It wasn’t a terrible game design… but it was just okay.

Problems With the First Design:

  1. The game could get sort of long if people were rolling lots of low numbers.
  2. The designers made the game competitive. In the real-world, environmental technicians should behave cooperatively with each other and with the healthcare team as a whole.
  3. This first rendition ignored the “why” of the environmental tech’s job and didn’t help them see the connection between what they do and how the healthcare facility gets dollars to stay in business. Survey ratings determine the reimbursements healthcare facilities receive from Medicare. If your facility’s aggregate survey ratings are only three stars, you do not receive the same dollars as a facility who received five star ratings.

Version Two – Scrap the Clue idea. Let’s race to the finish.

The icons are gone, the die is gone, and we have a path we’re traveling and monetary targets to reach. This version stunk. It was boring and tedious to play. Players simply took turns drawing cards to try to reach the target dollar amount. They worked together to answer the questions, but when the designers switched from competition to cooperation, they failed to include game mechanics that created any conflict or tension within the players. There was no “Lose” state or no really bad things that could happen. This version was quickly ditched.

Version Two: Lots and lots of dots.

Version Two: Lots and lots of dots.

Version Three – Bring back the game icons. Add in a progress tracker.

Version three was much better! The team latched on to the realization that five star ratings led to better reimbursements. Now players had to secure at least $70K in reimbursements to win… and mistakes would push their survey ratings downward. This was better, but there was still a serious flaw. Players’ dollars didn’t go down when they made mistakes; only their survey ratings did. In the real world, these are tied together. We also discovered as we played that we needed to better write our questions to eliminate ambiguity of responses. On the plus side, the discussion team members did before deciding on a correct response was phenomenal. Lots of learning happened in these discussions.

Version 3: We’re getting closer to the final product.

Version 3: We’re getting closer to the final product.

 Version Four – We have a winner!

The final version of the game was the winner. Look at how we tied together survey ratings and reimbursement dollars. Players start with a 1.5 star rating and $30K in reimbursement dollars. To move to the right and earn more dollars, they have to enter a room and respond correctly to that category’s question. They still roll a die to move a team token around the board. If they land on a space outside of a room, they have to answer a question that corresponds to the icon they land on. A correct response allows play to progress to the next player with no adverse event. An incorrect response forces players to move to a lower survey rating. If they hit the zero starts spot on the game board, the game is over and the team loses. If they earn $10K from every “room” on the game board and achieve at least $70K in reimbursement, they win.

Version four: By George, we’ve got it!

Version four: By George, we’ve got it!

Lessons for learning game designers:

  1. Make sure your choice of a competitive game or a cooperative game mirrors the real-world environment. Do not have people competing in a learning game if their real-world context requires cooperation or collaboration to be successful.
  2. Be aware that competitive games do not tend to be as influential of learning experiences as cooperative ones do. In competitive games, only one person or team wins. The “losers” can disengage from the experience entirely if it is not managed well.
  3. Make sure the game mechanics (rules) and game goal complement – or at least do not detract – from your real-world situation.
  4. Make sure your game includes enough “tension” in it to keep things interesting. Interesting translates into “fun.” If there are not realistically significant odds of losing the game, it becomes boring to play.
  5. Don’t be content with the first version of your game; it will not be the best version.
  6. Don’t playtest once; identify changes to make, and then fail to playtest to verify those changes improve the game play and learning experience. You have to test every time you make a change.

6 Lessons from the Trenches of Digital Learning Game Design at #Trg14

Lessons from the Trenches of Digital Game Design

Bottom-Line Performance has done simulation and learning game design for table-top/live events for many years. However, our foray into digital game design has only been happening for the past three years. When we started, we found lots of books and articles on game design – but not much on learning game design. We leveraged wonderful books from game designers such as Tracy Fullerton and Brenda Brathwaite and gleaned from their experiences designing games, but we didn’t have a ton of peers writing tomes on learning game design. (Exception: Karl Kapp’s book, Gadgets, Games, and Gizmos for Learning came out in 2007. It’s a wonderful book, but it’s not really a how-to guide to creating learning games. His most recent book, The Gamification of Learning and Instruction Fieldbook has more how-to guides within it.)

There are some similarities between learning design and learning game design… but even more differences. Here is a summary of six lessons we’ve learned. We’ll present these – with more detail – at sessions we’re doing at ASTD TechKnowledge later this week as well as at Training 2014 in early February. You can get a sneak peak at the slides we’ll use (and the example) on Slideshare.

1. You need game content – even at your first prototype.

This might sound obvious, but if you have done agile design before, you may have designed HOW a learning interaction is going to work while including only placeholder content in it or Greek text. You cannot do this with a game. You have to have realistic content (e.g. an actual scenario and realistic choices for a player to make) or you cannot assess the fun factor and learning efficacy of the game idea. Trust us on this. We made the mistake of trying to design a game interaction with only place-holder content. People played the prototype and then told us, “Well it might be fun but I can’t really tell without seeing the actual game content.” Once we played, it was like the Mr. Obvious show. However, BLP has lots of smart people and we didn’t recognize this issue until we programmed an initial prototype that we called “Story Shuffle.” We got smart and re-did things. Here’s a later view of the same game, now called “Late for Lunch.” For those who are curious – we used a tool called Construct2 to create the game. You can embed games into course authoring tools such as Lectora or Articulate Storyline.

2. Aesthetics and theme dramatically affect desire to play. They literally can be game-changers in terms of people’s interest in what you create.

Again this seems obvious… but aesthetics are HUGELY powerful. They can take content that an ordinary person would NOT find exciting and make you want to play just because the game is so aesthetically cool looking. You might not be excited by the topic of incident investigation but you might be far more excited to go into an evil alchemist’s laboratory and earn your way out by making gold out of iron. Check out this game to see what I mean.

3. Fantasy has high appeal – even to “corporate” learners. It’s worth fighting for.

Bean counters can be skeptical of fantasy – it can seem frivolous or too fanciful for work. However…that is sort of the point in making someone intrigued enough to want to play a game that would otherwise be rather ho-hum.

Here’s ho-hum.


Here’s pretty fun:


4. Most players need help figuring out how to play – but typically won’t opt for it if given a choice.

This lesson is a critical one. Some learning games – in fact, many learning games – require some “show” on how to play to minimize the learner’s cognitive load. You don’t want them to spend so much mental energy figuring out the mechanics of the game that they fail to learn anything. However, when you design a tutorial level of play, if players get a choice, they will often OPT OUT of completing it…because they don’t want to take the time. We’ve learned not to let players have a choice and to require them to go through the tutorial. No, they won’t want to. Yes, it will end up maximizing their enjoyment of the play experience if they do. Either incorporate a “training level” or an actual tutorial into the game unless the game’s mechanics are very, very easy to understand and intuit.

5. Rules and game complexity need to be proportional to the amount of time people will spend playing the game.

If you are designing a multi-hour play experience, you can incorporate lots of game elements and mechanics (aka game rules). If you are trying to create a 10-minute to 60-minute play experience, you NEED TO KEEP IT SIMPLE. Lots of complexity can create a very fun GAME experience, but it has a negative impact on the LEARNING experience. As you play test your game during development, you need to ask both of these questions:

  • How engaged were you in play?
  • What did you learn by playing?

If the game has lots of clever elements and mechanics, you can get very positive responses to the first question – but poor responses to the second.

6. Scoring is the hardest element to get right – and requires far more time than a novice designer will probably assign to the project plan for it.

I created the game Formulation Type Matters four years ago. It was my first digital game (and a finalist this year in the Serious Games Challenge – hooray!). I allocated 8 hours to define the scoring for this game. We actually spent well over 40 hours figuring out the scoring – mostly because I didn’t have a clue what I was doing when I started. I’ve learned a lot since then, and I am now more careful to think through the scoring to make sure it’s relevant to the skill I’m trying to teach, meaningful to the player, motivating (rather than de-motivating to the player,) and, frankly, easy to understand. I also know that it is probably going to take more than 8 hours to figure out the scoring on a game unless the game is super-simple.

Visit Us at ASTD Techknowledge!

2014TK-Sponsors_SilverThere are several ways to see the BLP team at ASTD TechKnowledge:

1. In the Expo: We’ll be showcasing our Knowledge Guru game engine, and releasing the new Enterprise Edition, in Booth 303 of the Expo. Learn more.

2. In my session: I will give Lessons from the Trenches of Digital Game Design on Wednesday, January 22nd from 1:15 – 2:15 pm. Learn more.

3. In a hands-on demo: I will partner with Steven Boller to give Powerful Learning Games You Can Build in a Day on Thursday, January 23rd from 12:55 – 1:25 pm. Learn more.

4. In Leanne Batchelder’s session: Leanne will deliver Gamify Online Safety Compliance Training: A Roche Case Study, on Thursday, January 23rd from 3:15 – 4:15 pm. Learn more.


New Learning Game Design White Paper by Sharon Boller (Free Download)

Many of our readers are instructional designers looking to pick up some game design tips for their next project. Others are already avid game designers just looking for extra tips and advice. Wherever you are as a learning game designer, we are excited to release another free resource to help you hone your skills.

BLP president Sharon Boller has written a new white paper titled Using Game Mechanics and Game Elements in Learning Games. It explains, in clear terms, how to design games that will support your desired learning outcomes. Best of all, it uses real-life examples to show how game mechanics and game elements can be used in a practical setting.

Learning Game Design White Paper

You’ll Learn About:

  • Game mechanics, which are rules players follow in a game, and rules the game itself follows.
  • How to closely tie game mechanics to mirror the cognitive tasks learners will need to perform on the job.
  • Twelve common game elements, which are found in most commercial games and learning games.
  • How to choose the right game elements to include in a game based on players’ job type and characteristics.
  • Questions you can ask as a learning game designer to get the most out of your game.
  • Why it’s important to test the balance of game mechanics and game elements with play-testing.
  • Case studies from our work designing games for corporate clients

Download the White Paper

The white paper is available as a free download on the Knowledge Guru website. Click here to download… or just click the image above.

Recently on the Learning Game Design Blog: GBL Picks, LGD Series Part 8, and Game Design Workshop

We know that many of you reading this blog are just as excited about game based learning and gamification as we are. From the beginning we recognized that games were the future of eLearning, even if it was difficult to get corporate higher ups to admit that fun can be good for business. As part of our ongoing advocation of games for learning, we launched the Learning Game Design Blog—which has already made a few crossover appearances in our articles.

Well, we want to continue promoting games as much as possible! So we’ve decided to use our Saturday posts to give updates on the Learning Game Design Blog, to let you know what posts went up this week and what things are happening in the world of games.


Recent posts on the Learning Game Design Blog

GBL Picks: Being an Advocate for Games, 7 Great Games, and Games for Social/Emotional Learning

As part of an ongoing series called GBL Picks, we curate a few game based learning resources to help spread the word on how games are being used for learning, their successes, and general trends in the industry. This week we have a list of 5 simple things educators can do to promote games, 7 great educational apps and games, and in-depth research on video games as they pertain to social and emotional learning.

Learning Game Design Series, Part 8: Dump ADDIE; Iterate Instead

Last week Sharon Boller published part 8 in her Learning Game Design Series. This post focuses on the iterative design process required to create an effective learning game. If you’re used to an approved design document, two drafts, and a final, then you’re going to get frustrated. Designing a game requires a lot of play testing, tweaking, and iterating—there’s no way around it. This post walks you through several iterations of a learning game we’re creating here at BLP.

August Learning Game Design Workshop Recap

Finally, we recently held a successful game design workshop here in Indianapolis and you can find the full recap here. Sharon Boller and Karl Kapp partnered up to provide an in-depth, hands-on workshop that showed participants exactly how to design an effective learning game—as well as best practices for a successful launch at your organization. See the powerpoint presentation from the workshop and read about the paper prototypes that were built. The Play to Learn workshop will also be offered at the Devlearn conference this year if you wish to attend!

So that’s what’s been happening on the Learning Game Design Blog. Don’t forget to check out our Game Based Learning Infographic and our List of 100 Game Based Learning Resources! If you like what you’ve read, be sure to bookmark the blog and spread the word.

Learning Game Design: a Blog Series by Sharon Boller

In early May we launched our Learning Game Design Blog on the Knowledge Guru website. The blog has become a great source of information for anyone interested in game based learning and gamification—thanks in large part to an incredibly in-depth blog series by Sharon Boller.

learning game design blog

The Learning Game Design Series

The Learning Game Design Series is designed to take you through the 5-step process we use for designing games. The 5-step process is:

  1. Play games; evaluate what works and what doesn’t work in terms of “fun.”
  2. Get familiar with game elements and how to use them.
  3. Think about the learning first—and then the game.
  4. Dump ADDIE. Go agile instead.
  5. Play test. Play test. Did I say play test?

The series will take a deep dive into each step, sometimes taking several posts to cover one step, and offer real world examples from our own game development.

It’s safe to say Sharon knows a thing or two about games. On top of creating the Knowledge Guru game engine, she has worked extensively with Dr. Karl Kapp, author and Assistant Director of Bloomsburg University’s Institute for Interactive Technologies. Together they run a game design workshop called Play to Learn—which you can attend at the Devlearn conference in October—that has already helped many people build their first game prototype.

An example of a prototype being built and playtested at the Play to Learn workshop.

An example of a prototype being built and playtested at the Play to Learn workshop.

Where We Are So Far

So if you’re interested in games, you should take some time to check out this blog series. I’ll give you a quick recap of where we are now…

Learning Game Design Series, Part 1: Play and Evaluate Games

If you’re going to design a game, then you need to play a lot of games—and play a lot of different types of games. You can’t design a game if you don’t play them. You won’t have the play experiences you need to draw off of throughout the design process. You want to make a FUN game. Why? Because the fun in a game helps the learning happen—it is not frivolous; it is an integral piece.

You’re not only playing games for fun, though. You’re also playing games to evaluate them. Playing games for enjoyment is different than playing games to evaluate the quality and efficacy of the game design. This post will go over some best practices and questions to ask when evaluating games.

Learning Game Design Series, Part 2: Game Goals and Game Dynamics

Before you can design a good game you need to be able to craft game goals, select game dynamics, create strong game mechanics, and choose appropriate game elements.  This post focuses on two of those things: game goals and game dynamics—as well as how they link together.

Learning Game Design Series, Part 3: Game Mechanics

A game’s mechanics are the rules and procedures that guide the player and the game response to the player’s moves or actions. Through the mechanics you create, you define how the game is going to work for the people who play it. This post breaks down examples of rules for players and rules for the game itself. It also analyzes the direct link between the game mechanics you choose and how the learning occurs.

Learning Game Design Series, Part 4, Part5, and Part 6: Game Elements

The next three posts all deal with one huge topic: Game Elements. Elements are the different features of a game that keep people engaged. The 12 core game elements are: Conflict, Collaboration, Competition, Strategy, Chance, Aesthetics, Theme, Story, Resources, Time, Rewards/Scoring, and Levels. You’ll need to make calculated decisions on which elements to include and to what degree.

Learning Game Design Series, Part 7: Thinking About the Learning and Then the Game

If your intention is to create a learning game that achieves specific learning outcomes for the players, then you have to think about the learning before you begin crafting the game design. It’s critical to have a strong understanding of the previous steps—but that understanding doesn’t guarantee you a learning game if you don’t also have solid instructional design skills. Why? Because an effective learning game requires a solid instructional goal and learning objectives.

Learning Game Design Series, Part 8: Dump ADDIE; Iterate Instead

Designing a game is a VERY iterative process. If you’ve been using the ADDIE model your entire career, then you’re going to need to get familiar with Agile. ADDIE and Agile each have their benefits, but for game design you need to go with the latter; there is too much evolving in the game design process. This post goes through an actual example of iterating while prototyping a new game.

Karl Kapp, Sharon Boller Partner for Learning Game Design Workshop

Play to Learn: Designing Effective Learning Games

Learning and Development professionals have been hearing about learning games and game based learning over and over again for a few years now. Game based instructional techniques are growing in popularity, yet many instructional designers lack the skill set to design game based learning. They have not done it before, so they lack clear direction and do not know where to start.

That’s why Sharon Boller, President of BLP, is partnering with Karl Kapp to facilitate Play to Learn, Designing Effective Learning Games. Karl is a professor at Bloomsburg University and his book The Gamification of Learning and Instruction is one of the most highly regarded resources in the field. Karl’s academic background blends well with Sharon’s experiences of implementing game based learning solutions with BLP’s clients.

Game Based Learning Design Skills in High Demand

Game Based Learning is regularly included in today’s corporate training programs… and the demand for learning designers with a game based learning skillset is growing fast. We’ve known this shift is happening, but the growth became even more obvious when the Play to Learn session we are hosting for ASTD ICE quickly reached capacity. We’ve seen attendance rise rapidly for our free game based learning webinar series, too… but it is tough to build a skillset in a one hour online session. The web is full of introductory knowledge, but game based learning design is a skill that takes practice and coaching.


Register for Play to Learn: Designing Effective Learning Games

Our Approach to Game Based Learning Design

If you want to design game based learning, you need to play lots of games. If you want your game based learning to be good, you need to be able to mock up a quick and dirty prototype and play test the heck out of it fast. Find problems, refine, and try try again. You’ll do all of that and more in this workshop. The Play to Learn workshop helps you learn the following:

  • A six-step process to design a learning game and create a paper prototype.
  • How to use a play testing process to do rapid iteration of a game design.
  • How to consider various core dynamics and tweak game mechanics to improve the playability and learning efficacy of a game.
  • How to sell games to an organization’s stakeholders as an effective option, answering the question “why games?”. All the game design skills in the world can’t help you unless you know how to convince your organization to buy in.
The workshop agenda is intentionally balanced between foundational information and hands-on practice. You’ll play games… then talk about the game elements you saw and discuss how they link to learning. You’ll learn the lingo of game design and learning game design… then play cooperative and competitive games and discuss what situations each one is best for. You’ll create a learning game prototype of your own… then play test the prototypes of others and discuss findings with the group. And yes, you will leave with the latest game based learning research in tow that you can take back to stakeholders in your organization. All with the help of Karl Kapp and Sharon Boller – two leaders in the field.

More on sharon Boller and Karl Kapp:

Sharon Boller: Karl Kapp:
Sharon BollerSharon Boller is president of Bottom-Line Performance, Inc. (BLP), a learning solutions firm she founded in 1995. Sharon has grown BLP from a single-woman sole proprietorship that employed 1 to a $2M company employing 20 team members. Sharon is also the creator of the Knowledge Guru™ brand affiliated with BLP that focuses on game-based learning. She is the lead game designer for its inaugural product, known as Guru Classic, and she is leading the development of a second, more robust offering known as Guru Game Builder that will allow users to create multi-level learning games. Read full bio Karl KappKarl M. Kapp, Ed.D., is a scholar, writer and expert on the convergence of learning, technology and business operations. Karl is a professor of instructional technology at Bloomsburg University in Bloomsburg, PA. He teaches graduate level courses including Learning in 3D and Instructional Game Design. Karl has written five books including Learning in 3D and Gadgets, Games and Gizmos for Learning and The Gamification of Learning and InstructionRead full bio

Event Location

ExactTarget logo

The workshop will be held at ExactTarget in the heart of downtown Indianapolis. ExactTarget is a client of ours that is frequently on the forefront of using game based learning and gamification for training. We are thrilled to have them as an event sponsor… and even more thrilled that out of town attendees will be able to stay right in downtown Indy.


If you want to come to the workshop, you should register soon. Register by June 30th with the promo code EARLYBIRD13 to receive $50 off! We also have special pricing for current BLP clients. Get in touch with someone at BLP to find out more about client pricing.


This Week on #TalkTech: Microsoft Surface, iPad Mini, Play Testing Learning Games

#TalkTech is the “flipped” approach to Twitter chats. We publish all the topics a few hours before the chat so you can show up at 3 pm EST / 12 pm PST on Thursdays ready to discuss.

We’re never at a loss for new tech news, apps, and interesting blogs to explore in our weekly chats. Take a look at what we have planned for this week:

Surface vs iPad

Image courtesy of

Topic 1: Is the Microsoft Surface tablet a viable tablet option for businesses interested in mobile learning?

Today is the first day businesses can order the new Microsoft Surface tablet… and it presents another viable options for companies ready to implement an enterprise tablet strategy. But some have raised concerns that Microsoft Surface might actually hurt mobile learning, and that Microsoft does not truly understand mobile. How do you think Surface will stack up against the iPad for businesses?

Buying Tablets for Business? The iPad or Windows RT Dilemma

Topic 2: How will the smaller screen size of the iPad Mini affect mobile learning?

We have tablets on the brain this week (and, well, most weeks). The iPad mini is widely expected to be announced on October 23rd. It will bring Apple into the smaller screen tablet marketplace. With the new screen size comes new considerations and constraints for mobile learning. For those who choose the Apple ecosystem for mobile, 3.5″, 4″, 7.8″ and 9.7″ are all screen size options. Do you think the iPad mini’s slightly smaller profile brings any potential benefits to mobile learning?

iPad Mini Will Cannibalize Big iPad Sales

Topic 3: What are some of the reasons to physically play test a new game design?

Just this week, Our own Matt Kroeger unveiled a game design for “Guru island,” a spin-off of our Knowledge Guru™ game. Our team internally play tested with a paper prototype and offered tons of feedback. We have found play testing to be essential to our game design process, whether it be for a Knowledge Guru game or A Paycheck Away. What elements do you think make an effective play test…and why is it so important?

Games for Change Part 3: How to Play Test Learning Games

If you’re new to Twitter chats, don’t forget about awesome tools such as that automatically save the hashtag and help you focus on the conversation!


How We Externally Tested our Learning Game Design

For those of you who have been following our occasional case study on learning game design, the end is near. The finish line of game development on our game A Paycheck Away is so close I can symbolically touch it. By month’s end, we will call development done and move into production of the game.

As a refresher – here’s the initial game board design followed by the current design. We’ve come a long way since the first prototype!

Learning Game Prototype
Our first game board prototype


A Paycheck Away learning game - game board
Our final game board design!

Our external play test went very, very well. We got the highest compliment you can bestow on a game. Testers rated it 4+ out of 5 for “flow,” which was a humbling experience to have happen. For our third playtest…this was a wow. With the feedback from testers, I feel optimistic about our odds of increasing the rating to 5.

Testers playing A Paycheck Away learning game

We had 17 testers and the overall “engagement” rating was 4+ on a 5-point scale. Here’s a few of the testers’ comments. While they gave us some ideas for what to change, here’s a smattering of the “wow” comments we heard:

  • It was completely engaging.
  • Homelessness – the real world. It was like being immersed in it, some of the same emotions in a safe way?
  • It will change the way you think.
  • It was pretty eye-opening. You can easily judge someone without knowing the situation. Lots of one step forward and two steps back without you having control over it.

So how did we get to “wow?” Games all have the common structural elements I’ve listed below. As we went through various iterations, we adjusted these elements based on testers’ feedback. I’m sharing some of what we adjusted so you can see how things changed as we went along. You can use these structural elements as a guide when designing your own games, taking notes on what to change as you play test:

  • Players – how many? Single player or multi-player? In A Paycheck Away we started with a 5-player game. Through testing, we adjusted to make one role a “game master” and allowed people to play individually or  in teams of two for the other roles.
  • Objectives – what’s the point of the game? What are players trying to do? In A Paycheck Away, the game objective is to get yourself – and as many fellow players as possible – out of homelessness within 3 months.
  • Procedures – How do you play? We had to specify what happens on a turn, how play proceeds, how the game ends. We adjusted procedures significantly through our testing, abandoning a week-by-week approach to a bi-monthly approach in the interest of time.
  • Rules – What’s allowed? What’s not? What consequences occur in response to specific actions? An example of a rule in our game is: If you have children under age 10 and you accept a job, you must pay $120/week per child for childcare. Some rules got abandoned and others got added as we tested with the focus being on reducing play complexity and maximizing “fun” of the experience.
  • Resources – what resources will players have and how will these be limited? In A Paycheck Away the resources – all of which are limited – include money, time, health, and jobs. Through play testing, we came up with the best combination of resources and limits.
  • Conflict – The game is no fun if there is no conflict built in…but we found that cooperation worked far better than competition in this game. We created conflict in other ways: by limiting resources or requiring players to decide between two tough choices.
  • Boundaries – players want to be immersed in the game, but they also need to recognize the boundaries of the game. We felt we struck a great balance. Players knew the game wasn’t real…but most reported strongly identifying with the character they played.
  • Outcome – this one is critical. For players to stay engaged, they must feel they have a realistic chance of hitting the game objective…but the outcome needs to be uncertain. Our testing revealed we did a great job with this one. It was a significant reason players reported a sense of flow while playing. They were fully engaged in the experience and vested in the outcome.

Next step? Take the show on the road and have a group of IUPUI students play the finished game and participate in a debrief session. We know the game works; now we need to figure out the optimal way to debrief the experience for participants. This debrief distinguishes our game from a game you might purchase in a game store. Players talk about their experience and what they learned from it…something that recreational games don’t deliberately set out to do.

#G4C Part 4: How to Use Play Test Results to Improve Learning Game Design

We’ve made it to Part Four 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. Part Three was all about our first play test…and the best ways to run them. 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.

Last week, I shared that we were about to do an early play test a game of a learning game we’re developing. A Paycheck Away is intended to help people gain greater insight into the issue of homelessness – and begin to look at the issue in new ways. It’s a board game. Here’s the stated objective of the game:

Object of game:Use a combination of opportunity and luck to earn enough money to get yourself – and as many of your fellow players out of homelessness – in the shortest number of months possible. The game’s winner will be the team that gets the greatest number of its players out of homelessness within 4 months.  As in real life, your opportunities will be constrained by your circumstances and by luck, good and bad.

Last week, I shared a process for play testing and typical questions to ask. Well, we asked those questions and followed the process outlined in to the letter in last week’s internal playtest.

Play-testing "A Paycheck Away"

Here’s a summary of the results we got from play testing the game last week. I’m not listing everything, but enough that you can see how you might document the results of your play test.

  • Problem: Can’t get through game in the desired hour length: Solution: Eliminate 2 months of play from board so we play for 4 months instead of 6 months.
  • Problem: Temporary and permanent housing options were confusing to some players. Solution: Move housing together on the game board. Label categories as  TEMPORARY HOUSING OPTIONS and PERMANENT HOUSING OPTIONS
  • Problem: Players were unclear how they got into a shelter if they didn’t start the game in one. Solution: Add info to homeless shelter icon on game board that indicates need to roll die to see if you can remain in shelter: “After 3 months, roll die to see if you stay. Need odd number to stay in.”
  • Problem: Players were confused by difference between “transitional” and “subsidized” housing: Solution: GIven time constraints of game, simply permanent housing choices by eliminating option for transitional housing.
  • Problem: Jobs take too long to come up in the Draw pile. Solution: Change decks of cards so that we have a JOBS deck. Combine the other types of decisions and the LUCK cards into another deck labeled CHANCE & CHOICE deck. This ensures that every player draws a JOBS card on every turn.
  • Problem: Martin, the player with permanent disability, ends up with little to do in game because he can’t apply for job. Solution: See above. Combining the non-job decisions and the luck cards ensures that Martin has greater involvement on most turns.
  • Problem: Players unclear on what to do with phone cards or how to pay for phone calls or for transportation. Solution: Eliminate phone cards entirely. Eliminate bus transportation but keep car with the goal of simplifying play.Add “transportation expense” that goes for either gas or bus without distinguishing. People pay it weekly – must pay it to apply for or keep jobs.
  • Problem: One tester felt it took too long to get into game play because of game set up. Solution: Organize game play materials into packets that are pre-done so players are simply opening a player packet that contains everything they need. Trustee role no longer distributes as players arrive. Player packet contents are specified in attached design document, which I updated today.
Essentially, as you document your observations and the comments from play testers, think in terms of problems you want to document. After the test concludes, your design team can then discuss and agree on solutions to the problems identified during the test. You update your design, further evolve your prototype into a more final format, and play test again.
We’ll be doing just that this Wednesday, August 1st, from 3 to 5 p.m.  – this time with complete outsiders to the game. (Remember I said you start with friends and colleagues and then move on to strangers. Well, we’re ready to let strangers play.) I will repeat the process and the questions I listed in last week’s post again to see if we’ve worked our way closer to a final game.
While our 4 part blog series has come to an end, we will have more to share in the coming weeks. I’ll share photos and outcomes of this next play test.  I’ll also share thoughts on the importance of a game’s “balance,” which refers to whether it’s too hard, too easy, or just the right level of challenge for your target players.
In addition to a blog post, I’l tweet out some photos during the play test so you see the test as it happens. If interested, check out my @Sharon_Boller Twitter feed or our @BLPindy feed.
If you happen to be an Indy-area reader and you’d like to play test, send me a tweet or comment on this post and we’ll see what we can do. After the August 1st play test, we’ll be scheduling another one for late August!

Games For Change Part 2: How We Ran Our Learning Game Design Workshop

This marks part two of our Games for Change blog series. In part one, we gave some backstory about our game, A Paycheck Away. We are designing the game and playing it as 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.

Once we had done some initial brainstorming and clarified our mission, we were set to go for our first game design workshop. While our core BLP team is working on the game continuously, others have limited time to commit to development. Our workshop, held on June 25th, was our only chance to bring together partners from CIASTD and Dayspring Center before we dove in to the design itself. As with any design workshop, the pressure is on to come up with something good, fast!

But…that did not stop us from having a great time. Crazy ideas were had and our conversations about the game took us in 3 or 4 different directions throughout the afternoon. Our biggest challenge: We quickly realized just how little we knew about homelessness ourselves. Kristen Hewett, one of our team members, has an uncle who works in social services, but the rest of our BLP team is admittedly insulated from many of the issues.

A Paycheck Away game design session

Sharon (right) may have led our workshop, but Lori Casson (left) of Dayspring Center provided the insight and knowledge we needed.

Even when we thought we “got” the homelessness problem, we would discover how our projections were overly optimistic. Lori Casson, Executive Director at Dayspring Center, was our subject matter expert and she was quick to take us down from the mountain and let us know when a proposed solution simply does not work. “They wouldn’t have that much money. They wouldn’t have that option. That would not be a possibility.” These were phrases we heard from Lori throughout the day.

As game designers, we had to experience what some of these decisions felt like on an emotional level. It’s our job to take those emotions and put them into the game in a way that is impactful yet not overly complex. How do you communicate the realities of waiting weeks and months for available subsidized housing? What game mechanic will make you feel what its like to have your mental and physical well-being deteriorate week after week from a substance abuse problem? This is our challenge.

Game mechanics diagrammed on flipchart paper

We used flipchart paper to map out our player profiles.

We are also challenged by creating a game based on the experiences of others and not our own. We’ll need a high level of empathy and the closest thing to understanding we can get before we really hit on these issues. And we need to present them in such a way that people who have never been homeless themselves or felt what these painful decisions are like can experience the emotion.

We keep our game design workshops fully stocked with all manner of creative implements. You never know what will spark an idea.

This may be our first time designing a “game for change,” but it is by no means our first time around the block designing a learning game. Past experience designing games such as Formulation Type Matters and Knowledge Guru for our clients has given us insight into the process. In fact, BLP president Sharon Boller even has published a white paper on Learning Game Design.

Every game is different, but we find design works best if you stick to a plan…at least at first.

Here’s how we ran our learning game design workshop:

  • Broke into two groups, each with their own prototype game board and game pieces. We let the groups discuss, ideate and create for about an hour and a half.
  • We used flipchart paper around the room to create the character profiles, guided by real life information from our subject matter expert.
  • Since Sharon and Steve had worked the most on the game prior to our workshop, we split them into separate groups. They were both involved in coming up with the initial prototype ideas and provided guidance for the teams.
  • We let the conversations for each group unfold organically. Sharon’s group dove in to creating specific “choice” and “luck” cards that players would draw, while Steve’s group ended up creating branching paths for each character and what they would actually need to get out of homelessness and find housing. The answer for each was not simply to find a job. When running a workshop, let your teams follow their intuition and see where it takes them.
  • We came back together as a group at the end to discuss the different game issues that came up on our sides. We were able to refine some ideas and come up with new ones during this time thanks to the time we spent broken off.

By the end of the workshop, we had figured out our four characters, including their issues and challenges and how much money they are making to start. We also know how much money the basic items characters need to acquire will cost, and the mechanics of our game are taking shape.

Learning Game Design is a ton of work...and a ton of fun!

This is the second 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 play testing our initial prototpye!

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

Learn more about the Spirit and Place Festival.

Spirit and Place logo