(We have created an 8-part comprehensive report containing a series of one-to-two page “briefs” regarding learning game design. This is part 3: What Makes for a Meaningful Game. If you would like to see the white paper in its entirety, check out theWhite Papers section on our website.)

Knowing the terminology doesn’t mean you can create a fun and meaningful learning game. Creating games is not rocket science, but it is something that improves with practice. One key skill is being able to create meaningful game decisions that challenge your players (at the right level to avoid frustration) and help them learn.

Good game design creates opportunities for players to make meaningful decisions that affect the outcome of the game. A few examples:

  • • Games like Tetris and Chess keep players’ minds busy by forcing them to consider which one of several possible moves they want to take next. In taking these paths, players know they may be prolonging or completely screwing up the entire game.
  • • When we recently created a learning game on product formulation types, one key aspect was choosing which questions to ask the customer. Learners’ decisions about which questions to ask directly affected their sales. Asking the wrong questions meant lost sales.
  • • A simple quiz-style game might reward people handsomely for answering correctly – but penalize them heavily for guessing. An obvious decision, then, is whether to guess or not.

Whenever you set up a rule that allows the player to make a choice in a game and that choice affects the game’s outcome, you are creating meaning. As Carnegie Mellon’s Trybus says in her white paper on learning games, “To progress in a game is to learn; when we are actively engaged with a game, our minds are experiencing the pleasure of grappling with (and coming to understand) a new system.

In order to create choice, there has to be another option the player could choose that has meaning as well. This concept of good game design correlates with the instructional design of good questions or learning activities: if you only have one viable option, then you have written a bad multiple-choice question or created a poor learning activity.