How to Create Learning Game Ideas

The growing body of research is pretty compelling. I don’t know about you, but the folks at BLP are sold on the value of games in learning. Unfortunately, this does not include jeopardy and trivial pursuit knock-offs. Games have to trigger real emotions and be compelling and immersive.

Once you have identified the learning objective for your game, you will need to decide on a basic game mechanic. Here are some main game types to choose from, pulled from our Learning Game Design White Paper.

  • Territory acquisition (Risk or Monopoly)
  • Prediction (Clue, Roulette, Rock/Paper/Scissors)
  • Spatial reasoning (Puzzle games and games such as Bejeweled, Tic-Tac-Toe, Connect Four)
  • Survival (Oregon Trail is about survival; your goal is to survive the passage with as many family members alive and well as possible.)
  • Destruction (Battleship)
  • Building (Sim City and Roller Coaster Tycoon)
  • Collection (Backgammon is a collection game as is checkers. You are trying to collect all your opponent’s pieces. In Monopoly you collect $$ as well as property.)
  • Chasing or evading (Pac-Man, though it is also about collecting, too!)
  • Trading (An interesting dynamic as you have to cooperate and collaborate as well as compete. A very fun example of this dynamic is a game called Bohnanza*, a game that is all about collecting, trading, and growing beans. Monopoly is another game that includes trading as one of its dynamics.)
  • Race to the end – being first to finish. (Games featuring this dynamic are typically easy to design, build, and play; they are often used in children’s games. Life and Candy Land are examples of this core.)

Once you decide on your game type, it’s time to settle on a theme and make the rules. Since you (hopefully) already have your learning objectives, you know where the game needs to go…but how do you get there? This is where your creativity comes into play. BLP hosts a Learning Game Design peer group and frequently playtests games internally, and we see some common challenges arise among many of our learners. It’s fascinating that in every workshop we have done, people unconsciously create clones of Trivial Pursuit, Apples to Apples, and other popular games. We tend to design with a bias towards what we already know.

The best way to encourage true creativity through playtesting. Don’t overlook this step of the process. In fact, play test more  than you think you need to and measure your results. Too easy? Too hard?

When it comes to idea generation, the best way to improve the quality and originality of your ideas is to start from where you are, then challenge yourself. Decide certain mechanics are off-limits and add a constraint. Limiting factors seem like something to be avoided, but constraints actually encourage creativity. By changing the environment in a novel or unexpected way, you can actually come up with a more interesting game. What if I had to create a game with a rubber band ball and 5 post-it notes?  How would my game work if it had to include three pennies, a box of crayons, and a tiara? These examples seem silly, but they will get the juices flowing.

If you ‘ve been working on a game for awhile now and realize you have a Trivial Pursuit clone, Take away the game board. Add or take things away and force yourself to modify it and make it work. Take a team member out and add someone else in and continue adding or removing variables to shake things up.

And remember…you NEVER really know until you playtest. Our Knowledge Guru game was totally redone after testing. While the quiz questions stayed, we realized we had to remove the randomized database and timed play while completely revamping the user interface to enhance the experience. The ideas started flowing when we got away from the computer screen and started drawing things with a marker and paper.

Perhaps most importantly, play different kinds of games. Even if you think the games themselves are not particularly appealing, you are bound to come up with some new ideas. If you are a newbie to designing games, consider creating a rubric for evaluating them. Once you have some method to your madnesss, you will find the process runs much smoother.