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Educational Game Design: A Three-Pronged Approach

At Filament Games, we’ve developed a strategy for mapping educational content into gameplay mechanics, effectively using the design process to align how people have fun when playing games with the way they learn. Based on the theory of Jim Gee, our design process codes learning objectives into one of three categories, and uses the unique attributes of that category to develop a tangible game component based around that objective. 

These groups–identity, verbs, and systems–are designed to encompass the range of ways that players can interact with games, and provide traction between learning objectives and gameplay in a way that creates universal and significant player impact. The features of these categories are as follows:

Identity

In some cases, learning objectives are best attached to an embedded identity or character that can be used to empower the player. Identity-based objectives are one of the best ways to provide context for additional, more complex ideas by creating a situation where the player feels like the choices they are making are significant. Oftentimes, these identities can be considered a discrete way to direct the player by limiting their agency: a player assuming the identity of an Old West cowboy may be unable to crochet socks or lecture to schoolchildren, but because those actions fall outside of their assumed identity, the play experience does not feel constrained. These identities can be (but are not necessarily) fantastical or exaggerated depending on what best serves the learning objectives and the enjoyment of the game.

For example, in the game Do I Have a Right?, the player takes on the role of a successful law firm partner, providing the narrative impetus for their in-game actions of matching constitutional rights with legal scenarios. In this case, the player’s assumed identity serves as a common thread that not only provides a clear, inherent set of goals to the player (be a successful lawyer!), but also creates player impact by linking all in-game actions together into a unified play cycle (everything the player does, from purchasing a new water cooler to taking on new clients, is justifiable in the context of “law office owner”). 

Not every game has to use identity as a strategy. In our game Beats Empire, the player is ostensibly placed in the identity of “music publisher,” but rather than being grounded as a specific person, are placed into a broader simulation-deity like perspective, with a broad array of identity-neutral tools to alter and modify their studio’s capabilities. Will Wright once described this “Sim” approach as making a game less about being Luke Skywalker, and more about being George Lucas.

Verbs

Identities in games are tightly connected with verbs: the actions that define the player’s gameplay capabilities. As with the creation of game identities, determining the range and type of verbs within a learning game must be centrally informed by the key learning objectives and an understanding of what actions are fun and motivating to the target audience. Ideally, these actions provide a way for the player to directly interact with the learning objectives in a way that still feels playful. 

For example, in the game JA Titan, the player takes on the task of creating a smartphone production and marketing empire. The player can research their competitors, invest in technology upgrades, improve their marketing, learn about their customers, improve their production capabilities, etc. – all actions that they can take that inform their strategy of how they see their specific business plan succeeding in their competitive marketplace.

Like identity, a game doesn’t have to exclusively use this strategy, and not every verb needs to be a direct, literal re-enactment of a learning objective. For example, in the Demonstrating Respect Game, players are primarily engaged in building a contextualized understanding of different people. It’s true they make choices in the game with strategic outcomes, but our overall impact is much more aligned to players gaining understanding about how to layer social context on their interactions with older adults, rather than a concise, rigid set of professional practices. 

Systems

Systems in games are the rules that control the interactions of all the components in a game. In the game Monopoly, systems are what help the player decide if they should buy, sell, or develop a given property on the board. Systems aren’t only composed of rules for the player, but also the rules that structure the game world itself.

Where identities provide a way to ground some of the more nebulous learning objectives in meaningful play, and verbs offer a sort of 1:1 translation of straightforward learning objectives into game mechanics, systems are best suited for capturing complex ideas that are comprised of multiple intricate components. Systems in educational games provide a way for the player to anticipate and predict the outcome of their actions, and the influence they will have on the game world.

For example, in the game RoboSellers, players are attempting to build a business in the distant future as a merchant buying and selling robot parts. The game offers a simple economic model of varying levels of supply and demand across multiple planets, and players have to think of ways to maximize their value across their travels to different economies to succeed. The entire problem space is focused on players building a model of the game’s economy in their own mind, or perhaps more specifically, building tools in their mind of how to interact with an economy model to generate results.

Conversely, in the game Saving Lives!, our play experience is focused almost exclusively on the specific practices we’re trying to impart in the steps of proper CPR. There are of course systems present in the structure, but these systems govern game state and feedback to players, rather than a problem space for players to navigate.

Summary

When creating a game—or any piece of media—one must remember that audience impact, not the product itself, is the real objective. Media is a transient middle between a source and a receiver, existing to make some sort of discernible impression on the audience, and in the case of educational games, this impression must be a lasting one with a benefit beyond enjoyment. When evaluating whether or not an educational game “works,” we often judge it by two separate metrics: whether it is enjoyable as a game, and whether it succeeds as a teaching tool. Hopefully, strategies like those outlined above can help clarify the complicated process of making educational games that “work.”

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