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Making Great Learning Games Pt. 2 – Designing Game Mechanics

Filament Games | Educational Game Developer

Hello again! Welcome to part 2 of Making Great Learning Games! Last article we covered how to identify your actual learning objectives and how to formulate a plan for transferring them from the play experience to the real world. Now the next step is migrating those objectives into gameplay mechanics!

I don’t want to speak for every Filament designer, but in general I see three strategies used over and over in good learning game design. Those three strategies are Identity, Verbs, and Empowerment.

The Three paths: Identity, Verbs, and Environment

Just as a game doesn’t need to use both roles and goals in order to be gamelike, these three components can be used in varying amounts based on your design.

Strategy 1: Identity

Take a look at your objectives again. Gosh, they look great, don’t they? Nice work there. But look more closely. Are any of them asking the player/user/learner to consider the world from a different perspective? Look at the world from a different pair of eyeballs? If so, then your game might be a candidate for using Identity as one of your strategies.

This means that you can place the player into the role of someone or something, and have that identity’s goals, limitations, relationships, and abilities be mapped onto the player experience.

For example, let’s take our little protagonist from Katamari, the prince. His main ability is to roll a ball in front of him. His limitations: his rolling ball starts out extremely small, and can only roll up things smaller than the ball in its current state. His goal is to roll up as many things as possible, and this task is wound up with his need to impress his lunatic father. All in all a simple and straightforward identity, which makes it all the easier to accept.

A game doesn’t need to use identity to succeed as a game. Many games place you in the role of…the player, where you are you, interacting with the game’s rules with no identity barriers whatsoever. A game like Tetris doesn’t use identity as a strategy. You are not asked to become a brick, or consider their perspective. You have limitations, but your role is fairly external to the game’s system: you are merely an operator, you are not inside.

It might be best to think about identity as a gradient defined by two things: constraints and internalization. 


By “constraints,” I mean that identity in games can be neatly defined by what you *can’t* do in a game. If a simulation is unfettered access to a system’s variables for the purpose of experimentation, then identity can be created by limiting the players ability to freely manipulate those variables, and instead forcing them to alter the simulation through deliberately limited ways.

For example, Mario in Super Mario Bros. cannot turn into Fire Mario at will- he must find and consume a Fire Flower. He also cannot punch, carry extra Fire Flowers, or simply decide to skip saving the Princess and get back to focusing on his plumbing skills. These are all things that *could* happen, and do happen in other games, but not in Super Mario Bros. These constraints help make Super Mario Bros. the game it is.


By “internalization,” I mean the particular nature in which the player is asked to assume an embedded identity. 

Some games give you a name, a voice, or even speak on your behalf. Some games park you behind a set of eyeballs, but players react to you as a particular somebody. Other games give you choices that change your character’s identity, and then the game reacts to those changes in identity. Some games show you in 3rd person, or even grant you a group of people rather than one that you have agency over. In all of these cases, the game is adjusting its strategy in terms of how they expect you to blend with the in-game identity, and all of these strategies change how the player will treat themselves and others. Imagine how different the game Lemmings would be in first person, where you would look at another fellow lemming right in the face as you assigned them “detonation duty.” Lemmings gets dark fast!

An interesting game that eschews the identity strategy is the classic SimCity, and it’s smabillion sequels. Ostensibly you’re the “mayor” in SimCity– but somehow you float above the city, omnipresent, and are given powers that broadly map across many city functions. You build roads, set budgets, spend money, put out fires and even unleash disasters. Your “role” slips inside and outside the system- giving you a wonderful systemic view of the game, but no clear sense of who you are. And for that game, that’s great! Imagine having to drive down to city hall every time you want to make another freeway…actually that sounds kind of cool, but it definitely wouldn’t be SimCity.

Strategy 2: Verbs

Verbs are the most natural and obvious connection between learning objectives and gameplay mechanics. After all, one of the first questions you ask about a game is “what do you do in it?”. 

We’ve discussed Katamari Damacy in the context of identity. But that identity is deeply, deeply bound to the game’s verbs…or verb. What do you do in Katamari? You roll things! The more you roll things, the more things you can roll! Rolling enough things in a level lets you travel to new places for more rolling of new things! Roll!

Games can be great when they settle on a core verb as their fundamental experience. It’s part of why first-person shooters are so successful as a genre- everything feeds back into the core experience of shooting. Does the shotgun feel powerful when shot? Are opponents interesting to shoot? Are the novelty weapons offering interesting new methods of shooting? The more cyclically you can get your game’s features to funnel back into the core verbs, the more coherent of an experience the player will have.

To provide a counter-example, let’s look at Diablo III, specifically it’s Auction House variant, thankfully long-since patched. Diablo traditionally is a series with a couple core verbs- slaughter and looting. In Diablo II, slaughter and looting were inextricably bound in an addicting loop- killing more monsters got you more loot which enabled the killing of more monsters. Diablo III, however, inserted a wedge into those core verbs- the Auction House. In general, the loot you collected in your own sessions of slaughter was useless to you. In order to meaningfully progress, you had to play the games integrated Auction House, pawning your loot (which forced you to research the value of goods that had no direct interest to your character) and then turning that currency into new equipment upgrades for yourself. Running search filters in a gothic Ebay simulator does not ring true as a core verb for a game ostensibly about Epic Heroism, and this led to a large amount of disillusionment. Thankfully, as we all know Blizzard fixed this in a subsequent patch, and we can all look forward to more monster slaying in the future, on our beloved mobile devices.

For verbs to map meaningfully into a game space, you have to decide first and foremost whether your game can create an instantiation of the verb that is high enough quality to count as practice of your objective. If you’re making a learning game about race car driving, it’s fairly clear you’ll be able to make a game that can capture a lot of car racing verbs meaningfully. Making a game about throwing clay pots on a wheel however, may be more difficult, in that the tactile feedback of the clay is a fundamental component of the act. A game about a softer, nuanced skill like empathy or conflict resolution would also have its work cut out for it- it’s not immediately obvious how building a model of action in a game can match the fidelity or nuance required to demonstrate those skills realistically.

That’s not to say it can’t be done- this is what that makes learning game design such an interesting challenge! But hopefully directly reconciling your learning objective’s goals with your planned implementation of the verb can help you iron out wrinkles in your learning model before you head to playtesting.

Strategy 3: System

Games ultimately are made up of rules, and then the experience of those rules. Any serious play of a game requires the player to start unpacking and analyzing those rules. Many learning objectives, especially hip new 21st Century Skills objectives, involve asking the learner to understand something from a systemic, structural point of view. 

If you’re looking at learning objectives that imply or demand a systemic point of view, consider taking that objective and transforming it into the rules of the game itself. Ecosystems, social models, systems principles, sociological concepts…just about any set of rules that cover dynamic input and output are potential candidates for integration into your game rules.

I’ve already used SimCity above (curse you Dan Norton of the past!), so let’s go with a slightly more unintuitive example- Slay the Spire. Slay the Spire is a rogue-like-ish adventure card game, where players assemble decks of abilities to climb a tower and battle ever-more-dangerous baddies.

Slay The Spire’s core gameplay-loop is definitely leaning on a more verb-centric form of gameplay. You play the cards to hurt, heal, buff, nerf…whatever it is. But after most rounds, you are given the opportunity to add or occasionally subtract cards from your deck. This is some top-notch systemic strategic thinking. You get to blend your “on-the-ground” experience of using those cards to inform your systemic understanding of your entire deck. You can look for synergies, balance card costs, and beef up your combos. This cycle of action and reflection is one of my personal favorite things in games. It’s even in American Football!

When embedding your learning objectives at a system level, be aware that of the three strategies, this is the most subtle. It’s unlikely that the player will intellectually challenge the “reality” of the system rules, since they are given as the assumed fabric of the game’s reality. Players are used to challenging facts, but they are used to inhaling and mastering systems, then uncovering ways to be clever and empowered INSIDE those systems, instead of challenging the validity of them.

It’s also important to note that simply because you’ve modeled something, that doesn’t mean the player will unpack that model. The player must have a required need to experiment and test that model in order to be able to express any mastery of it.

SO, if you’ve managed to get this far, you should have in your greasy hands the following things:

  • Explicit learning objectives that you can design mechanics for
  • Rough strategies on how gameplay mechanics can be tailored to those objectives via roles, verbs, and identity
  • A client who understands how their expertise is going to apply to the project
  • A team who have a common shared goal on how to define success on a project

Now all you have to worry about is deadlines, scope management, death, and taxes. Great! Thanks for reading, I hope you found this helpful!

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