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Tuning Digital Learning Games for Specific Learners

Good game design is largely universal. While things like “pacing,” “theming,” or “feedback” might vary depending on your audience and the reaction you’re trying to evoke from them, the basic building blocks of a game: concepts of success, failure, rules, and balance are always present, albeit in different permutations and to different degrees. That being said, there are certain considerations I like to take into account when designing games for particular age groups, because while the core tenets of game design are ubiquitous, it’s also fair to say that different groups of players have different expectations of their play experience.

Elementary School

Take whatever your art budget is… and double it. A lot of the ways we convey information to older players–textual instructions, numeric feedback–will go right over the head of players who are still learning those concepts in school. Instead, plan to spend a good chunk of your resources making the play experience as visual as possible: turning that number-based resource indicator into a string of icons that disappear as they’re spent, or creating custom animations to replace the text description of a character’s mood. For older players, it’s easier to create more abstract representations for this kind of in-game information for the sake of a cleaner UI or a wider breadth of art assets, but for younger kids, it’s absolutely worth building the project around a literal “what-you-see-is-what-you-get” mentality, even if it means simplifying the mechanics to fit.

Middle School and High School

There’s virtually no difference in the game literacy level of middle schoolers and high schoolers, which is to say, these are game players at their peak. This level of familiarity and competency with the medium as a whole creates an interesting conundrum for learning game designers: on the one hand, we can draw on this experience as a kind of shorthand explanation to help players understand the relationship between the game mechanics and the learning objectives. For example, if players are familiar with the conventions of real-time strategy games, they’ll understand the metaphor if, say, all of the villagers were replaced with red blood cells and the invading army became an invasive virus. On the other hand, because this group is so familiar with the offerings of the commercial space, this increases the pressure to create unique game mechanics that aren’t just carbon copies of their inspiration: in other words, even if we were to make a game that could be touted as “just like World of Warcraft… but educational,” it would be a hard sell to convince anybody to put down the original game just to play more of the same.

When making middle and high school educational games, there’s a temptation to capitalize on this by shoehorning in features just because a successful commercial game has them. Things like leaderboards, unlockable achievements, badges, avatar customization, or even specific play mechanics shouldn’t precede the actual game design. It’s a misstep to include something just because another game does it; ultimately, spending a lot of development resources trying to create a feature that doesn’t quite fit, rather than polishing and tightening the parts of the game that would yield the most bang for your buck. This isn’t to say we should never borrow from existing games, but instead, that we should try to broaden our knowledge of successful game mechanics across a wide range of genres, rather than trying to emulate the lowest common denominator.


Adults are learners, too! A fully-formed adult brain is capable of just about any kind of abstract/strategic thinking that a game could ask of them. Because of this reality, the challenges of designing for this group are less about the game itself, and more about the way that it’s presented.

First, it almost goes without saying that adults typically operate on a much more stringent timetable than either of the other groups, and expecting users to have a block of time where “finishing this one level” is a priority just isn’t as realistic. To that end, gameplay mechanics that allow the player to abruptly stop and resume play are extremely useful for this group: single-player games, turn-based games, frequent auto-saving, or even the ability to restart from an earlier point are all useful ways to make sure the player feels in control of the time they have with the game, rather than feeling that the game is dictating their schedule.

Second, for adults that don’t self-identify as game players, in-game failure is frequently attributed to their personal ability (e.g. “I’m just not good at games”), rather than unpacking their experience in a meaningful way. To circumvent this, extra time should be spent making sure that the feedback provided to the player is understandable, even with a low level of genre familiarity. While this is typically good sense for any game design, especially for players who are slightly, shall we say, distrustful, of the medium, helping them make sense of their experience and feel ownership over their decisions is crucial for keeping them involved.

It’s worth reiterating that none of these techniques are ever bad ideas: creating easy-to-understand, original gameplay experiences that fit into a player’s daily life are great goals for just about any game. However, when push comes to shove during development, and you’re forced to prioritize some features above others, considering “who am I making this game for” is a great way to get clarity on what’s most important.


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