Effective Use of Games in Instructional Design

By: Mike Fowler

Games have been a part of human history going back to ancient times, and with the prevalence of computers, gaming consoles, and mobile devices in the world today, gaming is more common and accessible than ever before. Playing a game is a great way to entertain yourself, but more than that, a game can be a great way to learn a new skill or concept without it feeling like a tedious lesson. Different game mechanics and strategies can help the mind think and absorb information in unique ways. This article discusses some best practices to follow when designing a learning game (also known as a serious game) with a focus on digital gaming for business-related learning outcomes.

Gamification vs. Game-Based Learning

As Holly Bradbury puts it, gaming is, “the application of game mechanics to a non-game activity.” One common way to gamify a work activity is to add additional rewards for completing tasks beyond expectation. A sales competition where employees compete for the best sales record to win a prize could be considered an instance of gamification. Gamification is useful for incentivizing employees to perform tasks with which they are already familiar to a higher degree of professionalism. It doesn’t, however, do much in the way of teaching the user how to accomplish tasks in the first place. On the other hand, game-based learning involves building a game from the ground up with the specific goal of teaching a user how to complete a task or achieve a goal. Steven Boller notes that a good learning game will employ gaming mechanics and gameplay goals which utilize “the science of how we learn […] such as spaced repetition and feedback loops” to reinforce the intended lesson of the game.

Goals of Game-Based Learning

The main purpose of a learning game is to help users achieve an instructional goal while creating a more exciting and engaging learning experience. Getting better at any task involves practice, the same way getting better at a game involves practice. Having the user perform repetitive tasks in a gaming environment makes them practice while not realizing it, so when they perform the task in an actual work environment they already have the skills they need. They are less likely to make costly mistakes because they have already had the opportunity to make those mistakes and learn how to avoid them in a no-consequences gaming environment.

Best Practices for Designing Game-Based Learning Programs

Make Sure the Game is Audience-Appropriate

Always consider your intended audience; they should be the ones that dictate what your final learning game looks and plays like. A younger audience, Duane Shoemaker suggests, may respond better to a fast-paced action game, while an older audience may be the opposite, preferring a turn-based game they can play at their own pace. If the game is intended for a company’s employees, consider what personality types are attracted to the company or industry. A computer programming company and a women’s cosmetics business will probably attract a completely different type of person. Personality type could have a large impact on a game’s visuals and overall appearance, as well as on the gameplay itself.

Know Your Gaming

Before attempting to design a learning game you should be familiar with gaming in general. Common gaming mechanics and conventions give a developer a pre-established platform on which to build. You want this game to be educational and informative, but you also want it to be fun; if the game is not enjoyable it defeats the purpose of learning through gaming in the first place.

Understand Learning Games as a Genre

Learning games are unique when compared to other games. The primary purpose of most games is simply to be fun, leaving a designer a great deal of freedom. The primary purpose of a learning game, however, is to teach users to understand a concept or complete a task while still being, as both Bradbury and Boller put it, “fun enough” to make the learning experience enjoyable. A learning game is a teaching device first, and a game second.

Have a Clear Purpose

While designing your learning game, be sure to always have your purpose at the forefront of your mind. The purpose of a learning game is to help the user achieve a learning goal and every aspect of the game should be working toward this goal. While considering which activities to include in a game and—as Shoemaker mentions, even where to include them—a designer should have a clear idea of what they intend the user to learn from the activity. Boller discusses how, when designing a game intended as a training module for employees, a designer should understand the company’s goals and make sure the gameplay and gaming objectives relate appropriately.

Keep it Simple

Complex games can be fun for a gamer playing for the sake of gaming, but this is not the goal of a learning game. To most effectively communicate learning information—especially more complex information—the gameplay itself should be as simple as possible while remaining entertaining. Long activities and complicated rules can detract from the learning process, making the game more about the game and less about the learning.

Playtest and Get Feedback

Boller also emphasizes the importance of playtesting—the process of having members of your game’s intended audience play your game and provide feedback. This integral part of game design is even more important when developing a learning game, since they must be fun but also educational. Playtesting can give game designers different perspectives based on the types of personalities and knowledge levels of their playtesters. The process can help to iron out kinks in gameplay, identify any points that may be confusing, and provide other suggestions for improvement. Knowing beforehand how your audience will receive your game can save them headaches and frustration, neither of which are conducive to a learning environment.


A learning game can be a great way to teach a user a task or concept, but it should be approached quite differently than a regular game. A designer should invest a good deal of time in planning a learning game so that it will be able to achieve its teaching goal while being audience appropriate and entertaining. A learning game should be simple on the surface, while making use of the science of how human minds learn, and should keep business goals and learning objectives as its top priorities.



Bradbury, Holly, Instructional Design vs. Learning Game Design: What’s the Difference?, 2017, http://www.theknowledgeguru.com/instructional-design-vs-learning-game-design-whats-difference

Bradbury, Holly, Gamification vs. Game-Based Learning: What’s the Difference?, 2017, https://www.theknowledgeguru.com/gamification-vs-game-based-learning

Boller, Steven, Are you an Instructional Designer, a Learning Game Designer or Both?, 2014, https://elearningindustry.com/are-you-an-instructional-designer-a-learning-game-designer-or-both

Boller, Steve, 4 Learning Game Design Mistakes Instructional Designers Make, 2017, https://elearningindustry.com/4-learning-game-design-mistakes-instructional-designers-make

Shoemaker, Duane, Games for Learning, 2010, http://www.instructionaldesignexpert.com/games_for_learning.html

Mike Fowler is a student attending the Technical Communication program at Seneca College. He has had a very successful first semester and is looking forward to his Work Integrated Learning semester working for the Royal Bank of Canada. Mike’s hobbies include playing guitar and playing games of all kinds.

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