Apply Game Design Principles to Your Courses

Earlier, you heard from Michelle about the lessons she took from the world of broadcasting and applied to Instructional Design. Today, we’re going to discuss lessons that can be learned from a field adjacent to Instructional Design—game design.

While significant research surrounds adding gamification elements to eLearning courses, implementing it means devoting a large amount of resources. What then, can we learn if we look at it from the flip side? What fundamental game design principles translate to Instructional Design?

Over the course of my next few posts, I’ll borrow lessons from an article by Mark Rosewater called ‘10 Things Every Game Needs‘. Mark has been the Head Designer for Magic: The Gathering for 10+ years, and he is considered an expert in the field of game design. I will parallel his lessons to Instructional Design.

Today, we’ll discuss the first three things every course needs.


Goals outline on a high level what the player will be doing for the duration of the game. Games need goals to give direction to the players, such as:

  • How do players win?
  • How do players score points?

Goals closely parallel learning objectives, sometimes called course outcomes. Clearly defined learning outcomes are critical to the success of the learner. Bonner (1999), reminds us that “Good learning objectives also are very specific about the desired outcomes related to these individual topics. Specific objectives use precise terms.”

When a learner first views your course, he or she is bound to be overwhelmed. Precise objectives give learners an entry point—a guide to help him or her know that once they “accomplish the thing” they have achieved a goal. In a very real sense, learning objectives tell the learner what to do to “win” at the course. This immediately helps make the entire experience more manageable and establishes the framework for later content and activities.

“Good learning objectives also are very specific about the desired outcomes related to these individual topics. Specific objectives use precise terms.” (Bonner, 1999).

Objectives also inform the learner of the scope and design of the entire course. After you’ve developed strong objectives, consider grouping them by type. This helps you design activities suited to different types of objectives. Simple objectives are met with relatively passive approaches (read this chapter in the text), while more complex objectives require developed, interactive teaching strategies. Objectives serve as guideposts for both the design and implementation of the learning environment, which leads us in to our next topic—rules.


In games, rules provide the structure for players to interact with the game and other players. Rules ensure that everyone operates under the same expectations, restrictions, and processes. Rules clearly define how to obtain the goal(s) of the game and place everyone on a level playing field.

A good analog of rules through the lens of instructional design are syllabi and rubrics. They help learners understand where and how they will be evaluated. When developing your rubrics, make sure the criteria you evaluate relates to the core objectives you developed earlier. It’s critical to ensure the language used in these documents is, much like the objectives, clear and precise to remove ambiguity and misunderstanding. Resist the temptation to fill them with jargon and buzzwords. Fill your coures with simple, active writing.

If we dig deeper, we can see that course design and implementation have other unstated rules that can affect the learning experience if the learner does not understand them. Consider these questions:

  • How quickly (and how much) will feedback be provided?
  • How can the learner contact the instructor?
  • Where can the learner go for help?
  • How does the learner access learning materials and submit assignments?

These unwritten rules relate to how students interact with the course, so on we go!


In games, the interaction usually comes from using the framework of the rules and pitting the players against the game or one another. Obviously, the interactions you’ll want to build into an eLearning experience will be different. As an instructor or instructional designer, your goal is to have all students master the material. One key way of doing that is to ensure students interact with one another.

Hirumi (2013) identifies three levels of interaction to be aware of when designing eLearning environments:

  • Level 1: Learner/Self Interactions: How does the user internalize and interact with the material during the learning process? The designer should be aware of the different theories of how students will learn and design around how learners interact with themselves during the learning process.
  • Level 2: Learner-Human and Learner-Nonhuman: Many of the ‘unwritten rules’ mentioned above come into play. How do learners interact with all of the course content, including the interface? How do learners interact with the instructor and other students? When looking at the ‘non-human’ interactions, design in a way that the interactions are clear and easy to understand. Make resources as easy to access as possible—don’t bury items under layers of folders.
  • Level 3: Learner/Instructional: In this level, the instructor picks instructional strategies that line up with the course objectives. This level determines how the course’s content is laid out to maximize learning. This structure is based on an understanding of level 1 interactions, and it guides how the level 2 interactions are combined to create an effective learning environment.

As you can see, game design principles can be applied across disciplines. Join us for a future blog post, where we discuss three more elements every game course needs: Catch-Up Mechanisms, Inertia, and Surprise.


Hirumi, A. (2013). THREE LEVELS OF PLANNED ELEARNING INTERACTIONS: A framework for grounding research and the design of eLearning programs. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 14(1), 1-16. Retrieved from

Bonner, S. E. (1999). Choosing teaching methods based on learning objectives: An integrative framework. Issues in Accounting Education, 14(1), 11-39. Retrieved from

Author: Dave Zokvic, Assistant Instructional Designer

Dave helps Model eLearning forge narrative and gamified eLearning and side-hustles as a writer and designer for Northward Compass. Off the clock, he’s likely eating sushi, wandering around a bookstore, playing tabletop games, or picking up his next ‘digital native’ skill.

4 thoughts on “Apply Game Design Principles to Your Courses”

  1. Hello Dave,

    Thank you for sharing your insight on how to implement game design principles to curriculum. Although it takes a great amount of time and effort to implement those elements as mentioned, it would be incredibly valuable to take the risk and encourage those basic principles (e.g., goals, rules, and interaction) within curriculum. By keeping student needs in mind, the principles do an excellent job guiding the student of what should be learned. I believe learning is a personal experience even though many of us our taught in groups; no one learner perceives what is being taught in the same way. In the section labeled Interactions, it seems like the student must master all three levels of interactions to fully understand what was being taught. Will there be difficulty fully grasping the content if all three levels are not mastered?
    It is evident that the delivery method of learning material has changed since the learner has changed into a more technological advanced learner. Applying game design to curriculum will be a useful learning tool for students since research has shown that it can improve performance, problem solving, and attention which are all crucial components for successful learning (Granic, Lobel, & Engels, 2014). What level of education will be best to implement this structure? Is it for all grade levels?
    I am looking forward to reading other blogs by you and your coworkers. Well done!

    Airyn Longoria
    Granic, I., Lobel, A., & Engels, R. E. (2014). The benefits of playing video games. American Psychologist, 69(1), 66-78.

    1. Great questions Airyn!

      I’d say yes, if students have difficulty with any of the interaction types, it could hinder their mastery of the content. The good news is, as an Instructional Designer, much of that is within your control and you can make it as easy on them as possible.

      For example, by ensuring that your course is well laid out and easy to navigate, (use web standards, recognizable icons, clear language, etc.) you can eliminate many of the issues that may crop up in Level 2 interactions. This is one area where it’s especially important to be mindful of accessibility issues (i.e. how will your content be accessed by individuals needing assistive technologies such as screen readers, or by those who can’t hear).

      These game design principles can be used at any level—the big advantage is that you don’t actually need to build a game to utilize them. You’ll just want to be mindful to present your objectives, rules, and interactions in a way that’s easily digestible by your learner (I wouldn’t bust out academic jargon for 1st graders, for example).

      I hope this helps!


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: