Game Design Principles for Your Course, Round 2

Four wooden pawns lined up dark to light

This week, I’ll continue our series on lessons that can be learned from game design and applied to the world of instructional design. We’ll keep exploring Mark Rosewater’s “10 Things Every Game Needs” for our comparison.

In my last post, I outlined how goals and rules clearly lay out the learner’s expectations to ensure they understand the structure and outcomes of the course. Today, we’ll focus on three design elements to retain and increase learner engagement throughout your course. I’ll also include a couple of practical tips for implementing these features in your course.

Let’s get started.

Catch-up Features

In games, catch-up features are common, and they do exactly what it sounds like: they keep one (or more) players from falling too far behind the leader. This keeps the game interesting (and more competitive) for the rest of the players. It also keeps the players near the back from getting discouraged.

Keeping individuals from falling behind keeps them engaged. The parallel to eLearning is clear: If a student is too discouraged by their poor performance early in a course, they might disengage from learning the later material.

This happens even in traditional learning environments. When I was in my undergraduate program, we had a session called J-Term. After students came back from Christmas break, there was a three-week long term where they would take one class, a few hours a day, for three weeks—a hyper-accelerated course.

After about a week, I was far more interested in catching up with my friends, and I fell behind on what was, frankly, an enormous amount of homework. Did I study diligently and try to keep up? Nope. I gave up. It felt like too much of a backlog to even bother trying.

If I could have completed the assignments late, perhaps I would have stuck it out. As it is, well, let’s just say I’m glad they offered the course the next semester.

As a student, the backlog became a stumbling block. Another way of looking at this, for instructors: don’t give your students stuff to ‘catch-up’ from. If you weigh early areas of your course less, it limits the impact of an early poor grade. Which leads nicely into our next point—inertia.

Tips for using Catch-Up Features

  • Implement optional knowledge checks for nominal extra credit
  • Allow multiple attempts on assessments
  • Have regular, brief reviews of previously covered content

In a game, you want the game constantly building toward a spectacular finish. Each step of the way builds on the decisions you previously made, and the momentum escalates into something larger. You can see the goal at the end, and the game drives you there. This helps keeps players invested throughout.

eLearning design has the same goal: structure assignments so that the concepts and assignments in later weeks build off of knowledge and experience gained previously. With a well-crafted syllabus and strong learning outcomes that you created earlier, students will be able to see this development throughout the course. They can visualize how what they do now impacts the future end goal.

Tips for Building Inertia:

  • Use early small assignments to build the framework for larger projects
  • Establish clear end goals for students
  • Give students a ‘Take-Away’ project they can see the value of

You probably didn’t expect this entry. After all, establishing clear learning outcomes, developing an understandable syllabus, and defining the interactions in your class would seem to go against the idea of surprise. Obviously, you don’t want to drop a new assignment or assessment on a student mid-course.

However, as long as humans are comfortable, a surprise can help the course feel fresh and interesting. Something mildly unexpected in a safe context engages users (horror movies use the same element to create fear in a safe place).

A pleasant surprise halfway through, such as an easy extra credit activity—which could even double as a catch-up feature—might fit the bill. A variety of media types should already be used in a course, so consider using something new that you haven’t done before.

I remember hearing about a professor who would record video introductions for each week of her courses. At a random point the middle of the video, she would instruct students in a small task to complete for a few extra credit points—a welcome surprise that ensured the students watched the whole video.

Tips for using Surprise:

  • Add a surprise (extra-credit) activity
  • Use a new type of media or interaction
  • Include small ‘Easter Eggs’ in your course for students to find

I hope you’re excited to finish out our series in the forthcoming final installment. We’ll discuss the final four elements of game design every course needs, and I’ll share some closing thoughts and ideas.

What elements of game design are you excited to try? How do you use catch-up, inertia, and surprise in your course design? Let us know in the comments below.

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.

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