The Heart of Educational Game Design

Four key areas to consider when designing and evaluating digital learning games.

GUEST COLUMN | by Natalie F. Masters

CREDIT IStation.jpgGamification is trending across the modern educational landscape, and digital learning games are exploding onto the educational technology marketplace.

With so much discussion, even hype, surrounding games and learning, many educators are looking to the research.

While the body of research on digital learning games may be relatively sparse when compared with, say, the body of research on literacy instruction, and perhaps no less contentious, the research base is growing.

“When educational game designers practice principles of Embedded Game Design to curate meaningful learning experiences for students, educational games start to realize their potential.”

Game design labs are popping up at universities everywhere, and the increasing popularity of educational games is driving greater interest in exploring these systems as methods for teaching and learning.

Remarkably, the data we do have shows that educational games can produce better outcomes than traditional tools and models. Multiple studies have shown that students who used digital games to learn experienced statistically higher gains in performance over students who did not.

Current research also suggests that not only can educational games effectively motivate students to learn the content, but students who play these games also transfer their motivation to learn to the classroom.

Recognizing the potential of digital learning games to improve student outcomes, serious educational game developers are following the data, identifying best practices in educational game design, and formulating sound design principles firmly rooted in the research.

Some are seeking the holy grail of instructional design; the heart of learning.

Gamification is not a magic blue pill.

Every digital learning game is not inherently effective, so in designing digital learning experiences and evaluating educational games, it’s important to understand what works.

Principles of Embedded Game Design

When educational game designers practice principles of Embedded Game Design to curate meaningful learning experiences for students, educational games start to realize their potential.

By combining game features and mechanics shown to spark positive emotional responses from learners and consistently improve engagement, motivation, and learning outcomes, educational games can capture students’ attention, activate their problem-solving minds, and help prepare them for the future.

Immediate, Actionable Feedback

Digital platforms have a unique ability to provide users with feedback. Current research attributes students’ performance gains when playing educational games to well-designed systems of both immediate and layered feedback.

Games can provide multiple levels of goals, rewards, and personalized feedback. Immediate feedback mechanisms like point structures and interactive cues can give learners actionable insight into their progress.

Layered feedback such as scaffolding, hint structures, and the controlled revealing of content can guide players through the gamespace, encouraging persistence over time.

Games can provide multiple opportunities for learners to solve problems and try again, encouraging healthy academic risk-taking and simulating the benefits of perseverance and resilience.

Narrative Context for Situated Learning

Educational games are particularly effective when they embed learning tasks within an immersive narrative. Game narratives can provide an authentic purpose for learning, wrapping academic content in a richly situated context.

Research finds that when learning tasks are woven into the narrative structure of a game, rather than presented as isolated tasks that are irrelevant to progress within the game world, more learning takes place.

Embedded Game Design prioritizes learning content and specific learning objectives, then crafts story structures to reveal these objectives in meaningful ways.

As learners progress through a game narrative, they practice abstract problem-solving skills and learn concepts which can be applied to real-life scenarios.

Beyond Choice to Agency

The most substantial body of research on the topic ties digital learning games to increases in student motivation. Effective game design considers and appeals to both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

We know that student choice is a powerful means to motivation.

Educational games can go beyond choice to provide student agency by surfacing the visible, authentic outcomes of decisions made in-game.

Agency inspires players to continue interacting with the game world, offering an authentic sense of accomplishment when game objectives are met. By creating immersive environments and providing opportunities to interact meaningfully within those environments, educational games can empower players with a sense of control over their own learning experiences.

Agency is perhaps closest to the heart of learning itself because it taps into intrinsic student motivation and produces real, long-lasting learning.


Natalie F. Masters, Curriculum Manager for Middle School ELAR and Product Owner – TT 2.0: NexLevel at 
Istation, is an insatiable lifelong learner, a former classroom teacher and assessment writer, a mom to an almost-teen and a houseful of pets, as well as a hiking, camping, outdoor-loving traveler—and an educational game designer, too. Find her @NMasterz

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