Course notes:

Game design

  1. game design theory can help shape the design of DGBL
  2. instructional design and educational theory can be brought into the design to help provide structure and direction

From this, the process of discussing the use of a commercial off the shelf game (COTS), the development of a new electronic game or a game-thinking learning design can be developed using a range of media and teaching approaches.

In his book “Game Design Theory” (Burgun, 2012) says ‘game design’ is essentially a synonym for plan which should carefully consider:

  • What kinds of actions will be possible in the game
  • What types of interactions could take place

He suggests we begin the plan by asking “will interactivity help me do what I want to do” and “will a game system, with its goals, its competition and its player interaction be helpful?

If the answer is no, then he suggests a game might not be the right medium (p.21).

Let us examine the decisions through a very simple depiction of a game. Burgun provides two simple definitions for setting out in designing a game:

  1. A game is a system of rules which agents compete by making ambiguous decisions
  2. A story is the process involved in telling of a sequence of events.

In an education context, the idea of ‘story’ can be thought of a list, where we can draw straight lines between nodes. In a novel or film the story usually moves in a linear, logical direction from start to end. In a game the nodes of the story are non linear, jumbled. They have a start and end, but the nodes are joined by multiple lines. Using educational theory, the story is a set of objects and problems that the student can encounter. These are presented ambiguously, reflecting the holistic and flexible teaching strategy that is required to both deliver and assess learning. The assessment may be simple – recognising if the student has reached ‘the end’ point or it might involve assessment at some or all of the nodes in the story.

Fig 1. A rough representation of ‘story’ using Burgan (2012).

One way of looking at this organisation of a story is to consider the nodes to be aligned to curriculum and/or content. Some nodes might be bundles of information, others demand problem solving and a further set involve conducting experiments. Some nodes might require students to play a commercial game for a time or complete parts of a simulation.

One of the key differences between thinking about ‘story’ and ‘scope and sequence’ is that each node is an opportunity for taking action and interacting, where the immediate purpose, significance, concept or need is not always obvious.

There is no one universal approach to designing games for educational purposes and most studies and articles about doing this draw upon a wide scholarship. To illustrate ONE approach, we can draw upon the theories of Biggs and Collis (1982) and Gregory Bateson (1973).

Adapting the SOLO taxonomy (Biggs and Collis, 1982), DGBL can place an emphasis on making connections and contextualising by developing Gregory Bateson’s theory of learning levels. Paul Tosey presented a paper about the potential of Bateson’s framework for transformational learning in 2006. The focus of this paper was to discuss the multiple possibilities of learning from experience…

Using Mumford (1987) theory of learning styles

  1. Activist — Will there be a wide variety of different activities?
  2. Reflector — Shall I be given the time to consider, assimilate and prepare?
  3. Theorist — Do the objectives and programme of events indicate a clear structure and purpose?
  4. Pragmatist — Shall we be addressing real problems and will it result in action plans for some of my current problems?

This design is entirely hypothetical but uses the following hypothesis:

  1. Playing video games involves a subjective and indeterminate level of effort and time beginning with pre-structural: here students are simply acquiring bits of unconnected information, which have no organisation and make no sense (Biggs et al.)
  2. Each item in the story (list) has particular relevance to one more level (Bateson)
  3. As actors, players are able to adopt different learning styles where physical frames do not always show the border between reality and fiction (Mumford)

At each level of this design we can determine the type of assessment which is required and align that assessment to information and processes set out by the curriculum. It should also be flexible enough to accommodate different learning styles.

… In their research, Lester et al., 2014 conducted a literature review to establish theoretical underpinnings for GBL. They identified narrative centred learning, problem solving, engagement, curricula focus, interaction and the game-environment as having important contributions to their design.

You can review the elementary game designed in the research online at It describes itself as an “intelligent game-based learning environment leveraging the inferential capabilities of intelligent tutoring systems and the compelling immersive worlds of commercial game engines.

This game has was developed under grant from the Discovery Research K-12 Program in the US, however teachers should not be put off, as most educational institutions do have potential funding for such activities. The key to drawing upon that potential will be to present a conceptual model for a game which is founded on theory and innovation… consider alternatives that could be used: Could students use another ‘sandbox’ game in combination with other media such as a wiki or blog? What is the imperative for un-supervised interaction with the game? Can the story unfold using a more hands on approach with no bespoke development at all?

Can you use one of these a cheap or no cost Sandbox Games. How about Deep World?

Where the game keeps no useful electronic records of student attainment, assessments should be designed to meet the outcomes of the curriculum. … Teachers are expected:

  • to collect evidence of learning
  • provide differentiated tasks
  • provide clear criteria for assessment though rubrics and other necessary documentation.


Book recommendations

Articles about Gameplay Mechanics


Game Design Documents

Game Design Concepts (Ian Schreiber)

Game Accessibility

Free Books

Here are some examples which cover a range from broad to narrow. .

Chess, S., & Booth, P. (2014). Lessons down a rabbit hole: Alternate reality gaming in the classroom. New Media & Society, 16(6), 1002–1017. doi:10.1177/1461444813497554

De Freitas, S., Ott, M., Popescu, M. M., & Stanescu, I. (Eds.). (2013). New pedagogical approaches in game enhanced learning: Curriculum integration. IGI Global.

Felicia, P. (2011). Handbook of research on improving learning and motivation through educational games: Multidisciplinary approaches (pp. 1-1462). Hershey, PA: IGI Global. doi:10.4018/978-1-60960-495-0

Groff, J., Howells, C., & Cranmer, S. (2012). Console game-based pedagogy: A study of primary and secondary classroom learning through console video games. International Journal of Game-Based Learning, 2(2), 35–54.

Ke, F. (2013). Computer-game-based tutoring of mathematics. Computers & Education, 60(1), 448–457.

Lester, J. C., Spires, H. A., Nietfeld, J. L., Minogue, J., Mott, B. W., & Lobene, E. V. (2014). Designing game-based learning environments for elementary science education: A narrative-centered learning perspective. Information Sciences, 264, 4–18.

Van Rosmalen, P., & Westera, W. (2014). Introducing serious games with Wikis: empowering the teacher with simple technologies. Interactive Learning Environments, 22(5), 564–577.