Connecting dots for digital learning and teaching

Utilizing Game Mechanics in Online Learning


by Justin Marquis, Ph.D.

If the notion of creating a video game is daunting, it probably should be. Making a good game requires not only a great idea, but also a host of planning, graphic design, computer programming, sound engineering, and animation skills, not to mention a fundamental understanding of what makes for good, engaging game play. Fortunately, as an online instructor and de facto instructional designer, you only need to master one of these areas to create effective online instruction which incorporates some of the most powerful elements of game design — game mechanics.

game-based learning

According to game designer Jesse Schell, “Game mechanics are the core of what a game truly is. They are the interactions and relationships that remain when all of the aesthetics, technology, and story are stripped away.” (The Art of Game Design. 2008, P. 131). Researcher James Gee believes that games embody many of the best principles of learning design and can be of great use for education (2005). Game mechanics are one piece of game design that can be incorporated into educational  course design to bring your courses into the 21st Century. So what are these magical game mechanics elements and how can they be put to use to make your online classes fun, engaging, and meaningful learning experiences?

This article on the use of game mechanics in business illustrates the ways in which the most common game mechanic elements – rewards – can be leveraged to make a business endeavor successful through the use of points, badges, levels, and status.  Rewards are, however, only one strategy to be employed in game design. There are a host of other possible concepts from game mechanics that can be incorporated into online course design. The complete list, according to Schell (2006), along with my suggestions of how each element could be used in online course design, follows:

  • Game Mechanic 1: Space – In a game, the designer has control to define the space in the game in any we he/she believes will best facilitate engaging game play (p. 130). This is no different than online course design. As the instructor, you can choose to limit your class to the LMS. However, you need not be locked into these artificial boundaries. Require students to conduct field research, meet in a virtual space like Second Life, conduct a group video conference, share ideas via Twitter, or set up a Facebook page. There are an infinite number of ways to define the space of your online class – the only limitations are your imagination and institutional policy.
  • Game Mechanic 2: Objects, Attributes, and States – In a game, these are the things that populate the space. They can be characters, obstacles, tokens, or scores. Each of the objects in a game has certain attributes that are unique to it and dictate the type of interaction that the character (learner) will have with it (p. 136). In online course design, you also populate the learning space with objects. They are called resources or course content, but, like the learning space, you have complete control over the type of objects you incorporate into your course design. Using innovative tools like Web curation sites, online videos, games and simulations, and Twitter conversations all present different ways of interacting with diverse learning objects. Don’t limit your course content to text-based materials. Utilize other means of presenting the course content and you will increase student engagement.
  • Game Mechanic 3: Actions – In game design, there are two basic types of actions: operative and resultant. Operative actions are the basic, repetitive things that can be done within the space, and resultant actions are the accumulated operative actions which combine to achieve an objective in the game (p. 140). Course designers must be aware of both kinds of actions as well. It is imperative to make clear to your learners both the day-to-day operation of the course as well as how those mundane actions will lead to achieving larger course goals.
  • Game Mechanic 4: Rules – Simply put, games of all kinds rely on rules to work. In game design, there are formal and informal rule systems that govern a game and make it function smoothly. The most important rule of all is to have a clear statement of the object of the game – or what must be done to win – and this applies for online learning design as well (p. 144). In your course design, you will also have formal and informal rules which govern the function of the class. Ensuring that the rules are fair and functional provides a basic level of comfort and structure that learners require to be successful. Make sure that the rules systems in your course design are explicit, particularly if you are breaking conventions of normal learning by requiring more informal interactions, considering non-academic subject matter, or using resources that your students may not have experience with. Ultimately, you need to be clear about the course goals and how the day-to-day actions will help students get there.
  • Game Mechanic 5: Skill – The objective of game design is to hit a perfect blend where the player’s skill is a good match for the game’s difficulty. A good match pushes users further into the experience, while a poor one turns them off. This skill is not just an ability to manipulate the game environment, but also includes physical skills, mental skills, and social skills (p. 150). Knowing your online learners’ skill and comfort level with technology can be difficult, but is essential to designing a learning experience that will appeal to them and push them to be more deeply engaged. The first time you offer a class, it is important to do some pilot testing, focus group interviewing, or usability testing during the design process. You should also try to build in activities that will help develop the needed skills in your learners – physically, mentally, and socially.
  • Game Mechanic 6: Chance – This is one game mechanic that you probably want to leave out of your course design, but you should be ready for it if it ever rears its ugly head. In a game, you want to design random elements, occurrences, and interactions into the game because they are fun and exciting for players (p. 153). In your course design, truly random occurrences are more than likely to be disruptive, so this is where you need to take advantage of the true power of game mechanics and embrace the idea that the entire course represents a “designed experience” (Squire, 2006). In other words, incorporate things that seem “random” or “spontaneous,” but in actuality, make sure you plan those things out. Introducing a surprise special guest into an online discussion, sending your students a link to an exciting new resource or video tutorial at just the moment they need it to complete a big project – all of these seemingly random occurrences can be planned for but held back to provide an element of surprise in the course.

These are the basic concepts that can be utilized in designing a system (game or course) that leads to engagement, and motivation to complete a task or solve a problem. Thinking about how to utilize them in your online course design to create an exciting immersive learning experience for your students is not only fun and rewarding, but also can help to provide a structure for actually building the course.  In tomorrow’s post, I will examine specific strategies that help to balance the mechanics in a game to help create a realistic flow of action and interest, and the ways in which these strategies can be utilized in online course design.

Image: Arvind Balaraman /



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4 Responses »


  1. Utilizing Game Mechanics in Online Learning | Gamification in the classroom |
  2. Game Design and Online Course Design | Classroom Aid
  3. Utilizing Game Mechanics in Online Learning | Games and education |
  4. Fun Is Learning through Interesting Challenges – about Gameful Design | Classroom Aid

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“Tell me and I will forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I will understand.” -------- Chinese Wisdom "Games are the most elevated form of investigation." -------- Albert Einstein
"I'm calling for investments in educational technology that will help create digital tutors that are as effective as personal tutors, educational software as compelling as the best video game," President Barack Obama said while touring a tech-focused Boston school (year 2011).
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