An increasing number of companies integrate game-based learning into training, on-boarding, and employee development programs. Many studies support game-based learning and the positive impacts on employees. However, designing learning games takes a lot of effort and expertise. We learning professionals don’t always have the right skills for game development.

I have used the following guidelines to make sure learning game design is sound.

Five Elements of Game-Based Learning

Use challenges. Challenges cater to our basic need to win. We feel happy when we win, and get upset when we lose. Players are motivated when they have something to overcome or achieve. This can be a big challenge (e.g., rescuing a princess at the end of the game) or several micro-challenges throughout the game (e.g., leveling up your skills to fight a dragon). After choosing the game challenges, determine the difficulty level and winning conditions for each one. If the task is too difficult, players get frustrated and give up.

Are the tasks in your game challenging but achievable?

Provide choices. They add fun and reinforce learning. A game that lacks choices – where players advance the game merely by performing the next task – is less engaging. Allow for the gameplay to change based on player choices. For example, let the player to choose different abilities to use during the game (e.g., ability to fly/attack). Choices give learners a sense of control and confidence. The player choices should relate to the learning objectives, so making correct choices demonstrates mastery of skills.

Do players get to make meaningful choices or decisions in your game?

Build in variety. Players get bored if they are repeatedly doing the same action throughout the game. For example:

  • Swap out the main theme – change the city background to a desert.
  • Give learners extra powers as they progress through the game, allowing them to move between levels more easily.
  • Let them personalize their settings, like choosing accessories for game characters.

Does your game offer a variety of elements?

Allow progress. Players enjoy advancing in the game – seeing and reaching important or satisfying milestones. Here are a few ways to do it:

  • Increase complexity as the learner moves through levels.
  • Allow players to unlock achievements like game ranks and titles.
  • Include currency in the game and allow players to earn it and purchase new tools, accessories, or powers.

Does your game let players make progress, gather rewards and reach milestones?

Give feedback. Feedback helps the player understand the consequences of their game choices. Many games do this through sound and visuals. Each incidence of feedback should relate to a learning objective, so each is a potential learning moment.

Will your learners receive feedback that relates to their learning objectives?

Learning professionals understand how to build effective learning programs, but when we use games as a platform, we have to do some learning of our own. We must understand the principles of an effective instructional game. At a minimum, games should include challenges, choices, variety, progress and feedback.