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Educational Game Design Q&A

I was contacted for a research project, and asked a series of questions. Thought I’d document the answers here, too.

Q0. How many years have you been designing educational games?

Over 30, actually, off and on.  Started with my first job out of college, designing and programming educational computer games.  Been a recurrent theme in my career since then.

Q1. Please walk us through your process for creating an educational game from concept to implementation. Please use one of your games as an example.

A long answer is the only option (it’s a big process).  Using a design framework of Analysis, Specification, Implementation, and Evaluation:


For any educational task, you have to start by looking at what your design objective is: you need to document what folks should be able to do that they can’t do now. I argue that this is most importantly going to manifest as an ability to make better decisions, ones that the learner doesn’t reliably make now.  It’s complicated, because SMEs don’t always have access to how they do what they do, and you have to work hard.  This isn’t unusual to learning design, except perhaps the focus on skills.

Then, you need to know how folks go wrong; what are the reliable misconceptions. People don’t tend to make random mistakes (though there is some randomness in our architecture), but instead make mistakes based upon some wrong models.

You also need to know the consequences of those mistakes, as well as the consequence of the right answer. Decisions tend to travel in packs, and if you make this one wrong, you’re then likely to face that other one. You need to know what these are.  (And the probabilities associated with them).

In addition, you need to know the settings in which these decisions occur, as many as possible.

And you need to know what makes this task inherently interesting (it is).  Here’s where the SME is your friend, because they’re so passionate about this they’ve made it the subject of their expertise, find out what makes them find it interesting.


With this information, you address those aligned elements from effective education practice and engaging experiences.    You need to find a storyline that integrates what makes the task interesting with the settings in which the decisions occur.  I like a heuristic I heard from Henry Jenkins: “find a role the player would like to be in”. Exaggeration is a great tool here: e.g. you’d likely rather be working on the ambassador’s daughter than just another patient.

You need to make those misconceptions seductive to get challenge. You don’t want them getting it right unless they really know their stuff.

You need to handle adjusting the difficulty level up at an appropriate rate; you might have complications that don’t start until after they’ve mastered the interface.

You need to specify characters, dialog, rules that describe the relationships, variables that code the state of the game, a visual (and auditory) look and feel.  The UI expressed to the learner, and more.

You’ll need to specify what the ‘perspective’ of the player is in relation to the character.

Overall, you need to nail meaningfulness, novelty, and the cycle of action and feedback to really get this right.

Finally, you need to specify the metrics you’ll use to evaluate your creation. What will be the usability goals, educational outcomes, and engagement metrics that will define you’re done?

Implementation & Evaluation

I’m a design guy, so I don’t talk so much about implementation, and evaluation follows the above.  That said…

The tools change constantly, and it will vary by size and scope. The main thing here is that you will have to tune.  As Will Wright said, “tuning is 9/10ths of the work”.  Now that’s for a commercially viable game, but really, that’s a substantial realization compared to how complex the programming and media production is.

Tuning requires regular evaluation.  You’ll want to prototype in as low a fidelity as you can, so it’s easier to change.  Prototype, test, lather, rinse, repeat.  (Have ever 3 words ever sold more unnecessary product in human history?)

There’s much more, but this is a good first cut.

Q2. Describe your greatest success, challenge, failure.

My greatest success, at least the most personally rewarding in terms of feeling like making a contribution, is definitely the Quest game. When you’re making a game that can save kids’ lives, you’ve got to feel good about it. On no budget (we eventually got a little money to hire my honors student for a summer, and then some philanthropic money to do a real graphic treatment), we developed a game that helped kids who grow up without parents experience a bit of what it’s like to survive on your own (goal: talk to your counselors).  Interestingly, I subsequently got it ported to the web as a student project (as soon as I heard about CGI’s, the first web standard to support maintaining ‘state’, I realized it could run as a web game), and it still runs! As far as I know, BTW, it’s the first web-based serious game ever.

My greatest challenge was another game you can still play on the web.  We’d developed a ‘linear scenario’ game on project management for non-project-managers, and they liked it so much they then asked for a game to accompany it.  But we’d already accomplished the learning!  Still, we did it.  I made the game about just managing to cope with missing data, scope creep, and other PM issues, so engineers could a) understand why they should be glad there were project managers, and b) that they shouldn’t be jerks to work with.

Biggest failure that I recollect was a team brought together by a publisher to work with the lead author on a wildly successful book series.  There was a movie script writer who’d become a game designer, and me, and a very creative team. However, we had a real problem with the SME, who couldn’t get over the idea that the ‘game’ had to develop the concept without getting mired in the boring details of particular tools. We would get progress, and then generate a great concept, and we’d be reined back in to “but where’s the tool simulation”?  Unfortunately, the SME had ultimate creative control, not the creative team, and the continuing back and forth ultimately doomed the project.


Q3. When determining game play is avoiding violence an issue? Q4. Is accounting for gender an issue when creating games?

I answered these two questions together; I don’t shy away from controversy, and believe that you use the design that works for the audience and the learning objective.  I believe education trumps censorship.  I argued many years ago (when Doom was the GTA of the day) that you could get meaningful learning experiences out of the worst of the shoot-em-ups.  Not that I’d advocate it.  Same with gender.  Figure out what’s needed.

As a caveat, I don’t believe in gratuitous violence, sex, or gender issues, (Why is sex more taboo than violence? I don’t get it.) but I believe you need to address them when relevant in context. In ways that glorify people, not violence or intolerance.

Q5. How did you develop your creation process?

I went from ad h0c at the start to trying to find the best grounding for process possible.  Even as an undergrad I had received a background in learning, but as a grad student I pursued it with a vengeance (I looked at cognitive, behavioral, constructivist, ID, social, even machine learning looking for insight).  At the time, the HCI field was also looking at what made engaging experiences, and I pursued that too. The real integration happened when I looked systematically at design and creative processes: what worked and what didn’t.  Using the learning design process as a framework (since folks don’t tend to adopt new processes whole-cloth, but tend to modify their existing ones), I worked out what specifically was needed in addition to make the process work for (learning) game design.

Q6. How do you work? Individually? As a team? If so, how do you develop a team?

Euphemistically, I work however anyone wants.  I seldom really do individual, however, because I have no graphic design skills to speak of (much to my dismay, but a person’s got to know their limitations, to paraphrase the great sage Harry Calahan).  Also, I strongly believe you should source the full suite of talent a game design needs: writing, audio, graphic, programming, UI, learning design, etc.  Naturally, in the real world, you do the best you can (“oh, I can do a good enough job of writing, and you can probably do a good enough job of audio as well as the programming”).

Q7. Is there a recipe for success in this industry? If so what is it and what would you say your biggest lesson has been so far?

My short answer is two-fold. I immodestly think that you really have to understand the alignment between effective practice and engaging experience (there’re lots of bad examples that show why you can’t just shove game and instructional designers into a room and expect anything good). Second, you have to know how to work and play well with others.  Game design is a team sport.

And finally, you really, really, have to develop your creative side.  As I tell my workshop attendees: I’ve got bad news, you have a big job ahead of you; if you’re going to do good serious game design, you’re going to have to play more games, go to more amusement parks, read more novels, watch more movies. It’s a big ask, I know, an onerous task, but hey, you’re professionals.   But you also have to be willing to take risks. Much to m’lady’s dismay, I argue that I continue to have to crack bad jokes as practice to find out what works (that’s my story, and I’m sticking with it).

If you can get a handle on these three elements: understanding the alignment, able to convince people to work with you on it, and push the envelope, I reckon you can succeed. What do you reckon?

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