MET:The Intersection of Game Design Theory and Learning Theory

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There has not been much research and writing about the symbiotic and opposing relationship between video game design and contemporary learning theory. Most of the research is about video game playing and its role in education. This wiki entry is an attempt to illuminate the pitfalls and advantages in the design and creation of games in the classroom.

Game creation requires low order and high order thinking skills, is inherently constructionist, (Warren, Stein, Dondlinger and Barab, 2009) and has a set of accesible development tools that make sophisticated game making for students possible. "Designing games involves higher cognitive skills and stronger social relationships than playing them. A player can enjoy games without having the experience of designing games; however, a game designer has an opportunity to create a unique world—one that possesses its own game language and grammatical rules. Designing games is a complicated task". (Hsu, 2009, p.1316)

Opposing Forces

One must be aware of what forces are at play in designing a game and whether curricular goals can be reached.

Core Game Mechanic

A game is judged by how effective the core game mechanic is implemented (Crosbie, 2005). The most common mistake for beginners is the obsession with the cosmetic and superficial aspects of the game (Crawford, 2003). The core mechanic supersedes story, fiction, and intellectual content. The core of a game is the preeminent action in which the player partakes. It includes survival, destruction, puzzle solving, building, exploring, role-playing, chasing, evading, and trading, to name a few (Brathwaite & Shreiber, 2008).

The challenge this poses to teaching is that it is often the intellectual content that provides the student with the greatest learning. Without getting the mechanic correct the game will be frustrating and unrewarding (Crosbie, 2005). The failure to have a satisfying core mechanic could slow down and inhibit the learning process. The ideal goal would be to tie the core mechanic to the intellectual content of the game, if possible. For example, if a game was to be made exploring Newton's laws - the core mechanic could be a puzzle game involving applying mass and acceleration. Another option would be to provide the students with an existing satisfying mechanic, that they layer the intellectual content on top of.

Games Emulate Rather than Simulate

"Games are models. ... Simulation is modeling with an emphasis on imitating structure first and behavior second. Emulation is modeling with an emphasis on approximating the behavior and without real regard to the structure of the thing being modeled. Simulation is a model of systems, where the behavior is a result of the model system; emulation simply models the behavior." (Rabin, 2010 p.113-114)

Games are low-fidelity emulations that disguise themselves as high-fidelity simulations. Emulation is generally preferred because the simulated result doesn't feel right or is not fun. So to apply accurate Newtonian physics to a game could result in less than satisfactory gameplay. Game tuning is the act of tweaking the physics to better emulate the desired outcome. If the goal is to precisely simulate a formula, caution needs to be taken.

It is Easier to be Destructive

There is an appeal to game mechanics that are destructive versus constructive. Some common game memes include killing enemies (Super Mario), breaking pottery (Zelda), and shooting (Quake). It is easier for designers to fall back on a core mechanic that is destructive rather than constructive. This is a potential challenge for a student as designer, to try and make their games constructive when the intellectual content demands it.

Symbiotic Forces

There are several elements of the game design process that work with an educator's goals. Here are the most important ones.

Mastery of the Subject

To design a game and its underlying intellectual content requires mastery of the subject matter. It encourages meaningful learning rather than rote learning. The game can only be as good as the designers understanding and mastery of the subject it is emulating. This encourages research and experimentation during the game design process.

Games are Constructed

Students designing a game

Playing games is fun; game development is hard work. Making games is an inherent constructivist/constructionist activity. Games are developed with teams, require knowledge acquisition to build, are a student-centered activity, and are about solving an ill-defined problem. Games take a long time to build. The student game below represents over 5,700 hours of work and was mostly developed outside of scheduled class time. In Anytown, a multi-user virtual environment (MUVE), the creators found that "...upon conducting interviews with students during and at the conclusion of the design intervention, only three students reported having spent time in Anytown, outside of the computer lab time, at home." (Warren, Stein, Dondlinger and Barab, 2009, p. 314).

"Game design involves knowledge and skills from multiple types of contributors: producer, artist, programmer, interactivity designer, sound engineer, and tester. At this level, game designers have to be proficient with the language and the grammatical rules used in computer-programming software or multimedia authoring tools." (Hsu, 2009, p. 1316) "Open-ended tasks are more engaging and promote creativity. Learning by making things is one useful approach that is both fun and educational." (Bruckman, 1999, p. 78)

If playing a great game is long, difficult, challenging, complex, yet enjoyable (Glee, 2005, p. 34) then making a game is more difficult, more challenging and more complex.

Production Value

Gamemaker student portfolio project

The issue with educational games for play in the classroom is the sophistication of the student in consuming games that are of high production value. The average cost of single platform next generation game is in excess of 10 million US dollars (Crossley, 2010) and has a high risk of commercial failure. Most of the sales occur when distributed, with little long term value of the product.

When you turn the student from a consumer to a creator, the requirements for production value are now shifted to the backs of the students. It resolves the issues that Warren, Stein, Dondlinger and Barab discovered in the making of Anytown by the limitation of time and funding (Warren, Stein, Dondlinger and Barab, 2009). If you take a constructionist approach, then you would change the model from consuming games to building games. Higher student production value can be achieved by supplying pre-existing code and art as scaffolding to aid and accelerate the game construction process. With the addition of a computer lab, free and open-source software and a willing administration, students have access in school to the same tools professional game designers use.

Social Activity

Making games is a social activity. Games development supports collaborative learning. A beginner usually starts to design games for themselves. One of the first things the new designer discovers when they share the games with others, is that the game was not played the way it was expected to be. Through discovery the designer learns to iterate and converse in a social setting. Tuning involves interpreting results form the user experience (Gee, 2009 p. 69) through testing and improving upon it through experimentation.

Problem Solving and Debugging

Games development will include design defects, software bugs, and unintended functionality. It is typical that more than 50% of development time is spent in testing and debugging (Pan, 1999). A student project will require a greater percentage of time debugging and tuning than one from an experienced team.

Sample Student Project

Here is an example of a student project done over a six month period by a group of game enthusiasts working as team, across 5 different educational programs.


Video:The Intersection of Game Design Theory and Learning theory

Game Making Websites

YoYo Games Gamemaker Page
Unity 3D Game Engine
Unreal Tournament Editor


Brathwaite, B., Schreiber, I. (2008). Challenges for game designers. Boston, MA: Course Technology.

Bruckman, Amy (1999). Can Educational Be Fun? Game Developer's Conference, San Jose, California, March 17th, 1999.

Crawford, Chris (2003). Chris crawford on game design. New Riders Publishing.

Crossley, R. (2010). Study: average dev costs as high as $28m. Retrieved from

Crosbie, W. (2005). Instructional Design does not equal game design - lessons learned in delivering a course in game design and education. In P. Kommers & G. Richards (Eds.), Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications 2005, pp. 2617-2621. Chesapeake, VA: AACE.

Gee, James Paul (2009). Deep learning properties of good digital games. How far can they go?, "Theories and Mechanisms: Serious Games for Learning (pp. 67-82). New York:Routledge.

Hsu, H.Y. & Wang, S. (2009). Using gaming literacies to cultivate new literacies. In T. Bastiaens et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of World Conference on E-Learning in Corporate, Government, Healthcare, and Higher Education 2009 (pp. 1314-1319). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.

Pan, Jiantao (1999). Software testing retrieved from

Rabin, S. (Ed.) (2009). Introduction to game development, second edition. Boston MA.:Course Technology.

Warren, S. J., Stein, R. A., Dondlinger, M. J., Barab, S. A. (2009). A look inside a muve design process: blending instructional design and game principles to target writing skills. J. Ecuational Computing Research, 40(3), 295-321. doi:10.2190/EC.40.3.c.