Using game design in your lectures

Updated: Nov 11, 2020

I love games. I love learning. Over the past year the two passions have collided.


It started with me rediscovering an old passion: D&D. I began dungeon mastering a game for some friends. During every 3 hour game I strive to make it interesting for my players. I try and make each player feel like they're the hero. It became my passion. Trying to be a better dungeon master started me down a rabbit hole of game design: understanding your players, understanding game mechanics, variable delights, difficulty levels. Anything and everything that could make their game experience more compelling.

My D&D table setup

All that reading (recommended list below), got me thinking how I can apply everything I'm learning about designing games to my second passion: Alpe Audio, an e-learning startup based on audio. Think Coursera meets Spotify, so that you can master topics, in depth, while you're on the go.


What could the techniques I was using to improve my D&D games teach me about designing a learning application? More importantly, what could I learn about teaching techniques in general?


I'll try and layout the similarities between the two domains, and what game design has taught me about creating courses.


Who can be a 'game designer'? 👩


Who can use game design in structuring their classes? Is it relevant for every kind of class or teacher?

Yes. Everyone can design games. Game design spans many disciplines, and if anyone was expected to know all of it before designing a game, well it would never happen. Here are a few of the disciplines it draws upon:

Anthropology, empathy, economics, software, creative thinking, psychology, graphics and design.

So if any of those topics are relevant to you, then read on.


What makes a game? 🎮


What's a game? What makes a game fun? Here are some options:

  • Surprise that brings joy

  • Curiosity and pleasure

  • Toys that are enjoyable

  • Players who ascribe value to their actions

Here’s one I like: In his book, The Art of Game Design, Jesse Schell suggests a lens I love: we love to solve problems - that’s what gives us a challenge we enjoy overcoming.

What’s the difference between work and play? Both involve solving problems - one is playfully approached and is voluntary.


So a game is an act of problem solving that is approached playfully.


Learning is similar. We enjoy solving problems. We enjoy the challenge. The main difference is how we approach learning. Is it playful or is it work?


Wanna vs Hafta


Step one is distinguishing between your players (i.e learners) motivation. Things we do can be divided into two buckets:

  1. Wanna: These come from our desire for pleasure. Games fall here.

  2. Hafta: The exact opposite. We're doing something to avoid pain. Taxes fall here.

We tend to think of pain and pleasure as being on the same spectrum: that one is the absence of the other. But they aren’t. In fact they trigger different parts of the brain. It's a well documented phenomena in behavioral psychology, called loss aversion, first identified by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. As per Wikipedia:

Loss aversion is the tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains. The principle is prominent in the domain of economics. What distinguishes loss aversion from risk aversion is that the utility of a monetary payoff depends on what was previously experienced or was expected to happen. Some studies have suggested that losses are twice as powerful, psychologically, as gains.

Understanding the reason why your students are playing your game is critical. It affects the amount of motivation they have. Is this a 'wanna' or a hafta'? Based on your students motivation, change what you optimize for.


If you teach a ‘hafta’ topic or your students simply have that attitude, optimize for helping them get it done faster. Think about filing taxes. You just want to get it done. No one wants extra curricular activities here. If it’s a ‘wanna’ class, go full out optimize for the game. Your students are there with internal motivation.


Be aware that the 'wanna' vs 'hafta' classification can be by topic or by different specific students. What's a 'wanna' for one student will be a 'hafta' for another.


Once you've taken your players motivation into consideration, it's time to move onto the different mechanics you can use to bring them their pleasure.


What brings players or learners pleasure?


What gives your learners pleasure? Game designer Marc Leblanc has a taxonomy of eight game pleasures. I like. Think about how you can use each in your lessons.

  1. 👋 Sensation: sight, sound, smell. All can be pleasure.

  2. 🧙‍♂️ Fantasy: immersions in imagination. The joy of pretend.

  3. 📢 Narrative: A compelling story that sweeps us of our feet.

  4. Challenge: the core pleasure from achieving.

  5. 🤝Fellowship: Building something together. Teams and unity.

  6. 🌎Discovery: the pleasure of exploration and outsmarting.

  7. 📸Expression: Create and show your ideas.

  8. 🏰 Submission: the strangest of Leblanc’s terms means leaving the world behind and commuting to the game.

Not all eight should be used in every lesson. Here are some ideas how we use them at Alpe.

  1. Sensation: We use sound and visual effects to make the lessons topics come to life.

  2. Narrative: Each lesson begins with a compelling story that is threaded into the lesson material.

  3. Challenge: Courses are challenging but achievable.

  4. Discovery: Learners on Alpe can discover courses and topics they want to listen to.

Figure out which of the eight are a right fit for your players. Incorporate them into your lessons. These are your first steps incorporating game design into your lessons.


In part 2 we'll explore the other aspects of game design: variable delight, getting in the 'flow', challenge rating and being the hero of your game.


Recommended readings 📚:


  1. Jesse Schell's, The Art of Game Design - Cannot recommend this book enough. It covers everything

  2. The Angry GM blog - Angry GM writes a great RPG blog that goes into the details of game mechanics in one of the most detailed ways you'll find on the internet.

  3. Marc Leblanc's taxonomy on game pleasures

  4. Eight pleasures of games broken down

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