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Museums and the Web

An annual conference exploring the social, cultural, design, technological, economic, and organizational issues of culture, science and heritage on-line.

Rules of Play: Design Elements of Addictive Online Learning Games





Tech Level: 


Date & Time: 

April 11, 2012 - 9:00am - 12:30pm


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Archives & Museum Informatics EIN: 77-0708617; GST / BN 887978914


Over the past decade, games have grown as both a commercial industry, as a field for scholarly research, and as a practical medium for teaching and learning. Inspired by a broad array of research emphasizing the effectiveness of problem-based, anchored instruction, developers have been creating games about subjects ranging from childhood obesity to electoral politics to personal finance. Even former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has embraced games as a way to teach civics to schoolchildren. Games have definitely come of age as tools for teaching and learning.

But we still need to understand how to make learning games fun. For that, we must learn about game design. Given the breadth and depth of this topic, this workshop focuses on a handful of game mechanics that help us move from the kinds of "game-like" interactives commonly found on museum Web sites into the realm of true games. With a firm understanding of these mechanics, we can design online games that incorporate our content and create compelling, even addicting learning experiences for our audiences.
This workshop will use paper prototyping methods to explore game elements and mechanics. Understanding these elements is essential to design an effective and engaging online games, but our focus will be on design principles, not on production aspects of online games.

1. Introduction and Overview
• Why all games are learning games
• Narrative or game? How to make decisions interesting in a game system rather than a narrative.
• Game Pleasures: Discuss the pleasures that games provide (fantasy, anticipation, possibility, challenge, discovery, surprise, etc.).
• Top-down or bottom-up design. Find the fun!

2. Game dynamics and mechanics
Discuss six game mechanics: space, rules, objects, actions, skills, and chance. Examine how rules create emergent gameplay. Discuss several examples.
• Focus on Skills and ChanceReal and Virtual Skills.
Real skills have a learning curve, and often require some degree of innate ability, while virtual skills are accessible to everyone.
• Chance and Skill
Explore the ways that randomness makes players feel powerful instead of helpless.

3. Small Group Design Exercise
Modify an existing game to find a better balance between chance and skill.
• Add elements of chance to War or Memory.
• Add skill to Candyland:
o Physical: dexterity, coordination, endurance
o Mental: memory, observation, puzzle-solving
o Social: reading an opponent, fooling an opponent, teamwork

4. Interesting Choices
Explore techniques to provide interesting choices and consequences without creating cumbersome branching storylines.

5. Small Group Design Exercise
Turn a quiz or puzzle into a game to make the choices more interesting.
• Turn a picture puzzle into a game: Map, dice, tokens.
• Turn a trivia quiz into a game: Art History or Earth Science cards, dice, candyland or world map board.

6. Beyond the game
Discuss ways to leverage gameplay experience to consolidate learning beyond the game (online forums, onsite connections, etc.) Additional questions and discussion.