Playing with the Definition of “Game Thinking” for Instructional Designers

Soon I will be presenting at the ASTD International Conference in Washington, DC. My title for the presentation is Three Mysterious Keys to Interactive Learning: Game-Thinking, Game-Elements, and Gamification. I am presenting Wednesday morning so, if you can make it—it would be great to have you in the session.

As part of that presentation, I will be defining the term “Game Thinking” from the perspective of an instructional designer. I’ve done some research but there is not a lot out there concerning game-thinking as an instructional designer. I did find one source I found interesting, check out the Gamasutra article by Andrzej Marczewski which provides his take on game thinking. And check out his blog, he has some good ideas about games and gamification.

Here are some thoughts I’ve had about the definition this morning.

Game thinking, from an instructional game designer’s perspective, is approaching the design of a learning event from the perspective of learner actions and activities that lead to a meaningful outcome while navigating some sort of risk. Meaningful outcomes involve overcoming challenges and solving problems through thoughtful decision making by the learner. It also involves risk; games include the risk of giving up territory, of having to start over , or of not successfully completing the endeavor. With nothing at risk, there is little to gain.

Action, Risk, Experience and Outcome are all part of game thinking and embodied in games like Assassin’s Creed V.

When employing game thinking, the focus on actions and activities takes precedence over the parsing and delivery of content as is taught in traditional instructional design. The emphasis is on activity, not on content—Outcomes, not objectives.

Bloom’s taxonomy (used by instructional designers) speaks to actions such as remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating and creating but a game designer thinks about running, dodging, filing, marching, sorting, problem-solving, manipulating, searching, and even sneaking around.

To paraphrase Jess Schell, the instructional game designer is creating a tool (the game) to provide the learner with the experience of learning a new concept, idea or gaining knowledge. The instructional game designer can’t create the experience, only the tool that enables the experience. The thought process of how to create the tool to ultimately produce the experience is game thinking.

An instructional game designer thinks “What experience do I want the learner to have?” What the instructional game designer must do is to figure out the critical elements to include within the game to produce the desired learner experience and outcomes. Another way to think about it is to consider “What problems does my game ask the learner to solve?” or “Can the learner generalize from this experience to other, similar experiences?”

So we can sum game thinking by saying Action/Risk/Experience/Outcome (4 clues to game thinking).

Any comments, what do you think about the definition, on point or off?

PS. Notice how this ties in nicely with the Serious eLearning Manifesto

Posted in: Games, Gamification

Leave a Comment (3) ↓


  1. Karl Kapp April 24, 2014

    Tom and Jay,

    Thanks for your comments. Jay, I like your idea about adopting a “gaming mindset” as it relates to pros and cons of workplace performance scenarios. I think that could be an interesting topic and good information to explore. I’d be interested to learn about your thinking in this area as well.

    Tom, I couldn’t agree with you more. We can use game-thinking to expand what we are doing and to create engaging instruction that hits learners on both the cognitive and emotional level involving some risk and reward loops as well as action and activity.

    Thank you both for your comments.

  2. Tom D'Agostino April 18, 2014

    Thank you, Karl for your article. Honestly, this is the first view I’ve come across that pinpoints the why games of any kind should be used in a learning environment. If as a trainer or instructor you believe in and create experiential learning situations, then games, in the widest sense, can and, from my point of view and experience, should be an integral element of your design. And may I add one important motivational factor – games can be fun if created well.

  3. Jay A. Allen April 16, 2014

    Very nice advance towards our increased adoption of thinking of that four-letter-word – game – as a methodology towards performance. I still believe that we’re challenged in workplace learning circles with ensuring transfer. If the experience is too far removed from the outcomes expected in the workplace, then learning leaders (and the players themselves) may continue to have difficulty in making the connection. Second to transfer and equally important, in my mind, is the lack of permission or opportunity to fail in the workplace setting. Too often the event is not prime for “rehearsal” or “play” and the first performance is the ONLY performance. Adopting a “gaming” mindset to weighing out the pros and cons of workplace performance scenarios is another area of focus that I would love to see expanded upon. Thanks for your continued leadership, thought, and research in this area.

Karl Kapp
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