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Designing Games to Learn

As I've been writing this series of newsletters on learning and video games, there's been a spectre lurking in the background. Video games and education. Edutainment.

The rationale goes something like this: If you squint right, our education systems look like games. They've got levels, point systems, different encounters, rules, winning, and losing. So why not take all the tools video games have perfected, and apply them to this far more practical end?

What this model fails to consider is that learning doesn't occur under a single system, but throughout people's entire lives. Games are self-contained systems that players opt into, but educational environments are anything but contained.

I think there's a much more useful way to think about how we can learn from video-games to learn better. And that's by looking at game design as a tool for self-directed learning.

Why self-directed learning matters

We're often nudged to think about learning as a series of discrete experiences. You take a course, or study a book, or watch some videos. You spend some time learning a new skill for your job, or watch some youtube videos on a new hobby. You graduate high school, you go to college, you get a job. We think of each of these things as independant learning experiences.

But the reality is this isn't a linear sequence, but a dense network of experiences. The things you're learning today are in conversation with things you've learned in the past, reinforcing some things, contradicting others, giving you insight in unexpected fields, or leaving you unmoored and confused.

The network gets even denser when you model the reality that people are always learning together, being influenced by each other, everyone bringing their own experiences together.

And the complexity explodes in magnitude one more time, when you realize that the systems that structure the interactions between people, the social institutions, are themselves learning and evolving over time, and are the results of individuals cumulative experience over generations.

The experience of a learner exists as a dense, messy network. Self directed learning is important, because we're each the only person equipped to shape the entire network. Each system you encounter, a school, a job, an online course, treats itself like the entire world of learning. But you have the perspective to put it in the context all the other nodes in the network it's connected to, and to leverage it against them.

What does game design give us?

Game design is the practice of creating experiences through the interaction between humans and systems. The systems it uses are extremely wide-ranging, from strict rules, to narrative, art, sound, and the human body. At it's core is the idea of emergent experiences. One's that aren't pre-determined by the designers, but spring from the unique combination of player's choices (their agency) and the systems.

Many of the educational structures we know are like the earliest video games, single tightly defined experiences that have few, rigid systems, and simple controls.

But as the field has grown over the last 50 years, games have become more and more complex, and most importantly to me, have begun to more seriously take advantage of the player's agency.

Considering how their systems interact with this agency is the core principle of game design. How does the game inform players choices, reward them, or punish them? How does it respond to their abilities, or skill level, or their imagination?

There are a many ideas from the discipline that can be really effectively applied to directing your own learning. Interestingly, they seem to function well at many different scales, helping you reflect on and shape your learning from particular skill, to all your explorations of a subject, to your entire networked experience.

Legible Goals

This might be the defining feature of games to many people. Unlike "real life" they have clear states where you win and lose. If these states are well designed, and in sync with the rest of the systems in the game, you get a very valuable property: the player knows what to do.

This is can be taken for granted, but it's often missing in other contexts. When we get stuck reading a textbook, or with an online course, we're often completely lost, and it takes a lot of effort to figure out where to go next.

That's not to say that games tell you exactly what to do at any point in time. That would make the game deterministic and no fun. Instead they strike a balanace between direction and uncertainty and in doing so create meaningful choices.

Often times it can be really tricky to set goals, especially when learning something new. Instead of setting "good" goals in the abstract, pick goals that always give you something to do.


Game design proves that fun can be constructed. Normally, you're told to do the things you enjoy. But this means we actually have room to make the things we want to do fun. This is important not so that people can learn to enjoy things that they hate, but because anything you want to do is going to involve things you don't.

Transforming something you want to do, but don't find fun, into something you do, is one of the highest impact changes you can make. It makes everything else easier.

Fun is a tricky thing to create, and can come from many different places. The key thing, I think, we can take from game design is to focus on fun that stems directly from the actions you are taking, and not any extrinsic system. For example, it's much more useful to change the setting where you're doing a task (like going outside) so that it's more pleasurable, than giving yourself a reward (like some dessert) when you finish.

Depth and Complexity

This video, from the excellent Extra Credits, is one of the first things I remember watching on game design and it's an idea that's stuck with me every since.

One way to think about games is as trying to make the maximum depth out of the smallest amount of complexity possible. This is a really important property to strive for in the rule-sets we make for learning.

Depth can be thought of in a couple different ways. How many different subjects can be learned with the systems? Or, how many different contexts does this connect to?

We have a distinct advantage here as self-directed learners: we can leverage the specifics of our context to get more depth out of less complexity. If you know you're diving into a specific subject, or you have a strong grasp of some system, you can take advantage of the properties of that subject or system and design a game unique to it.


Our personal narratives play an often overlooked role in how we learn. How we think of ourselves, our journeys, and the "arc" of our development, shapes how it actually occurs. There's a mismatch though, between the linear, sensible narratives we see in media, and our messy realities.

A game really combines (up to) two different narratives. The story intended to be conveyed through the game, and the story of the actual events that occurred to the player. The game narrative, as intended by the writers, is conveyed through elements that occur in the player narrative.

Games employ all sorts of systems to deal with the mismatch between these two narratives. Instead of just telling a single linear story they scatter details and information around their environment, or add context to actions the player can take. These tools allow the player narrative, the actions they take, to proceed while ensuring that the game narrative is still communicated.

These kinds of distributed narrative systems, that combine fixed and emergent elements, are a truer fit to our messy networked realities than what we see in other popular media.

Perhaps, if you're trying to think about the narrative of your learning, it's better to think about it as two things, the story you want to tell, interwoven through the story of what you're doing.

Where to start?

If you want to learn something, design a game for it, and then play-test it! That's what I'm doing for myself with this newsletter at least. Season 1 had a relatively simple rule set, but it interacted with a lot of different things. The readers, all the different topics I wanted to explore, the projects I was doing, conversations with friends.

Season two is an evolution in game design, thus far it seems to be an improvement (at least my sisters tell me it's an improvement over what we had before lol). I wouldn't have been able to implement this more complex game without first playing version one for a year.

Another approach could be to try and tie games to all the learning experiences you're already in. Every time you enroll in a class, or an online course, try to connect it to at least one larger game system you've designed.

The next time you're in a learning context, whether that's a school, a classroom, or a presentation at work, think about how it's structured, what the systems are, and what the players are doing.

Then, think about how it connects to the other games you're playing, and the other contexts you're in. Does it give you can experience that transfers over? Are there players in this game who will be playing elsewhere with you?

Most importantly, how does the systems of the game interact with your goals?

Game Engines for Learning

So, game design provides us a tool kit for constructing experiences, and self-directed learners are better equipped than conventional learning systems to apply that tool kit to create powerful learning.

You don't just have to be a player of games other people have designed. You can design your own games that use theirs as building blocks, and create experiences that leverage all your experiences and goals.

You might be reading this because, like me, you're interested not just in learning, but in helping other people learn. In that case, the takeaway from this essay should be this: Instead of building games for people to learn with, build game engines.

Self-directed learning is in it's infancy. There's the possibility to spread it at scale, and give people tools, ideas, and systems, to not only shape their own learning, but connect it to others, we can transform the way people learn, and what they can do.