Game Mechanics and Learning Mechanics

For those interested in designing educational games, there is still a dearth of research about exactly what sort of game mechanics produce the greatest amount of learning in particular contexts. Even in the case of games designed purely for entertainment, small changes to mechanics and gameplay can have a big impact on the overall experience in ways that can be difficult to anticipate. In educational games, these mechanics not only impact the entertainment value of the game but also how much learning actually takes place.

How Game Mechanics Affect Entertainment

Sometimes small changes in mechanics can affect the overall experience to the point that very similar games will attract very different audiences. One example would be the two Multiplayer Online Battle Arena games League of Legends (LoL) and Heroes of the Storm (HotS). Both games have two teams competing against each other to advance into the other player’s stronghold and destroy their central core. In LoL, players level up and acquire power ups individually, and the credit for killing opponents goes to whoever landed the final blow. HotS, on the other hand, has communal experience accumulation and sharing of healing power ups with nearby teammates. With LoL there is a top-level competition against the other team but also a lower-level competition with your own teammates. In LoL it’s also quite possibly for individual players to lag far behind both the opposing team and their own teammates making it easier for them to be killed and thus “feed” the enemy team’s progress. In HotS, a careless player can “feed” the enemy team by repeatedly dying after over-extending himself, but he won’t be dying because he’s significantly under-leveled compared to his teammates. Neither of these game designs are “right”, but they will create different experiences and attract different audiences, so their designers have to be mindful of these effects.

How Game Mechanics Can Impact Learning

This kind of nuance makes studying game design very exciting, but it also creates a nightmare for games research. For educational game designers, they not only need to consider which small mechanical change is most popular but which one offers the greatest mastery of the the learning content. The ability to make an “evidence-based” decision in that design is limited by the research literature’s ability to keep apace with the proliferation of possible game mechanics. The state of educational game research has advanced to the point that we can say that educational games can serve as efficient learning tools.

For example, one of the most frequently cited game series for teaching history, Civilization, has clear affordances for teaching history. It abstracts a number of historical systems such as agriculture, technological growth, and warfare in ways that can be meaningful for students. Civilization, though, is very bad for teaching specific aspects of history. England was not founded in 4000 BCE, and the Inca never conquered the Spanish. Yet these are exactly the sort of events that can happen in a game of Civilization. Even if a teacher were to mod the game to create specific historical scenarios such as the American Civil War or World War II, there are clearly other kinds of games that might simulate aspects of these historical periods better than a grand strategy game. Teaching students about the Underground Railroad or the Holocaust  would probably be done better with ground-level games following a single character than a bird’s-eye-view game following the events of entire nations.

Common Game Mechanics

Acting/RoleplayDice RollingPuzzle, Spatial
Simultaneous
Action
Selection
Action
Programming
Escort/DeliveryPuzzle, LogicSocial Deduction/
Hidden Role
Area ControlHand
Management
Puzzle, WordTake That
BettingHidden ObjectQuestTile-Laying (B)
BiddingNetwork
Building
Resource
Management
Trading
City/
Base-Building
Platform
Jumping (V)
Rhythm (V)Turn-Based
CommunicationPhysics
Simulation (V)
Rock-Paper
Scissors
Variable Player
Powers
CraftingPlayer
Elimination
Set CollectingVoting
Dialogue
Choice
Press Your
Luck
ShootingWorker Placement

*(V) indicates mechanics largely exclusive to videogames, (B) indicates mechanics for board games

Not all mechanics in an educational game have to serve the interest of learning. Some game mechanics are mainly to generate interest and student motivation. Betting, wagering, bidding, and “press your luck” probably have limited educational application, but they can get students emotionally invested in the activity by making them feel like they have some kind of skin in the game.

Learning Mechanics-Game Mechanics Framework


Figure from Patino, Azeneth, Romero, Margarida, Proulx, Jean-Nicolas. (2016). Analysis of Game and Learning Mechanics according to the Learning Theories. 2016 8th International Conference on Games and Virtual Worlds for Serious Applications (VS-GAMES), September, 2016.

Patino, Romero, and  Proulx (2016) connect Learning Mechanics to different learning theories such as experiential learning. The above image provides a very helpful breakdown of game mechanics, learning mechanics, and their associated learning theories. Game mechanics like strategic planning and resource management connect to learning mechanics like hypothesis and exploration, and those mechanics are grounded in project-based learning. This is very useful since it provides a theoretical underpinning for design choices that can help direct designers towards more effective game mechanics.

Some games’ mechanics map very neatly onto the skills educators would like to teach. A very realistic flight simulator game can give someone a good grasp on how to fly a plane because each action in the game directly maps on to an action a pilot takes in a cockpit. Of course, someone who has trained for months or even years on a flight simulator shouldn’t pilot a commercial jetliner by themselves as their first real flying experience, but the simulator clearly provides a useful stepping stone in pilot training.

The LM-GM Framework provides a useful way to map game mechanics to learning mechanics, but there is still some need for refining the list of mechanics. As it currently exists, it might be more accurate to describe them as “game elements” rather than “mechanics” in certain cases. For example, how is “Virality” a game mechanic? Virality would seem to be more of a result for a game with interesting mechanics. It’s also hard to see how “Metagame” could be considered a game mechanic even though it’s easy to see how certain game mechanics like deck-building would create a lot of opportunity for metagame activity as players try to create the most effective decks possible between games. Future research should also be careful to distinguish between game mechanics and game genre. Doom and Splatoon both center around shooting mechanics, but Doom would fit more in the horror genre while Splatoon is a bright and colorful game geared towards children.

Researchers should try to conduct their research building off of existing frameworks like Mechanics Dynamics and Aesthetics. Certain aspects of the LM-GM framework should definitely be treated as dynamics or aesthetics rather than mechanics. We are still a long way off from an optimal framework. Specific game mechanics fall into the broad categories of game mechanics in the LM-GM Framework, which then map on to learning mechanics, which in turn map on to general learning theories. There is still a great deal of room for streamlining this structure.


References

Arnab, Sylvester, Lim, Theodore, Carvalho, Maira B, Bellotti, Francesco, de Freitas, Sara, Louchart, Sandy, Suttie, Neil, Berta, Riccardo, De Gloria, Alessandro. (2015). Mapping learning and game mechanics for serious games analysis. British Journal of Educational Technology, 46(2), pp.

Patino, Azeneth, Romero, Margarida, Proulx, Jean-Nicolas. (2016). Analysis of Game and Learning Mechanics according to the Learning Theories. 2016 8th International Conference on Games and Virtual Worlds for Serious Applications (VS-GAMES), September, 2016.

Proulx, J. N., Romero, M., & Arnab, S. (2016). Learning Mechanics and Game Mechanics Under the Perspective of Self-Determination Theory to Foster Motivation in Digital Game Based Learning. Simulation & Gaming, 48(1), pp. 81-98.

Sandham, Andy. (2015). Are Game Mechanics Mappable to Learning Taxonomies? European Conference on Games Based Learning, Norway, October 2015. North Brabant, Netherlands: NHTV Breda University of Applied Science.

Tondello, Gustavo F., Wehbe, Rina R., Orji, Rita, Ribeiro, Giovanni, Nacke, Lennart. (2017, October 15). A Framework and Taxonomy of Videogame Playing Preferences presented at Chi Play 2017, Amsterdam.

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Paulo Ribeiro is a graduate student at Teachers College, Columbia University in the Design and Development of Digital Games program. His main area of interest has been in using game-based learning and gamification for civic and character education.