Game Design Strategies for Balancing the Online Classroom

by Staff Writers

Yesterday's post, Utilizing Game Mechanics in Online Learning, contained an overview of game mechanics and the ways in which these broad concepts can inform online course design in order to make virtual learning more interactive and engaging. Today I examine some specific strategies for fine-tuning the balance of the various game mechanics in order to create a learning experience that has the right blend of space, objects, actions, rules, skill, and chance.

According to game designer Jesse Schell it is not enough to have all of the necessary elements in a game in order to make it successful – you must also strike an artful balance between them (2008). There are a variety of ways to achieve the necessary blend of components. In his book The Art of Game Design (2008), Schell outlines the most common strategies for achieving balance in game mechanics. Here are his 12 strategies and a brief overview of how each can be applied to online course design:

  1. Fairness – According to Schell there are two basic strategies for utilizing the concept of fairness in game design: symmetrical and asymmetrical (p. 172-173). Symmetrically designed games are created so that the playing field is level between all those participating in the game – this is the case for most traditional sports games. Asymmetrical design uses a disparity between players or players and characters in the game in order to create a more challenging dynamic. In learning design you can implement either strategy based on how you allocate course resources. Building unfairness into the class in order to create a challenge for your learners and to simulate the real world obstacles they may face can be extremely motivational. Be warned though, if not done carefully, creating an unfair learning environment for students who are not ready for it or up to the challenge can be discouraging and demoralizing.
  2. Challenge vs. Success – Successful games strike a balance between making challenges too easy and making them too hard for players to complete successfully. Straying too far to either side will cause frustration and eventual abandonment of the game (p. 177). A similar principle applies in learning. First proposed by Vygotsky, the idea is to create a series of increasingly challenging learning objectives that will gradually raise students' skill level in small, satisfying steps. Creating a structure in your online classroom where students are rewarded for their incremental successes, which come as the result of overcoming challenges, provides motivation and a natural flow for the course.
  3. Meaningful Choices – Schell asserts that the best games present the player with meaningful choices to make that have a real impact on how the game turns out (p. 179). In course design, this idea is a direct analog to the concept of student-centered learning, where the student is responsible not only for choosing what they will learn, but also for doing the learning independent of the instructor. Designing choices into your curriculum by allowing students to choose the topics of projects or even collaboratively determining portions of the course content, objectives, and assessments can create deep buy-in into the course and make students feel both successful and empowered.
  4. Skill vs. Chance – The balance between success based on skill or due to chance is probably the least useful tension for course design. In gaming, this is largely an individual preference for the type of game (a game of skill or a game of chance) and is difficult to balance in a way that will be universally appealing (p. 183). Incorporating some elements that seem to be chance occurrences can be exciting for students, but you do not want them to feel as if successes in the course have happened by chance. In this case, designing so that students realize that their skills have increased and their successes have come as a result of their personal advancement is almost always the safer bet (see Challenge and Success, above).
  5. Head vs. Hands – This is the tension between manual dexterity and intellectual ability in games. Many action games blend these two elements seamlessly as players must physically master the game controls in order to successfully negotiate the intellectual challenges of the game (p. 184). This concept may seem counterintuitive to education (an intellectual pursuit), but does not need to be. Returning to the previous post, you as the designer, have control of the space and objects in your learning design. Including elements which require your students to develop concrete skills and abilities relating to the course content is an excellent way to build both the physical and intellectual capacity of your learners. Project-based or problem-based learning is one example of how the head vs. hands balance can be reached in online courses.
  6. Competition vs. Cooperation – Games provide a socially safe space in which to explore these very basic human urges (p. 185). Designing both elements into your classes allows students to experience a tension that is likely to be very real when they enter the work world. Business, industry, and even education can be intensely competitive while simultaneously demanding cooperative, team behavior. Incorporating both of these into your class, either through direct competition over small sections of the course, or through team-based competition, provides exposure to an important part of the learning experience. Introducing role playing games or MMOGs into the learning environment is one very straightforward way to bring this tension into the online classroom.
  7. Short vs. Long – The game designer must determine the duration of game play in their design, both for the overall game and individual challenges (p. 188). Striking this balance in the online classroom can be accomplished by constructing the course so that a series of shorter, easily attainable projects or outcomes lead to the completion of a longer course project or assignment.
  8. Rewards – This is the most commonly used game mechanic that finds its way into other contexts through a variety of systems such as: praise, points, prolonged play, gateways to new experiences, spectacle, expression, powers, resources, completion of the game (p. 189-190). Rewards themselves have been used in education throughout the formal history of the institution. We most commonly know them as grades, report cards, and graduation. The reward process does not need to be nearly as formal or final objective oriented as these in order to be successful in the online classroom. Consider smaller acknowledgements of student success such as badges, enrichment activities, kudos on a discussion board, assignment of special roles within the class, or unlocking the next level of course assignment as ways of acknowledging incremental successes on the part of students.
  9. Punishment – Of course the flipside of reward is punishment, which in games can be an effective tool for increasing the challenge for players and increasing their sense of achievement (p. 192). Punishment does not work particularly well in the classroom and is generally frowned upon by the administration, so we'll just ignore this particular strategy for creating excitement in the online classroom. Having discipline in a class is not the same as punishing students for failing to reach a learning objective.
  10. Freedom vs. Controlled Experience – Relating back to the concept of meaningful choices, determining how much freedom and choice to give to players is a critical tension in game design (p 195). Too much and they are designing the game rather than playing it. Too little freedom and students or players will feel locked into an inevitable outcome. In course design you must walk the line between allowing your students to be in control of the content and direction of the course and undermining your own authority in the classroom. Setting clear parameters within which students can exercise their control is one method of achieving a balance between these two elements.
  11. Simple vs. Complex – This is the "three bears" paradox in game design – the game can't be overly simple (boring) or too complex (confusing), but rather must strike a balance between elegance (simplicity) and richness (complexity) (p. 195). In course design this tension can be addresses partially by allowing for learner control (freedom) and by knowing the audience in advance of designing the class. Pilot testing, focus group interviewing, and usability testing, as well as working backwards from your course objectives to determine the most effective ways to reach those objectives for the largest group of prospective learners is one way of addressing this dynamic.
  12. Detail vs. Imagination – The game designer must decide how much detail should be provided in the game and how much should be left up to the player's imagination (p. 199). This tension is slightly different in course design, as the instructor must provide sufficient guidance to allow the learners to complete tasks, while not providing so much that they can simply follow a step-by-step procedure without thinking for themselves. This is a particularly challenging variable to balance for the online instructor, especially if the students in a particular course are not extremely technologically proficient or confident. Students who do not feel confident in their own ability to learn new skills or tools want concrete guidance and hand-holding. It is up to the instructor to determine how much guidance is enough to get students started so that they can eventually take over and become self-directed learners.

Game design and course design are complex processes with a lot of overlap in regards to the sophistication of the overall development process. Looking closely at the elements and strategies employed in successful game design can guide the online course developer in creating a rich, engaging, exciting, challenging, and rewarding learning environment that will challenge students to not only learn, but to take responsibility for their own learning.


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