Motivational Design

Lenses and Patterns for Motivational Game Design

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Learning and Habit

Interactive entertainment, and specifically video games, have the power to affect their players in unique ways. Because of their engaging and often immersive nature, games can draw players in deeper and hold their attention longer than other forms of entertainment.

The fact that games are able to make these sorts of connections with players means that they have a unique ability to teach and share concepts, to help foster learning, in more ways than ever before. There is ever increasing research that games can be used to effectively convey some types of information extremely well, a huge step forward in some cases.

However, there is also a danger that games can be too engaging, and foster addictions and negative habits in others lives. There are very powerful motivational concepts at play within the interactions with games and other digital experiences, and these can be misused to the peril of the player. Designers must be very diligent with the types of experiences they build, and how they drive interaction with them, to avoid being overly malicious or detrimental to the player.

Lens of Learning

When designing games, it is important to consider the types of things that will be taught or conveyed to the player.

Players will always learn something from games. What will it be in yours?

Focusing Questions

  • What kinds of messages am I conveying to my players?
  • How can I use this game to help players become more knowledgeable about something useful?
  • How will my player's lives be benefited by what my game teaches them?
  • What are the messages (positive or negative) that my game will present to the audience?

Can be instantiated by




Sim City

In the real time management simulation Sim City, players are given the task of managing a city from it's early days as a tiny town, all the way up to a bustling metropolis. The gameplay is quite simple, but elegantly laid out, making it easy for players to delve into the various quirks of running a growing city. From lights and power to sewage and even bus routes, Sim City simulates the massive undertaking that is inherent in keeping an urban population progressing smoothly. This game, though not marketed as a game to teach, is never-the-less useful for showing players many of the facets of city management, and can be a great place to learn more about these complexities. The knowledge imparted by this game, as with most games for learning, is surface level, but extremely engaging, driving players to continued engagement with the topic, even in contexts external to the game.


When designing a game, keep in mind the ways that learning and related principles will effect the players.

Creating Learning Goals

One easy way to ensure that the learning aspects of a game are being considered in the design is to create specific learning goals or other milestones of player understanding. By making a conscious effort to instill a bit of knowledge or challenge a player's current worldview, you will make a better game, and also have a much greater understanding of what players will learn or take away from the game. This allows designers to shape the message that will be presented by the game, and ensure it is in line with the tone and direction of the game that is desired.

Apply Known Educational Theory

Another very useful way to manage the learning outcomes that will be present in a game is to become familiar with current advances in learning and educational theory. There is a plethora of research that has been and continues to be done in this field, especially in the growing field of educational games, and much of it outlines exactly the sorts of things to be mindful of when creating a game - how to shape the message how messages are transmitted through media, and how new media is changing the way we as humans process information. All of this and more can be invaluable in managing the outcomes of what a game will be remembered for once released to the general audience.

Have a Player-Centered Mindset

When thinking about learning in games, the final factor in the puzzle in the players - those who will be influenced by the game you place before them. Taking time throughout the process to consider the game from their perspective will help to refocus energies and find areas where the game might be less than optimal for the player. By maintaining a focus on their unique needs, designers can ensure that their players will have a much better chance of retaining and being able to use the information presented to them in meaningful ways beyond the game.


A broad checklist hat can be used at various points in the design to examine its learning aspects.

  • Write down a learning goal for this portion of the game, and then play the game to achieve it. Evaluate.
  • Have a coworker or friend (not necessarily a designer) play a portion of the game and interview them about the learning goal. Did they understand it? What can they tell you about their interpretation of it?
  • Consult a subject matter expert (SME) about the subject that is covered in the learning goal. Ask them to try the game, and record their reactions. Ask them about their experience.


There are currently a variety of metrics available for use in evaluating learning in various forms, including Bloom's Taxonomy of learning.


The lens is growing in interest and a rising standard.


Motivations: Goal Setting, Meaning

Components: Addiction


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motivations/learning_and_habit.txt · Last modified: 2014/05/17 21:30 by dkochensparger