Making Game Based Learning #gbl – research & principles

My friend Professor Sara Grimes was looking for some research on game based learning and put a tweet out looking for resources. We’ve spent the last 9 months researching, thinking about learning and gbl and building technology for our gbl projects (Felicity from Thin Air is being revamped to scale appropriately as a MMO). In response, I’ve put together this information.

This is an ongoing document concerned with how we approach and understand game based learning. It’s also a live Google Doc – if people wish to contribute, send me an email with a request to be an editor and we’ll learn collaboratively from each other. There’s more research to be added to this thread from a ludological perspective. Our main focus is from a maker’s, not a scholar’s approach but an academic perspective also informs our understanding and implementations.

Game Based Learning research/resources:

Contributors: @ianchia,…

Game based learning weaves together a number of disciplines to create a learning experience that is cognitively engaging, with learning and autonomy privileged as part of the gameful experience. In my opinion, game based learning (gbl) is not “gamification” and gamified learning experiences do not equal game based learning. (At the bottom of this post is further reading that explains the differentiation between game based learning and gamification.)

To understand how to make game based learning work best, one needs to grasp interdisciplinary perspectives that underlie principles of cognition, persuasion, game mechanics, storytelling, immersive transmedia storyworlds, and various learning pedagogies both on a child/adolescent cognition development basis, as well as pedagogies that are “in flux” as they’re being developed and investigated on 21st century network learning such as Connectivism ( and the Rhizomic Learning approach (@davecormier & @MaryAnnReilly ). MMOs such as Minecraft, Little Big Planet, Second Life etc exhibit characteristics of emergent behavior within complex adaptive systems by intentional design on the part of the game designer ( – this is not accidental. The more open-endedness in the design of a network and the larger the scale of adoption, the more likely that network effects will occur. See Mark Pesce’s 5 part talk on Understanding Gilmore’s Law:
1. Understanding Gilmore’s Law (Telecoms Edition)

2. Understanding Gilmore’s Law: Network Effects

3. Understanding Gilmore’s Law: DIYnets

4. Understanding Gilmore’s Law: Check, Mate

5. Understanding Gilmore’s Law: Conclusion

(@mpesce has a deep understanding of complex networks. See his bio John Gilmore on his own phrase,

“The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” This was quoted in Time Magazine’s December 6, 1993 article “First Nation in Cyberspace”, by Philip Elmer-DeWitt. It’s been reprinted hundreds or thousands of times since then, including the NY Times on January 15, 1996, Scientific American of October 2000, and CACM 39(7):13.

In its original form, it meant that the Usenet software (which moves messages around in discussion newsgroups) was resistant to censorship because, if a node drops certain messages because it doesn’t like their subject, the messages find their way past that node anyway by some other route. This is also a reference to the packet-routing protocols that the Internet uses to direct packets around any broken wires or fiber connections or routers. (They don’t redirect around selective censorship, but they do recover if an entire node is shut down to censor it.)

The meaning of the phrase has grown through the years. Internet users have proven it time after time, by personally and publicly replicating information that is threatened with destruction or censorship. If you now consider the Net to be not only the wires and machines, but the people and their social structures who use the machines, it is more true than ever.

If we consider massive, multiplayer online games (MMOs) as not just “video” games, but ecosystems of participatory play and user generated content at large scale, emergent behavior also needs to be considered in view of evidence shown by Shirky and Nielsen, on the group behavior under the power law distribution graph.

Example of Power Law distribution (via

Example of Power Law distribution (via

or Nielsen’s perspective of the 90-9-1 rule and Participation Inequality: Encouraging More Users to Contribute It was noted by Jimmy Wales (founder of Wikipedia) that most video games attract voluntary participants to create wikis that document and discuss hidden rules.

WoWWiki is now the second largest English-language wiki in the world behind Wikipedia. At 3 million unique users per month, a full half of English-speaking WoW players visit WoWWiki every month.

Viewing Minecraft’s abundant collection of how-tos spread across websites and DIY videos on YouTube, or a transmedia phenomenon like Harry Potter’s comprehensive fanfic universe, or alternate reality or transmedia games that invite the user to bridge the virtual and physical, documenting their evidence for other players, the power-law curve applies to the whole ecosystem of user-generated content and participation, not only in the “official” game but the social networks that emerge as a shared community of play & observation. This bears a strong relationship to the notion in rhizomic learning of “the community as curriculum” (by @davecormier).

We also need to pay attention to bridging the market adoption chasm as documented in The Invisible Computer in order to gain scale to achieve such network effects:

Adoption Chasm (from the Invisible Computer Chapter 2)


On interaction design

(Note: interaction design is a continuing summation of prior disciplines such as user experience design and graphic design etc. It is about human focused design for a specific context.)

The excellent @changeorder slideshare applies equally to the design of a game application or an extended network or transmedia storyworld that texts/artifacts are posited within (think of it also applying to the design of an affinity space along the lines of James Paul Gee’s ideas.)

A strong interaction design weaves elements of psychology and manipulation of psychographic ( aspirations into a cohesive storytelling whole, where the user’s interactions and learning are scaffolded into a series of feedback loops. For learning to occur, the “player/learner” is engaged in progressively more difficult and fun experiences, employing the psychology of flow (, privileging agency and intrinsic motivation.

Kathy Sierra’s video & blog talks much about using the cognitive psychology of engagment and flow to create “passionate users”.
(Apologies, I included the wrong Kathy Sierra video initially. The following one on “cognitive seduction” is the correct one, but I’ve still included the second because I think it pertains to learning if you replace “author” with “curriculum designer or textbook author” – there is some overlap in material between the two videos but worth watching both.)

Her archived blog on Creating Passionate Users:

More approaches weaving together a number of disciplines to build “seductive interactions” – narrative and interaction design affects cognitive engagement and learning.

Seductive Interactions (Idea 09 Version) by Stephen Anderson

Interaction design & narrative design

Long After the Thrill: Sustaining Passionate Users by Stephen Anderson
“Motivating consumer behavior through game mechanics vs Motivating human behavior through psychology”

The fundamentals of Experience Design by Stephen Anderson

On historicity, Club Penguin coins and the nature of experiences by Stephen Anderson

On intrinsic motivation vs extrinsic motivation

Achievements Considered Harmful? By Chris Hecker (reflections on his GDC10 talk)

Dan Pink – RSA Animate – Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us

On the importance of User Experience (UX) for human centered products

As computers and interface disappear through better interaction design (think of how an iPad is a blank slate using the interaction device we were born with – the finger), human centered design becomes more important to end-users. User experience will dominate over other aspects of a technological product.

User experience will dominate over other aspects of a technological product.

User experience will dominate over other aspects of a technological product.

from The Invisible Computer
Growing Up: Moving from Technology-Centered to Human-Centered Products

Evolution of Web Interface Designs

The Web has gone through many stages of evolution. From its first “words” to its current complexity, the way the Web “speaks” to us has changed dramatically. In fact, many researchers seem to suggest that the Web is mature enough that function and usability are no longer effective for differentiating products. Instead we need to look to disciplines like Persuasive and Emotional design to take us to the next level of Web interface designs. But are we really ready?

Is this Information Architecture? (Parallels between Cognitive Psychology & Information Architecture).

The Conversation Gets Interesting: Creating the Adaptive Interface
(focusing on experiences over tasks, to present information in the most desirable way)

Further reading:

Game Design Concepts – Ian Schreiber @ianschreiber

Excellent overview on Game Mechanics and psychology of engagment

A Theory of Fun for Game Design – by Ralph Koster

Challenges for Game Designers – by Brenda Braithwaite @br & Ian Schreiber @ianschreiber

Better Game Characters by Design: A Psychological Approach – Katherine Isbister – by Cynthia Jabar @cynthiajabar (a wide ranging blog on children focused transmedia and creating texts & artifacts for kids)
htp://  See also #transmediakids hashtag on twitter.

Transmedia Practice: Theorising the Practice of Expressing a Fictional World across Distinct Media and Environments by Dr Christy Dena @christydena

Gamine Expedition: Thoughtful research of kids’ new media & literature, digital games, intersections of technology & play by Dr Sara Grimes @smgrimes Especially check out the INF course curriculum on the RHS nav and the linked publications

Readings on gaming vs gamification:

Overview on the gamification movement and the subsequent backlash from game and gbl developers and educators 

Academic and game developer Ian Bogost’s @ibogost view that gamification should be more accurately termed “exploitationware” 

A deep, critical review by @dingstweets of O’Reilly’s book “Gamification by Design” by Gabe Zichermann and Christopher Cunningham

Review of Foursquare as a gamified social app 

And a thought provoking, passionate post by educator and game research scholar @melaniemcbride on
Gamification in the classroom (and how to stop it)  backed by comprehensive research.