How To Build a Serious Game: Part 1

A game is a series of interesting choices.”- Sid Meier (legendary game designer)

How can a serious game be developed using instruction design and game design principles?

Instruction Design principles, for example like the ADDIE model (analysis, design, development, implementation and evaluation) provide valuable inputs to a serious game. Using the basic features of game design and combining them with the ADDIE model, a learning-goal based game can be developed.

The basic design rule of all games has three main features (MDA):

• Mechanics: The rules and concepts that formally specify the game-as-system. Mechanics are the all possible actions designed in the system.

• Dynamics: The run-time behavior of the game-as-system (Dynamics and Mechanics are different views of games.). Time Pressure is a dynamic. Dynamics are all the possible interactions the player has with the game.

• Aesthetics: The desirable emotional responses evoked by the game dynamics. Serious games motivate learners through emotional involvement. A game to be motivating and rewarding has to have eight affective features:

1. Sensation: as sense-pleasure.

2. Fantasy: as make-believe

3. Narrative: as drama

4. Challenge: as obstacle course

5. Fellowship: as social framework

6. Discovery: as uncharted territory

7. Expression: as self-discovery

8. Submission: as pastime

As opposed to traditional classroom environments, where the learning model is one of transmitting content, game-based pedagogies hold a situated view of learning where players enter with understandings, identities, and questions, and through interaction with the game system, develop along trajectories towards expert performance. (Juul, 2004)

Did you know that instruction design principles can actually fulfill the gaps in game design principles, when developing a serious game? Research in game design (by Zimmerman, 2003) reveals that a game developed in iterations, traps ambiguity by defining its solution. When digital games are rolled out, there are things we can never be sure of:

• When the game will be played?

• How many times will it be played?

• Who will play the game?

• Where will it be played?

• What if a decision is not supported?

This is where we marry game design rules with instruction design tools: merge together ADDIE and MDA. In order to answer a few of these questions, instruction design principles, like “analysis”, will identify the “who” will play the game. The “design” aspect takes care of “where” the game would be played. The “evaluation” part enables the serious game designer to catch all exceptions; the looming doubt of “what if the decision is not supported”.

Serious games, if designed carefully, create performance-based courses. These courses are easier to assess because managers can measure performance before and after the course. Compare this with a regular, information based e-Learning course, where it is challenging to determine if learners are applying the information that is tied with the performance.

Effective Scenarios for Serious Games

Scenarios are the heart of serious games. This is where you mimic the real world or the performance context of the learner. Scenarios help learners practice and apply your content. By creating an immersive learning environment, learners can explore and make decisions based on the available information. This is where serious instructions become a game: decision making and problem solving.

There are several ways to build a scenario that puts the course content into a context that is relevant to the learners. The goal is to encourage learners to utilize the information in a real world setting.

Here are some of these ways:

  • Focus on the learner: Who are they and what are their aspirations? Conduct a thorough learner analysis. Determine their performance setting. Is it an office, a factory or behind the counter? What information do learners have already?
  • What motivates the learner: This is a typical what’s-in-this-for-me quest. You already know what the organization’s learning needs are. Talk to your learners to discover what they expect from your course. Tying personal requests with the course will motivate the learners because they know they will get valuable knowledge for their time.
  • What will the learners do with the information they receive? Begin a scenario with introductory storyline information: “Mary Johns just got fired. She was found guilty of being an accomplice to retrieving sensitive company data. Her alibi is that she was set-up by another colleague. Your task is to walk through the crime scene with Mary and discover the real accomplice to the crime.” Story settings and related scenarios hook the learner intimately with your content.
  • Let them discover information: Using the clues from the interactive scenario and the dialogues exchanged between you, Mary and other employees, ask the learner to create a report of “field notes”. Avoid giving information directly (as in an information-based course). Rather, create a mechanism for learners to discover information. This demands their focus and deeper engagement. Provide feedback at each step to scaffold learners in a direction.
  • Keep it simple: While creating scenarios, you will be tempted to clutter it with information. Keep the scene simple by creating objects that lead to detailed information when clicked, for example job aids or cheat sheets that they can use after the course.  You can use those as the resources that learners can explore to solve the scenario. Guide them on how to use this information. Create a virtual guide.  The guide takes you through the course with the understanding that at any time you need additional information, you click on the guide for tips and clues.
  • Ask for new perspectives and ideas: look into comics, opening lines, case studies provided by SMEs. Visualize the scenes and create scenarios accordingly.
  • Confirm with SME for accuracy: Make sure the content flows completely through all clues and objects in your scenario-based course. Check with the SME to ensure key learning goals are presented as information and practice activities. Feedback should reinforce the learning goals. Be specific with feedback “That is not correct. If Mary says Peter provided the passwords to the database, you already know that Mary had access to those systems.” Or request the learner to “Go back to scene 3 and read up supplemental information.”You could also create a character that is your learner’s “assistant”. If they need to ask a question, they can click on the assistant. Alternately, provide a drop-down menu of FAQs. Features like these provide extra opportunities to add content to a scenario.


Game design has still not seeped into the training scene as it should have. The reasons lie in the lack of a framework that combines together the elements of game design and those of instruction design. Several researchers still favor the ADDIE model when designing educational video games.

This model is well known to cover a detailed and a complex view of both conceptual and technical levels of a video game design. However, it misses the game design principles that represent that game aspect of learning.

Without a gameplay, instructions become only learning at best, and fail to deliver the promised motivation through entertainment.

Interested in finding out more about games in eLearning? Read more about actors and their roles in eLearning games, as well as about gamification in eLearning!

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