Wednesday / May 29

What Digital Game Designers Know about Assessment and Instructional Design

This blog is the first in a three-part series by Bob Sornson.

Compare and contrast. Think back to your teacher education courses and remember the experience of taking a class on curriculum and instruction. Now contrast that with the experience of digital gaming, any game whether it includes angry birds or legions of stormtroopers. What do the game designers know that keeps players engaged, motivated, and willing to devote hours of their time to the pursuit of a higher score or the achievement of a next level? What do game designers know that educators at the university and in most secondary and elementary schools consistently neglect?

Game designers don’t live within the constrictions and systems thinking of the rigidly paced, one-size-fits-all curriculum-driven systems common in most K-12 schools and universities. Instead, successful designers really want players to be interested, motivated, fully engaged, and willing to give both time and energy to the game. They have reached deeply into the research and application of best learning and assessment practices. Here are some of the key elements of design they consistently use.

Students advance upon mastery, not by a rigid pacing guide, or by age. 

Games have levels of challenge, and players are never pushed to a higher level until they are fully ready.

Tiered learning

Vygotsky would be proud of the care with which designers craft tiers of learning. With every new level, the knowledge and skills picked up in previous levels can be applied to help the gamer be successful.

Instructional zone

Success breeds success, unless it comes too easily. Designers artfully apply the research on instructional match, instructional zone, and zone of proximal development. They build exquisite algorithms to keep players challenged so they are interested, but never overwhelmed, frustrated and disengaged.

Trial and error

Well-designed games encourage players to try something, see if it works, reflect, form a hypothesis, visualize an action plan, try something new, and repeat the process. Players learn to try stuff and see what works. This feedback loop is quick and consistent. Mistakes are part of the action, and fun because there is an overall sense of success and progress.

Motivation to take on challenges

Successful video games are difficult. Gamers want to take on challenges, solve problems, collaborate, and persist. Gamers are intrinsically motivated to learn more skills and get better at the game. Contrast that with students in many classrooms who want to do as little as possible to get a good grade, as judged by someone else, when working on obscure and personally meaningless learning objectives.

Embedded assessment

Game designers do not use end of unit assessments. There is no Bell Curve and they don’t give grades. Instead, assessment is embedded into every moment of the game. Is the gamer being successful enough to stay fully engaged? The level of difficulty is increased only when the student is ready for the challenge, as demonstrated by her level of play. Every moment of play is used as part of the formative assessment process to determine whether to present new challenges or take the player to the next level.

Designers know that the best assessment gives you the information you need to adjust the level of difficulty right now. They would not consider information about how a student was doing last week, last month, or last year as relevant to the process of keeping the student engaged and learning.

Identity and networks of support

Gamers see themselves as learning and getting better, with the end goal of beating the game or an opponent. They often form support networks with friends or colleagues who share tactics, experiences, and suggestions for improvement. With every new skill, with every new level, with every victory their identity as a learner is reinforced.

Digital game designers have rejected the patterns of instructional assessment and design used in most schools because they don’t work. 

None of the key elements of game design noted here were developed for digital learning. They come from good theory, research, and practice with real humans in any learning setting. Sadly they are notably absent from typical instructional and assessment practices in most schools, where there is far too much content, delivered using rigid pacing guides, along with high-stakes assessment of both students and teachers and a general atmosphere of pressure and fear.

Digital designers build learning systems that are competency based. Players (students) build skills at their own level, at their own pace, are motivated and engaged in the learning process, use personal initiative to try new things and develop new skills, see themselves as excited about getting better, and look to others for ideas and experiences to help them learn. Players see themselves as active learners, not as passive recipients of some drudgery imposed by others. Assessment is continuous, and immediately applied to the delivery of instruction so that the gamer can stay in the zone of success.

Contrast game design with typical classroom instruction, in which the teachers deliver the same content to all students, at the same pace whether it matches their interest or skill readiness. At the end of a unit, a test is given, assigning students a grade, sorting winners and losers. Assessment is after the fact, and not used to personalize instruction. Only a few students are winners, and many of these have been bored throughout the process and find no sense of accomplishment or excitement for learning.

Designers in the digital world know that for people to purchase and use their game it must be engaging, challenging, personalized, and responsive to individual needs. Successful games make you feel challenged but never overwhelmed, allow you to progress at your own pace, make choices, and keep you intrinsically driven to play.

Game designers actually use the assessment and instructional design concepts and practices you discussed in an education class at some point in your training to become a teacher.  Most schools do not.

Written by

Bob Sornson is an award-winning author and presenter, calling for programs and practices which support competency based learning and early learning success. He works internationally with school districts, universities, and parent organizations. His many books include Over-Tested and Under-Prepared: Using Competency-Based Learning to Transform Our Schools (Routledge), Fanatically Formative (Corwin Press), and Stand in My Shoes: Kids Learning about Empathy (Love and Logic Press). Contact

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