10 Principles of Effective Games to Make School a Better Learning Environment

Text: "Making school a better Game" over a school house

Math Blaster! is an educational video game designed to test students’ ability to solve simple math problems. In the 1983 game, players fly an arcade-style spaceship as math problems appear at the bottom of the screen. Their task is to shoot an asteroid that displays the correct answer to the math problems. Math Blasters! and comparable educational video games are popularly associated with gamified learning; however, these types of educational games aren’t particularly great games or optimal learning environments for the intended subject area.

Gameful learning isn’t about playing educational games; instead, it’s about creating a highly motivating and engaging learning environment by implementing proven game design elements into a course structure. Math Blasters! may teach people to perform mental math more quickly, but the abstract thinking and modeling skills that are essential in STEM subjects demand a more rigorous environment. With gamified learning, students are challenged and motivated to construct knowledge that goes far beyond the basics of an educational game.1

Image 1: An example of a math problem in the game


School is a Game

Researchers in ludology, the study of game and play, define games in different ways, but most definitions highlight the player’s struggle through challenges to earn some tangible representation of success. Salen & Zimmerman, who published a book on game design, define a game as “a system in which players engage in artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome,” and school certainly fits this description. Students (players) engage with teacher-created tests, assignments, and presentations (artificial content) defined by rubrics (rules) that result in grades (quantifiable outcome).2

University of Michigan professor Barry Fishman studies the use of video games as modes for learning environments and has come to the opinion that school is a game, just not a very good one. Like other educational games, school is not a very well-designed game, and students often complain about being bored and uninterested. Good games, on the other hand, are excellent learning environments because they are captivating, challenging, and unpredictable. As an alternative to a traditional and dull school environment, a gamified school environment harnesses the power of game design elements to counteract the usual boredom and disinterest.

So, what can schools learn from successful games? Barry Fishman describes 10 Principles that define excellent games and in turn exceptional learning environments.3


10 Principles that Define Excellent Games

Clear Learning Goals

In a good game, clear goals and instructions help players progress through captivating missions, levels, and quests. This progression is part of the allure of a good game, and it provides a reason for continued gameplay. In the school environment, learning goals should be clearly communicated at the beginning of each lesson. Not only that, but learning goals should offer some value to students. “It will be important later” is too vague, and “It will be on the test” isn’t very appealing. Instead, an instructor should try and connect the content to relevant applications, current events, or cross-curricular contexts.

Identity Play

Identity play makes gaming engaging and exciting. In a good game, players control memorable characters and immerse themselves in an entertaining virtual world. In-game tasks are meaningful because they matter to the story and characters. In school, the content should connect to the context; otherwise, students have little purpose for the skills and knowledge they are learning. So, instead of merely learning about chemistry, students should learn how to think and act like chemists.

Embedded Assessment

Games monitor a player’s skills and choices moment by moment, and gameplay usually adapts to increase the difficulty as a player acquires new knowledge and abilities. Games don’t stop to test a player’s skills before they advance to the next level; rather, the player’s capabilities are determined by challenges that are embedded in the gameplay. Similarly, a well-designed learning environment integrates frequent low-stakes assessments. Instead of shutting down instruction for extensive testing, less intrusive assessments are blended into the natural flow of a course, keeping a constant inventory of student’s abilities.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

Good games are captivating and satisfying because they are challenging - people like to solve problems and overcome obstacles. Researchers suggest that intrinsic motivation is what maintains engagement in a game. But, successful games further increase player engagement with appropriate rewards (extrinsic motivation). In-game rewards should be minimal, just enough to keep players motivated. If they are too momentous, players may become disinterested. In school, extrinsic motivation tools in the form of progress bars and badges may increase student engagement because they can be more tangible than letter grades and year-end awards.4

Support Autonomy

Successful games present a player with intriguing and complicated choices. For instance, players may choose their character or the path they will pursue to complete a quest. In the classroom, content is usually presented in a linear progression with the instructor mandating the topics and assignments. But, in a gamified learning environment, students often choose their own pathway across the course content, the subjects of study, or even the assignments and assessments to complete.

Encourage Belonging

Multiplayer games are incredibly popular. In these types of games, players work together for a common purpose, supporting their team by contributing specialized roles or skills. This type of interaction encourages a sense of belonging; motivating continued gameplay and skill development. In line with Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory, learning is intertwined with social and cultural contexts. In school, knowledge is best constructed when a student is an active member of a healthy learning community that encourages group interaction with plenty of positive feedback.5

Support Competence

In line with another of Vygotsky’s ideas, the zone of proximal development, successful games gradually increase the difficulty and support players as they acquire the necessary skills to advance to the next level. In a well-designed course, students engage with content that is challenging but also doable with the support of their teacher and peers.6

Productive Failure

Games don’t overly punish someone when they fail. If a character dies, a player is typically allowed to restart and try again. In a good game, players learn from their mistakes and usually find success when given another chance to perform a task. With no “reset button”, failure, in a traditional school setting, can debilitate a student’s future. Not only that, but the system tends to encourage shortcuts and cheating since failure isn’t an option. In contrast, a quality learning environment offers students frequent opportunities to check their understanding and learn from mistakes before confronting more weighty assessments and assignments. In this situation, failure is considered an essential step in the learning process, not the end of the road.

Encourage Exploration

Successful games are usually full of secrets, and some players explore countless hours to discover them all. Similarly, a well-designed course supports students as they explore the problem space. Students are encouraged to analyze the methods of problem-solving and discuss alternative routes to find an answer. In this environment, rote memorization is unnecessary because students are more focused on evaluating the best possible evidence and reasoning to support their claims.

Practice and Reinforce

Potentially the most obvious principle in the list: practice makes perfect. In my own classes, I frequently equate practicing for a sport with studying for chemistry. Without consistent practice, an athlete would probably perform poorly in the game. Likewise, a chemistry student must practice solving chemistry problems every single day if they want to perform well on assessments. With this in mind, my students start and end each class period with short quizzes. Not only does this practice regularly expose them to assessment questions, but it also encourages regular practice.



  1. Soloway, E., & Norris, C. (1998). Using technology to address old problems in new ways. Communications of the ACM, 41(8), 11-18.
  2. Salen, K., & Zimmerman, E. (2003). Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press.
  3. Aguilar, S. J., Holman, C., & Fishman, B. J. (2018). Game-inspired design: Empirical evidence in support of gameful learning environments. Games and Culture, 13(1), 44-70.
  4. Pavlus, J. Why We Love the Games That Enrage Us Most. Scientific America. Retrieved April 26, 2016.
  5. Wertsch, J. V., & Tulviste, P. (2002). 2L. S. Vygotsky and contemporary developmental psychology. In An introduction to Vygotsky (pp. 65-86). Routledge.
  6. Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of the higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.