How Game Elements can Supercharge Your Course Design: Goals in Games and Learning 

Image of a computer cursor hovering over a board game

Taking a page from your favorite game’s rulebook.

This article is part of a series exploring the intersections of game and learning design.

I am an instructional designer by trade and a game designer by hobby.  

One thing has become increasingly evident to me as I’ve sharpened my pedagogical chops, consulted in the design and quality certification of numerous fully online courses for a major public research university, and played a whole lot of board games: a game and a well-crafted learning experience hold striking similarities. 

Most obviously, both depend on users – players in the former, learners in the latter – interacting and working toward some goal (winning the game, mastering the content).  

But look under the hood at what makes the game system work, and a few connections become apparent: 

  • Both involve a set of parameters (the game’s rules, mechanics, and win conditions; the course’s syllabus, policies, and objectives) that constrains and drives user behavior.  
  • Both embed measures to provide feedback about the user’s performance. 
  • And importantly, both create conditions for user self-determination: great games and learning experiences both see their users evaluate what they know in the given system and make their own choices to come out on top —and have fun doing it. 

These parallels mean the elements and techniques underpinning game design can and should be further leveraged to create learner-focused instruction that engages learners, motivates them to succeed, and encourages authentic investment in the instructional content and activities. 

The Anatomy of a Game 

The value of a TOY is Mapping, or Exploration, or even possibly “play”. The toy’s value is in learning all of the ins and outs of an interactive system. Playing with a toy is actually piecing together its ruleset, finding its edges and its possible interactions.

The value of a PUZZLE is Solving. The colloquial definition is puzzle matches somewhat well – think of a Sudoku puzzle, or a riddle. We’re scouring the edges of the ruleset (which we have to already have in order to engage with the puzzle and attempt to find the answer) attempting to find the solution.

The value of a CONTEST is Evaluation. This, like the Puzzle, is also very similar to what we’d expect based on colloquial definitions. Who has more of Resource X? It may be speed, strength, memorized facts, or even luck (Roulette, for instance, is a luck-contest).

The value of a GAME is Understanding. This is the one that requires the most explanation, since I’m using the word “understanding” in a prescriptive way too (it’s the closest word I know for the phenomenon). Understanding is the act of adding to a complex web of heuristics that a player will build over time which the player uses to inform decisions. “Fun” in strategy games comes from those moments of building this understanding.
Figure 1. Burgun’s “four interactive forms.” Source: Clockwork Game Design, Keith Burgun

Consider what makes a game a game.  

In his book Game Design Theory: A New Philosophy for Understanding Games, game designer Keith Burgun differentiates games from less complex interactive systems. For Burgun, the difference between a “toy,” the most basic category of interactive form, and a “game” is the incorporation of three defining features: goals, means for measurement and feedback, and decision-making on the part of the player.  

Goals, measurement and feedback, decision-making (more accurately, the sense of autonomy that comes with it) are also crucial and necessary components of learning. These elements distinguish, likewise, a learning environment from less complex and less effective forms of information transfer. Designing with great intentional focus on these elements allows the crafting of effective, relevant, motivating learning experiences in which learners flourish. 


Playing a game means working toward a goal. Specifically, it involves bringing about satisfying a set of predetermined win conditions. This is a defining feature of a game: no goal, no game.  

Some goals from popular strategy games include being the last landlord with money in Monopoly, capturing all your opponent’s pieces in Checkers, and being the first to earn 10 victory points in Settlers of Catan.  

In all cases, the goal is clearly defined and plainly presented to the player from the start. Players have something for which to strive from the first move, strategizing their turns and measuring their progress at each step of the way. Gameplay (versus open play) arises from understanding and finding clever ways to work toward the goal.  

If you ever tried playing a game in which the goal was unclear to you, your moves and interactions would be meaningless. What did advancing this pawn achieve? Why should I purchase this property? What’s the point of collecting this resource?  

In the absence of these answers, would you feel motivated to continue? 

Hence the first thing communicated to a player learning a new game is the object of the game. It may take just a minute or even a few seconds (games of elegance may require only a single sentence), but it is an upfront requirement — framing and providing contexts for all that follows. Only then can the player move on to actually learning the game: its rules, mechanics, and possible interactions that constrain and drive efforts toward that object.  

For the game designer, the goal anchors, unifies, and gives any meaning whatsoever to the system’s components. Each component — from the rules and mechanics to the physical pieces on the gameboard – should exist for the purpose of allowing players to work toward that goal. Conversely, there should be no features that exist for some purpose other than supporting goal-oriented play that distracts from the game as a whole. 

The discerning reader is likely to detect several parallels to course design.  

Chess board

Goals (in the form of learning objectives) give purpose to the elements of the course. They orient the learner, make all elements of the course cohesive, and make meaningful interaction possible. Without goals we don’t have a learning environment at all but rather something more akin to a mere repository of information, or, worse, a patchwork of nonrelevant materials and activities.  

From the learner’s point of view, when the connection between learning objectives and the course’s realities is anything less than clear and deliberate, the course runs the risk of seeming incoherent and rife with nonrelevant activities. What did reading this article achieve? Why should I submit my outline? What is the point of evaluating my peers’ projects? 

This goes not just for missing objectives, but for unclear, poorly defined, or ill-aligned ones. Even well-constructed objectives can fall flat when alignment is vexed. It’s a frustrating experience as an instructor to have the assignments you designed interpreted as busy work. (Discussion boards, I’m looking at you!) 

Only when the learner understands the rationale for the learning activity will that activity be meaningful. Only when an activity fits authentically into the system to achieve the goal can learners feel motivated to act.  

Next in this series, we will cover Burgun’s second game-defining element as it pertains to online course design: measurement and feedback.

Francis Hill is an instructional designer with over a decade of experience in teaching and playful pedagogy. He’s also a game designer, currently prototyping a card game based on the gothic romanticism of Anne Radcliffe and a board game about racing Shakespearean witches and their familiars.

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