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4 Video Game Tricks for Online Learning

Written by: Jeff Kuhn
Published on: Mar 8, 2021

Video Game
Image credit: CREATISTA/Shutterstock

Recently, Jeff Kuhn had the opportunity to speak to a group of Fulbright foreign language educators about ways to incorporate elements of video game design into their online courses...

An effective online course and a video game have much in common. Most important, they are intentionally designed objects. That means the experience of the user, not the content or the objective, is the first concern of the designer, and everything is designed to help the player/learner to understand the environment. To start, let’s take a look at one example of a well-designed game: Super Mario Bros.


Our goal is to use the same thoughtful process that game designers use to develop our online courses. We can start by applying four basic principles to our online courses.

1. Short-Term Objectives, Long-Term Goals

The most successful games make use of both objectives and goals. What is the difference? Game designer Josh Bryer describes short-term objectives this way:

the player is making immediate and visible progress in the game. This is why the early game of [massively multiplayer online game] is so engaging: The player is able to [defeat] enemies quickly, see their progress bar go up, and over the first few hours they will be constantly leveling up and unlocking new things.

In other words: Objectives are quick and relatively easy to achieve.

Long-term goals are harder to achieve: To defeat the boss and save the world takes a long time! Players are unwilling to devote the long period of time it takes to grow strong and defeat the boss if they don’t get smaller, more immediate awards (those short-term objectives!) during their quest. Games researcher Tom Chatfield describes it this way:

What Can Educators Learn From This?

An effective learning environment is a balance between these short-term objectives (complete the homework) and the long-term goal for the class (pass the class!), and an effective online class clearly communicates to the student these objectives and goals. What is critical is that students are provided short-term objectives that are low stakes (i.e., not a significant impact on their grade) where they can practice the skills they need to achieve before challenging the end-game boss (the final exam).

2. Frequent Feedback

Games are great at providing feedback. Whenever we make a mistake, we almost immediately see the “game over” screen, and importantly: The player gets to try again. This opportunity to try again almost immediately is critical because it lets the player learn from their mistake and try to improve. This failure/feedback/retry pattern is called a feedback loop, and in games the goal is to make that loop run as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, in a class, that feedback loop may take days as we work to grade student assignments.

What Can Educators Learn From This?

Think of those short-term objectives we covered in the previous segment—how often do they occur in your class and how much do they contribute to the final class grade? Short-term objectives are effective only when students can engage in low-stakes risk-taking when achieving them. Consider ways to allow students to try a quiz again, for example by making use of question banks that can randomize a quiz each time students make an attempt.

3. Multiple Ways to Solve a Problem

In the last video on homework (at 1:25 in the video), they presented an important aspect of games: Games don’t expect you to succeed on the first try in the same way homework does. Instead, games challenge the player with the question, “Can you find a way to solve this?” rather than “Do you know the solution?” Games reward players for finding solutions that work for them versus knowing the correct answer. We can use a similar approach in our classes to give students more ways to succeed in class. In fact, this approach is a key component of accessibility in education.

What Can Educators Learn From This?

When practicing language, what options are presented to the students for ways to use their language? Consider diversifying ways students can complete homework assignments that allow them to practice the target language in ways that are engaging to them. For example, can students only write a paragraph? Or can they make a speech, record a video, or write a song instead?

4. Affirmation of Performance

Video games tend to start with a mission objective, such as to sneak into the castle without alerting the guards, or climb the mountain using only the rope and hammer. Sometimes, these are given to players in the form of achievements that celebrate the player completing a challenging task in a game. These missions allow the player to understand what they need to do and how they need to do it. And, of course, if they fail they can compare what they did against what they were expected to do - in the classroom, we call that a rubric!

What Can Educators Learn From This?

Consider ways to design your coursework to take advantage of rubrics. Especially in online classes, students can feel lost and unsure what to do; rubrics provide a clear indication of what a student should do, usually via an example, and how they will be graded. Even better, rubrics can give students the feedback they need if they want to try again for a higher score. Rubrics are great to combine with task- or project-based learning, such as having students create a podcast in the target language, give a speech, or create a tourist pamphlet.

These ideas can help as you consider ways to improve your online classroom experience.