Learning Games

Quick Ideas & Pattern Languages

Here I will document ideas for learning games as well as learning-game design patterns. Keep in mind that any blockquotes are from exploratory process using GPT-3.

Patterns

Creative Challenges

Creative challenges are a great way to engage players and to get them thinking in new and interesting ways. The challenge should be designed to push players out of their comfort zone, to explore unfamiliar territory, and to think outside of the box. The challenge should also be designed in a way that allows players to share their solutions and progress in the game.

Chain Structure

Instead of gathering all at once as a group, one way to collaborate towards building a final artifact is to let only one person participate at a time. You have full control over the artifact and can make any creative decision you like, and then it comes time to pass it on to the next participant. Then they may add whatever they like, and pass it on again. It is like a kind of gift-giving.

Perhaps at any point a player can decide an artifact to be complete or “done enough” and reveal it to all the other participants, who can then vote or decide whether they like it in its current state or whether it can be continued to be improved.

The benefit of the chain structure is that it removes all layers of group decision making, it focuses only on what you want for the artifact and gives you full power to make that so in any way you see fit. It also means that

Shrinking Space

Inspired by the game genre of battle royale, and their mechanic of a shrinking map that forces players into an ever smaller and smaller space; this mechanic plays a similar role but in idea-space rather than upon a spatial map. If ideas are filtered and narrowed down as you go and forced into an ever smaller collection, then it may force you not only to polish those ideas that you include in the collection but also to start to converge and connect disparate ideas into more unified concepts.

In consultation with GPT-3, the model considers something in a similar vein as this mechanic and calls it “Boxed-in Clarity of Purpose”:

At each step of the way, have one limited but exhaustive possibility space which the players have to narrow down: whether that is summing up their interests and motivations, or putting a single check-mark next to things they like, or leading them through a decision by finding weak points in a decision. By being boxed-in to a single shared decision statement, the players are better in building consensus, and moving forward enough within each layer to go deeper.

Rituals

Rituals are a powerful way to create a sense of community and belonging. They can be as simple as a daily check-in, or as complex as a full ceremony. Rituals can be used to create a sense of belonging, and to create a sense of shared experience.

Rituals are an important part of participation, since they provide a way for players to feel that they are constantly participating in the game. In an asynchronous game, it’s important that players feel that they are able to participate in small ways, on a daily basis. These rituals often take the form of some kind of daily login on a platform, or some kind of daily input into a platform like a post or a response.

Participation Arcs

Just like a story has arcs, a beginning, middle, and end; a game might have points of higher and lower engagement. This might be especially important for asynchronous games that take place over the course of a week, or month, or even year. Including arcs of participation, or oscillating between phases of intense work and more relaxed periods, may create a more natural feel of participation than requiring constant participation all the time.

That being said, it may be important to have certain Rituals within such games: involving daily participation in certain ways, even in small or seemingly unimportant ways. Both patterns could exist at once as long as that daily ritual is not the full picture of participation in the collective space.

Reflection Loops

Include an “organization iteration” where the players start thinking about constraints, group-designing rules, and other organization systems in order to maintain clarity of understanding

Suggestion Box

Based on the idea that we can’t solve the hard questions until we have many voices chiming in with lots of bad ideas, the suggestion box enacts a backlog of ideas that people make in a space away from each other. Rather than coming prepared with “good” ideas, the players can propose as many bad ones to provide inspiration for themselves and others: a brainstorming tool for individual ideators and collective explorers.

It is important to lower the barrier to participation at all levels, both from sharing ideas as well as reflecting on the process of playing a game and deciding whether to add or remove constraints. Having a little suggestion box may potentially help in both those directions.

Closure

Close the cycle by having all of the players come together when they’re done, to get feedback and share the results with one another.

Progress Meters

Progress meters are a great way to help players keep track of their progress within the game and to provide an incentive to work together as a team. These could be individual meters or even a collective one that reflects how much the group has collectively achieved.

Progress meters could also be attached to particular objects within the space. Instead of having a global progress meter you could have multiple decks, each with their own progress.

I feel like these will not only help to feel like you’re making a significant contribution to a group process but also motivate at both ends of the spectrum:

  1. if the progress meter is empty, you may be motivated to be the first one to start filling it
  2. if the progress meter is almost full, you may be motivated to help finish it!

Task Baskets

This pattern is about creating an idea ‘basket’ or a single source of record for ideas and tasks from which teams or individuals can then pick from when collaborating on a project. This can help ensure that everyone is contributing to the project in a meaningful way and that no tasks or ideas are being overlooked or forgotten.

Meta-work

Including tasks and roles within the game that help it move forward and grow in ways that are not directly related to the artifact being created allows people to help the game evolve while participating in it, and can lead to a much more lasting and enjoyable experience. These meta-roles might include documenting, summarizing, and teaching game-specific norms and conventions, as well as helping to keep the space organized and full of life.

Auctions

Auctioning off certain tasks or roles can help create an interesting dynamic in a game. For example, if tasks are auctioned off then it allows players to compete and collaborate to see who can come up with the best ideas or complete the tasks quicker or to a higher standard. This can be a great way to allow players to engage in some competition with each other and have some ownership over what they are doing.

Seasons

One way to help the game progress is to have a regular cadence of “seasons” where the game explores a certain topic, reaches a point, and then moves on to a new topic. This could be similar to the Participation Arcs, where the game goes from more disengaged to more engaged states in order to explore an idea or move the group towards a goal.

Role-Playing

This refers to having each player take on a specific role in the game, either for the duration of the game play or for a certain period of time. This could be something like having one player take on a more administrative/organizational role in the game, or taking on the role of a certain type of idea generator, such as being the expert on a certain topic or industry.

Role-playing is interesting both in that it may create an asymmetrical game where everyone has slightly different tasks to perform, but also:

  • It can help in delegating tasks and removing group decision-bottlenecks
  • It can reduce conflict as any criticism of an idea could be done by someone playing that specific role. The roles become an abstraction that makes what you’re saying less personal / attached to your own persona.
  • It can help lower the barrier to participation, for the same reason of being less attached to your own persona

Role-playing may also include some form of role-rotations whereby each player might have a chance to choose or experience playing as a different role. This could help mix things up and increase engagement from the players as they get to try something new.

Dichotomous Pairing

Rather than just exploring a single set of possibilities, dichotomous pairing involves exploring two sets of possibilities in order to find new ideas and come up with fresh solutions. This could involve thinking of two polar opposites, searching for a way to bridge the gap between them, or combining them both in creative and unique ways.

Oftentimes, ideas which seem polar opposites to each other actually have a lot in common or can contribute to each other in unique ways. I enjoy, for example, thinking about both the design of interfaces and cities. For a while I had thought this to be rather dichotomous until I realized that, in essence, they are fundamentally the same interest: the spaces we inhabit and how we are affected by them.

Dichotomous pairings can also spark interest for people to participate in a learning group as the intersection between ideas often sparks an unexplored niche while still resonating with relatively common interests or ideas.

Experiential Summaries

One way for a learning game to end (or at least culminate) is for each participant to provide a summary of their experience. This could either be done in a written fashion, through video, or through some other medium. Summaries could focus on connecting processes with results, outcomes with opportunities, and so on. Summaries could also involve some form of presentation so that the collective results can be experienced by the entire learning game group.

In the Ludum Dare game jam, there is a ritual where after the jam is over people will often write a “post mortem” of their experience and what went well and what did not. Encouraging people to write such summaries and reflections of their experience can be useful both to yourself and others.

Paradoxical Tension

One of the most interesting elements of a game is that of contradictory goals. Players may have to choose between two competing options, or try to balance two competing forces. This can create powerful tension and lead to much more creative outcomes, as opposed to a more simplistic linear approach.

One way to create tension within a learning game is to have two competing goals, or two competing ways of approaching the same goal. For example, a game might have a goal of creating a video, but also a goal of creating a video that is as short as possible. This would create a tension between the two goals, and force players to make creative choices in order to balance the two.

One way to create tension within a learning game is to have some kind of paradoxical tension between the work that is being produced, and the conditions that it is being produced within. For instance, if all participants are given the same prompt, then their work should converge. If however, the conditions allow for mutual divergence, i.e. more personal voice and a greater sense of freedom to pursue their own ideas, then perhaps it will multiply the tension and create more interesting outcomes.

One way to create tension within a learning game is through the tension between two very simple concepts: the act of claiming something, or the act of giving something up.

The act of claiming something could be something as simple as a player picking an idea to focus on for the week, or for the duration of the game.

The act of giving something up, or abandoning a particular idea, or not focusing on a particular topic, or giving up on some piece of work that isn’t considered important, may actually be seen as a creative act in it’s own right.

One way to create tension within a learning game is through the tension between two very simple concepts: “Include” and “Exclude”. In that sense, the learning game is like a filter, which filters the entire content of a community of players into a final result.

One way to create tension within a learning game is through the tension between two very simple concepts:

  1. “Yes, and”
  2. “What is the point?”

The first is a principle of improv, and of creative writing, and of many other forms of creative work; it is simply the idea that you should begin with a simple prompt and continue to build upon that prompt without rejecting the initial idea and instead building on it; this way you can continue to find your way without getting caught in a loop of rejecting things.

The second is a question that you should ask every time you are making some kind of argument or creating something; it is a simple question of what the point of that argument/work/content is.

These two concepts are both very important independently and are very much in opposition to one another. “Yes, and” is about building up a world full of ideas and content, whereas “What is the point?” is about cutting down and refining the content into its more pure form, the question of what the point is.

The trick to the tension between these two opposing forces is not a simple balance, but a shifting between the two, depending on where you are in the creative cycle. At some points you want to be accepting and building up of ideas, and at other times you want to be cutting down and refining them.

These two ideas can be used at any level of an idea: they can be used to create a particular argument or line of reasoning, or it can be used to create a particular presentation, or it can be used to create an entire game. The question should be asked at each level.

I like this perspective. You have two actions: “Yes, and”, and “What is the point?”

One way to create tension within a learning game is through the tension between two very simple concepts: one being a ‘force of expansion’, the other a ‘force of consolidation’. As the game progresses, these two forces pull in different directions, and the players must navigate the competing tensions in order to create a meaningful outcome.

Divergence and convergence (aka “force of expansion” and “force of consolidation”) is an important aspect of any information space, be it a learning-game or personal research project. Balancing these two forces can be difficult at times.

Randomization

Randomization is another powerful element of a game. It creates a sense of unpredictability and allows for players to engage with a game without having to feel that they are in control of everything. This can be a very powerful element in a creative learning game. For example, randomizing “prompts” or “ideation cards” can be a powerful way to force people to engage with concepts that they may not have thought of otherwise, in the creative process.


Anti-Patterns

As well as collecting patterns, it may also be useful to collect anti-patterns of exploring shared learning games such as these.

Voting

I keep returning to the idea of voting. On one hadn it seems a useful way to gether opinion, to make decisions, to find intersections between what all the participants want; but there is a dark side also. Particularly given that we are exploring asynchronous interaction, voting requires either that people are present all at once or that the voting itself lasts for long enough that everyone will have a chance to participate. Then, since things are asynchronous you might have new cards/content being created during the voting process which completely messes things up! Not everyone will be able to see and vote on these newer additions. Do you lock creation in favour of voting? Spend a whole day pursuing just a single voting round? While this pattern feels like it fits so many situations, I see it as an anti-pattern when it comes to asynchronous groups and learning-games.

Decision bottlenecks

In the same vein as Voting, forced decision bottlenecks should ideally be avoided in these groups. Forcing some decision on the group forces everyone to have an opinion and to reach a clear consensus; which takes time, and that is time taken away from doing actually interesting things!

When possible, decisions should be hidden in the mechanics themselves (e.g. iterating on each other’s ideas leading you in the direction you collectively want to go, rather than specifically deciding beforehand), or may be delegated to individual players (whether randomly, or by having one person acting as the “game master”). As much as possible, decisions should exist on the individual level and bubble up to the group rather than the other way around.

Anecdotally this is similar to a pattern I’ve noticed in chatting wiht people. Sometimes, if neither person has a specific direction or place they’re heading to, you get into a situation where both people are “following” the other. This can be interesting because even the subtlest movement (even if accidental) in a particular direction by the other person can signal you start turning in that direction, and then they follow. In cases like this, both people usually think the other person knows where they’re going and it takes quite a while to figure out that we were following each other. This is how group decisions should feel, everyone just subtly picking up on each other’s cues and riffing on things. Not deciding on a specific place to go, but following each other’s lead until you end up somewhere interesting!

Cramming

If you try to make a game overtly educational you may lose sight of both what it’s like to play, and how we learn! If information feels stuffed and crammed into your game to try to educate the player then it is not so much a game as a thinly-veiled lecture. Whatever you’re trying to teach, whether it is coming from you the designer or the players themselves, don’t force it: make it fun! Seek to make learning into a playful experience.


Games Ideas

Misc thoughts

Just any thoughts that aren’t big enough to contain their own heading but might be interesting to consider nonetheless:

  • What if there was a roguelike designed to be collaborative? Your future runs are affected by the runs and discoveries of your friends, what would that look like?
  • What is the opposite of a rubric?
  • A game where all the cards are goofy things to do and the only goal is to make the other people laugh

Research Battle Royale

A game involving a shrinking space and iterative refinement to bring a group to the creation of a final artifact.

Helps to explore: - Cybernetic methods for group alignment - Does iteratively refining each other’s ideas lead to alignment of goals and directions of exploration? - How can we come together to produce a final artifact as a group?

Aimless Learning Game

Every day you must share something you’ve learnt (daily ritual) or that you feel has impacted you and your thought process in a meaningful way.

I’d be curious if such a game, played for an indeterminate length of time, might slowly have its players converge on shared interests or learning directions. Or, perhaps there could be an additional mechanic added to facilitate this convergence.

Helps to explore: - Cybernetic methods for group alignment

No Rules!

A game where there are no rules but the point is to make up rules as you go along. Perhaps there are a certain number of rule-slots for different constraints and rules for what to do each day. What kind of generative output would you get if you’re making the rules and constraints together? It could be incredibly divergent of course, but with the right group people might naturally want to create rules that start to converge towards some kind of artifact. Or through playing such a game we might find ourselves discovering some of the learning-game patterns that we might like to explore.

Blackmail

Just like the “No Rules!” game but where instead of setting group rules and constraints you must blackmail other players by giving specifically them constraints and tasks. If they cannot complete the task they are removed from the game. This would involve considering what kinds of output you would like to see from different players and acting accordingly, as well as seeing what has been made already and might be interesting to riff on.

Of course, if the tasks are made too hard the game will quickly fall apart. However, maybe you can also blackmail someone into stopping working on a task - this way, there is a balancing mechanism in case someone assigns something completely impossible to another player.

Utilitarian Improv

Starting with a topic or question, each player only has two actions they can perform:

  1. “Yes, and”
  2. “What is the point?”

By exploring “Yes, and” you get a force of expansion, exploring possible ideas and following along no matter what. This, if continued forever would be constantly divergent and requires the second action:

“What is the point?” helps to narrow things down, to explore what ideas are most meaningful and relevant.

Hit and Miss

This is a game for a group of 3-4 players. Each person nominates a work of art (a movie, a song, a poem, an image) that they have enjoyed and that has been meaningful to them.

The group then creates a different version of the piece by mixing and matching elements of all the pieces nominated. Each person has certain elements to focus on - one person might focus on the images, another the audio, and another the narrative.

Once this new piece is done, each person then nominates another work of art to work on. The group is then tasked to hit and miss - create something completely different to the nominated works, but hit the mark and make something that is as enjoyable, meaningful, and powerful as the works nominated.

Writing Challenge

Each player has one week to write a piece related to the same topic. The topic will be chosen at the start of the game, with the aim that everyone produces something that all the other players can learn from.

Once the week is over, each player is allotted a period of time to present their writing. All players get to reflect and provide feedback to each other.

Dichotomous Pairing Game

  1. In pairs, each person must think of two very different ideas for the same subject. They must then attempt to design a single concept that reconciles and balances the two.

  2. Take two concepts, explore their similarities and differences, and then come up with a new concept or idea that integrates them both together.

  3. Two players take turns selecting two concepts that they believe to be polar opposites. They then attempt to design a concept that accurately reconciles the two.

  4. Two players brainstorm 10 ideas each in one minute. They then must select one of each their ideas and create something together with them.

  5. Two players take turns selecting two concepts that they believe to be polar opposites. They then attempt to design a concept that utilizes the conflicting elements.

Flashboard

Similar to the game of “Telephone”, in this game each player takes turns writing down an idea (often a phrase) which is immediately passed to the next player. Everyone takes turns adding to the message in this fashion and after the allowed turns all players must present the final artwork, story, or conclusion based on the message they received.