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Game Retheming

Dave Eng
United States
Fort Lee
New Jersey
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Designer Dave Eng tackles the need to consider game retheming in the seventh entry of the Air Sloop design journal.

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After incorporating some notes from the original pitch to Pandasaurus I had to begin asking myself the question “is this too complicated?” I had originally set out to make this pickup and deliver game about sailing ships moving up and down the Hudson. It’s since evolved past that into something that doesn’t look like ships at all…
Then my friend Fred Cabrera indicated that a new theme could be in order. When pressed for a new theme he said that not many games incorporate air ships or hot air balloons. So that’s when I began to consider putting the entire game up in the air as a concept that could be used to market it.

Still, there was the question if including the trading posts; picking up goods from one card; flipping the card over; and then letting other players trade there was too complicated. I had originally set out to make this game that incorporated theme – but now there were other competing priorities that were pulling me in other directions.
Where was I supposed to go? What was I supposed to do?

I kept thinking about something that another designer shared with me one time: “It’s easy to make a complicated game. You can always add things. It’s much harder to make a simple game. There is only so much you can remove before it stops working.”
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Wed Jan 12, 2022 9:33 pm
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What is Expectancy Theory?

Dave Eng
United States
Fort Lee
New Jersey
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What is Expectancy Theory?

Thinking about why we do something is often a central part of all of our activities. Those include why we work, play, or form relationships with one another. This is the central aspect of motivation: knowing what will happen or occur as a result of our own actions.

These are central elements of expectancy theory. A theory which addresses how we approach the results of our behaviors and the underlying motivations for what and why we do what we do.

This article will define expectancy theory as well and describe its origins for understating human motivation and behavior. Motivation will also be covered as a facet of the educational process as well as expectancy theory’s origins in management as a way to better connect employee performance and rewards.

Ultimately this connection serves as a kind of feedback. Feedback that is connected between individual actions and what we get out of it. In games the result of this feedback is often in the form of progress, change, or some other stimulus that appeals to our intrinsic motivation.

These motivations consist of different components of expectancy theory and are highly individualized according to what we perceive we want from play and what we actually get. This connection between activities in games and the results of those activities affect our decision making process.

As a result, this process informs how instructors, educators, and designers can structure games and other learning experiences in order to better facilitate the learning process. The application of which can be included in serious games design, games-based learning, and educational game design.

What is expectancy theory?

Expectancy theory is a mental process that focuses on individualized choice and the process of choosing. Expectancy theory provides an overview that explains the process that individual people undergo when making choices. Those choices could include everyday life choices; educational choices; or gameful choices.

The choices that these individuals make is based on estimates on the expected results of these choices. We often choose what we want to wear during the day to be both comfortable and prepared for what is expected to come. A rainy day requires that we wear a rain jacket. A busy day often means that we’ll need a hearty breakfast.

Likewise, the potential to advance in a game affects and influences how we choose to proceed. Sometimes those choices results in pursuing one quest over another or choosing a specific scoring condition based on an array of choices.

At its most basic level, expectancy theory is based on a fair, articulated, and strong connection between our efforts and choices and how we perform as a result of those choices. This is often based on the assumption that individuals will make the decisions that maximize their own benefits. This dedication to self-interest is done in a way that also minimizes our dissatisfaction with potential the results.

We often see this in games as players pursuing options and strategies that help them and hinder other players. In addition, players make choices in games that provide the maximum benefit for them with the minimal amount of effort (min maxing).

Origins of expectancy theory

Expectancy theory has a storied origin and history. It was originally proposed by Victor Vroom in the Yale School of Management in 1964. As such, it was originally applied and used to understand employee motivation in a commercial context. Victor Vroom applied expectancy theory as a form of motivation and a way to understand how conscious choices made by individuals were based on the expected utility and reward of those decisions.

Expectancy theory was applied not as a way to understand motivation; but rather define the origin of motivation and how it manifests itself within individuals. The factors that affect this origin of motivation are varied. However, the applications of the theory in its original form and highlight how the intensity of work effort (input by employees) manifests itself in the expectant value (utility) of those decisions.

As such, expectancy theory is structured around three definitive and specific areas which include expectancy; instrumentality; and valence. These three areas will be reviewed in greater detail as well as discussed in its applications for games; education; and games-based learning.

Overall, expectancy theory defines that as the efforts and motivations of individuals rise, so too will their expectant reward for the activity.

Expectancy theory as motivation

Expectancy theory forms the heart and basis of defining individuals’ motivations. The theory proposes that individuals act in a certain way because they have selected a specific behavior over another based on the expected reward or outcome of that behavior. This means that individual employees, students, or players will select an action based on the desirability of the outcome.

The connection between action and outcome only forms the basic level connection for expectancy theory. Rather, at its core, the theory defines the cognitive process of how an individual processes, understands, and takes action based on different motivational elements. The outcome serves as one factor for how the individual choose to behave. In addition, individuals must also consider the tangible rewards and connections between activity and outcome prior to taking the next step.

In business contexts expectancy theory also relates to how consumers express and explain satisfaction after consuming a product or services. This level of satisfaction ties in neatly with the feedback loop of experiential learning as well as the core loop of games and games-based learning. This type of feedback reinforces players’ motivations for wanting to learn and/or play a game that is closely aligned with their own personalities and underlying motivations for seeking enjoyment through their own decisions and actions. These ramifications greatly influence how motivation affects and influences the educational process.

Motivation as an educational process

Motivation is an important part of the educational process. As such, students are mostly likely invested in an educational outcome so long as it aligns with what they expect their own outcome to be. Often in education this is the basis for extrinsic motivation for students as they desire related external outcomes such as a diploma or a certificate granted upon successful completion. However, student motivation doesn’t’ always need to be based on these extrinsic factors.

Rather, students can and will invest time and effort into an assignment or activity given their perception of their successful completion. This means that if students see an activity as something that they may fail at; then they are more hesitant to try and engage. This is problematic for games-based learning as the educational outcome of applied games is achieved through the repetitive nature of experiential learning and the application of different strategies in order to achieve a desired outcome.

However, this can be overcome by resetting the student mindset when addressing activity participation and assignment attempts. This can be done by providing students with the ability to “fail successfully” in sandbox scenarios where the results don’t impact or otherwise negatively affect an expected extrinsic outcome (such as a grade or a degree). Rather, games can be applied through simulations or serious games in order for students to attempt and try different strategies and order to pursue success.

Therefore application of expectancy theory here affects students in two ways. First it curbs students’ expectations for success by outlining that the game’s outcome is not meant to be an evaluation of their mastery. Rather, the game exists as a way for students to test and refine their skills. Secondly, this approach provides gives students the ability to train and develop their efficacy and practice with a particular skill set in preparation for an assessment that does matter (i.e. a test, quiz, project, or simulation).

Connections between performance and reward

Expectancy theory applied through games-based learning specifically ties the expected reward from an activity with a students’ performance. Thus, by the instructor setting a clear connection between an activity (game play) and a reward (non-judgment or non-evaluation); then there is less pressure on the student to exhibit mastery initially. Rather, that mastery can be further developed through future play; engagement; and solicitation with their peers.

The process in which this is revealed students is meant to provide transparency for the experiential learning process. Therefore, students can determine what is demanded of them and what they have to gain by participating. This structure is replicated in the employee and manager relationship outlined by Vroom in the original application of expectancy theory. In that application, employees were provided the ability to set their own targets and outline their own goals and results as a way to provide them agency in their work process.

By providing these employees agency with setting their own targets and expectations for the results of their labor they were able to form a deeper and closer connection between what was expected of them and what they were expected to receive. This closer development of the feedback loop is a structure which provides agency and connection between and stimulus and an expected output.

The same can be said for education and games-based learning. By providing students with the structure and the ability to choose how they practice; develop mastery; and are eventually evaluated they confirm (or disconfirm) the structure of the process and how they can best demonstrate their autonomy within it.

This autonomy is critical for games-based learning as players’ agency within the classroom and within the game translates to achievements gained outside the game’s magic circle and in the real world. Such achievements are most likely relevant to the classes’ learning outcomes: thus connecting student activity; assessments; and the achievement of educational goals.

Expectancy theory as feedback

Expectancy theory when applied in a management framework is all about the feedback that an employee will receive based on work provided. This is related to their direct performance and rewards deserved and warranted by that individual.

This means that employees’ intensity; dedication; and attention to work or the task to be evaluated is directly related to a definitive outcome and that outcome’s appeal to the individual. One of the most common scenarios for employees in this context is the promise of a commission or bonus paid out to employees that is tied to sales made; units produced; or other forms of quantifiable metrics.

The most appropriate and successful application of expectancy theory from managers in this context is to closely tied to activities with rewards and vice versa. Doing so ensures that employees know exactly what they will receive for successful completion. However, this is often not the case because few employees follow a specific and direct correlation between their work and the rewards associated with their performance.

Of course this varies depending on role and expectation where commissioned sales agents are incentivized to make more sales in order to earn greater commissions. However, salaried individuals, or those on set contracts have no set correlation between the output and quality of their work and their rewards and compensation.

Gamification addresses this in employee somewhat as changes to the work environment can have an impact on employee behavior. Gamification’s application of game-like elements in non-game settings can incentivize employees to increase production output through the implementation of leader boards which compare employees against one another. This appeals to individuals’ intrinsic sense of competition and comparison against one another. However, this is a form of motivation that does not appeal to all individuals.

Educators can use and apply expectancy theory through the use and connection of set results as a consequence of completing a task or activity. Such a connection makes it easier for students to receive some sort of feedback for attempts at activities which may positively influence their learning progress. This can be done by awarding points for student attempts at assignments with the addition of bonus points for adhering to the rubric and fulfilling the other learning outcomes of the activity.

Feedback as an educational process

Connecting students’ activities to actionable feedback is perhaps one of the most critical aspects for learning and development. It is an incredibly important consideration for assessing the effect and success of teaching and learning and improvement of student outcomes. That feedback can be provided via multiple ways but most commonly occurs between students and the instructor or students and one another.

Feedback provided to students in actionable formats that are clearly tied to activities taken within the learning environment are most successful at incentivizing student behaviors to perform certain tasks. This is important to consider when designing gamified learning environments where game-like elements are connected to learning outcomes and actions and activities have underlying educational outcomes in mind.

It is also especially important that students see that success is possible within an activity. This is important for them to engage with and apply the experiential learning loop through a process of iterative improvement given their continued engagement and activity.

Expectancy theory components

In order to apply expectancy theory in business, educational, and games-based scenarios, the following components must be introduced and included. They include expectancy, instrumentality, and valence. Each component represents different facets of how individuals connect and expect feedback based on each of their actions.

Instrumentality is perhaps the most important component. That is because instrumentally is the belief that a person will receive a desired outcome when a performance expectation is met. In business contexts this could include deal making and negotiations on performance bonuses or raises tied to specific outcomes. In education this could be feedback given through specific assignments that apply aspects of lessons put into practice. In games this represents the outcomes based on players taking specific actions and their known outcomes from said actions.

It’s important to prioritize instrumentality in this process as knowledge of the expected outcomes is necessary in order to clearly motivate and incentivize individuals to pursue and accomplish that outcome. Whenever the outcome is vague or unclear then instrumentality for individuals is likewise also low.

Valence is more subjective than instrumentality. Valence represents the unique value of the outcome to a particular individual. In business contexts salary or monetary incentives are almost universally accepted as form of feedback and compensation. However, employees may also seek more flexible hours; promotion; or political power as a result of their activities.

Likewise, in education, valence also affects how students may want to use or apply lessons learned in their own practice. Such is often the challenge of humanities professors who seek to tie learning outcomes from classics to modern needs and contemporary wants. Lastly, games provide players with agency to use the application of their feedback and rewards where they see fit. Currency often serves this need in games in order to provide players with the agency to use and “buy” items that could help them accomplish certain goals and objectives in games.

Finally, expectancy forms the core component of expectancy theory. Expectancy addresses the critical competencies of the individual in order to accomplish the tasks or duties set out for them. It is necessary to address and support these competencies; otherwise individuals don’t have the confidence to attempt responsibilities where the possibility of failure is at or near zero. Rather, business managers, educators, and game designers should prioritize how they provide a medium and venue for developing individuals’ competencies in order to effectively apply expectancy theory.

Expectancy theory and individual cognition

Expectancy theory has wide and broad appeal and application. However, it relies heavily on individuals’ interpretations and cognition. Such is the case with business contexts and applications as goal setting represents a critical part of setting and supporting the motivation of a particular individual.

Goals can be set an institution (business); unit (class); or at an individual level. It’s important that these goals be created with individuals in mind as effort committed to tasks needs to connect well and succinctly to their successful completion.

Individual employees, students, and players need to carefully evaluate the expected result from any activity and compare it against their perceived and actual outcome. Making sure that outcomes align with results and expectations are important to maintaining high engagement and satisfaction with the experience.

It’s also critical that outcomes based on individuals own abilities and performance tie closely with expected outcomes in order to ensure a certain degree of credibility. Otherwise, higher than expected rewards could be seen as compromise of fairness for favoritism. Conversely, negative behaviors or incongruent activities with expected outcomes, should earn negative consequences or penalties for said behavior.

Therefore, it’s important that educators enhance expectancy theory with their students by influencing perception of their own capabilities when it comes to learning. Often believing that one is capable (and actually being capable) is not as completely disparate as people think. This gap can often be addressed through discussions of students’ own perceptions towards their abilities and the effort necessary in order to prove their competence towards the task.

Expectancy theory and decision making

The different components of expectancy theory (expectancy, instrumentality, and valence) stratify the decision making process. It makes it so that decisions made by individuals are influenced by their perceived confidence; connection to outcomes; and perceived worth of the outcome.

This means that individuals make decisions in relation to these different factors. When it comes to work; people will make choices based on their expected rewards from that work. Likewise; instrumentality indicates the perceived reward for said work will depend on one’s performance. This relates to games where the outcome of performances directly ties into the kind of feedback received by players – whether positive or negative. This feedback is best affected by the amount of instrumentality perceived by individuals. If students and players feel that they are best suited to affect their outcome, then their instrumentality (and confidence) will be higher. Otherwise; it will be much lower.

This has applications to education, teaching, and learning as well. Students’ perceived self-efficacy has a direct impact on the kinds of activities they choose to participate in. High perception of self-efficacy indicates that they would be more likely to succeed in the class versus low self-efficacy. This translates over into games as well where great perception of competency translates into greater perception of success. However, games also allow players to try, test, and experiment through game play. Thus, providing them with an opportunity to improve their performance over time.

This means that games can be applied through games-based learning as a medium for both increasing students’ perceived competency and self-efficacy through game play. Games provide a sandbox and venue for students to play; test; and experiment in a way that reinforces and supports learning. Such a structure gives control to both the student and the educator to improve through this process.

Expectancy theory and games

Expectancy theory in games is applied via different approaches. Those include social, cognitive, and affective factors which influence players’ perceived abilities for success. In turn, these influence how often players will play, and their continued motivation to continue playing.

However, it is still critical for educators and instructors to measure how students are playing and engaging with games through games-based learning. Tracking, documenting, and analyzing data from this play is critical in understanding how best improve and iterate on the process of games-based learning in their own classrooms.

Gamification can also be applied and developed though both expectancy theory and process improvement. Such applications could have positive and influential affects on teaching and learning through psychological and affective changes in students.

One of the most common ways these are implemented in the classroom is for instructors to use games as a common context for students to apply lessons learned in a practical context. Therefore, it is important that players continue to keep playing in order to reap the greatest benefit from games-based learning. Such effects can be best gained through player progression that is gradual and scaled to students’ demonstrated competencies.

The structure of player progression can be implemented in many formats. One of the most common is used through many mobile games where acquisition of in-game wealth or currency paired with the accomplishment of game issued objectives (such as quests) provide players with a sense of accomplishment and perceived competency.

Expectancy theory and education

Expectancy theory works in business contexts and posses some close relationships with game design and motivation. But how can educators use expectancy theory for teaching and learning? One such way is concentrating on its applications for emphasizing a cognitive approach to learning. Specifically prioritizing intrinsic motivation for learners and the way that they approach learning and interactions with the content; their peers; the instructor; and the class.

Expectancy theory and motivation are intrinsically linked. In addition, expectancy theory and the promise of feedback are also connected. As such, the provision of feedback and the recognition of the learner as an active participant in learning are critical to recognize education as a formative and active process.

Therefore, it’s important that students understand, buy-into, and have agency in the learning process by knowing that the learning environment will support their growth and development. This can best be accomplished with games and their experiential learning cycle as it’s applied to feedback and mistake driven learning. However, it is also up to the instructor to emphasize the safety of this type of learning environment and promote the positive effects that this approach can have.

However, emphasizing students’ feedback and learning throughout isn’t enough. Instead, instructors should also prioritize the feedback process in experiential learning through active debriefing with students. The focus of this active debriefing is to provide a review of their experiences and how students can learn through iteration and active experimentation. Doing so ensures to the student that the environment in which they learn and perform is conducive to success so long as a good faith effort is made (through the magic circle of games) as well as through honest and active participation in academic activities.

Expectancy theory and games-based learning

Expectancy theory originally found its home in business applications and has clear connections to teaching and learning. Likewise games-based learning also utilizes expectancy theory to aid in teaching and learning. One such application is the ability to target and emphasize certain behaviors of students to promote learning. A way that this could be implemented is for a game to prioritize students attempting different strategies in a game that all lead to a successful outcome.

This forms a more holistic approach to teaching and learning with games-based learning as opposed to faster gamification based applications which prioritize the incentives to get people to participate rather than promote high quality instruction. Instead, instructors can use game-like elements of applied gamification to help students make meaningful and influential decisions through their course of study. In this way, gamification merely doesn’t target extrinsic motivation; but rather provides and illuminates different paths for students to succeed and achieve learning outcomes.

Expectancy theory works hand-in-hand with the “enjoyment process” of games and play that emphasize players desires to play and progress in a game. Doing so ensures that the best aspects of game design, gamification, and games-based learning are fully utilized by educators in order to help their students achieve.

However, it is important to realize that games-abed learning and serious games are merely additional tools at the disposal of educators and instructors. The use of serious games alone does not ensure learning. Rather, a comprehensive and more focused approach towards teaching and learning utilizes games as critical tools towards student development.

In the end, the lure of games and their hold of the population at large is a hard example to ignore. Instead, educators and serious games developers should look to emphasize the best aspects of games for their applications while simultaneously structure their learning and course content to help students align game outcomes with learning outcomes.


This article reviewed expectancy theory and its origins in business applications and employee success. Expectancy theory is based on principles of motivation and their application towards individual actions and activities. These motivational principles also apply to educational processes and how the performance of individual tasks are connected to some sort of feedback or rewards.

Feedback forms the hallmark of most experiential processes. As such, expectancy theory was examined as form of feedback through an educational process with specific focus placed on expectancy theory’s three main components. Those components were expectancy, instrumentality, and valence.

Expectancy theory deals most closely with individual cognition of their decision making process. Decision making makes up a large part of games, so this article drove deeper into how players make those decisions align with their expected rewards. Rewards come in different forms and concepts depending on venue and application. Therefore, this article reviewed rewards and individual feedback in games, education, and finally games-based learning.

This article was about expectancy theory. To learn more about gamification, check out the free course on Gamification Explained.

Dave Eng, EdD


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Cite this Article

Eng, D. (2021, December 28). What is Expectancy Theory?. Retrieved MONTH DATE, YEAR, from

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How do players create meaning in games?

Dave Eng
United States
Fort Lee
New Jersey
flag msg tools
Microbadge: Game DesignerMicrobadge: New JerseyMicrobadge: I get surprise boxes from KickstarterMicrobadge: I design games for educationMicrobadge: Copper Board Game Collector
How do players create meaning in games?

Creating and making meaning is something that everyone does at every point of
their day. Creating meaning is one of the hallmarks of sentience. We think, therefore we are. But what exactly is meaning? How does meaning making occur? How does meaning making relate to games-based learning?

This article will explore some larger concepts such as “What is meaning?” More specifically, the article will attempt to define what meaning making is as well as how it is connected to meaningful play.

Developing an understanding about how making occurs is important to addressing how meaning making and learning are connected. Only then can meaning making through games and game play be further explored. This article will discuss the meaning making process for players in games; game structure; and game mechanics.

Meaning making isn’t something that happens in vacuum. This is especially true with games-based learning as the designer has a specific goal and agenda for the kind of experience they want the player to have. This also means that educators, instructors, and teachers also have a role to play in students’ meaning making. That will be explored in how different instructional design choices can be made when creating learning games and other educational material.

Finally, this article ends on meaning making as a unique experience for each individual learner as well as how meaning making occurs with applied games-based learning.

What is meaning?

Perhaps one of the most important questions to answer throughout this process is first defining “meaning.” For the purposes of this article, meaning is defined as the underlying purpose of an activity, topic, or subject.

Meaning is the kind of purpose that we assign to an activity or endeavor. One of the more popular ways that we capture, relate, and communicate meaning is through metaphors. Humans have given meaning to observed behaviors, sensations, and experiences throughout time. These have evolved into different cultural and linguistic systems that become everything from idioms to epic stories.

These cultural and linguistic artifacts manifest themselves in different forms of language; sayings; signs; and symbols. The results of which are the development of semantic meaning and how we view and interpret these artifacts.

Really, meaning is how experience activities and how those activities are manifested in our minds. This help us create and develop understanding for what we (as people) experience on a day to day and activity to activity basis. However, what we do (and how we interpret them) has much to do with our individual selves as much as the societies and cultural expectations we embody.

What is meaning making?

From a psychological perspective, meaning making is the process of how an individual interprets, understands, and makes sense of different experiences, life events, and even themselves.

Meaning making is used heavily in the constructivist approaches to psychology. That is because constructivism is the process of creating knowledge based on our sensory inputs.

Learning is the transformation of experience into knowledge. That means that learning is the construction of knowledge through the learner. When we play games we are also learning. When we play games we are actively constructing the framework for how we play, understand, and interact within the game world.

Therefore, meaning making is the process in which we imbue a particular experience or event with a sense of personal significance. The experience could have been objective; however meaning making is the constructivist approach to creating a subjective meaning from the experience.

Meaning making is important because meaning making is something that humans do as part of our everyday lives through the different activities and experiences that we endure. The creation of meaning from these experiences is an essential part of human function.

What is meaningful play?

If meaning making is the construction and interpretation of our individual experiences; then meaningful play involves the actions or activities built and designed with an inherent intent. Instructors and educators can use games through games-based learning as the basis for this intent in meaningful play.

Likewise, sports and other physical activities could be designed around the outcome of aerobic exercise, teamwork, and cooperation. These outcomes could be inherent through the activity itself or reinforced through specific coaching, mentorship, practice, or guided activities.

Such is the origin of recess as a time for children to exercise and socialize with one another. In addition to providing children with a rest during the academic day, recess also provides a structured time for students to participate in different (and meaningful) activities with their peers.

While this time may be considered “unstructured” from an academic point of view; the agency that is provided to students during this period gives them the ability to determine how they want to use (and ultimately make meaning) from their experiences. The result of which is the application of meaningful play in a scholastic context.

How does meaning making occur?

Meaning making is a cognitive process. Therefore it occurs at an individual level and through different experiences. Those experiences can be based entirely on an individual’s behavior or actions. For the purposes of this article, we’ll examine meaning making as a part of game play, experiential learning, and games-based learning. Because of that; we’ll examine meaning making as a part of creating meaning around a specific learning and play event.

When individuals participate and experience an event, they undergo a change process. That process might not be completely indicative or transparent to them as they are experiencing it; but it happens nonetheless. This change processes forms the catalyst for creating meaning from game play. Successful meaning making here happens on two levels: cognitively (internally) and emotionally.

Meaning making happens at a cognitive level. Therefore it is always subjective to the individual player and learner. The way that the experience is personalized to the individual is through both the setting and environment though which the experience occurred. In education this could have been from a lecture hall; a small seminar; a lab or through game play.

These settings and their features inform and affect how individual players form and make meaning from these experiences. This meaning making begins with perception at the individual level and involves a learner’s moods, attitudes, and feelings as well as their own internal cognitive processes.

Again, this cognitive process is internal, subjective, and personalized to the individual learners. We cannot make meaning for the individual player or student as their instructor or the game designer. Rather, we can only affect and influence the settings, surroundings, and to a lesser extent, the affect on the individual. However, doing so helps shape and scaffold the experience that transforms it into unique meaning for the individual.

Meaning making and learning

Meaning making is an activity that occurs at the basic and individual level. But how does it affect the learning process for students? Meaning making as an educational initiative is done primarily to form connections between students; content; and the experience gained from interacting with it. The content could be delivered via lecture; activity; or through games-based learning. Doing so ensures that meaning making that occurs within these contexts aids individuals through a personalized learning process.

On a group level, meaning making in learning also occurs as a result of interaction; discussion; debate; and socialization with other learners. Such meaning is created through these interactions which can occur through collaborative group projects; cooperative experiential learning; and through games-based learning.

These experiences with other learners in a socialized game environment form another vector for meaning making and creation while learning. Such activities make the process less dependent on the individual learners and more dependent on the shared activities and experiences with other learners in pursuit of the same goal.

In addition, this introduction of socialization provides learners with a very real and critical sense of agency in control of how, where, and when they learn. As a result, this also informs how they choose to create meaning from their experiences. This approach reflects a more mature and decisive way for individuals to demonstrate autonomy and agency in their learning.

Meaning making in games

Meaning making in games occurs when players experience or play the game. This can take place when playing by themselves; with an instructor; or with other players. This play represents the player experience; and is the basis for games-based experiential learning.

Many people think that playing educational games means playing games which are not fun. Sometimes that is unfortunately the case. However, for educational games, learning games, and serious games, fun is not the specific outcome of the activity. Rather, pursuit of the learning outcome is prioritized over fun in the experience.

This means that when we address meaning making in games we also have to ask the question: “What are games for?” Hopefully that includes learning, education, and engagement as a priority over fun or entertainment.

Sometimes this is most adequately accomplished though the live play of games such as with table top games; simulations; and mega games. Sharing a live and simultaneous experience with other players further reinforces and creates context in the meaning making experience for players. This is because a socialized game experience creates a shared happening with other players as different activities and outcomes take place within the magic circle of games. That magic circle could encompass a virtual world like with digital and video games. Otherwise, it could include a rich narrative experience through a table top role playing game.

No matter what the application, modality or degree of interaction, games serve as the medium of engagement between players, each other, and the game. Their collective actions within the game world move the “state of the game” forward towards a resolution and/or win condition.

Meaning making as a game structure

Players are really only in a position to create meaning from games as they interact and engage with the formal structure and elements of games. This is because games represent an artificial system where interactions have the most impact within the understood rules and expectations. This “Magic Circle” of games creates a boundary where a shared (and specific) understanding of the events within the game are evident only to players within the game.

The Magic Circle represents the boundary of this understanding. “What happens in the game stays in the game.” However, recognizing and making meaning from players’ experiences inside of the magic circle is a critical part of games-based learning. This is where players can relate the experiences had inside the game and within the magic circle as a metaphor for application outside of the circle.

This is most closely seen in simulations where a high degree of fidelity between what is represented in the simulation and what is represented in the real world look one in the same. However, games can also be used as metaphors to relate different experiences and learning outcomes to players using game structures as a framework for learning.

Games used for such educational purposes create a “sandbox” for players. Here, students can use the unique scenario, conditions, expectations, and rules of the game to govern why and how they accomplish a certain goal. Players can then take the outcomes of these formal structures and create new information about the game world and the knowledge contained within the magic circle. Such a leap occurs with role-playing games where the interactions between players; the world; and non-player characters create new knowledge and new meaning making opportunities for players within the game.

These actions taken within the game provide players with the decision space and agency with which to create new experiences and new meaning making opportunities inside of the game.

Meaning making in game mechanics

Meaning making occurs when players and learners engage with materials; their classmates; and participate in experiences. Games can form those experiences. But the way that players engage with those games and create meaning can differ.

This is mostly due to players looking to define modes of engagement and interaction within the game. Most of the time this includes engagement with the different game mechanics which are often prescribed and formulaic. These form the basis of player literacy with different types of games and what they can achieve by applying what they’ve learned from playing other first person shooters; worker placement; or social deduction games.

This type of engagement with the game’s mechanics forms a feedback loop between the player and the game. Done enough times; this forms the core loop of feedback for the player over the course of their play.

These feedback loops in games represent many different forms and functions. Some of the most common ones are dialogue trees in role-playing games for interacting with different non-player characters within the game world. Such interactions form a progression for the player though the world and through the story. This progression informs and changes how players make meaning from this experience.

While dialogue trees may have opportunities for players to “fail” and restrict access to certain story or character progressions; it doesn’t always have to be this way for all games. Rather, games can provide players with active feedback loops which allow players to keep playing and retrying parts of the game in order to progress.

This leads to players learning how to “grok” or play the game well enough in order to progress at an accelerated pace. This involves determining which strategies are more effective that keep within the rules and structures of the game. Such play provides players with the ability to define and author their own experience while also expanding their own game literacy.

The interaction of players within the game; with the game; and with elements of the game informs and shapes the dynamics of the game. These game dynamics represent larger game “systems” within which ultimately form the player experience and create the primary platform where players create meaning from that experience. However, those game dynamics are first and foremost formed through the choices and direction of the game designer.

Meaning making between the designer and the players

The game designer serves as the author and the arbiter of the player experience. They play a dialogic role between their intent and the ultimate experience and meaning making of the player.

Whether they know it or not, designers always have an ideal player in mind. Sometimes that player is themselves or other players like them. Otherwise, they could be designing a serious game for a specific learning outcome intended for a specific audience. In either case, designers rightly seek to make their game as engaging as possible in order to keep players interested and connected.

This interaction between player choices and designer direction is one of the ways in which games as a medium shape and form how players make meaning from games. Sometimes the result of this design is the player extracting the exact experience intended for them by the designer. Sometimes it could be the complete opposite. In either case, the players engage with the circumstances created by the designer in which they create meaning.

Though, players don’t always have to engage with the game as intended by designers. Rather, they can “mod” or modify games in order to further their own agency and artistic license. Doing so ensures that they take advantage of a greater dynamic in the game and help form and shape the culture around a specific title.

Such accessibility to the game design is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, including students in a meaningful development process for serious games can be useful for actively engaging them in achieving stated learning outcomes.

Design choices in meaning making

Game designers, and by extension instructors, act as the “sense” makers in the game design experience. As such, the designer must create with intention for what they want their players and their learners to sense and experience when playing their games. Sometimes those choices could be radically different depending on the intent versus the outcome when designing for the experience.

With this in mind, designers should take an empathetic approach to the design process in order to facilitate meaning making. That approach includes three different ways in which users experience play and serious games. They include a user-centered approach (player/ student); a product centered approach (game/learning content); and an interaction centered approach (game mechanics/game dynamics).

By utilizing these approaches; designers can more accurately curate the type of experience they intend their players and users to have. However, in practice, instructors should also make use of active discussion; debriefing; and review in order to illuminate and synthesize key learning. This is an active and critical process of experiential learning and a cornerstone of applied games-based learning.

This is because a key to meaning making is allowing students to demonstrate their understanding of the content and how they have interpreted it. This often takes place in well known reflective activities such as journals; reports; and summaries. However, instructors can make use of other game elements that facilitate this reflective process. One such approach could include serious games where scoring conditions are based on the main discrete takeaways that they have gained from an activity. Another could include how players’ relationships have changed to one another after playing the game.

The manner in which players reflect on their play of the game should be determined by the instructor. However, the critical element is that players can demonstrate and personalize the way that they make meaning of their experience in a manner that makes most sense for them. Sometimes this could include probing questions from students who may be uncomfortable or ill-at-ease in the responsibilities for fulfilling such an assignment. Despite this, instructors should dedicate time and attention to students’ inquisitiveness.

Meaning making as unique experiences

Meaning making is a wholly subjective and likewise unique experience. Two students playing the same game with the same instructor will interpret the experience differently from one another. This is an expected outcome as individuals are known to give meaning to their experiences informed wholly by their physical, emotive, and social factors.

These three different factors could play a very critical role for serious games designers as they seek to curate the player experience. Addressing how players physically interact with a game; the emotions that are generated; and who they play it with greatly inform individuals’ meaning making. Therefore, these considerations should be made in line with the stated learning outcomes of serious game design.

Likewise, students should also be challenged outside the game to summarize and synthesize their meaning making experiences through unique and applicable reflective activities. Ideally, these should be flexible and cater to how the student chooses to review their own experiences.

Finally, both instructors and designers should know that meaning making is a wholly interpretive and personal activity. However, an interaction with other players and students also inform and affects this personal process. Therefore, a socialized learning environment with games-based learning can greatly affect and influence players’ ultimate meaning making process.

Meaning making in games-based learning

Games-based learning is experiential learning. As such, players learn through how they experience and interact with a game in line with the learning outcomes set by the instructor. Part of that learning requires that students construct meaning around their own experiences. This meaning making process is a hallmark of games-based learning.

Games-based learning could be interpreted as an application of metaphorical learning. Games serve as the medium for teaching and learning. Thus, they act as a simulator in high fidelity applications or as an abstract model in low fidelity applications. In either case, games serve this metaphorical approach by abstracting perceived reality of the game into whatever context the instructor designs for students.

This may be a difficult approach for learners, despite this, instructors must encourage students to summarize and reflect on their own experiences in order to help them create meaningful experiences from their game play. This is necessary because such reflective practices help identify and rationalize their own meaning making and growth.

Such reflective exercises can also help illuminate the differences between players and characters that may play in games. Sometimes those characters act in line with the player. Other times, they may not. In either case, the player is called upon to rationalize why a character might act in such a way and to empathize with their position. Such challenges require that students rectify and create meaning through this exercise.

Meaning making in games-based learning is impactful and relevant because it also challenges students on a different and deeper level than standardizes tests, quizzes, and other assessments. Such reflective exercises included in games-based learning requires that individuals rectify and reconcile what they intended to do, what they have done, and what it means for them in the greater context of their learning.


This article addressed how players create meaning when playing games. The definition of meaning was discussed as well as the process of meaning making. Meaningful play was covered as an early approach to games-based learning. The steps by which individuals make meaning from their experiences were also discussed.

The concept of meaning making and learning was covered and how this approach is closely related to meaning making in games. Players’ meaning making experiences were discussed in relation to formal game structures and game mechanics. While meaning making can and does occur between players and the game; the design process also creates a dialogue between the designer and the learner. As such, game design choices were discussed in how to best encourage this meaning making activity for players.

Finally, meaning making as unique experiences were discussed as well how the practice can be used in applied games-based learning.

This article was about meaning making in games. To learn more about gamification, check out the free course on Gamification Explained.

Dave Eng, EdD


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Journal Entry 6 – First Pitch to a Game Publisher

Dave Eng
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Journal Entry 6 – First Pitch to a Game Publisher
By Dr. Dave Eng | Nov 4, 2021 | Air Sloop, Blog

Air Sloop Design Journal Entry 6: First Pitch to a Game Publisher
Designer Dave Eng makes his First Pitch to a Game Publisher in the sixth entry of the Air Sloop design journal.

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The time had come to start presenting the game to publishers. I was attending PAX Unplugged in 2018 when I had the opportunity to meet some publishers who were going to be at the event. One of them was Jonathan Gilmour (@JonGilmour) from Pandasaurus Games. Jonathan is best known for games like Dead of Winter, Dinosaur Island, and Wasteland Express Delivery Services. I hadn’t played these games extensively prior to meeting Jonathan; however he was an established designer, so I took his thoughts seriously.

Some of the more pointed notes I received after the pitch included a need to balance the type, quantity, and opportunity to pick up certain goods on the map. I had scaled the game (or at least I thought) to make is so that goods became increasingly rarer from black goods all the way up to green goods. However our play demonstrated that wasn’t the case.

Air Sloop Design Journal First Pitch to Game Publisher Notes
Jonathan indicated the year in design I had dedicated to the game so far was already a pretty quick turnaround. He felt the core loop of the game was pretty strong and he liked what he was doing.
If Pandasaurus Games was interested in licensing it (which they eventually decided to pass on) the game would need to be re-themed. I indicated I was okay with that since I was prioritizing a finished and published game rather than a game that stuck to the original theme (which already had been heavily modified).

After only a 20-minute pitch I got all of these notes and more. I thought that my game was ready for publishers to see. Yet after this interaction I wondered if I might have to go back to the drawing board…

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Applied Games-Based Learning

Dave Eng
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Fort Lee
New Jersey
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Applied Games-Based Learning

Games-based learning can be a powerful tool for educators. That’s because it allows them to use established games for teaching, learning, training, and education. But how exactly do you apply games-based learning? What specific learning outcomes can you target? What games are specifically available to meet the needs of your students?

This article will review the use of games-based learning as well as reiterate the main reasons why you should consider using it in your teaching and instruction practice. Games-based learning as a student centered approach will be discussed as well as how gameful applications can be explored in education.

Applying games-based learning for specific knowledge domain mastery will be discussed in depth. Specifically, games related to empathy; chemistry; biology; physics; government; arithmetic; sustainable practices; research; software operations; and procedures will be covered in depth.

Why use games

Why should you even consider using games for teaching and learning? Some of the most popular responses involve “tricking” students into engaging with material as they play a game; but that is often a short sighted goal. Instead, instructors should consider using games as another educational tool that that provides a structure to engage all students in a shared learning experience. Such an experience can now be implemented and explored no matter what the instructional modality. Be it in-person; remote; or through hybrid learning.

Specially, educators have most frequently turned to serious games. These games exist as a means of teaching and learning rather than for fun or entertainment. Serious games have been around for centuries and have seen updates and revisions based on societal and technical breakthroughs. However, the main condition that hampers serious games are more pervasive usage is the necessity to build and construct them based on the needs of students and their learning outcomes.

Despite this, there is a great reason to combine teaching, learning, and games. For games possess the structure necessary for students to reach specific masteries in different knowledge domains. Some of those masteries can be as diverse as social and emotional learning which can serve as a catalyst for achieving greater higher level functions.

Games remain a powerful tool for learning. However, they need to be used holistically with other approaches for teaching and instruction that meaningfully and authentically creates environments for engagement and play between other students and the content. This is specifically the case because games-based learning serves as a structure for teaching and learning that supports and scaffolds students’ mastery. Such an experiential learning focus is also found in other forms of engaging educational experiences such as internships; externships; study abroad; and outdoor education.

Student centered design

Games-based learning is student centered learning through an experiential process. Student centered learning takes into account multiple factors which influence and affect play. Those include the students’ motivations (intrinsic; extrinsic; or both) for engagement. This format also includes specific goals that the learner may have throughout the educational process.

This is most closely observed through socio-emotional learning where the content and context of the outcome is embodied through an experience and through a type of engaging medium such as games. This engaging medium is most successful as students are provided the agency to create, innovate, and problem solve within the game environment.

The engaging environment of games also provide a feedback loop and mechanism which drive students to explore, experiment, test, and achieve things that have different impacts and outcomes. Some of those outcomes ideally will align with the outcomes set forth by the instructor. Otherwise, those outcomes could be extraneous or auxiliary to what is meant to be achieved. Despite these outcomes, the instructor should follow a strict active debriefing process for helping students make meaningful sense of their experiences.

No more is this more evident than though empowering students to create their own games which address how they make sense; structure; and formulate their experiences within the framework of a game. Student created games have the additional outcome where students can connect their course or content outline with the principles of game design and games-based learning.

Such an approach also allows individual students to simultaneously address the content and context of courses through diverse and different learning styles.

A gameful approach

Applying games-based learning is less about using games in a teaching practice and more about taking a gameful approaching to teaching and learning as a whole. This means giving students more agency in the decision making process of what to learn as well as how to learn it.

What makes this approach difficult is the autonomy that some instructors have to give up when taking a games-based learning approach. That is why some instructors often turn to gamification first. Gamification is the application of game like elements in non-game settings. Whereas games-based learning relies on games as the medium for teaching and learning. Students play the game in order to meet specific instructor indicated outcomes.

Therefore, serious games are designed in order to help students meet these goals specifically, rather than instructors repurposing games for entertainment into educational use. What makes serious games hard to develop for educators is the curricular path and plan that aligns game content; structure; and scaffolding with specified learning outcomes.

However, unlike traditional approaches to teaching and learning, games-based learning can also capitalize on social connections with other students as well as relationships built with the instructor in order to meet learning outcomes. These connections build upon social and cultural influences that positively affect game play.

Serious games are most effective when actual game mechanics reflect the learning mechanics of the instructor’s pedagogy. When learning outcomes are mapped specifically to these game mechanics; the serious game is much more relevant and representational of the instructor’s stated outcomes.

The tight coupling between the learning outcomes and game mechanics is necessary because without such a relationship, students may be intrinsically motivated to play the game but not necessarily learn. This can be detrimental to the entire instructional process and can undermine the application of games-based learning.

Applied games-based learning

Applied games-based learning takes the games; the instructor’s approach; and learning outcomes together in order to meet the goals of the course. This often begins with the rules of the game which provides a context for interaction as well as sets the tone for the “magic circle” of the game and how players are expected to act within in.

Often the implementation of small or light rule-sets makes the game much more approachable and applicable for students and learners. This is the case because smaller rules overhead combined with greater variations of play require students to design their own strategies to handle the evolving situation within the game.

These strategies are used to greatest effect when discussed in the active debriefing that follows a play session. Talking about how the game went as well as what actions individual students took within the game is critical to developing meaning as well as forming personalized conclusions for students. This represents a vital component of experiential teaching with games.

In addition, instructors can also launch directly into game play without revealing the need or nature of the game to students beforehand. The instructor can then use the time during active debriefing to discuss the experience and how the game’s context relates to the content of a course.

Games-based learning for knowledge domain learning

Many games focus on soft skills development for students and how outcomes achieved through games can help with specific areas such as critical thinking and emotional intelligence. However, there is also a need for applied games-based learning that helps students meet specific outcomes in different knowledge domains.

The following includes a series of games that may be used by instructors to fulfill the needs of students in the areas of connected empathy; chemistry; biology; physics government; civics; arithmetic; sustainable practices; research; software operations; and rules and procedures.

The following game examples are not meant to be exhaustive. Rather, this list provides an overview of games available for instructors to meet students’ needs in specific knowledge domains.

Connected Empathy

Empathy can often be a challenging concept to describe and demonstrate.
That’s because, unlike other knowledge domains, empathy involves developing the capacity to understand and feel what another person is feeling from their frame of reference. This can often be difficult to place ourselves in another person’s position. Especially if we have never been in their position before; or at least cannot recognize the differences in position between us and them.

This is what makes Papers, Please such an interesting and challenging take on this demonstrated empathy. Papers, Please is a simulation video game developed by Locus Pope and published through 3909 LLC. It was first released in August 2013 and involves the player role-playing the duties of the border-crossing immigration officer.

The game takes place in a dystopian Eastern-Bloc kind of country called “Arstotzka” which finds itself in challenging political relationships with its neighboring countries. The player performs their duties at an immigration check point where they must review each individual that wishes to entry the country and check their passports and supporting documentation against a growing list of rules and guides. The player has to perform the duties of this immigration officer to allow people in with proper paperwork; to reject those without the right documentation; and to detain individuals with falsified information.

While the theme and core loop of Papers, Please may not seem that interesting; it does put the player in the role (and roles) of individuals who they may have never interacted with before or never wish to be. Through these actions, the player visualizes and observes the challenges of individuals attempting a border crossing by connected empathy with their individual desires; motivations; and reasons for moving between nation states.

In addition, Papers, Please creates a world through which players can experientially test these circumstances through role-playing within the magic circle of the game. While the designer never intended to create a game that embodied this type of connected empathy; instructors could use the game in order to provide students with a demonstrable scenarios in which individuals’ goals and motivations are not too dissimilar.

Similarly, Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr places the player in a position of authority in order to provide care for a terminally ill patient: Billy Kerr. Kerr plays the non-player character (NPC) of the game who has been rushed to the player’s hospital following a massive heart attack during a Sydney to London flight. The game begins with players only knowing the patient’s name, his age, and the fact that he only has days to live.

Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr is a cooperative table top game in which all players must work together to provide appropriate care to your patient, responding to medical emergencies, and gaining his trust through his final days. The game is played over ten different scenarios where you learn increasingly more about Billy Kerr’s past. Your role is to help him find the courage to confront the regrets that keep him holding on.

The theme and play of this game is dark, as it forces players to deal with the ideas of dying and regret. However, it does so in a potentially neutral and collaborative way as players need to work with one another in order to help ease the suffering of the non-player character (Billy Kerr). Unlike, Papers, Please, players can communicate and work with one another in order to determine the best course of action given what you know about the character in order to help Billy Kerr achieve peace in his final days.

Hard Sciences: Chemistry, Biology, and Physics

Areas of chemistry, biology, and physics are often the topics of choice when creating games for teaching and learning. No more is this the case with table top games that help players reach and achieve the same learning outcomes taught in many secondary schools through more traditional instruction.

Covalence is one such game where players work together cooperatively in order to recreate a number of different organic components. This table top game is broken up by information discrepancy. This means that one player plays the part of the “knower” who has the knowledge of the organic compound to be created; while the other players represent the “builders” and must deduce what these components are based on clues given by the knower. Covalence works within this cooperative framework in order to challenge players to use a limited number of clues available to build these different organic compounds before time runs out.

While chemistry is taught both at a theoretical and experiential level in most classrooms, Covalence goes one step further by challenging players with a structure of information incongruence. Thereby relying on players to deduce the structure of different organic compounds based on what they know, and what they can construct, given the teamwork demonstrated by the “knower.”

Likewise, Cytosis: A Cell Building Game is a game that challenges players to compete against one another using one of modern table top gaming’s most celebrated mechanisms: worker placement. Here, players dive deeply into a human cell to learn how it functions, divides, and eventually replicates. The worker locations represent different functions, and resources of cells such as mRNA and ATP. In addition, different worker spots allow players to convert resources, build enzymes, hormones, and receptors that eventually help players score Health Points to win the game.

Cytosis: A Cell Building Game takes the structure and actions of a cell and replicates it in a way that provides players with both an overview and agency of what they want to do and how they can accomplish it given the constraints in the game. It provides not only a robust analysis of cellular operations; but also does so in a way that fulfills the gaming needs of modern table top gamers in a package that entertains as well as educates.

Lastly, the Kerbal Space Program (KSP) is a video game that incorporates space flight simulation, was developed by Squad, and published by Private Division for various platforms. Players take on the role of director of a space program that is staffed and crewed by humanoid creatures known as “kerbals.” The game’s claim to fame is a realistic orbital physics simulation which provides real life orbital maneuvers and allowing players to experiment with different aspects of orbital mechanics.

Simulations exist as a way for learners to try and experiential with different concepts and phenomena. Nowhere is this more the case than with the Kerbal Space Program (KSP), which expertly takes such advanced physical concepts and provides it in a sandbox environment for players to experiment and play with. The result of which is a simulation that can demonstrate concepts more easily and experientially using students’ own agency.

Government & Civics

Often finding games that teach or reinforce hard sciences is easy. What is not so easy is finding games that properly and structurally teach students about government and civics. That’s your Right answers this need by providing a venue for teaching students the US Bill of Rights in a browser based multiplayer game.

That’s Your Right can be played either single player or multi player game. It is flexible in either format as it challenges players’ knowledge and application of the first ten amendments of the United States Constitution (also known as the “Bill of Rights”). As such, this game was designed with the Annenberg Classroom’s comprehensive Constitution curriculum as a focus and primary learning outcome. That’s your Right’s game mechanics are most closely influenced by Blizzard’s Hearthstone which in turn is influenced by Wizard of the Coast’s Magic: the Gathering.

The game’s core loop involves players correctly playing cards that correspond to constitutional rights. Correct answers score points while simultaneously eliminating opponents’ cards. The game’s completely free offering with no in-game purchases makes it an accessible choice for many educators.

Additionally, Argument Wars, offers players the opportunity to test students’ persuasive abilities arguing actual US Supreme Court Cases. As another browser-based game; players compete against one another in order to craft the strongest argument.

Famous US Supreme Court cases including Bond v. United States; Brown v. Board of Education; Gideon v. Wainwright; and Texas v. Johnson. The game is available for play in both Spanish and English.

While focused on application for younger audiences; Argument Wars still provides a visceral and applicable take on the different facets; opinions; and mitigating factors that influenced some of the most important US Supreme Court Decisions in history. It’s browser-based and free-to-play format also makes this game an accessible choice for many educators.

Arithmetic Operations and Numbers

Sometimes the earliest examples of games for teaching and learning appear for children when they experience the basics of mathematics and arithmetic. Some of the most applicable examples of this knowledge domain for these young students are arithmetic games such as Mathemagician's Duel.

In the board game Mathemagician's Duel, students create the thematic "incanquations" from several cards in their hands. They do this in order to cast spells on their opponents in order to reduce their magical strength to zero. These “incanquations” are created by using magical energy cards (the numerals in the game) and magic symbol cards (representing operators).

This is done in line with arithmetic operations, so that when read from left to right, add up to the cast value of the chosen spell. Therefore, each successfully cast magical spell reduces the opponent’s magical strength by a specific amount.

Mathemagician's Duel does an excellent job marrying theme with learning outcomes in helping younger player practice mental math skills as well as working memory ass they calculate the value of incanquations to the greatest effect against their opponents.

In addition, the board game Lucky Numbers takes an even simpler approach to numbers and probability by requiring players to draw and play numbers that fit within their own personal grid. Players’ personal grids provides an intimate form of personal scale and agency in the game. Players must place numbers so that each one (left to right and top to bottom) is greater than the ones prior to it.

Players must also note the boards of their opponents; for numbers that they cannot (or choose not) to play on their boards become available for their opponents to place.

Lucky Numbers is not an educational game or serious game per-se. However, the structure of the game and the simple (but puzzly core loop) provides players with interesting choices for pulling, placing, and passing on numbers that they draw.

Sustainable Practices

Teaching, education, and instruction targeted at climate change and overall more sustainable practices is growing in demand. Thus, there have been greater proliferation of serious games that address these specific and critical issues.

One such game is LOOP which stands for the Life of Ordinary People. This table top game focuses on multiple aspects of climate change and consumption that are driven by personal practices of individuals. Those contribute to things like smog; plastic pollution in oceans; and food waste in landfills.

The game identifies the need, desires, and end goals of consumerism and consumption on both a personal and societal level. Individually it examines players; needs to consume to improve quality of life; to become “happier;” or ultimately as a way to spend the resources that we generate through work and labor.

Player actions ultimately inform a larger and more nuanced discussion. However, the table top game LOOP identifies the importance of that discussion and provides an engaging, positive, and intuitive way to examine consumerism and its impacts on environmentalism and sustainability. Players take on the role of “ordinary people” who are tasked and challenged with breaking out this familiar (but often vicious) expectations of consumerism which encompasses working; buying; and consuming.

Players compete in the table top game to strategically complete activities to achieve personal goals while simultaneously utilizing specific career special abilities and favor cards to achieve satisfying combos.

A more pointed example of a serious game that addresses climate change is Green House which is a cooperative table top game aimed at stimulating real world solutions to address familiar climate events.

Green House plays as a turn-based cooperative card game where players draw cards to reveal a climate event that they must address. Some of those events include real life catastrophes such as hurricanes, disease outbreaks, and wildfires. Players then play action cards (called climate solutions) which affect a communal pool of resources such as greenhouse gasses; money; and hope.

This is a cooperative table top game. Therefore, players will collectively lose the game if they collect too many greenhouse gas tokens or if they run out of money, hope or event cards. Players can win if they work and cooperate with one another to eliminate all of the greenhouse gas tokens in the game. Like LOOP, the game also includes “momentum” opportunities that allow players to create satisfying combos with other cards to increase positive game effects.

Green House offers several different variants for students to play which include single player; cooperative; and role-playing versions where students can embody different stakeholders in the climate change circles such as families; corporations; governments; and non-profits.

Academic Research

Perhaps one of the areas that could use the most help and guidance for students is how to conduct thorough and critical academic research. Anyone who has had to look through a database knows that this can be a daunting challenge. However,
Search & Destroy takes the concept of developing searching strings and gamifies into a table top card game.

Search & Destroy is a multiplayer card game that is most appropriately used for librarians and teachers who want their students to improve their database searching skills. Turns for the game move quickly with the active player drawing two “keyword cards” and choose to display one of them. The active player may then play a single action or mod card which may or may not affect themselves or another player.

The real crutch of the game comes in when the active player searches for the terms on the card in an actual library or academic database (of the instructor’s choice) in order to determine the result.

Players can be eliminated from the game when their database search yields no results (which can happen given the different kinds of action and mod cards). The player left alive is becomes the winner!

While the core loop and central actions of the game are very basic; Search & Destroy does well in illustrating the main outcome of developing successful database search strings. Therefore, Search & Destroy is best for helping students determine keyword selections and experience basic Boolean searching when conducting academic research.

Student Seminar and First Year Experience

While not always discussed in many education circles; the first year (or freshman year) experience dialogue course can serve as an impactful part of a student’s first term in higher education. EnRolled embodies the necessary aspects and outcomes of this class which can have positive effects from students’ participation.

EnRolled is a table top game that gives students a common experience to discuss and engage with in order to further development of their understanding and relation of different factors that affect their own student experience. Those include often divisive topics such as student debt; complicated ones such as degree requirements; and more philosophical questions such as those surrounding course and degree options. Furthermore, random life events also find their way into games of EnRolled which further replicate the first year student experience.

EnRolled is played in a semi-cooperative environment. Here, players accumulate debt each turn with the end game goal of meeting all of the requirements of their indicated degree. A player may win the game by graduating first with the least amount of student debt.

Software Operations

Perhaps one of the most cogent areas where both educators and students see games used regularly for teaching and learning is through hard skill development and software operations. Many may remember games such as Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing as our first interaction with learning games.

Many different games have iterated on this aspect over the years and now there are slew of different options that teach different software operation skills. One such game is Data Defender (prototype) which is a free and online browser based game which skillfully teaches students how to use shortcuts for Microsoft Excel to their advantage.

While the applications of such a game may be limited to specific and select groups of students; Data Defender takes the accomplishment of these learning outcomes seriously through the application of a serious game that ramps quickly in difficulty in order to test students’ mastery of Excel software operations.

Similarly, The Typing of The Dead: Overkill provides a more modern and contemporary adaptation of the skills developed in Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing but with the severe level of urgency encapsulated in a survival horror game.

The Typing of The Dead: Overkill provides comedic over tones compared to other horror games by using the theme of the House of the Dead series and combines it with a typing mechanic that requires players to keyboard specific words and phrases in order to defeat the monsters and zombies in the game. Thematically, the need to type makes no sense; however the material and the application of the typing mechanic make the game enticing and challenging for even recalcitrant typing students.

Rules & Procedures

Learning different, rules, policies, and procedures is often the task of human resources professionals and others who work for corporate training, learning, and development. It’s often not an enviable task; but it is necessary and critical for teaching new employees how an organization works and the proper protocols in place for completing their duties successfully.

The Tesco: Compliance Board Game helps new employees at Tesco learn about the company and how to comply with its many policies and procedures. It’s unique as a board game that has been developed digitally using Articulate Storyline.

The game puts new employees through their paces in developing knowledge and learning new skills for everything. Content ranges from handling fire safety issues to new employees on boarding. The Tesco: Compliance Board Game includes regularly seen formal game elements such as bonus cards; a timer; and a leader board.

The game exceeds in breaking up long and detailed content into several mini-games for employees to complete at will. It also addresses common scenarios by employees that are built on 10 key core behaviors of Tesco employees.

The Tesco: Compliance Board Game is made more accessible to employees due to its modality as well as time commitment (it takes about an hour to complete). Afterwards, employees are awarded feedback based on their performance in the mini-games and their overall mastery of stated learning outcomes.


This article covered why we use games for games-based learning. It focused on games used through a student centered educational process as well as how instructors can take on a more gameful approach to teaching and learning. The reasons behind using games for knowledge mastery was covered as applied games-based learning.

Specific games were detailed in this article along with their relevant knowledge domains. Those included connected empathy; hard sciences such as chemistry, biology, and physics; government & civics; arithmetic operations & numbers; sustainable practices; research; software operations; and rules & procedures.

This article was about applied games-based learning. To learn more about gamification, check out the free course on Gamification Explained.

Dave Eng, EdD


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Cite this Article

Eng, D. (2021, October 26). Applied Games-Based Learning. Retrieved MONTH DATE, YEAR, from

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Journal Entry 5 – Pro’s and Con’s of Multi-Use Cards

Dave Eng
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Journal Entry 5 – Pro’s and Con’s of Multi-Use Cards
By Dr. Dave Eng | Oct 25, 2021 | Air Sloop, Blog

The Pro’s and Con’s of Multi-Use Cards are explored by Dave Eng in the fifth entry of the Air Sloop board game design journal.

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The creation of the multi-use cards was something that really spoke to me overall. I like clever games. I appreciate when games make the best use of their components. In particular I like when designers reuse some components for different aspects and dynamics within the game.
I also enjoy games which make you think a little bit based on when and how to resolve things. Specifically I cultivate little ways to incentivize players to take one action over other actions.
That’s when I started using the trading posts in the game to incentivize players to use them in to gain victory points. At the beginning I tried to use the trading posts as a way for players to expand the map. The further the map expanded the more opportunities there were to pick up goods.

Air Sloop Design Journal Trading Post Multi-Use Card
Goods were placed directly on the card when it was revealed. As such I created trading post cards that rewarded players with victory points if the board was already a certain size (i.e. 3×3). Doing this made it so that players would WANT to explore and expand the board. But in my search to be “clever” I made it so that while one player expanded the board; another one might be the first one to reap the benefit of the victory points by getting to the trading post first.
This was definitely a hard pill to swallow for me. While I thought I was being inventive I actually created a whole new set of problems…
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Journal Entry 4 – Playtesting Air Sloop at Metatopia

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Journal Entry 4 – Playtesting Air Sloop at Metatopia
by Dr. Dave Eng | Oct 14, 2021 | Air Sloop, Blog

Playtesting Air Sloop at Metatopia Game Design Journal Entry 4
In the fourth installment of Dave Eng’s game design journal he discusses his experience bringing Air Sloop to Metatopia for playtesting.

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At this point I decided that Sloop was in good enough condition to bring to my local playtesting event called Metatopia. It takes place in Morristown, NJ. This was really the first time that the game was played by a group of people who had never seen the game before.

As a result of attending Metatopia I was able to get some REALLY good unbiased feedback from the crowd. One of the important points made by the playtesters involved the so-called board. As the map gets larger and larger from laying cards down the competition to interact with other ships or became less and less.

Other playtesters indicated that the grid of cards didn’t look like a river. At that point I considered dumping the theme all together since I was more attracted to the mechanics than the theme of the game.
Overall playtesters enjoyed the multi-use cards. But there was still something missing with the game. Something that I was looking for that still made the game easy to play but provided more depth and tactical strategy.

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Air Sloop Journal Entry 3: Cards as a Game Board

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Air Sloop Journal Entry 3: Cards as a Game Board

by Dr. Dave Eng | Oct 4, 2021 | Air Sloop, Blog

Air Sloop Game Design Journal Cards as a Board
Independent Game Designer Dr. Dave Eng Explores Using Cards as a Game Board in the third entry to the Air Sloop Design Journal.
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Text makes it really easy to create a mail merge for your prototype cards in Microsoft Word. What it doesn’t make easy is how to recognize different icons and values on those cards. That when I decided that I was going to make it easier (and accessible) for players to also identify icons based on their location on the cards.
I began experimenting with cards that were broken down into sections. Players could then read the cards if they were interested in those sections. I’ve always been a fan of games that made economical use of the components and used them in different ways through the course of the game. I wanted to make Sloop the same way.

That’s when I decided to create cards that were double sided, The cards would have places to pickup and deliver goods on the front and “improvements” on the back. In the original sloop game, players could deliver goods to a card and the card would flip over revealing a trading post. At the trading post players could trade goods in one quantity and color for goods of another quantity and color and so forth.

The trading posts I figured made it fun to fulfill orders at a location. It also made best use of both sides of the cards and added more “depth” to the game. What I didn’t anticipate was the pain of having to constantly place, flip, and re-flip cards over and over again. That and the fact that a board made up of “river” cards in a grid didn’t look like a river any more….

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Playing serious games

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Playing serious games

Serious games are games created from the ground up for teaching and learning. These also include games created for a social purpose outside of the traditional executions of games for entertainment.

Serious games can be incredible tools for teaching, learning, and education. They help players learn experientially though play in order to put concepts into use. Serious games provide learners with the opportunities to transform experience into knowledge.

So how should educators use serious games for teaching and learning? What are some serious games that exist now? How can educators integrate serious games into their curriculum, syllabi, and lesson plans?

This article will review and define serious games. A brief history of serious games will be shared along with some of the best reasons for using serious games in teaching and learning. The impact and ramifications of using serious games in the classroom will be discussed as well as the role that educators play in integrating serious games in their practice.

Several historical serious games will be discussed in detail and include war games and the Kriegsspiel; business simulations; and other aspects of gamificaiton; games-based learning and applied games. Serious game play constitutes experiential learning. Therefore, active debriefing will be discussed in depth and a detailed approach will be shared for how educators can and should integrate these games into their teaching practice.

What are serious games?

Simply put serious games are games that are created for purposes other than entertainment. We may have first discovered gaming from the fun and excitement that we derive from it. Serious games take these outcomes and pairs it with learning outcomes in order to help the player and learner achieve a specific educational outcome. Therefore, serious games’ primary objective is not to entertain the player but rather to help them achieve a specific learning outcome.

In more granular terms, serious games are meant to promote some sort of behavior change from their learning outcomes. This change can come about through applications of learning that arise from play. Otherwise it could arise from players’ empathetic perspectives of others’ simulated through game play. In any case, serious games ultimately improve players, learners, and users through play.

Current applied serious games are used and implemented through an applied curricular methodology. This means that serious games aren’t played in a vacuum. Rather, serious games are used in tandem with play, review, discussion, and debriefing in order to help players achieve their learning outcomes.

How were serious games created?

Games have been around for thousands of years. Serious games came about from the development of using games as teaching and learning tools. Serious games go back hundreds of centuries prior to the more popular use of games-based learning for teaching, training, and education.

Some of the earliest games like chess were often relied upon in order to teach principles of warfare. We see more contemporary applications of this with games like America’s Army which served as both an abstraction of infantry warfare as well as marketing and recruitment tool.

But why were games first relied upon as tools for teaching and learning? It’s because games states are more easily provide an overview and abstraction of different simulations and scenarios. Reality possesses many details and fine distinctions that may be irrelevant to the situation at hand. However, the player experience of games provides a specific, detailed, and nuanced approach to teaching and learning through different activities, challenges, tasks, and assignments often under the guise of game terms like missions, scenes, and levels.

This specific approach – combined with a more accessible appeal of games – made them excellent tools for teaching and learning. Especially since games could be as an experiential form of education since knowledge is created from game play rather than shared didactically through lectures, seminars, or videos.

Why use serious games?

Games, game design, and game development have a storied and intertwined history with serious games. However, serious games also excel with catering to the player experience. That’s because these games are experienced at a pace and involvement at the discretion of the player.

All of this is due to player interaction, feedback, the feedback loop, and intrinsic motivation. The combination of these factors entice, empower, and enable students to continue playing, engaging, and experimenting with games in an experiential feedback loop. Such an engagement makes games an evolving and customizable tool for player learning.

Lastly, a serious game doesn’t always need to be played seriously. Serious games can still elicit fun and enjoyment from players. Doing so ensures that the player experience is a positive one, which supports and enables future play.

Serious games’ impact on learning

Additionally, serious games’ have a positive impact on learning, motivation, and learning motivation when applied by educators to learners. They are able to more fully and immersively demonstrate concepts and applications in ways that traditional didactic education cannot.

This is often most realized in cognitive and affective learning outcomes. These are often most closely related to traditional educational learning outcomes that change attitudes, motivation, and values of students. However, serious games can also teach behavioral competencies. The results of which also change learners’ behaviors when using serious games for teaching and learning.

There are downsides to using serious games in the classroom. Often, students who are accustomed to playing many games for entertainment will focus more on game play and game elements rather than the outcomes that such game play provides. However, educators can use player involvement as a way to continue to spur interest and intrinsic motivation for learners to engage and play.

Ultimately, serious games represent another tool for educators to use and adapt for the classroom. The results of which emphasize the development and more widespread use of gaming for teaching and learning.

Teaching with serious games

Often, one of the more salient aspects to teaching with serious games is that they break the traditional rigid teaching structure of didactic education. This is where educators present information for students to consume and ultimately develop understanding. We see this most frequently in a lecture based classroom.

Serious games approach teaching and learning outside of a didactic approach, and instead encourages learners and players to experiment and play. This results in a process where players develop the necessary skills in order to progress in the game and ultimately achieve the designer’s and educators’ outcomes.

Serious games achieve this by combining learning strategies, curricular structures, and formal game elements in order to teach specific skills for players to create their own knowledge. Here, serious games represent conceptual and mechanical relationships within a dynamic environment that can be changed and augmented by the player thorough their own agency. The results of which end when players achieve stated learning outcomes.

Serious games can and do incorporate a wide spectrum of abstraction versus fidelity. However, some of the most popular serious games rely heavily on content developed from realistic situations. This is due to the need for learners to more easily identify and apply outcomes to necessary applications.

Despite this, all great games and serious games encourage and influence the development of cognitive flow for learners. The creation of this flow state is a result of the observation and keen development of relational awareness between game elements and their outcomes. Those relationships can be highly representative of their real world counterparts. However, with serious games they never explicitly have to be.

Ultimately serious games are meant to elicit a change in learners’ perceptions, applications, and outcomes of their learning. Therefore, it’s important that serious games actively include and represent the learners themselves in an identifiable form (or avatar) so that the relationship between themselves and their expected outcomes and applications are more clearly defined.

Wargames and Kriegsspiel

One of the earliest and most widespread applications of serious games for teaching and learning was the Kriegspeil (or “wargame” in German). With a storied history, the Kriegsspiel was used to teach military leaders tactics and strategies by representing armies and military units in scaled miniature on a physical table top. Its military applications goes beyond what can be contained in this article; however its use of abstraction and simulation is what cemented its future use for teaching and learning.

It’s success was great enough that officer training often involved frequent use of the Kriegsspiel for teaching and learning military and combat doctrine in the 19th century. Despite this, the Kriegsspiel was not run the same way we think about other table top games and educational games that we know and use today. Rather, players’ actions were arbitrated by a referee, umpire, or judge who collected and collated player actions in order to resolve them within the game. This role is most similarly seen with the “dungeon master” of table top role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons.

Fidelity was on the side of Kriegsspiel, as further iterations of the game took into account other actions and activities which could befall military leaders in actual live conflict. Those included surprise attacks, supporting lines, and point defense.

The Kriegsspiel has gone onto spur multiple successors for other table top war games such as Warhammer 40k, Star Wars Imperial Assault, and Star Trek Attack Wing to name a few. Likewise, the use of an impartial third party to moderate and referee games can be seen in many iterations of modern live role-playing games.

This war gaming simulation’s humble beginnings has indeed grown and evolved past its original intent for training military leaders for the conflicts they are yet to fight. However, the focus on simulation and fidelity is one that we see in other aspects of serious games such as business simulations.

Business simulations

Businesses often rely on simulations for teaching and learning because of its high fidelity to real world and application and problem solving. Simulations represent the closet possible thing to reality without the loss or risk of actually carrying out business actions.

Therefore, these business simulations exist within the realm of active and experiential learning like other forms of games-based learning. As such, participants in business simulations are both behaviorally and cognitively active as they play and experiment with the simulation in order to test and attempt to accomplish different outcomes.

Perhaps one of the most common business simulations is that of the Stock Market Game which many high school students participate in while learning about economics. The Stock Market Game makes it so that individual students can try their hand at investing in different publicly traded companies in order to determine if their predictions about future business success pan out.

As such, simulations such as these can be highly effective at engaging and motivating students due to their high touch and experiential approach. Here, students experience an active and closely tied feedback loop to their initial input and investments in order to see the ultimate effect on their portfolios.

Business simulations grow and evolve from the fidelity provided in the Kriegsspiel as a way for learners to experience different problems and scenarios in which they must apply decision making and problem solving methodology to overcome the challenge. The results of which encompass specified learning outcomes established by the instructor in order for students to achieve these goals.

Gamification, games-based learning, and applied games

While the Kriegsspiel represents one of earliest uses of simulation for teaching and training; and business simulations represent commercial applications of the same for business outcomes; the breadth and scope of games for learning is much wider than these two applications.

Games-based learning includes using established games for teaching and learning as well as the use; creation; and implementation of serious games for education and development. These applications don’t need to be narrowly applied such as with war games and business case studies. Rather, aspects of gamificaiton and games-based learning can apply the use of these practices in other venues.

Such is the case with serious games that were created with outcomes other than entertainment in mind. There have been many cases of such games; but perhaps the most popular and successful of which include the following.

Darfur is Dying was first released in April 2006 and represented the journalistic spirit of exposing the truth behind the humanitarian crisis of the war in Darfur. The game provided a platform that reached over 800,000 players in five months and approaches social change through the medium of games.

Likewise the game World without Oil’s tagline: “Play it – before you live it” provided a simulation of how a future oil crisis might affect individuals by representing changes that may occur in their area. This was an alternate reality game (ARG) that lasted for 32 days between April and June 2007. It provided the very real social impact of helping individual players anticipate problems of a world without oil.

Lastly, the game Superbetter was the brainchild of Jane McGonigal. After suffering a concussion in 2009, she experienced the negative consequences of depression and suicidal thoughts. While recovering, McGonigal created the game “Jane the Concussion Slayer” which she designed to help treat her condition (as well as help keep her occupied). Building off of the success of this game she renamed it Superbetter and applied it to help other people achieve their own goals and overcome obstacles.

Active debriefing

Educators are free to choose how they use games, gamificaiton, serious games, learning games, or games-based learning. However, the application of any of these approaches requires learning through experience or experiential learning. As such, educators should implement a practice of active debriefing no matter which method they choose to pursue. The results of active debriefing enables participants and players to connect activities and lessons they learned through game play with opportunities in the outside world.

Active debriefing is important because it requires individuals to focus on their own beliefs, assumptions, and values that arose from their experiences playing the game. It also requires individuals to manage how they may defensively react when re-examining and re-evaluating their own belief and value systems in order to make sense of these new experiences.

Ultimately the goal of instructor lead active debriefing is meant to ensure that learning is happening at an individual level. Specifically that experience is transformed into knowledge that can be shared and built upon. Therefore, active debriefing is best implemented at the end of an activity or experiences such as game play or games-based learning activities.

While more adult learners might be empowered to lead active debriefing sessions on their own; instructors may choose to rely on the following questions to help structure and guide their own active debriefing activities. Those sample questions include:

-What happened?
-Does what happened matter?
-How did you feel?
-Does this remind you of anything else you’ve experienced? If so, what and why?
-What have you learned?
-What will you do with what you’ve learned?


This article covered how to use serious games for teaching, learning, education, and development. It began with an overview of what serious games are as well as a short history of how they have been used in the past for teaching and learning.

The merits of using serious games for teaching were provided as well as the kind of impact that they can have on learners and instructors alike. Specific steps for teaching with serious games were discussed as well as some detailed historical examples. Those included war games and the Kriegsspiel, business simulations, and various applications of games-based learning and applied games.

This article closed on the process of active debriefing and how instructors should use it when paired with serious games for teaching and learning. Games-based learning is an experiential form of learning. Therefore, the active debriefing cycle is paramount in helping students make sense of their experience a well as connect specific game outcomes with targeted learning outcomes.

This article was about playing serious games. To learn more about gamification, check out the free course on Gamification Explained.

Dave Eng, EdD


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Cite this Article

Eng, D. (2021, September 28). Playing serious games. Retrieved MONTH DATE, YEAR, from

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Air Sloop Board Game Design Journal Entry #2

Dave Eng
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Fort Lee
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Air Sloop Board Game Design Journal Entry #2
By Dr. Dave Eng | Sep 23, 2021 | Air Sloop, Blog

Second Air Sloop Design Journal entry covering the evolution beyond a basic roll and move board game. Written by independent designer Dr. Dave Eng.

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Sloop was originally conceived as a pickup and deliver game that was supposed to be historical. Sloops – which are these short and fast sailing ships – would move up and down the Hudson River to pick up goods from one place and deliver them to another one.
I started out with VERY rudimentary cards. There were all text-based cards that were easily printed on my little ink jet printer at home that broke apart into business card sized cards. Though there was one issue with them: they had no graphics. The text made it hard to easily read the number of goods that a location provided. This made me realize how important graphic design was for ease of use and information access as new versions of the game materialized.

Fellow NJ game designer Zintis B May-Krumins @ZintisMay helped me playtest the earliest version of the game back in October 2018. That’s where the limitations of the roll and move mechanic became apparent. Most of all, rolling and moving was just kind of… boring. It didn’t provide players any agency on where they landed. Just that they HAD to move when they rolled the die.

Instead this is where I began to play with the concept of movement points for Sloop. A limited number of movement points were already included in the rule sets for other established games. I began to think long and hard about how I could include them in Sloop thematically…

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