Playing With Higher Education: Why Games Work

30 Jun 2020 3:31 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

By: Thomas E Heinzen, Ph.D., William Paterson University

When was the last time a student turned in an exam and then begged the professor, “That was so much fun! Would you let me take it again but next time, please, make it a little more difficult!”  

Never? Well, that happens all the time in game design. The extravagant promise that game designers make to higher education is that we can induce academic persistence. That includes students labeled as “poorly prepared” or “just not ready.” Many of those same students will hurry home after class in order to spend the next eight hours playing a difficult video game, learning from (and teaching) fellow players, managing complex on-line relationships, and figuring out constantly changing rules. They’re doing all the stuff we want them to do for a grade but for the pure joy of achievement. Yet we dare to think of them as “unmotivated.” 

Higher education has a lot to learn from game designers (see Schell, 2008). A mash-up of definitions produces the idea that play is the voluntary expenditure of exuberant energy in an aimless activity: voluntary energy. The definition of a game is just as important: Arbitrary obstacles that make it difficult to achieve a specific goal: rules and goals. 

My cousin and I were “just playing” when we kicked an empty box down the sidewalk of a New York City street. But we started “playing a game” when we invented a competition to see who could kick the box the farthest. What, specifically, can professors and curriculum designers learn from game designers? Here are four principles. 

1. Deliver an Experience.  Game designers don’t design games; they design experiences. They use game mechanics to deliver that experience. In chemistry lab, the experience could be an almost pure solution; in psychology, an “aha” moment of self-recognition; in literature, a shock of understanding. 

Two actor friends started laughing while watching an independently produced film. They had spotted a boom mike dipping into the tippy top of the screen. But they still loved the film because it delivered a satisfying experience even though some of the filmmaking mechanics were sloppy. 

2. Get Good at Onboarding. Game designers recognize onboarding as the most critical moment in a game. Onboarding in a course is a first impression opportunity to grab and sustain a student’s attention. Onboarding makes players want to play and students want to learn. 

Some professors design the first moments of a class the way a novelist labors over an opening sentence. They might come to class ten minutes early to chat with incoming students. The number of possible course points in the syllabus can convey impressions of fairness. The first contact with students is bursting with consequential opportunities.  

3. Design a Flow Zone. The flow zone carries students higher up the ladder of difficulty (“leveling up” in game-speak).  A flow zone relies on the same game mechanic financial planners use to carry clients to a safe, early retirement: continuous rebalancing. 

A teaching flow zone continuously rebalances difficulty and rewards as it shifts the student’s experience from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation. Many classic games (Tetris, Pac Man) require greater achievements before accelerating the game’s pace. A flow zone can sustain a student’s engagement from week to week, course to course, and across an entire, satisfying career. 

4. Model Failing Forward. Higher education too often relies on threats to motivate learning. An error lowers your grade; too many leads to an embarrassing trip to the Dean; keep it up and higher education rejects you from the system. But a fear of failing that can be lethal to authentic learning. So change things, teachers: get out there and fail! (see Bennett, 2017).

Don’t be timid; there is plenty of failure to go around. Toddlers learn to walk by experiencing many painful failures. Yet they learn because a) walking looks like fun; b) they suspect there is a cookie high up on the table, and c) everyone else is doing it. Higher education succeeds when the effort is fun, rewarding, and common (see Birney, Burdick, & Teevan, 1969; Boston & Zhao, 2017).

In 2015, an APA symposium presented game-based applications to diabetes management, aging, education, assessment, and much more. Game labs are promoting “serious games” and using fun to solve social problems. So, if you are thinking about or playing with game design to improve the art of your teaching and learning, you’re not alone! This is a growing interest among many educators. 


Bennett, J. (2017, June 24). On campus, failure is on the syllabus. The New York Times. Retrieved from 

Boston, P. & Zhao, B. (2017). Failing to innovate. Ivey Business Journal. Retrieved from 

Birney, R. C., Burdick, H., & Teevan, R. C. (1969). Fear of failure. Van Nostrand-Reinhold Company.

Heinzen, T. E., Gordon, M. S., Landrum, R. E., Gurung, R. A., Dunn, D. S., & Richman, S. (2015). A parallel universe: Psychological science in the language of game design. In Gamification in education and business (pp. 133-149). Springer, Cham.

Heinzen, T. E., & Ivezaj, S. (2019). Fat Points and Fairness: Inserting a Minor Game Mechanic in the Syllabus. Journal of Applied Testing Technology, 20(S1), 60-68.

Lee, P. T. Y., Chau, M., & Lui, R. W. C. (2019). The Role of Attitude toward Challenge in Serious Game Design. Journal of Computer Information Systems, 1-12.

Schell, J. (2008). The Art of Game Design: A book of lenses. CRC press.

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