Using Game Design Principles to Create Authentic Learning Experiences

Concurrent Session 2

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

The 2018 Horizon Report identifies Authentic Learning Experiences as a “Solvable Challenge’. The report identifies apprenticeships and “course projects situated in the community” as strategies for authentic learning. In this session we present a strategy for creating authentic, online or blended experiences, that can be created using game design principles. 


Dr. Andrew Feldstein is assistant provost for Teaching Innovation and Learning Technologies at Fort Hays State University. He leads a team of instructional designers, technologists, and professional development specialists; who collaborate with instructors to create meaningful, engaging and impactful learning experiences. He holds multidimensional responsibilities related to professional development programs for faculty; supporting best practices in teaching, research, and service; innovative instructional design and course development; and the delivery, management, and support of technology focused learning tools and platforms. In the area of professional development he has expanded the use of asynchronous workshops and micro-lessons through the delivery of targeted, and engaging professional development opportunities for busy faculty members. He has also developed new technology enhanced learning tools, offering faculty a choice of strategies for a more interactive and increasing meaningful connection with students.
Dr. Gulinna A has been an instructional designer in Teaching Innovation and Learning Technologies at Fort Hays State University since 2016. Dr. A helps faculty with blended and online course development, as well as consultation for effective teaching and learning strategies. She also offers workshops on emerging technologies and instructional design at the university. Her research interests include gamification in education, learning experience design, and influential factors that affect student perceptions of active learning.

Extended Abstract

The 2018 Horizon Report identifies Authentic Learning Experiences as a “Solvable Challenge’. The report identifies apprenticeships and “course projects situated in the community” as strategies for authentic learning. In this session we present a strategy for creating authentic, online or blended experiences, that can be created using game design principles. 

Four Defining Traits of Game Design

In her book Reality is Broken, Jane McGonigal (2011) identifies four defining traits common to all gamesa) Goals, b )Rules,  c) Feedback, and d) Voluntary Participation.  McGonigal goes on to relate well designed games to four intrinsic rewards of happiness”; a) satisfying work, b) the hope of being successful, c) social connection, and d) meaning.  In this session we will explore the connection between these concepts and the nine characteristics of authentic, situated learning as delineated by Herrington (2006).  The use of these principles has enabled us to transform traditional class-based projects into engaging and meaningful learning experiences.

Goals and Rules

People are attracted to games such as World of Warcraft and Halo because the goals are lofty (you can’t get loftier than saving the world) and players get to take on meaningful and impactful roles.  Although it would be challenging to replicate these momentous and earth-shattering goals in the context of an online or blended course activity, that doesn’t mean we cannot elevate the tone from the typical, dry and uninspiring prose students have come to expect from their syllabi.  An authentic learning experience tends to be scenario-based and we can create an authentic context by establishing clear, challenging and relevant goals.  These goals should focus student attention on the task ahead and imbue activities with a sense of purpose


Rules also need to be framed differently in an authentic learning context. “Authentic tasks are ill-defined, requiring students to define the tasks and sub-tasks needed to complete the activity” (Herrington, 2006).  Rather than being guidelines that shepherd students through a predictable process leading to a standardized outcome, in a game context rules involve “removing or limiting the obvious ways of getting to the goal” in order to “unleash creativityand foster strategic thinking“.(McGonigal, 2011) 

Feedback as Reward
Unlike grades, which students often see as a final judgement that arrives too late to provide meaningful feedback, game feedback is constant, immediate, and actionable.  Authentic tasks provide students with opportunities to reflect on their performance and the performance of others and make course corrections as necessary. To facilitate feedback that allows for exploration and allows students to take risks, an authentic learning activity is, by nature, complex and involves a number of tasks that need to be completed over an extended period of time. 

Game design offers a number of strategies for providing feedback.  McGonigal lists “points, levels, a score, or a progress bar” as forms of feedback. This real-time feedback “serves as a promiseto the players that the goal is definitely achievable, and it provides motivationto keep playing”(McGonigal, 2). 

Voluntary Participation
Student buy-in is one of the more challenging aspects in creating a game-based authentic learning experience.  This isn’t a problem with authentic learning experiences that are incorporated into real-world activities such as internships or apprenticeships.  In these situations, students usually get to choose the setting in which they are placed. To accomplish this in a course setting, however, can be more difficult.   It takes a compelling narrative along with a well-designed and well-scaffolded set of activities to convince many students to put aside their expectations of course structure and ‘play along’.

In the demonstration portion of this session we will walk participants through two very different authentic learning experiences, both of which used game design principles to create authentic learning experiences. The first involved an elaborate, semester-long team project. We will illustrate how a challenging and frustrating (for students and instructors) group project was transformed into an even more challenging and amazingly productive team project that became the cornerstone of a program’s curriculum.  Our second example will show how an instructor was able to build a highly productive and engaged community of student learners by empowering students to take on role-based responsibilities that fostered cooperation and collaboration.

In this innovation lab session we will ask participants to form small groups and collaboratively work on a case study, in which they can apply the four defining traits in game design (McGonigal, 2011) to a case study we will provide.  Our prepared cases have been developed with subject matter experts and span number of disciplines from political science, history and sociology to marketing, physics, and agriculture.  During the group collaboration session, we will define the problem and provide the narrative of a learning scenario to each small group. We will also supply three student personas to provide background on the target students. Each small group will ideate and prototype a solution for the learning activity and, share with other small groups. At the end, we will provide our solution for each case study and the testimonial from the instructor that we have worked with as feedback for participants. The handouts and the personas we provide in the session will help participants empathize with the challenges and problems that target learners and instructors encounter.

Participants will leave this session with an in-depth understanding of how game design principles can be utilized to construct course-based authentic learning activities. They will experience design thinking process though small group collaboration and problem-solving. The variety of solutions of the case studies in this session can help participants apply better teaching and design strategies into their future course design.