4 Video Game Tricks for Online Learning

Hello and welcome to another edition of the TESOL Games and Learning blog! Recently, I had the opportunity to speak to a group of Fulbright foreign language educators about ways to incorporate elements of video game design into their online courses. For this month’s post, I thought I would share a condensed version of that talk.

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

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

1. Short-Term Objectives, Long-Term Goals

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

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

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

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

What Can Educators Learn From This?

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

2. Frequent Feedback

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

What Can Educators Learn From This?

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

3. Multiple Ways to Solve a Problem

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

What Can Educators Learn From This?

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

4. Affirmation of Performance

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

What Can Educators Learn From This?

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


I hope these ideas can help as you consider ways to improve your online classroom experience. Until next month, play more games!

About Jeff Kuhn

Jeff Kuhn serves a split appointment at OHIO University, working for the Office of Instructional Innovation and in the Games Research and Immersive Design (Grid) Lab. He frequently delivers talks and keynote addresses on games and learning, game design, and the need for games literacy in educators. He is one of the founding moderators of the Electronic Village Online’s Minecraft MOOC, a community of practice for teachers learning to use Minecraft in the classroom. He has served on the TESOL CALL-IS steering committee, as the Gaming Special Interest Group chair for CALICO, and in the U.S. Department of State’s English Language Specialist program. His research interests include game-based learning, second language writing, and computer-assisted language learning.
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4 Responses to
4 Video Game Tricks for Online Learning

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  3. Belinda Martin says:

    Thank you! Very interesting perspective on online learning.
    Giving multiple ways to complete a task sounds quite contradictory and may not always work as intended. In my experience with online games, many people find it confusing when there is no clear explanation of the task, and it can also cause difficulty and doubt in the learning process. But it’s a good idea to apply to curious students.

    • Jeff Kuhn says:

      Hi Belinda,
      Thanks for the comment.
      “Giving multiple ways to complete a task sounds quite contradictory and may not always work as intended” – you’re certainly correct about that. That’s why it is critical to have clear requirements for an assignment, such as in a rubric, that can serve as a waypoint to ensure the results you’re looking for.

      Also, to your point with games “many people find it confusing when there is no clear explanation of the task” – again, you’re correct. My experience has shown that educators may be keen to include games in class, but don’t anchoring them well within the context of the class. It is always import as educators to outline to students why the game is being played and what are the expected outcomes. The games themselves don’t clearly explain the tasks that’s why we have to ensure we do.

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