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The Secret Process for Making Games that Matter

At the Learning Games Lab, we don’t just want to build games and other tools: we also help people change. As part of the Extension service, our job is to take university-based research and help people apply it to improve their lives. In short, our work isn’t about the technology, it’s about the transformation people make as a result of using our tools.

That transformation starts with our design process. We begin each project with a design summit, where we work with our collaborators, content experts, educators, and our developers to refine the type of change we want our end user to experience, as well as the activities a person needs to go through to make that change. That summit often takes a day and a half, or several meetings. Everyone on the team builds their collective knowledge about what usually works to make that kind of change, what doesn’t work, and what a positive change would look like. Once these key aspects are articulated, then the team can create an app, game, interactive program or animations to engage the end user in those activities.

Barbara Chamberlin, PhD,  worked with Jesse Schell to create the Transformational Game Design model. It includes five specific types of change a user can undergo, and a structure for thinking about the kinds of activities. Click here to access one of their lectures on the model. 

An individual learner can change their knowledge (what they know), skill (what they can do), behavior (how they act), emotion (how they feel), and physiology (how they are).  For example, if we were to design a learning tool for people with diabetes about blood sugar, we would brainstorm possible changes in each of those areas:

  • what the user knows about what types of food impact blood sugar (knowledge)

  • how to properly test blood sugar (skill)

  • motivation to test regularly (behavior)

  • prioritization of one’s health (emotion)

  • maintaining appropriate blood sugar levels (physiology)

It’s unlikely that the team would attempt to create change in all of those areas, but in brainstorming all changes, it helps the team identify the greatest need to address. 

After refining their priorities, the team could then talk about the types of activities a learner needs to go through.

  • Are they likely to change by simply receiving information?

  • Do they need to reflect on that, or be challenged by that information?

  • Does a user need practice in applying a skill, or do they need to apply learning in a personal way?

The team usually discusses all the way a learner might learn, refining the role that technology could best play in creating change. There are hundreds of things a person could do; but, our team thinks about those activities on a continuum from passive to active: simply receiving information is passive… while thinking and reflecting on that information requires more engagement, and applying that information is more active.

After brainstorming different types of activities, the team is better able to determine what the user has already done or is likely to do on their own, and what is most necessary. Perhaps the user already has the knowledge, but needs to apply that through social learning with others. Maybe the user is interested and places a high value on changing, but needs the right information at the right time. 

The development of technology-guided learning can be expensive. If the learner can simply learn about it from a short video, or practice it in a simple way, these less expensive tools can fill their needs. Technology should be saved for the types of experiences that are difficult to provide in other ways, such as facilitating communication, experiencing safe failure, customizing learning for the individual, providing complex practice.

Written by Barbara Chamberlin, Interim Department Head,


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