Game on: Using mechanics, creating aesthetics and engaging learners

The principles of gamification are increasingly being used in the production and delivery of digital learning. But many implementations of gamified learning simply give learners ‘experience points’ for completing activities and set up a scoreboard. In this post Joseph Dorrell argues there’s more scope to gamification than this. If we can expand our idea of what makes an engaging game, we can create more interesting, diverse and effective learning experiences.

Trying to understand games

In order to do effective gamification, it can be useful to look at games themselves: computer games, card games, sports, board games and the many other types of games that are out there. How do these games create player engagement? One way to analyse games, to try to find this out, was developed by Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, and Robert Zubek in 2004. In their paper (PDF) on the subject, they model games as being made up of three parts – Mechanics, Dynamics and Aesthetics.

They describe how parts of the game system (Mechanics) come together to create gameplay (Dynamics), and how the various elements of gameplay (Dynamics) come together to deliver, to the player, an engaging experience (Aesthetics).

Mechanics, Dynamics and Aesthetics

Mechanics – are the rules that make up the game system. It’s the code which defines how the game responds to the player’s input. It’s the rules that tell you how many dice to roll or how many spaces to move in ‘Snakes and Ladders’. It’s the number-crunching that, for computer games, happens inside the computer.

Dynamics – are the elements of gameplay that the players simultaneously create and experience, moment-to-moment. Dynamics include the running and gunning action of a first person shooter game (like ‘Call of Duty’), haggling over the price of properties in ‘Monopoly’, and health-bar displays in fighting games. Dynamics, for computer games, are what we see on the screen and what we do with the controller.

Aesthetics – are the underlying emotional and psychological pulls which draw the player in and keep them engaged with the game. This is the player’s desire to beat their previous high score, or their curiosity about what will happen next in a story, or the fellowship that they create with their fellow players in a multi-player game. This, of course, is all happening inside the player’s head. Many games engage people through creating competition between players, and it is this aesthetic which is most readily used in gamification. But people can also be engaged in games through the telling of a story, the discovery of new things, or the opportunity to express themselves.

Hunicke et al described a taxonomy of eight aesthetics, eight different ways to create engagement. I have adapted them a little and added one aesthetic of my own.

  1. Sensation – Engagement through appreciation of beauty
  2. Fantasy – Engagement through giving the player the opportunity to be someone else, somewhere else, doing things the player can’t do
  3. Narrative – Engagement through storytelling
  4. Challenge/Mastery – Engagement through giving the player obstacles to learn how to overcome
  5. Competition – Engagement through the prospect of dominance over other players
  6. Fellowship – Engagement through non-competitive social interaction
  7. Discovery – Engagement through curiosity and the joy of finding new things
  8. Expression – Engagement through self-discovery and self-expression
  9. Comfort – Engagement through habit-forming
Game Mechanics Dynamics Aesthetics
Mirror’s Edge ·         Physics engine

·         Level designs

·         Running, climbing and jumping over obstacles ·         Challenge/Mastery

·         Fantasy



·         Scoring system ·         Serving

·         Returning

·         Court placement

·         Competition

·         Sensation

Tetris ·         Random number generator producing different shaped blocks

·         Equations which define how fast the blocks fall during each level

·         Player thinking quickly and moving blocks to places where they fit in ·         Challenge/Mastery

·         Comfort

Final Fantasy X ·         Image and model files in the computer

·         Voice-acting tracks

·         Algorithms governing battle-system

·         Beautiful scenery

·         Interesting characters

·         Turn-based combat

·         Sensation

·         Fantasy

·         Narrative

Designing games

One of the insights that Hunicke et al wrote about is that players and creators approach games from very different angles. Players play games because of the aesthetics, and experience them through the dynamics. However, players generally don’t know what is happening underneath the hood, with the Mechanics. Game creators, on the other hand, have to know all about the Mechanics because they’re building the game from the ground up.

During development, because game creators are so close to working with the Mechanics of the game, it’s very easy to lose sight of the Aesthetics, of why people would want to play the game. People can also mistakenly believe that the same Mechanics always produce the same Aesthetics, particularly that a scoring system Mechanic will always produce a competition Aesthetic.

Part of the art of game design is being able to approach the game from both of these directions, and to be able to appreciate both the experience that is being created, and the number-crunching behind the scenes. And crucially, it is the ability to think through which Mechanics can be used to deliver the Aesthetics that one wants to deliver to players.

An example – games about electric circuits

So… How can these ideas be applied to learning? Let’s say, for example, that we want to create a resource that teaches people about simple electronics, looking at circuits, batteries, capacitors, switches, logic gates, voltmeters etc. There are many possible ways to go about teaching this:

  1. We could create a text-based teaching course, telling the learners exactly what each component does, and explaining the theory and mathematics behind how circuits work. This is a fairly straightforward approach, with minimal game elements being made use of.
  2. Alternatively, we could create a simple sandbox-type game, where learners can drag and drop different components into a simulated circuit board. Each of the components would act as they would in real life. Players have the freedom to create whatever they want, from simple lighting circuits, to 16-bit adding machines. This would encourage a more exploratory style of learning.
  3. We could take a historical approach, telling the story of the great physicists and engineers throughout the ages who have contributed to electronics. Imagine something that lets you look around inside Tesla’s (or Faraday’s) lab – perhaps a watercolour-style illustration – and ‘hearing’ the scientist (a voice actor!) explaining how he invented the magnetic induction motor.
  4. What about really pushing the boat out? We could allow the player to create a cartoon ‘mad scientist’ avatar and persona, seeking world domination through the creation of ever more complex and whacky doomsday machines and death rays. Each one would be a level of a timed puzzle game, itself requiring knowledge of electrical circuits. The inclusion of a ‘share’ function would allow learners to show off their mad scientist, their latest dastardly device, and the places they have conquered.

These are just four examples. They all engage the learner using different Aesthetics, and they all do so by employing different Mechanics and Dynamics.

Game Mechanics/Dynamics Aesthetics
Text explanations ·         Text

·         Diagrams

Sandbox circuits ·         Modelling of electronic components

·         Drag and drop sandbox

·         Drag and drop items

·         Discovery

·         Expression

Historical storytelling ·         Voice acting tracks

·         Watercolour artwork

·         Non-linear structure

·         Opportunities for tangential learning

·         Narrative

·         Sensation

·         Discovery

Mad scientist puzzles ·         Custom character creation

·         “Zap”, electrocution, and explosion sound effects

·         Fast-paced puzzle gameplay with a well thought-out learning curve

·         Social media sharing function

In my view, gamification doesn’t have to be only about giving people points when they complete resources, and trying to make them care about the points system. Instead, what if we start blurring the lines between learning and gaming, and take advantage of all the different ways that people can be engaged.

A focus on fellowship

In the next blog post, we will be exploring how collaborative games engage people through the aesthetic of fellowship. Computer games have become hugely more collaborative in the past decade, with both Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games (MMORPGs) and many social media based games creating much of their engagement through this aesthetic.

Can the same ideas be applied to learning? Find out next post!


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