As an Interactive Designer at Interactive Mechanics, I work on projects like educational online interactive games, websites, and touchscreen interactives. Because users often learn more when information is presented in fun and engaging ways, the idea of approaching our projects using gaming logic is a natural match, so I was excited to check out “What Games Can Teach Us About Design,” a recent Design Brew Meetup.

Tara Espenshade, Interactive Designer with Interactive Mechanics

Game designer and PHL Collective founder Nick Madonna and content strategist David Dylan Thomas talked about why games are so compelling, what design lessons we can draw from them to increase engagement, and when “gamification” is just a buzzword.

Tara Espenshade, Interactive Designer with Interactive Mechanics

The goal of gamification is to understand what you want your audience to do, and how to incentivise that behavior. The challenge is to avoid adding in game-like features and behaviors that either don’t incentivise the appropriate behavior, or to add them in “just because.” An example David Thomas used during the talk was the US’s current approach to education. Good grades are needed to move forward to the next grade level. But, as Thomas points out, you can get good grades any number of ways, including cheating. So the letter grade is the incentive instead of actual learning. Also, there is no incentive to try hard to get an A because you achieve the same goal of moving up a grade if you work less and pass with a C. It’s important to think about what your design is actually incentivising the user to do.

Tara Espenshade, Interactive Designer with Interactive Mechanics

The session was very engaging. I appreciated the excellent use of memes and how Madonna and Thomas laid the groundwork of game theory and why using game logic, rather than just “gamifying” your UI, is a valuable design approach. As someone who doesn’t identify as a gamer, I appreciated that they explained the concepts without isolating anyone.

They provided a lot of useful resources for attendees to use in exploring the material further, including Reality is Broken, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, and The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses by Jesse Schell. They also did a great job making their talk accessible to a wide range of listeners.

I’m hoping to apply some of the game-based learning approach described by Thomas and Madonna to projects we are working on now, including a series of online educational interactives. Our client commented on feeling frustrated with digital tools for the classroom that were not actually helping students understand or remember lesson content; they were just pointless games without specific purpose. I’ve been careful to think about what our design incentivises, and if that is truly helping the user retain the lesson plan information, which helps us design better experiences for our clients and their audiences.