Designing games for education

Today we had a great Future Trends Forum session and I wanted to share as much of it as I can here.

Our guest was famed designer Michael Townsend, creator of the famous A Dark Room, and who has just released a new web-based simulation of emerging technology with Google, the Qubit Game.

The resulting conversation was energetic and rich. We asked him questions about how to best design educational games.  All kinds of topics came up, from educational theory to comparative software platforms and how to start creating.  People flung a lot of resources and ideas around, and quite a few wanted to capture that, hence this blog post.

Here’s the full recording, followed by the chat transcript:

On the chat: I’ve edited it lightly, mostly anonymizing people, arranging some bits to flow more smoothly together, and adding a few headers.  Otherwise the text is in chronological order as it transpired.


currently under tornado watch but that’s not unusual this time of the year – tomorrow through the next, next Saturday will be in the 90’s … we need rain!

Hello from Silver Spring, MD

Good day from Madison, where 500+ people are standing in line to see the Corpse Flower.

Hello from Southeast Texas, where it’s July in May.

John, 500+ people standing in line for a flower show?

Literally one flower. The Corpse Flower blooms for about 48 hours and smells like a dead body. It’s in our arboretum. This is life in Madison.

Stayin’ classy in sunny San Diego 🙂

My daughter is moving to SD in July! Hope it’s still sunny then

John – Metaphors, get behind me!

Link to Corpse Flower

Cool and cloudy on the NE Colorado High Plains, a welcome break from high winds and May Day snow.

Into the session: design and theory

I can relate. I’m in the gulf between projects at the moment. It’s disconcerting to have choices.

I remember the Game of Life – is it similar?

An anti-interface game deliberately designed to highlight horrible UI.

We have Peoplesoft. It’s a more frustrating game.


Nah, airlines are a worse multiplayer game.

NO different that “how to get a degree”

Yes/No logic constraints

House wins that game too often LOL

Will that game make noises?

I do not believe it has any audio.

zone of proximal development, mastery, etc.

My favorite version of the dark room game is Jared Bendix’s “Treasure of the Wumpus” – it’s an audio game.

YES James Paul Gee!

Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky – zone of proximal dev.

I did not realize Vygotsky had a middle name.

You forget some of these authors are people. 🙂

Russians have long names.

You might laugh or scream in frustration though!

You may not know that Lego Mindstorms gets its name from a book by Seymour Papert called Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas.

Mindstorms text

“The Origins of Mindstorms”

Creativity is pretty high up on the Bloom’s taxonomy.

Creating and consuming – thought provoking stuff, especially as I’m a non-gamer (with one phone based exception 😉 )…

I can’t wait to talk to my classmates tonight about how Papert and Vygotsky came up today.

The Forum community is extraordinary.

we do this with every From Soft game though

Oh! One of my grad students did a presentation on that very game. Fascinating

There’s an early game with a turtle I played in the library in the 90s. Anyone remember the name of it? You gave it simple commands and it moved around the screen.

Yes. The turtle used to be a physical robot with real pens.

That’s Logo! Turtles.

Logo ?

Accessibility and difficulty

I can think back at least as far as Bloodborne, this conversation came up

Ah yes.

From Soft fans want the game to be “hard” for the sake of difficulty, rather than allowing more folks to get into the story

That drives me nuts.

me too 🙂

Thank you 🙂

Grant Stoner @Super_Crip1994

I prefer variable difficulty settings.

Games let you fail repeatedly.

School teaches failure is bad.

Failing forward is so important but something we don’t design our courses to allow

Failing is ok.

Forum Michael Townsend laughing_Roxann

Screengrab by Roxann Riskin.


yes, and we also have to be careful about how we title them, I’ve seen too many games with “girlfriend mode” or “baby mode”

If I could post a vomit emoji I would re: “gf mode”


I’ve always loved Michele Dickey’s article on engaged learning and game design

There are a lot of game mechanics built into my course itself. There is lots of room for non-consequential failure. Students have trouble wrapping their heads around it, though.

We need ‘games for old people’ recommendations.

Maybe? I don’t remember it looking like the screencaps. But I was five, so memory might not be as sharp.

Making games on your own, from the start

there’s nothing wrong with board games

build/modify your own

I have an Oculus, and feel REALLY old playing it. BUt it’s fun. Board games are a weekly thing.

“Build a game” is like “Write a book”

Like writing a story.

Game design is a mentality, not a technology.

This is fantastic. Thank you. I really appreciate you sharing the code.

well asked. That is what I was trying to ask earlier.

I think your question is a little too broad, which is why you’re not getting satisfactory answers

I’ll keep working on it. Thanks!

Education is already gaming.

“Gaming” also implies like, cheating – like “gaming the system:

We’ve turned it into a game. The question is what are the goals of the game.

I was talking to a student this morning who was desperately searching for a cheat code for my class.

was it “do the work”?

No. It was “I didn’t do the work. How can I still pass.”

“You! shall! not! PASSSSSSSS!”

“Games People Play”


Games and assessment

Hmm, that assessment idea is interesting. You could have ‘team based’ outcomes, if you’re focused on collaboration. Your ‘team’ has to survive or get the reward

I have some ideas

Race car drivers and pilots both use simulation/games for assessment purposes. Better to make mistakes in simulation.

Uhm, this is What Muzzy Lane does. Our platform is used in some ID circles to introduce game design for education. And we do assessments, in a game format, though I agree- you can’t really do pure assessment at the same time you are doing formative.

Students fail, gamers die

All games have one failure state at least: people never enough motivated to try ‘playing’ it or quit right away.

I dunno about that

The systems of education are not friendly to failure states.

it’s kind of a given in FromSoft games that you’re going to die, and die a lot. Some roguelikes, like Hades, even encourage it

Similarly with Celeste.

Roger Schank on learning by doing, through failure, etc. “Learning is about failure and recovery from failure.”

Failure needs to include a vision of success and a hint of what to try?

The fundamental problem in using games in education is not letting the extrinsic motivators of the game overwhelm the intrinsic motivator that is essential for deep learning.


ID for game design…..sounds REALLY interesting!

The best strategy I’ve come up with is to use extrinsic motivators to engage in tasks that require intrinsic action. Not sure that solves it.

In an institutional context (e.g., a course), another failure mode is failure by the faculty member to use the game appropriately. Papert mentions a devastating example of teacher failure in implementing his game; it’s near the end of Mindstorms. … choices 4 and 5 are the Turtle
david furlow

Ryan Baker@Penn has done a lot of interesting work on gamifying learning, applying game engagement and interaction metrics to learning experience modification, & providing cheat codes as another way of learning… withdraws the codes for summative evals.

If people are interested in deep dives on design, Extra Credits is great:

“Teach them something when they don’t know you’re learning” sounds scary, no?

Isn’t that what Big Brother did?

I took his class on Edx, along with 50k or so others… don’t think he will remember me!

And scoring perfect every step.

Yes that is where the question came from – those 7 aesthetics. I’m a completionist. 🙂 to signup or

I’m glad to learn of Muzzy Lane, and excited to see they offer courses on Teacher Education. I’ve submitted a request via your company’s website to learn more.

signing up is free and allows you to get demo activities you can tear apart!

A Financial Times game teaching the climate crisis, plus mitigation and adaptation

intrinsic v extrinsic rewards

This is getting me thinking as well about how games can, and do, also create “learning” at a lower level… altering and enhancing perceptual and attentional processing. See Daphne Bavelier’s work on action video games and attention….

VR, AR, and wrapping things up

Loved the simplicity you stated that with

AR was amazing in games like Pokemon Go… it used SO many resources my poor iPhone could not handle it on.

Man! I’d love to hear him speak more on why he thinks VR is dead

VR is pretty good, though. Beat Saber, baby!

I play ping pong on Oculus with friends.

I think VR is going to have to be something you visit – think Star Trek Holodeck.

you’re talking about access, too – VR is expensive and also gives a lot of folks motion sickness

like me

and ARGs don’t have to rely on tech – like Dionaea House (sp) or LARPing

Plus you’re screwed if you don’t have binocular vision

I loved ARIS.

ugh great conversation but I have to go!!

But Google Glass was the biggest disappointment because it didn’t make AR work.

There is a history of games breaking off into art forms. Theater and music are notable examples. We continue to use the words “play” with each, but no longer call them games.

I hope for prescription spectacles…

This is a chat that has tons of resources it would be nice to capture. Any way to?

This is another chat that I’d love to have archived somewhere. it’s moving too fast to capture everything.

Friends, any objections to me blogging this chat? I’ll anonymize you.

Thank you so much!

Blog it up!

Blog it!!


One plays trombone.

Another great session, Brian! Thanks to you…and thanks to Michael!


Thanks for all the discussion!

Thanks to everyone!


It’s all just a game!

TY and thanks for your time.

We don’t know the end state.

Thank you!!

Thank you – now I have even more tabs open!

Many thanks to Michael for being a terrific guest, and the Forum community for just being terrific.

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One Response to Designing games for education

  1. Pingback: Looking Back and Looking Forward: The Wild West of Credentials | Rob Reynolds

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