This post originally appeared in the GlassLab Game Design Handbook.
Famed game designer Sid Meier once said that a good game is “a series of interesting choices.” This statement reminds us that games are active, not passive, experiences. A game in which the player performs simple activities simply to further a story is passive; however, if the player is presented with choices which meaningfully impact the future events in the game, these choices are now “interesting” and active.
Those choice moments are also when the learning in a game is expressed. The player must be making choices which feel genuine, impactful, and in which there is no obvious correct answer, and the player’s performance on that choice must be an expression of the desired learning competency. Creating these interesting choice moments should be among the very first tasks of any game prototyping process, and is likely to be the most iterated portion of a learning game’s design.
In entertainment game design, choices are “interesting”; in a learning game, choices are illuminating. When we design an effective learning game, we create a pathway through choices for the player that will reveal either conceptual mastery or misconception. Once, through the game, we have identified misconception, we give them naturalistic feedback that illuminates why this is a misconception, and, ideally, hints in the direction of conceptual mastery. Thus the concept of an “interesting choice” is especially crucial when it comes to learning game design; it’s no coincidence that Sid Meier’s games (Civilization in particular) are seen as intrinsically educational (a genre we call smart fun, or sophia).