Game Elements that Support Learning and Instruction

There is no doubt that people like to play games. Ubiquitous on phones and tablets, games are among the top-selling apps. Games are found on a shelf or in a cupboard in many American homes. Whether at home or in a child care center, American children are indoctrinated by such titles as Chutes and Ladders, Hi-Ho Cherry-O tm, Ants in the Pants, and Don’t Break the Ice. (No doubt the name of one of those games invoked a childhood memory).

When the game is well designed and played at an age-appropriate level, it leads to hours of fun and challenge. There is something about a game that holds the attention of those playing and also prompts the player to want to improve their ability to play the game – to learn, perhaps.

It is these impressive characteristics of games – to engage and to provoke learning, that are prompting educators at all levels from pre-K to postgraduate to consider the gamification of education. The parts of a game are rarely as significant as the whole, but it is in fully understanding these parts that it is possible to begin to understand the potential of gamification. This white paper explores elements of games and gamification directly related to the ideas presented in The Gamification of Learning and Instruction: Game-based Methods and Strategies for Training and Education by Karl Kapp. [1]

Kapp provides a definition of games that serve as a springboard for considering the component parts:

A game is a system in which players engage in an abstract challenge defined by rules, interactivity, and feedback that results in a quantifiable outcome often eliciting an emotional reaction [1].

A system is a set of interconnected elements that occur within the space of the game. Players are those who interact both with the game content and with others who are playing the game.  The rules of the game provide a structure that sets up the artificial construct of a game. The defined game space is usually some abstraction of reality in which a challenge is presented. To achieve the goals of the challenge, players interact with the game system, with each other and with the content presented during the game. Throughout the game, feedback is provided that allows the players to make changes and corrections as they work to achieve the goal. The goal has been designed as a quantifiable outcome. There is an unambiguous state that must be reached. When this win state is reached, or not reached, there is an emotional reaction on the part of the players.

Those are the component parts of a game. What, then, is this concept called “gamification”?

Before listing the elements of gamification, it is important to consider what gamification is not.

Gamification is not badges, points or other rewards. It is not the trivialization of learning. It is not simply superimposing game mechanics on lessons to achieve “a game.”  Gamification is not new. The military has been utilizing gamification as part of their training operations for centuries. It’s important to note that gamification is not a panacea. It is not a perfect solution for every learning situation. And finally, even after understanding what gamification is, and what it is not, gamification is not easy to implement. To achieve the benefits of gamification in a learning situation will require time and concerted effort. [1]

Kapp provides the following definition of gamification:

Gamification is using game-based mechanics, aesthetics and game thinking to engage people, motivate action, promote learning and solve problems.” [1]

Where other theorists have looked at gamification elements in a business or marketing realm [2}, Kapp has taken an educational approach. His breakdown of gamification elements is firmly situated in an educational framework.

Gamification Elements

The following elements, as defined by Kapp, become part of a checklist to provide gamification that might turn typical learning content into gamified content:

  • Abstraction of concepts and reality
  • Goals
  • Rules
  • Challenges
  • Conflict, competition or cooperation
  • Time
  • Reward Structure
  • Feedback
  • Levels (game, playing, player)
  • Storytelling
  • Interactivity

Abstraction of concepts and reality

Games are an abstraction of reality based on models of the real world. They may be based on a real environment or situation, but they are simply a generalization that does not include all of the complexities of a real environment. By breaking down the complexities of the real environment, players are better able to manage the conceptual space allowing cause-effect relationships to be more clearly linked. With the extraneous factors removed, players are able to focus on the essence of the game, shortening the time required to grasp concepts.


The introduction of a goal to a game provides a measurable or quantifiable outcome that can either be reached or not reached. The goal must be specific and unambiguous, providing a target for the players. Although specific, it is important to note that a goal must provide a player some autonomy to select how the goal might be accomplished. The goal and feedback provided as players strive towards the goal lead to the determination of level of effort players extend in moving forward in the game. The structure and/or sequence of a series of goals will provide meaning to players and motivate them to continue the process of attaining the goals. Small goals are key to sustaining play; however a terminal goal provides the achievement and emotional reaction associated with games.


Games and play are differentiated by the presence of rules. At the core, games are a set of defined rules that limit player action and make the game play manageable. There are different types of rule sets that can be applied to games. These include operational rules, constitutive rules, behavioral rules, and instructional rules. Operational rules are the rules that describe how the game is played.  Typically these are the printed rules that come with a game. Constitutive rules are the foundational rules upon which a game was designed. Although these rules tend to be abstract, they are consistent and a player can use the understanding of these rules to their advantage in playing a game.  Behavioral rules are the implied social rules that govern game play and are universally associated with game play. These unwritten rules of game play are considered game etiquette and create a world where turn taking is valued and cheating is unacceptable.


Challenges can be categorized as conflicts, competition on cooperative events. and the best game designs will include all three of these types of challenges. Games often have a conflict – a meaningful challenge between two opponents where there will be a winner and a loser. The opponent, however, can be the game system. Technology has made “playing against the machine” a common occurrence. Even outside of the technological realm, it is possible that the elements of the game can be designed to impede the player’s drive to a win.

A competition is different from a conflict because the opponents do not have the wherewithal to thwart the other’s efforts. This changes the strategy for the opponents. Instead of trying to slow their opponent’s progress, they focus on optimizing their own performance.

Finally, a cooperative challenge will encourage players to work together in their quest towards a mutual reward or win. These challenges focus more on the social aspects of games and the win comes from the satisfaction of achieving the goal collaboratively.


There are games were time might be considered the opponent. It has the potential to thwart player progress, but it also can be a motivating factor to increase game activity. Time, or more specifically, a lack of time, can force decisions as a player works under pressure. On the other end of the spectrum, time can be added to a game allowing for more opportunity for exploration. Whether limited or plentiful, time as a resource in game play can lead to the prioritization of activities or an opportunity to explore cause and effect.

Reward Structures

Reward structures are most often associated with gamification; however, it is important to note that reward structures are just one of many game elements. Reward structures most often take the form of points, badges and leader boards, but they can be anything that a game player considers “of value” to achieve. Of all of the game elements, reward structures are likely those most influenced by player motivation (intrinsic vs. extrinsic).  As such, it is important to understand the interplay between these types of motivation when designing reward structures. Do you make the rewards easy to get early in a game so players keep playing? Do you avoid giving badges just for “showing up” so that the badge becomes the reward? The use of reward structures should be considered as part of the overall design of a game and optimized in consideration of the other game elements.


In a game system, feedback is always occurring and it is typically informational feedback and likely provided in real-time. The goal of game feedback is to guide the player by providing information designed to let a player know the degree to which they are on the right track toward achieving a goal. Game feedback does not provide the player with a next step, but does give them enough information to choose their next step. This type of feedback can be separated into two components: providing information and guiding.


There are three types of levels to consider in game design – game levels, playing levels, and player levels. Game levels are used to segment a game to maintain manageability. Each of these game levels as an individual set of goals or sub-objectives. Typically defined as missions or quests, game levels guide the player through the sequence of the game. When designed well, levels will motivate the player, help reinforce skill development, and guide the progression of the story narrative. 

Playing levels refer to the skill level associated with a game. Whether a game is easy, intermediate or difficult dictates the group to which the game is most accessible. Playing levels affect the replay-ability of games. Sometimes they are structured as a Demo Level, a Practice Level and a Test Level. Finally, player level refers to the credits and experience a player games as they progress through the game. This credit may come as a function of completing a mission or quest, defeating an opponent, or leveling up. Player levels in a game give the player something of value (even if it is virtual) to enhance a feeling of accomplishment. [1]


There are games that do not have a story narrative guiding play; however, Kapp states that storytelling is an essential part of the gamification of learning. An overarching story can enhance relevance and provide the meaningful details that connect the goals of the came. A game narrative gives the player context within which they can execute the tasks of playing the game. The game designer can use the story to guide the actions of the player.

To create the storytelling elements, a designer must consider characters, plot, tension and resolution. In a simple story plot, a character encounters a problem; the problem builds tension that requires the player/character to act in a way that solves the problem. One of the most common plot structures for games is the Heroic Journey structure.

Kapp outlines the Heroic Journey in 10 steps:

  1. The hero is found leading a normal life.
  2. The hero is called into action, but at first reluctant
  3. A wise mentor causes the hero to have an epiphany where they realize they must act.
  4. The hero embarks on a quest that takes them into the adventure of the game.
  5. Villains and enemies are encountered in minor challenges, while the hero finds allies and learns how the game system/adventure works.
  6. Hero encounters setbacks that cause him to try new approaches.
  7. At some point, the hero enters a major life-changing challenge (boss battle).
  8. When it looks like the hero will be killed, he survives by using the wisdom gained throughout the journey.
  9. Upon winning, the hero reaps rewards.
  10. The hero returns to the ordinary world (but finds that there are still problems to be solved and the cycle begins again. [1]

The elements of Interactivity

The elements of Interactivity include the curve of interest, aesthetics, and replay.

The Curve of Interest can actually be plotted. It measures the player’s level of interest or engagement in the game as a function of the flow and sequence of events that have been placed in the game to maintain player interest. Ideally, the player enters the game with some motivation to play; it is not a forced exercise. A game designer often places a “hook” to take this initial interest and raise the player’s motivation to continue with the game.  Ideally, interest continues to rise as the player engages with the game until a pinnacle point is reached, at which point a savvy game designer has placed another hook.

Aesthetics refer to the visual elements of a game. This encapsulates the art, the beauty and other creative and inventive elements a designer puts into a game to trigger emotions and other non-tangibles in the player. Aesthetics also consider consistency in design and the usability of game interfaces.

Finally, replay gives the user permission to scrap it and try again. Permission to fail is one of the elements of games that contribute to their success. When a player can fail with minimum consequence, they will go back to the start and try again. On the 2nd, 3rd, 4th or 100th try, they are utilizing something that they learned in the first try. For this magical learning element to take place, the game has to be replayable. Replayability is not just being able to “hit reset”; it’s wanting to “hit reset.” Game designers create replayability by creating a system where players can create and test hypotheses and provide more spaces than a player can explore on a first pass. Replayability is crucial. When there is no way for a player to overcome failure and there is no desire to go through the same steps again to get to the point to move forward, a player will eventually stop playing.


Games are complex structures with many variables. A game designer will incorporate multiple game elements in designing a game. They recognize which elements provide the most effect when they standalone, but they are also aware of the collective effects that occur when elements are combined.  They will not use all, and the combination will likely vary, but good games utilize many of these game elements. From an educator perspective, what is most interesting about many of these elements is there presence in instructional best practices. They may not have the same nomenclature, but the use and effect are often quite similar. Better understanding of the game elements and how they are used in games can provide insight in education to set the stage for powerful learning outcomes.

[1] Kapp, K.M. (2012)   The Gamification of Learning and Instruction: Game-based Methods and Strategies for Training and Education. Pfeiffer: San Francisco

[2] Werbach,K. and Hunter, D. (2012). For the Win: How game thinking can revolutionize your business. Wharton Digital Press: Philadelphia

Footer Anchor