Skip to content

Don’t call it a learning game

Working away in the consulting world, I occasionally have time to dream about what I’d rather be doing — namely designing learning games. Not that I’ve had a ton of experience doing this, but I keep dreaming about it. The problem is — not many people in the corporate world are wanting it, and that’s a tough sell.

Two things happened that piqued my interest: a friend shared a TEDx talk by Seth Priebatsch: the game layer on top of the world; and I talked to another friend about the difficulty of selling anything called a “game” into corporations. As many others have concluded, you have to change the name of the game. Call it anything but a game. Which begs the question — what do we call games?

What are games?

What are games? What are some of their characteristics? Learners are actively engaged in a simulation/fantasy or solving a problem, where they will fail multiple times in order to succeed. The game is filled with feedback mechanisms. It’s about getting the points, not so much having the points (for most people anyways). It’s about status in the game, and often about playing amongst a community of gamers, whether that be in a multi-player game or in a single player game where you compete with your friends.

Sounds kind of like….

Discovery learning

What is discovery learning? Here’s a quick introduction.

  • Basedon theories of  Dewey, Piaget, and Vygotsky.
    • Dewey – primary premise was learning by doing, learning is experiential and social; experiential was often defined as “using your hands” — building a house, taking apart a radio, with a group of peers.
    • Piaget – showed that a child is not an empty vessel, but is an active participant in learning about the world; assimilation and accommodation are means of adjusting the understanding of the world. Created the idea that children learn differently from adults and go through “stages of development” — not all of his theories have stood the test of research.
    • Vygotsky – best known for Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) and the bringing out the social and cultural influences on cognitive development. ZPD is the zone between what an individual can learn on their own versus what they can learn with guidance or social interaction. In a sense, it is the optimal learning zone. Related ideas include scaffolding and situated learning.
  • Architectures for discovery learning
    • case-based learning
    • incidental learning – results incidentally from an interaction, such as a crossword puzzle.
    • learning by exploring/conversing – asking questions to solve a mystery, discover an object
    • learning by reflection – a teacher never gives a direct answer, but instead answers questions with questions, forcing the students to reflect.
    • simulation-based learning
  • How discovery learning is different
    • active rather than passive
    • process-orientated rather than content-oriented
    • failure is important
    • opportunity for feedback in learning process

Sound familiar?

Games as discovery learning

So let’s call games what they are — guided discovery learning. Games are guided by the rules of the game, where you get feedback on how you perform, instantaneously.

Change the name of the game to “guided discovery learning.”

Hmmmm…. I think I can sell that.

But what about…

The fear with guided discovery learning (aka games) is that you will not cover the course content and it will take to long or will be too expensive to create. I’ve been struggling with these questions — how do I design a game so people learn the ‘right content’? Well, it’s about the process, not the content, so that’s the wrong question. I’m not selling a learning PRODUCT, I’m selling a learning SERVICE. Games are a type of learning service. That means coming up with a business model that works in the service economy. OK, some more thinking to do here.

We don’t need to learn how to play games — games are already a part of our world. (Seriously go listen to Seth’s TEDx talk.) The problem is that they are just not fun yet. The bigger problem is that we just haven’t figured out a business model for adult learning games that works yet. How do we create and sell guided discovery learning that’s relevant and cost-effective?


Castronova, J. (2002). “Discovery Learning for the 21st Century: What is it and How Does it Compare to Traditional Learning in Effectiveness in the 21st Century?” Action Research Exchange 1 (1)

Bicknell-Holmes and Hoffman (2000) Engage, Elicit, Experience, Explore: Applying Discovery learning to Library Instruction – LOEX. Presentation.

Social Development Theory: Vygotsky. TIPS website –

Posted in games.

Tagged with , , , , , .

8 Responses

Stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

  1. Saqib Ali says

    Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and a teacher of mathematics, often used games, puzzles, and whimsical humor to help his students discover logical premises. Interestingly enough, all the logic classes I had to take in the university, didn’t have a set agenda or a preset content that had to be covered.

    I think the problem starts very early, when parents ask their children, “what did you learn in school today”. Why can’t it be “What did you discovered today”? Discovery opens up the doors for learning, and breaks down the walled garden of “right content”.

    oh btw, “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”

  2. Rani H. Gill says

    Saqib – what a great way to reframe the experience – you’re exactly right parents should be asking what did you “discover” today! Love it. — ok I give, i suck a logic puzzles – what’s the answer to the raven question?

  3. Saqib Ali says

    “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”
    because there’s a B in both and an N in neither 🙂

  4. JOE H says

    I’m 3 minutes into Seth’s TEDx talk and a little frightened/concerned. He has concluded that facebook is the infrastructure for digital social interaction and that ‘facebook owns our connections’ . That’s a disturbing concept, and akin to saying that AT&T owned our connections 30 years ago becuase we used the phone to connect.

    I’ll go forward as I cringe, but wan to put this down before he continues: Play is a natural human process, as inherent as curiosity and breathing. Games are a way to make play social – agreed rules and winning states allow us to play together in a mutually satisfying way. I am not sure that ‘overlaying a game layer’ is really a possible thing, as the world is a series of games, and teh majority of them are non-digital.

  5. Rani H. Gill says

    Fascinating Joe. I took the game layer as more of an approach to the world rather than an literal “everything as a game”. Your reading is probably more true to Seth’s talk. When I think of a game overlay I think about the “airline game” of getting mileage points, yes, but also, of the maze you have to get through to check-in, check bags (at a cost – why don’t they let us use miles for this?), then the rest of the airport game of getting to your gate. If I think of it as a game, then I play it as a game — and it becomes about getting through the maze as quickly as possible.

    I agree, the majority of the games are non-digital, but the tracking of games (“got through atlanta airport in record time) can be tracked digitally. Also, games are more than a way to make play social — I can play a game on my own, yes? whether that be Solitaire or the airport game I described above. I can play against my self — is that social? They are often social but don’t have to be.

    Thanks for your thoughts and am interested in hearing what you thought about the rest of his talk. Cheers.

  6. Rani H. Gill says

    Saqib – this gives great insight into your personality 🙂 I finally googled this and realized that you are a bigger Alice in Wonderland fan than first suspected. What a tortuous answer!

  7. Saqib Ali says


    The answer is absurd as the question. Though, I like the other answer as well, “because Poe wrote on both” 🙂

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Games as Discovery Learning « linked to this post on August 25, 2010

    […] Don’t call it a learning game – Learning designer Rani H Gill writes in her blog post about the difficulty of selling anything called a “game” into corporations.  “Call it anything but a game,” she writes, suggesting we use the name guided discovery learning. […]

Some HTML is OK

or, reply to this post via trackback.