A Game Design Framework for Course Design

Who is the Course Designer?

Jamie attends a class that her instructor has spent months creating. Her instructor, let’s call him Dr. X, has slaved to make sure that all the content he wants to cover fits in the course. He has active learning activities peppered throughout the semester. He has chosen the best readings for each of the topics. He has weekly quizzes written to keep students accountable, and tests designed not just to assess but to teach. He has designed a well-thought out course that all students should easily pass, provided they follow his plan.

Q. Who designed his course?

Jamie attends four courses in total. She uses Google Docs to take notes in three of them where she feels comfortable using her laptop, and a spiral notebook for the other (Prof Q doesn’t allow electronic devices to be used in class). In two of her Google Doc classes, she takes those notes collaboratively with 1-2 friends. They use the chat function in the Google doc to check themselves, they fix each other’s mistakes; they fill in gaps that each other misses. It’s a good system. They use the notes to study for the tests, and because they all have a sense of co-ownership in the creation, they figure out problems together and do pretty well on the tests. If one of them is sick, the other two can cover pretty well because they are familiar with each other’s note-taking style and have, in fact influenced it with their own ideas and habits.

Q. Who designed their courses?

It turns out, that despite instructors’ best attempts, instructors and students are co-designers of their courses. The instructors set up the initial course, based on both the educational models that they’re familiar with, and student behavior that they’ve witnessed. They (often) attempt to create a learning environment where their students [model of student] will participate in their course [model of course] with an expected degree of participation such that the appropriate content will be learned.

MDA for Course Design

Hunicke, LeBlanc & Zubek’s (2004) MDA framework for game design can be adapted here. They propose that game designers can approach their craft through the lens of MDA (Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics), where the Mechanics (what is possible — rules and resources) leads to Dynamics (what occurs — activity), which lead to players’ Aesthetic experience (components of engagement).

I apply the MDA lens to course design, where the instructor plays the role of game master — both a designer and a player, adjusting the Mechanics both before and during the actual game in order to affect the Dynamics in each class such that the desired Aesthetics are reached.



Mechanics include the rules and resources that allow Dynamics to happen. In game design, the mechanics include everything that can affect the play of the game: rules, pieces, cards, the game board or playing field, etc. In course design, mechanics include things like: policies and rules, classroom or class space (online or face-to-face or both), assignments, lectures, videos, etc.


Dynamics are what actually happens when players interact with the Mechanics. In games, the dynamics are what the players do. In baseball, they run and throw and hit and catch and steal and bunt and foul etc.; in Poker they shuffle and deal and fan cards and sort and draw and bluff, etc. In courses, Dynamics are what the instructor and students do. For example, students listen and watch and read and raise hands and talk and move seats and flirt and take tests and cheat and text and increase the typeface to stretch their papers, etc.; whereas instructors take attendance and lecture and assign homework and quiz and test and grade and hold office hours, etc.

In addition to the mundane Dynamics in a course listed above, perhaps the most sought after cognitive Dynamics are captured in Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956), or Anderson et al’s revision of them (2001)

  1. Remember
  2. Understand
  3. Apply
  4. Analyze
  5. Evaluate
  6. Create

And Krathwohl & Bloom’s (1964) affective Dynamics (these are often ignored in course design — and instructional technology, in general)

  1. Receive: be open to accepting new information/ideas, etc. (e.g. I am aware of a rule)
  2. Respond: comply; change behavior accordingly (e.g. I will follow this rule — perhaps because I don’t want to suffer negative consequences)
  3. Value: assign intrinsic worth to new information (e.g. This rule makes sense to me)
  4. Organize: relate new information within existing systems (e.g. This rule helps other beneficial things happen)
  5. Characterize: relate new information with one’s identity (e.g. This rule is part of what makes me who I am)

Dynamics spring from models — based in theory and based on trial and error experience. Models help designers predict Dynamics, but as with most models they’re not as perfect or accurate (or chaotically messy) as real life. Dynamics provide Feedback to designers, who can use it to iterate and adjust mechanics, which in turn can affect Dynamics. Game designers typically do this a lot in playtests before they publish their games. As a sort of Game Master, instructors can adjust mechanics (to some degree) on the fly by modifying assignments, spending more or less time on a topic as needed, reviewing material, grading more or less rigorously, etc. Changing the Mechanics changes the Dynamics, which affects the Aesthetics. Exercising caution must be advised here — changing the course to be responsive to student needs is often a good thing, but changing the Mechanics of a course too much often results in students feeling ungrounded, and may result in backlash against an “unorganized” instructor.


Aesthetics are the tone or the experience. Hunicke et al shy away from describing Aesthetics as “what makes a game ‘fun’?” (2004, p2) and instead suggest a taxonomy of Aesthetic components that includes: 1. Sensation (Game as sense-pleasure), 2. Fantasy (Game as make-believe), 3. Narrative (Game as drama), 4. Challenge (Game as obstacle course), 5. Fellowship (Game as social framework), 6. Discovery (Game as uncharted territory), 7. Expression (Game as self-discovery), and 8. Submission (Game as pastime).  The balance of each of these (and there are probably others) determines the aesthetics of the experience. I think of it as a sort of graphic equalizer. One adjusts the frequencies to try to get the sound one desires.


In course design, we can even match up the eight aesthetic components that Hunicke et al list with educational ones:

  1. Sensation (Game as sense-pleasure) = Embodiment
  2. Fantasy (Game as make-believe) = Epistemic Frames
  3. Narrative (Game as drama) = Course Schedule, pacing (help me out on this one)
  4. Challenge (Game as obstacle course) = Problems
  5. Fellowship (Game as social framework) = Sociocultural Learning
  6. Discovery (Game as uncharted territory) = Research
  7. Expression (Game as self-discovery) = Personal Strengths Finding
  8. Submission (Game as pastime) = Time on Task

Unfortunately, it’s not as easy to adjust the Aesthetics of the experience, whether in game design or course design, as simply moving a slider. For example, if one wants a game high in Sensation and Fellowship one must adjust the Mechanics to be more like Twister than Chess. In course design, a collaborative field research assignment might be high in the Embodiment and Sociocultural learning components, whereas reflective journaling might emphasize Personal Strengths Finding. Assigning plenty of worksheets might increase time-on-task; but not in a good way.

What This All Means…

So, can we use this framework for designing courses? Yes. With the following caveat. Courses are not publish-and-leave games, or books, or movies, that can be designed and left for consumption by students. Instructors and students continually interact with and affect course form long after the initial design. Recognizing that instructors are sort of Game Masters and students are active participants (and shapers) of the gameplay of courses, it’s important that we design them as evolvable and emergent systems that take into account human psyche and social interactions — much more complex mechanics than dice and cards. This is where a deeper understanding of experiential and sociocultural learning (discussed throughout the rest of my writing) begin to contribute.

At this point, however, it starts to get messy. The educational Aesthetic components can be achieved through a mix and match of educational Dynamics, which in turn are affected by course Mechanics. For example, a Fellowship/Sociocultural learning is hampered when there’s no forum for student-to-student interaction. Likewise, Discovery/Research may be more difficult when computer browsers are locked down. Without a compelling story, learners may not enter into the Epistemic Fantasy of deeply solving an authentic problem from the perspective of a person in the field or discipline being studied.

Next Steps

A good next step might be to begin to map out a number of these relationships, either through stories and examples or through educational research. Both have value in this conversation.




Anderson, L. W., Krathwohl, D. R., Airasian, P. W., Cruikshank, K. A., Mayer, R. E., Pintrich, P. R., … & Wittrock, M. C. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives, abridged edition. White Plains, NY: Longman.

Bloom, B. S., & Krathwohl, D. R. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. Handbook I: Cognitive domain.

Bloom, B. S. (1969). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals; Handbook. Affective Domain. McKay.

Bloom, B. S. (1974). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals. Handbook 1-2. Longmans: McKay.

Hunicke, R., LeBlanc, M., & Zubek, R. (2004, July). MDA: A formal approach to game design and game research. In Proceedings of the AAAI Workshop on Challenges in Game AI.

Krathwohl, D. R., Bloom, B. S., & Masia, B. B. (1964). Taxonomy of educational objectives, handbook ii: affective domain. New York: David McKay Company.Inc. ISBN 0-679-30210-7, 0-582-32385-1.

Krathwohl, D. R. (2002). A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy: An overview. Theory into practice, 41(4), 212-218.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *