Starting out: do’s and don’ts

Starting out with the design principles of ludodidactics is a learning process in itself. In the interviews that we had with our contributing ludodidactics experts, Willem-Jan Renger, Evert Hoogendoorn and Thijs Spook, they address the challenges that most education professionals and beginning ludodidacticians will meet in adopting this new approach to education and learning. Please visit their biographical pages and watch the recorded interviews for more in-depth information on ludodidactics. In this article we go over some of the do’s and don’ts for you to read and reference back to, whenever you need to.


#1 – start out small, keep it simple

When you have become enthusiastic about ludodidactics and you are eager to make a start with your first gamedesign, it is quite tempting to dream up the most elaborate and fantastic games, maybe expecting or hoping your educational practice to become revolutionised instantly. But please consider, that when starting out in ludodidactics, there is a lot to take in, which is probably going to be new to you: new concepts, new theoretical frameworks, new jargon and a whole new domain of gaming that is constantly being referenced. It is easy to get lost in the complexity and possibly get frustrated with it, causing you to abandon your ludodidactic enterprise altogether.  So, start out with something small and simple: one intervention, one exercise or one lesson (please note that this advice pertains to the design, not the educational content). If you find something that works, it is much easier to expand on that than having to trim it down. As soon as you have experienced your first success in designing an effective and motivating learning experience, you can build on that.


#2: focus on behaviour, not on form

Always keep in mind that the experience (and the behaviour leading up to that experience) is what you should be focussing on. That’s is also the reason why designing using the MDA-model is done in reverse: starting with the user’s experience and working your way back to the mechanics in the design. Don’t get bogged down by form and end up with a game design that is leading in a direction you (and your intended players) don’t want to go. And, although it is fine to borrow from – or be inspired by – existing games, always choose the examples that are most inspiring to you on the basis of their experiential outcomes, not because of the convenience of having the mechanics and rule system already laid out for you. Focusing on form can also cause a disconnect with the subject you are trying to convey, leaving you with a rather superficial exterior that is draped around something that in its primary function remains unchanged, just so to make it seem more attractive. This is exactly what constitutes the difference between ludodidactics and plain gamification.


#3: it’s not all about fun

It is a misconception that games should be all about ‘fun’. Watching people play games can be rather revealing in that respect: especially when a player is closing in on a breakthrough experience, the player can be exerting a lot of energy, making a tremendous effort, having (still manageable) levels of stress, coping with failure and cursing in the process. Although the player might evaluate the playing experience as ‘fun’, it essentially revolves around the experience being meaningful and important; the the motivation to engage in the game has more to do with the rewarding feelings and experiences that are embedded in the design than anything else. Remember that the aesthetics in the MDA-model can be more than just the pleasant ones, and that a game that isn’t for instance frustrating at times, is also not challenging and probably not that much fun to play.


#4: immediately start testing

As soon as you have a concept, a first prototype of your design, you should immediately start testing it and try it out with a colleague, a friend or a family member. Within ludodidactics this is called ‘prototyping’, which means converting your idea into a first design as quickly as possible. Because although you can think endlessly about your idea it will only take shape when you start creating it. In testing, you can establish the observed dynamics and evaluate the actual aesthetics. Keep in mind that the results in your first test-run will probably not match with what you intended, but with your test-observations and user-feedback you can try to improve your design by reconfiguring the mechanics in a second cycle of designing and testing. Repeat this process until you end up with a design that gives the results you are aiming for.


#5: Complicating things, adding obstacles

This might seem confusing, as we started out saying to keep it simple. However that advice was specifically meant to keep your (first) designs simple. However, you can play around with the difficulty settings of your educational content. Of course there is content ranging from easy to extremely difficult, but that is not what is meant here. Taking something simple and adding playful obstacles to them, makes it more attractive for students to engage. Adding obstacles can also be helpful in getting students to engage in repetitive exercise (i.e. ‘grinding’).


#6: learn from players and younger generations

Not everybody is into gaming and that is fine. One could say that learning to design a learning experience using ludodidactics is similar to learning a new language skill, so look for people that are most proficient in that language. These people are most often of a younger generation and might even be our prospective players. Beginners in ludodidactics are encouraged to listen to them and try to learn as much as possible from them. Just as when designing, focus on their feelings, on the experiences they enjoy and try to find out what they find motivating; don’t let yourself be distracted by the mechanics of the games they put forward. With that input go to the drawing board and put your first drafts and game concepts to the test as soon as possible, by letting them play it.


#7: celebrate victories

What a player really wants, is recognition for the achievement. Game designers would be well advised to realise this. But, it’s a delicate business: if you cheer too loudly for a mediocre achievement it won’t affect the player and will likely make him distrustful (“It wasn’t that difficult”), but if you cheer too little or not at all, the player will feel cheated. Find the proper reward for the struggle in time and effort. In-game recognition will suffice; there is no need for candy or other real-world material rewards. Players just want to see their achievement recognised with the right amount of cheering.