Metafocus: Designing Effective Scoring Mechanics for Learning Games – by Matt Sparks

Have you ever played a game—a board game, card game, video game, mobile app, or any other kind of game—that was so engaging you didn’t want to stop playing? How about a game that was so boring you couldn’t even finish it? Now, take a moment to think about how these games differed. Chances are they had vastly different scoring mechanics, as scoring is often a major differentiating factor in game effectiveness and player engagement. Proper game scoring mechanics are critical to designing engaging games of all types, and doubly so for designing effective learning games (aka serious games, educational games).

Sharon Boller and Karl Kapp dive deep into how to design learning game scoring mechanics and many other topics in their fantastic book, Play to Learn: Everything You Need to Know About Designing Effective Learning Games. I found their chapter on scoring particularly useful, because scoring is so challenging to get right. However, scoring forms the backbone of any learning. Once you define your learning objective (which is the first step of designing a learning game) and you’ve got a sound scoring model built for your game, the rest (i.e., content, visuals, distribution, etc.) is relatively easy to tack on later. As Boller and Kapp said,

“Designing scoring is harder than meets the eye. Even with a simple game…the scoring may not be as simple from a design perspective as you would think… While you may not program a game yourself and outsource development instead, you still have to have a vision and plan for the scoring that the programmer can implement.”

To get a better understanding of how to design the scoring for your game, let’s take a look at six principles of scoring mechanics (that help us design our scoring model and gameplay), four common scoring methods (that let players know how they’re doing), and scoring algorithms (that calculate and track players’ scores and game progress), as described in detail in Play to Learn.

Six principles of scoring mechanics

Six basic principles inform scoring system design for a learning game:

1. Keep the scoring simple: Complex scoring could require players to consult the rules frequently or, worse yet, confuse and discourage them. If players don’t understand the game or quit playing, then they’re not learning.

2. Make the scoring transparent: If the rules aren’t explained clearly in an opening tutorial, rule book, or explanation screen, players will quickly get confused or frustrated, and quit playing.

3. Tie the scoring to learning outcomes: The point of a learning game is learning, not entertainment. If skilled gameplay allows players to win without learning, then the scoring mechanisms aren’t well-designed. Similarly, winning shouldn’t depend too much on chance. Players should win, progress, or otherwise succeed in the game only if they’re learning.

4. De-emphasize winning: Losing can demotivate players. If you design a competitive game (i.e., one with winning and losing), you run the risk of demotivating anyone who loses. You can avoid this problem by emphasizing learning instead of winning. Better yet, design a game that’s cooperative instead of competitive. Cooperative games don’t have winners and losers, since players work together to progress toward a common desired outcome.

5. Add variability: Games where everyone often gets the same score—say, if they get all the questions right—can be boring. Instead, give more points for answering more difficult questions, completing levels more quickly, or making fewer attempts before submitting correct answers. That way, multiple players can learn, but they won’t all receive the same score.

6. Reinforce on-the-job realities through scoring: Assuming your game is designed for employee job training, scoring should reflect and reinforce the type of work they’ll actually be doing. For example, if you’re training for a job that requires a lot of numerical analysis (or time sensitivity, attention to detail, listening to customers, etc.), then your game should require numerical analysis in order to win.

Four scoring methods

The six principles above are a good start, but you’ll also need game scoring methods. Games allow players to score in four primary ways, and a well-designed and engaging game will use all four methods.

1. Earning points: Points, in-game currency, avatar health level

2. Leveling up: Reaching new game levels, attaining higher degrees of difficulty, gaining avatar powers

3. Unlocking content: New quests, different questions, additional learning objectives

4. Earning achievement: Badges, trophies, titles

Scoring algorithms

Once you decide on your various scoring methods, you’ll need to plan your specific scoring algorithms, which will take some trial and error to get right. The scoring algorithm defines the scoring methods. That is, it details exactly how a player earns points, levels up, unlocks content, or earns achievements. The scoring algorithm also defines the degrees of difficulty, penalties, levels, number of opportunities to score, total possible score, how to win or lose, and anything else required to keep track of scoring and player progress through the game and learning objectives.

For example, a player may receive 100 points for correctly answering an easy question, 200 points for correctly answering an intermediate question, and 300 points for correctly answering a difficult question. Further, they may receive a 50 point penalty for each incorrect answer. Lastly, this hypothetical game has two levels, and players will need 2,500 points to complete the first level, 5,000 points to complete the second level, must demonstrate that they’ve learned the intended concepts, and complete the game.

In a spreadsheet, you’ll need to create a scoring table that defines all the rules and elements described in your scoring algorithms. The scoring table for our simple example above might look something like Figure 1 and Figure 2.

Scoring table for questions

Figure 1: Scoring Table, Part 1

Scoring table for level progression

Figure 2: Scoring Table, Part 2

This column provides an overview of learning game scoring mechanics. However, Play to Learn has much more to say on this topic, so if you really want to dig deep, it’s well worth the read. Below, you’ll find additional relevant articles and books on learning game design, video game design, and virtual reality (VR) serious game design. If you’re currently working on building a new serious game or improving the one you have, I encourage you to analyze your game scoring mechanics. This may mean the difference between creating an engaging game that people don’t want to stop playing, and a game so boring people can’t even finish it.

References and additional resources

Articles

Hogle, Pamela. “Essential Elements of Learning Game Design.” Learning Solutions. 12 September 2017.

Hogle, Pamela. “Four Quadrants of Design Intersect in Top Learning Games.” Learning Solutions. 10 August 2017.

“77 Tips on Today’s Hottest Topics from DevLearn Thought Leaders.” eLearning Guild. 5 August 2015.

Sparks, Matt. “Metafocus: André Thomas Discusses Learning Game Development.” Learning Solutions. 25 January 2018.

Sparks, Matt. “Metafocus: Best Practices for Designing VR Corporate Training Experiences and Games.” Learning Solutions. 29 December 2016.

Sparks, Matt. “Metafocus: How Realistic Should Your Serious Game Be?” Learning Solutions. 31 January 2019.

Sparks, Matt. “Metafocus: Making an Educational Game That Lasts 40 Years.” Learning Solutions. 24 August 2017.

Sparks, Matt. “Nine Steps to Learning How to Make Serious Games in VR.” Learning Solutions. 27 September 2018.

Sparks, Matt. “Metafocus: Using Educational Video Games as College Courses.” Learning Solutions. 11 January 2018.

Sparks, Matt. “Skills Needed to Create a Serious VR Game with a Game Engine.” Learning Solutions. 24 July 2017.

Villar, Mayra. “Designing Mobile-enabled Game-based Experiences.” Learning Solutions. 16 December 2013.

Books

Boller, Sharon, and Karl Kapp. Play to Learn: Everything You Need to Know About Designing Effective Learning Games. Alexandria, VA: ATD Press, 2017.

Bryant, Robert Denton, and Keith Giglio. Slay the Dragon: Writing Great Video Games. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2015.

Fields, Tim, and Brandon Cotton. Social Game Design: Monetization Methods and Mechanics. Waltham, MA: Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, an Imprint of Elsevier, 2012.

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