Game Mechanics – What Makes a Good Game?


 Is it little characters with catchy music, like Mario or Pac Man? Do you need to wield a sword and slay the mighty dragon, like in World of Warcraft? Do you need to answer trivia on a scoreboard, like Jeopordy? All of these have things in common and you can include these things in your eLearning that you create.

Are you familiar with the term “gamification”?

Gamification is the concept of applying game-design thinking to non-game applications to make them more fun and engaging.

According to a 2011 Gartner Research Report it is estimated that by 2015, more than 50 percent of organizations that manage innovation processes will gamify those processes.

According to, here are some of the common game mechanics.


Achievements are a virtual or physical representation of having accomplished something. Achievements can be easy, difficult, surprising, funny, etc.


Appointment Dynamics are game dynamics in which at a predetermined times/place a user must log-in or participate in game, for positive effect.


Behavioral Momentum is the tendency of players to keep doing what they have been doing. How many of you have said this? “I have spent ten hours playing Farmville. I am a smart person and wouldn’t spend 10, but I keep doing it.”


Bonuses are a reward after having completed a series of challenges or core functions. You can give these for completing a combo or just for a specific, special task.


This theory states that you should release information in the minimum possible snippets to gain the appropriate level of understanding at each point during a game narrative.


Use combos to reward skill through doing a combination of things. This also can add excitement or incentivize doing another action after already having completed one. The successful completion of a combo usually comes with the reward of a bonus.


This is a game dynamic wherein an entire community comes together to work to solve a riddle, a problem or a challenge. Use of this mechanic can make your training immensely viral and very fun.


In this mechanic, you only give players a certain amount of time to do something. This creates an activity graph that causes increased initial activity increasing frenetically until time runs out, which is a forced extinction.


Exploration is another name for this mechanic. Players love to discover something and to be surprised. Discovery encourages players to discover new pages within a website. This drives up page views and time-on-site.
An example of this occurs in World of Warcraft. As players discover new lands they earn bonus experience points.
You can apply this by giving your learner a multiplier bonus based on how many new pages they read each week.


In this dynamic, a player feels that they are getting something for free due to someone else having done work. It’s critical that they perceive to have done work (just not by the player in them) to avoid breaching trust in the scenario. The player must feel that they’ve “lucked” into something.

Groupon is a great example of this. By virtue of 100 other people having bought the deal, you get it for cheap. There is no sketchiness because you recognize work has been done (100 people are spending money) but you yourself didn’t have to do it.


Games that do not have an explicit end are infinite. This mechanic is most applicable to casual games that can refresh their content or games where a static (but positive) state is a reward of its own.

For example, Farmville has no end. You play till you are satisfied and decide to stop.


Levels are a system, or “ramp”, by which you reward players in an increasing value for the accumulation of points. Often features or abilities are unlocked as players progress to higher levels. Leveling is one of the highest components of motivation for gamers.

You can tie Levels to unlocking content on a website or simply as a motivational note to keep players progressing forward.


Loss Aversion is a game mechanic that influences user behavior not by reward, but by not instituting punishment.
In FarmVille, for example, your crops wither and die if you don’t remember to harvest your crops in a relatively narrow window. Because of this, most players choose to receive alerts when their crops are ready to harvest.
A player could lose status or points by “decay” if they don’t use a website for over a week.

Many variations of this mechanism are possible, as long as it involves the player having to perform an action to avoid losing something they currently have.


You determine the winner solely by chance in this game dynamic. This creates a high level of anticipation. The fairness is often suspect, however winners will generally continue to play indefinitely, while losers will quickly abandon the game, despite the random nature of the distinction between the two.


Ownership is a powerful and creates loyalty. Examples of ownership in games include Nintendogs, Club Penguin Puffles and other pet ownerships. They create an emotive response from the player to want to protect and look after their animals.


We are all familiar with this game mechanic. It drove the video games of our youth, in the 1980’s. Points are a running numerical value given for any single action or combination of actions.

In Pac Man, every pellet earns the player points. Every time Pac Man eats a ghost he earns more points. A game can weight points for specific activities to drive users towards desired activities. This is why players are motivated to eat the ghosts in Pac Man, they earn substantially more points by eating ghosts than merely eating pellets.

Points can drive users to participate in activities. Weighting points (giving more or less) around specific activities can motivate players to participate in those activities if you give players a reason to care about points.


Progression is a dynamic in which the game granularly displays success and it measures that success through the process of completing itemized tasks.

A common example is a progress bar. If you have ever played Dungeons and Dragons, you might be familiar with the concept of leveling up from Paladin level 1 to Paladin level 60.


Quests can also be challenges. Challenges usually imply a time limit or competition whereas Quests are a journey of obstacles a player must overcome.

In World of Warcraft, the game gives players quests that require them to complete a set of tasks, such as monster slaying or delivery of an item. You can use quests to organize a group or a single player’s effort.


The timeframe and delivery mechanisms through which rewards (points, prizes, level ups) are delivered are called reinforcement schedules. Three main parts exist in a reward schedule:

  • Contingency
  • Response
  • Reinforcer

Examples of reinforcement schedules include leveling up for killing 10 orcs, clearing a row in Tetris, or getting fresh crops in Farmville.

There are several types of reinforcement schedules:

  • Fixed Interval
  • Variable Interval
  • Fixed Ratio
  • Variable Ratio

Fixed Interval Reward Schedule

Fixed interval schedules provide a reward after a fixed amount of time, 30 minutes for example. This tends to create a low engagement after a reward, then gradually increasing activity until you give a reward. This is followed by another lull in engagement. In Farmville, after you wait 30 minutes, crops appear.

Variable Interval Reward Schedule

Variable interval reward schedules provide a reward after a roughly consistent amount of time. This tends to create a reasonably high level of activity over time, as the player could receive a reward at any time but never the burst as created under a fixed schedule. This system is also more immune to the dip in activity right after the receiving of a reward, but also lacks the intensity of activity before a player unlocks a reward due to high levels of ambiguity in the reward schedule. An example of this is to wait roughly 10 minutes and a new weapon appears. As a player, you can check back as often as you want but that won’t speed it up.

Fixed Ratio Reward Schedule

A fixed ratio schedule provides rewards after a fixed number of actions. This creates cyclical levels of engagement (because the first action will not create any reward so incentive is low) and then bursts of activity, as the reward gets closer and closer. An example of this reward schedule is if you destroy 20 ships, you get a level up or if you visit five locations, you get a badge.

Variable Ratio Reward Schedule

A variable ratio reward schedule provides rewards after a roughly consistent but unknown amount of actions. This creates a relatively high consistent rate of activity (as there could always be a reward after the next action) with a slight increase as the player reaches the expected reward threshold, but there is never the huge burst of a fixed ratio schedule. It is also more immune to lulls in engagement after the player achieves a reward. An example of this reward schedule might be destroying approximately 20 ships, and you receive a level. If you visit a couple locations, you get a badge.


Status equates to the rank or level of a player. You can motivate players by trying to have them reach a higher level or status. Envy can drive this mechanic. In FourSquare, everyone wants to be the Mayor of some location.


This mechanic is a game element that requires multiple people to play (or a game that multiple players can be better at if they play together)

Farmville makes you more successful in the game if you invite your friends.

If you are curious about some other discussions on game mechanics, there are different types of games – board games, card games, and electronic gaming (PC, hand-held, and console).

For discussions about board games and card games, check out BoardGameGeek. Many of the gamers like to talk about what makes their favorite games good or bad. You can learn a lot just by browsing around.

For discussions on designing software gaming and the industry of game development, check out Gamasutra. This is a site for game developers. This link goes to the section of thier site devoted to serious games.

Have you used any of these mechanics in any of your eLearning? If so, how did it work for you? Please share both your successes and failures with us, so we can all learn from them and modify them for our individual situations.


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