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Learning Games: Multiplayer Mechanics, Subtext, and Gameplay

This blog article was written prior to LEO Learning becoming part of GP Strategies.

When was the last time you watched Jurassic Park? If I was to ask you what it was about, chances are you’d say dinosaurs. And yes, to an extent, it is about dinosaurs. On the surface. However, if you look for the deeper subtext, Jurassic Park is really about parenthood.

The main characters start by looking at dinosaurs on a screen that closely resembles an ultrasound and become guardians to some children through the duration of the film. There are a variety of subtle messages throughout the film that point to the subtext of preparing for parenthood.

You can find out more about this reading of Jurassic Park in this great talk from Mike Hill.

What does this have to do with learning games? Well, games can be all about the subtext too.

The Importance of Subtext in Learning Games

Where a film may use cinematography, dialogue, and multiple storylines to explore a range of themes, games use mechanics, structure, graphics, and progression to do the same. The gameplay becomes a vehicle for the message of the content.

It can be a common misconception among L&D communities and/or stakeholders that learning games need to be specific to their audience. For example, that a game for an automotive company has to revolve around cars or be set in the head office. But this simply isn’t true. The subtext is where the lessons lie.

Let’s look at an example.

An Example: Overcooked

Overcooked is a cooperative multiplayer game set in a restaurant. Each player takes on a different role covering the food preparation, dishing up, cleaning, and dealing with customers. In this, players need to work together to progress through gradually harder services that feature more dishes, changes in layout, and more customers.

Does this game teach players how to cook? No. It teaches them teamwork, coordination, and, critically, the importance of clear communication. So while on the surface, the game may be about cooking or working in a restaurant, the subtext runs deeper.

The Value of Multiplayer Learning Games

Multiplayer games, like Overcooked, provide so many fantastic opportunities for social learning. A lot of this comes not only in the thematic subtext of the game but also in the mechanics of gameplay.

We can look at collaborative, competitive, or combined multiplayer games as they all provide different mechanics and benefits. Overcooked is a great example of a collaborative multiplayer game, where every player has a different purpose to reach a collective goal.

Games tend to encourage problem-solving and critical thinking regardless of how many players are involved. But when we use multiplayer gameplay, they also tap into different areas of motivation and other skills like teamwork, communication, and leadership. This adds to the layers of learning and subtext available, improving the effectiveness of the game for learning.

The Mechanics of Multiplayer Learning Game Design

When designing multiplayer learning games, we can think of the mechanics in terms of three separate dials that we can control to influence the gameplay:

  • Time
  • Goals
  • Rules

Each of these dials pertains to a different part of the game’s structure. When we talk about the Time dial, we mean whether the game is played live, at the same time as other players (synchronously), or at different times to other players (asynchronously).

The Goals dial covers whether the game is collaborative, competitive, or a bit of both. Are the players working towards a shared goal, competing against each other for an individual goal, or working together as a team to compete against another team?

The Rules dial is where things can get particularly interesting. This dial controls whether the gameplay is symmetrical. By this I mean if the players are each following the same rules, processes, and overcoming the same barriers. Is each of the players fulfilling the same role and facing the same challenges?

Each of these three dials can be adjusted according to the needs of your learning game and create different gameplay mechanics.

The example I gave earlier of Overcooked, is played synchronously and collaboratively but with asymmetrical rules as each player serves a different function within the team. Chess, on the other hand, is played synchronously, competitively, and symmetrically.

About the Authors

Richard Calcutt

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