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Post date: Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Game design: an object lesson in seeking and receiving feedback

By Rachel Bolstad

In my last post I made a case for why game design is both hard and worth doing in the classroom. I introduced the iterative design process as fundamental to the game development process, and discussed some of the reasons why this process may feel daunting for teachers or first-time game designers.

In today’s post I want to talk about the “playcentric” approach to game design (Fullerton, 2014)  and how this approach can help learners get better at:

  1. seeing beyond their own perspectives and assumptions, and

  2. learning to seek - and receive - useful feedback to help improve their work.

These are both great habits to have as a game designer, but equally useful for a wide range of other situations in learning and in life.

The playcentric approach to game design

Game designers (whether children or adults) need to learn how to put the player's experience at the heart of their endeavours. Game designer Tracy Fullerton, author of the fabulous book Game design workshop, calls this a “playcentric” approach to game design. You can dream up the most amazing and wonderful game idea in your own head, or in banter with your design team, but to make progress towards a playable game you need to start playtesting!

This means putting your ideas out for feedback, critique, and improvement as early and often as possible. It means asking people to playtest your game at various stages of the design process, and respecting your players enough to genuinely care about what they think about your game. It means watching as your game fails to work or engage players in the way you thought it would, and learning how to embrace those failures as a step towards improvement.

In a game designing classroom, this might involve watching as your classmates or your teacher struggle to play your paper prototype game. In Games for learning classrooms, this playtesting process sometimes helped students to realise that the most basic rules of the game (which were completely obvious to them) were not at all obvious to someone picking up their game for the first time. Sometimes it helped the designers realise they hadn’t even considered the need to write instructions for their game.

It turns out that problems like these don’t just happen for children designing games. Writing clear game rules and instructions can be genuinely hard! Another hard thing is designing tutorial levels that help to ease a novice player into your game, orient them to the game environment, and help them to figure out what knowledge and skills they need to master in order to move forward into more complex levels of game play. If you go to game design conferences, or read game design blogs, you’ll find game designers sharing advice about how to get better at these aspects of game design.

Practicing getting structured feedback

Taking a playcentric approach in a game-designing classroom might mean, as a student game designer, asking your classmates to play your game and give you feedback in a structured way. To get constructive feedback, you might ask your classmates to use sentence starters such as “I like” and “I wonder” and “what if?”.  It also means learning how to listen and take on board their feedback or suggestions. These are examples of practices we saw in some of the primary and intermediate Games for Learning classrooms. By practising this process regularly, students got better at both giving and receiving thoughtful, constructive feedback. In one Year 7-8 classroom, students were facilitating the whole feedback process themselves, no longer needing the teacher to run it.

In a Year 6 classroom, in a different school, each student brainstormed as many ideas as they could for a game they would like to design. Then they took their ideas around the classroom on a “speed date” to get rapid feedback from peers. Any student who wanted to could then pitch their strongest idea to the whole class, and game design could only progress if they had at least two “backers” - i.e. two other students who volunteered to be part of the development team to bring their idea to fruition.

Finally, in a Year 5-6 game-designing classroom we visited, the class had buddied up with a class from a different primary school. Their teachers had chatted on Twitter about the game design happening in each of their classrooms, and organised to send each other’s class their game prototype. One of the classes included a carefully considered list of questions they wanted their peers at the other school to give feedback on, and their playtesters responded by sending back a video response to those questions. The teacher in one of these classes noted that being invited to give feedback gave students an "authentic purpose" for writing, and was particularly motivating for  students who otherwise tended to be reluctant to write.

Teachers and students we’ve interviewed about game design often tell us that it is especially thrilling to get feedback from “real” players who don’t know them, and therefore have no reason not to give honest feedback!

What can non-game-designing adults learn from the playcentric approach to game design?

One of the cool things about the habits and practices you might see in a game designing classroom is that they end up getting used in all sorts of other contexts outside game design, For example, anytime a class might want to:

  • Generate a wide range of ideas about something
  • Put ideas forward for feedback and improvement
  • Rapidly prototype and test an idea to see if it works
  • Practise designing questions that elicit useful, structured feedback
  • Learn how to see small test-failures as opportunities for improvement

In the world outside classrooms, we can use a lot of different names to describe situations where some of the same practices and processes are used to achieve non-game outcomes. Practices like “design thinking”, “co-design”, user-centred design”, “service design” or “gamestorming” share much in common with game design. These kinds of processes are used in many different workplaces these days, from corporate environments, central and local government to schools, health and social sectors, etc. They are used to design or re-design products, systems, or processes that  work better for users.

Having observed both game-designing classrooms and workplaces where these similar design strategies are used, I’d say the game-designing classrooms might have the edge in terms of keeping their process truly playcentric and player-centric.

With game design in particular, if a game doesn’t “work” for players, it really won’t succeed. This puts the onus on designers to keep playtesting, with real testers, as much as it takes until the game works.

In non-game-design contexts,  it seems to me that it’s a little bit easier to slip back into a process where user needs are talked about more than users are talked to, or for user testing to occur so late in the process that most of the design decisions can’t be changed.

I’m keen to hear what you think about the playcentric approach to game design, game-designing classrooms, or any of the idea in this post. Please leave a comment below!


Fullerton, T. (2014). Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games, Third Edition. CRC Press: Boca Raton, FL.


Top image Copyright: foodandmore / 123RF Stock Photo

Below: "I like" and "I wonder" feedback in a game design workshop for teachers. Image Copyright Rachel Bolstad

"I like" and "I wonder" feedback in a game design workshop for teachers

Games for learning

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