The challenges of designing learning games: Interviewing professional learning game designers


  • Thorkild Hanghøj Aalborg Universitet
  • Sara Hajslund
  • Stine Ejsing-Duun Aalborg University



Learning, game design, domain theory, design theory, design challenges, K-12


The professional practice of designing digital learning games has existed for more than four decades. Even though considerable work has been done on research and development projects that include learning games (e.g., through Design-Based Research projects), there is relatively limited research on how professional learning game designers work, and what design challenges they face when trying to develop learning games for K-12 educational contexts. In this explorative interview study, we take a closer look at the design challenges that experienced learning game designers face during the design process, and what complexities and dilemmas they need to balance in doing so. The interview study is based on extended semi-structured interviews with five experienced learning game designers from five different learning game companies from Europe and the US. Having transcribed and coded the interview data, we conducted a thematic analysis to address the following research question: How do learning game designers experience and manage the different knowledge forms and design challenges that emerge when developing games for K-12 educational contexts? To answer this question, we draw on insights from design theory and domain theory, which allows us to map and analyse how the learning game designers try to establish links between different forms of knowledge across three domains: the pedagogical domain, the disciplinary domain, and the game design domain. Based on the thematic analysis, we identify three design principles across these domains, which are central to the learning game design process: 1) creating a shared language and repertoire for the involved actors (e.g., game designers, subject matter experts, and educational practitioners) across the three domains, 2) establishing meaningful links between educational aims and game elements, and 3) considering the educational context of the learning game. Addressing these design principles are all crucial, when engaging in the highly complex task of designing games for educational purposes.