On Making Learning Games Compelling

A challenge we faced while building SpriteBox Coding, a learn to code game for kids ages 5+, was that the educational component primarily centred around puzzles. However, as we learned with our previous title LightBot, for some kids, puzzles simply aren’t exciting on their own. There were often players who needed a reason for why they would want to solve puzzles in the first place.

Luckily, years of video game history have taught us about all kinds of things when it comes to what makes games fun. We analyzed games across multiple genres to find some of the more universally popular ideas. Then, we tried to extract how exactly those game elements map to motivators that engage players.

Here are some of the ideas we adopted, and the reasons why:

Story

Games often feature some kind of storyline. At the start of SpriteBox Coding, players see their character building a rocket, only to have it explode during launch. Rocket pieces fall from the sky onto the world map, leading the player to go collect those pieces to rebuild their ship. As well as giving players a sense of direction, story lets players gain a sense of purpose.

Quests

An overarching storyline is great for guiding players, but does not necessarily work as a lasting motivator. For that, we intersperse smaller stories throughout the journey. Players can find different characters in the various lands they visit, who they can then lead to completing mini quests. These quests are often silly, like finding a smiling cloud that helps you water a turnip’s garden. From a motivation perspective, they let players regularly feel a sense of accomplishment, and keep a sense of wonder.

Customization

A parent once told me, “you won’t believe how much of a difference it is for my son to be able to choose what colour shirt his character wears”. Kids seem to particularly take to customizing their character, so we gave players the option to change their character’s appearance as well as wear outfits that could be unlocked throughout the game. Customizing a character lets players feel a sense of personalization and become more invested in the game.

Games are great at showing us what kinds of elements can engage wide demographics of people. For SpriteBox, the motivators behind those elements are able provide kids with intrinsic reasons to want to solve puzzles that consequently teach them how to code. As a side benefit, they also make our learning app feel like less of a learning app at all.

UPDATE: SpriteBox Coding is now on iOS and Android: spritebox.com