How Game Thinking Can Help Us Develop Better Learner Personas

It’s official, we are obsessed with watching online lectures and presentations. We are especially interested in videos made by experts outside of the field of education and educational psychology on how their industries are learning or how they are developing and applying learning principles. The video format works so well for learning outside of my area of expertise because it allows us to more easily understand a foreign discipline’s paradigm. Recently, we’ve been binging on tech influencers talking about game design and development.


Learning from the perspective of a game designer provides us with a different lens through which we can re-examine my own strategies and be inspired to develop new ones. Gaming is a $108 billion market that is investing a tremendous amount in research and development to better understand how to promote engagement. Engagement, after all, is the life-source of all games and to some extent, of learning, too. As consultants who work on e-learning applications, online courses, and on instructor-led learning programs, engagement is a major interest of mine. That is why we want to explore it from diverse angles. So, we play the ethnographer in a “foreign” industry observing methods, strategies, and approaches to see how I can diversify my expertise.

One of our new favourite people to follow is Amy Jo Kim. Kim is a startup coach and game designer. She has an impressive client list, having worked on Rock Band, The Sims, Ebay, and Netflix, to name a few. Kim has a Ph.D. in Behavioral Neuroscience, to boot. She is often invited to speak at conferences and has posted a wealth of knowledge on Slideshare.

In her talk on Creating Compelling Experiences, she discusses the concept of gamer personas, which relates to how we think about learner personas. In user-centered design, a persona is a fictional character created to represent a user type that might use a game, application, brand, or product in a similar way. The persona helps the designer to imagine how to best design elements of the game such as the game mechanics, the lifecycle, the interface, the content, etc.

In this video, Kim introduces a gamer persona taxonomy, which (for the gamer geeks reading) is a modification of Bartle’s Taxonomy of Gamer Types that can be used to help design games that involve social engagement (ie. multi-player games). The four types of social engagement Kim identifies include: competition, cooperation, exploration and self-expression. Kim explains that different mechanics should be used to attract each of these persona types. To attract those who enjoy competing — primarily males–words like “win”, “beat”, “taunt”, and “challenge” should be used to describe the game. To attract those who enjoy cooperating–primarily females–words like “join”, “share”, “gift”, “help”, and “exchange” should be used. Exploration verbs like “view”, “read”, “search”, “collect”, and “complete” should be used to appeal to personas that are somewhat less socially-motivated but who like engaging with content. Lastly, expressive verbs like “choose”, “customize”, “layout”, “design”, and “show-off” can be used to appeal to creative types. The connection between language and persona lends itself very well to marketing but also to how learning experience designers create to motivate learners. Whether we are developing an e-learning experience or an instructor-led experience or even a learning program or curriculum, we need to think about who our learner is and select key terminology accordingly.

Before you can make decisions about what kind of language will be most effective to attract your target learner you need to understand the learner. For edtech startups, this means identifying the persona of your early adopters so that you can imbed the right language into your products. For example, are they tech-savvy male teachers between the ages of 30 and 45? Do they also coach the basketball team after school? What kind of device do they use at work and at home? What games do they enjoy playing? This level of detail is important. It takes you beyond a basic audience analysis, as you’ll rely on actual interactions with your target learners. You’ll want to investigate into four aspects of your learners: geographical, demographic, psychological and behavioral.

The same goes for those who are developing learning programs that want to create deeper engagement or just encourage adoption. This information will allow you to show learners exactly what they want to see in their learning experience — themselves. In this case, game thinking teaches us the importance of considering the types of verbs, adjectives, and nouns we use to describe the learning applications, programs, and even events we create in order to ensure adoption and engagement through fit. After all, not every learning application is for every teacher or every student. Students and teachers are not homogenous groups — a mistake we’ve seen too many edtech companies make. How we make it possible for learners to see themselves starts with something as simple as the words we use to describe a task, an objective, or an offering. So, get specific when writing your user interface content, your onboarding content, your programs, and curriculum. Take the time to thoroughly investigate your learners, develop their personas, and match the language to them to pull them in.


Bartle, R. (1996). Hearts, clubs, diamonds, spades: Players who suit MUDs. Journal of MUD research1(1), 19.

Carini, R. M., Kuh, G. D., & Klein, S. P. (2006). Student engagement and student learning: Testing the linkages. Research in higher education47(1), 1–32.