10 Game Design Principles for the Next 10 Years

I don't love predicting the future. But the good thing about my recent talk at the Children's Media Conference in Sheffield, England is that I could rely on things that are fairly constant.

Dr. Carla Fisher is a game designer and digital strategist with fingerprints on more than 300 games for kids and families. She continues her musings outside this blog via a free weekly newsletter (sign up here) that curates articles, videos, and games that catch her eye. She can be reached at or @NoCrusts.

At Children’s Media Conference in Sheffield, England, I gave the presentation “10 Game Design Principles for the Next 10 Years.” (By the way, they smartly had bloggers summarize all the sessions. A great read!)

I don’t love predicting the future. But the good thing about this talk is that I could rely on things that are fairly constant. The way kids develop. Yes, sure there’s developmental compression, where kids are exposed to ideas earlier and earlier and where they’re mastering skills, especially around technology, at earlier ages.

But still, many things remain the same about childhood developmental milestones, and so that’s where I focused my talk — at the intersection of developmental psychology and gaming technology trends. You can flip through the slides and here’s a snapshot summary of the points as well.

1. Look for inspiration everywhere.  I’ve made it pretty clear in past posts that we should look to other markets for technology that we can reappropriate for children. Let other markets perfect the tech, then swoop in and implement it for a new market when the cost is dramatically reduced. It’s only going to get easier to do!

2. Foster dialogic play.  This increasingly goes by a variety of names – co-playing, joint media engagement, and dialogic play. But it’s the idea of engaging in play together. Jordan Shapiro at wrote a bit on the topic in “Research Says Screen Time Can Be Good For Your Kids.” We’ve also been talking about it with the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media in this post about parents and children interacting with apps.

3. Practice Dual-Premise Game Design.   Sesame and Pixar are the kings at dual-premise writing, or the idea of writing to two audiences (e.g. parents and children). Some jokes will go right over kids’ heads but amuse the parents. Sesame Street’s Upside Downton Abbey and Birdwalk Empire segments are classic examples.

Games for kids have the same opportunities to engage parents on their level at the same time. It might be in the writing and humor of the game or it might be in the level design, as Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario Kart. Super Mario Galaxy has two types of play – one that’s actually navigating the game and a second, easier, option where a second player points at the screen (with the remote) to pick up gems around the world. Super Mario Kart automatically adjusts power-ups to help players who have fallen behind catch up, thus leveling the field.

4. Scaffold.   The tools used in Super Mario Kart also apply to the idea of scaffolding users. Scaffolding is the help structure we implement to assist users who are struggling. In classrooms, scaffolding involves numerous steps including grabbing the student’s attention, adjusting the task, modeling the task, and providing encouragement.

While traditional models of scaffolding largely focus on correcting wrong answers via a learning moment where all gameplay stops, other models provide opportunities for learners to play with the content in a more exploratory way. The goals of your product can largely deliver whether you take a more traditional route or if you have the flexibility to play around a bit more.

5. Embrace data.   A significant part of scaffolding is how we interpret and use data to identify players who are struggling (see the next point!). But another opportunity of data is to make it available in game to help players understand their progress as well as to strategize future gameplay. A number of games have done this in various ways — Halo 3, QatQi, and The Eyeballing Game.

6. Provide real-time, contextualized feedback.   Data also enables real-time feedback, or the idea of providing ongoing information on how the player is doing and using that to improve the experience. Paper-based test are an example of this feedback loop, though it can take a long time to play out. Games offer opportunities to assess learning and make incremental changes at a fast-moving pace.

But the data must be contextualized. My big bugaboo with most child-progress-tracking apps these days is that they provide information in a way that may only make a parent paranoid, rather than offering ideas on what to do with that information. It’s a tough challenge but one that I think we’ll see evolve over time.

7. Use achievements to motivate new ways of playing.   Progress tracking also shows up as achievements. Many well-designed achievement systems, such as those in Plants vs Zombies, actually require you to radically shift your thinking in order to achieve the goal. Designed in the right way, achievements have the potential to guide players to new strategies, even in learning.

8. Be different.   Some estimates are that there are nearly 100,000 active educational apps in the App Store. Don’t rush to make an ABC app unless you have the power and money and amazing design to compete with Disney and the other big ones. Even with so many apps in the store, there is opportunity to differentiate. It always makes me a little sad that I need to include this, but I see far too many start-ups targeting already saturated areas.

9. Create distributed learning opportunities.   We all know cramming for the test is not as effective as repeated exposures to material (otherwise known as distributed learning). Episodic content is common and interesting to do on mobile and in games, which means new opportunities for fostering distributed learning.

10. Test early. Test often. Adjust. Repeat.  No explanation needed here, I hope. Right?

And because I like to over-deliver on my promises… a bonus prediction!

11.  Foster discovery and curiosity.   I love letters and numbers. But one of the things that games are good at is encouraging a love of learning and an exploratory mindset. As we continue to better understand how to foster STEM learning, games are going to play an ever-increasing role. Check out my post on 50 STEM games for more thoughts here!

So, I guess we’ll see how I did in 2023…

Meanwhile, I’ll be at Casual Connect in San Francisco at the end of the month, including showing off Williamspurrrrg at the Indie Prize Showcase. Yell if you’ll be there! Or sign up for our No Crusts newsletter or follow us @NoCrusts! Additionally, if you’re a developer willing to share some stories or post-mortems or if you have additional questions on any topic we discuss, please drop us a note at

Photo © Julian Povey

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