We realize that some of the terms on this site may be unfamiliar, especially as used in the context of games and game design. Please consult the list of terms below for definitions that clarify their use at the Institute. And if you don’t find what you’re looking for, please be in touch with us, so we can add to our list.

  • Behavior  Rules that describe the action of a game component and the qualities defining that action. A game character might be able to run or jump, for example―two different kinds of behaviors. Or a door might be assigned an “invisible” behavior, which means it will not appear on screen. Behaviors have certain qualities as well, like randomness or motion path.
  • Challenge  An important way to shape the experience of play. If the challenge of a game is too high for a player’s skills, he or she might become frustrated. If there is not enough challenge, boredom results. Ideally, games provide a perfectly calibrated degree of challenge.
  • Challenge-based Learning  See Game-based Learning.
  • Conflict  An essential attribute of games that arises naturally from the interaction of game components and players pursuing goals in the face of obstacles. Game conflict comes in many forms: individual, team-based, cooperative, non-cooperative, direct or indirect.
  • Connected Learning  A theory of learning that strives to connect and leverage all the various experiences, interests, communities and contexts in which learners participate―in and out of school―as potential learning opportunities.
  • Core Mechanic  The moment-to-moment activity of a player, repeated over and over throughout a game, such as trading, talking, shooting, guessing or conquering terrain. Compelling core mechanics are a must in effective game design.
  • Design Thinking  A set of skills, competencies or dispositions relating to the highly iterative collaborative process designers employ when conceiving, planning and producing an object or system.
  • Embedded Assessment  A strategy for evaluating student performance using outputs that: naturally occur in the course of day-to-day learning; create frequent opportunities for feedback and revision; and expose students to data that can inform their decision-making.
  • Formative Assessment  A strategy used by teachers and students during the learning process that provides feedback to inform decision-making and modify teaching and learning activities in which they are currently engaged. Often contrasted with summative assessment, which is used to assess achievement of learning outcomes.
  • Game  A designed system in which players engage in artificial conflict, defined by rules and resulting in a quantifiable outcome. There are many different kinds of games, including card games, board games, computer games, video games, mobile games, dice games, online games, social games, role-playing games and physical games.
  • Game Component  Objects that make up a game world, including game characters or makers, the game space, scoring system and other things defined as integral parts of the game system.
  • Game Design  A complex design activity that gives rise to games through the creation of rule sets, resulting in play.
  • Game Designer  A designer focused on the design of games by creating rules and other structures that result in play for players. Game designers may work alone or in teams. They may have expertise in programming, visual design or interactive design.
  • Game Theory  A branch of economics that studies rational decision-making. It often looks at game-like situations, but is not a general theory of games or game design.
  • Game-based Learning  A learning approach that emphasizes engagement, learning by doing, collaboration, reflection, iteration, frequent feedback and sharing. The approach structures learning activities around real-world or fictional challenges that compel learners to take on a variety of roles as they actively identify and seek out the tools and multi-disciplinary information they need to generate solutions. Also known as Challenge-based Learning.
  • Gaming  A term used to refer to all the activities, literacies, knowledge, skills and practices activated through and around game play.
  • Gaming Literacies  A set of skills, tools and dispositions that come from the design, culture and play of games, such as the ability to build worlds, to act within dynamic systems, to navigate complex information networks and to engage in collaborative peer-to-peer learning. Other important gaming literacies include systems thinking, risk-taking, critical reflection, collaboration, meaning creation, non-linear navigation, problem identification, creative problem solving and innovation.
  • Integrated Curriculum  Curriculum that treats traditionally delineated content areas, like science, math and English language arts, as integral parts of interconnected knowledge domains.
  • Level  A section or a part of a game that challenges a player to meet specific goals or perform specific tasks as prerequisites for advancing to the next level. Often used in digital games to break down large complex games into smaller units that can load more quickly. In puzzle games levels may be essentially the same, except for degree of difficulty.
  • Level Up  To advance from one level to the next within a game, often based on the accumulation of experience points (XP).
  • Meta-game  Any action, event or affect that occurs outside the bounds of a game but plays a significant role in game outcomes.
  • Mod  A modification to a game, made by the public or by developers, typically involving content additions, bug fixes or entirely new games built on existing game platforms or software.
  • Pedagogy  The study or practice of being a teacher. Also used to refer to specific strategies or styles of instruction.
  • Play  A state of being or activity experienced by a person or group of people when game rules are set in motion. Often characterized as free movement within a rigid rule structure.
  • Play-test  The ongoing process whereby a game in development is tested by players in order to identify bugs as well as for strengths and weaknesses.
  • Puzzle  A special type of game in which there is a single correct answer or set of correct answers.
  • Rules  A set of conditions that define what a player can and cannot do within a game, as well as the relationships between game components, that give rise to play.
  • Situated Learning  A theory of learning as a complex activity embedded in social and physical contexts, rather than as an individual, purely cognitive process.
  • STEM  An acronym used to refer to teaching and learning around science, technology, engineering and math.
  • Systems Thinking  A set of practices or habits of mind grounded in the view of all things as component parts of larger systems, best understood in relationship with each other and with other systems, rather than in isolation. Often identified as a key competency for success in the twenty-first century.
  • Twenty-First Century Competencies  A set of skills or dispositions generally agreed to be critical to success in the twenty-first century, and not typically addressed in traditional educational models, such as system thinking, creative problem solving, collaboration, innovation, time management, identity formation, tenacity and empathy.
  • Quote: Wagner for Additional Res

    There are three basic skills that students need if they want to thrive in a knowledge economy: the ability to do critical thinking and problem-solving; the ability to communicate effectively; and the ability to collaborate.
    Tony Wagner
    Co-director, Change Leadership Group, Harvard School of Education