“I care about the story and my role in the experience.”

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It is a critical element of learning and a fundamental aspect of our products. Empathy fosters insight into different perspectives and promotes genuine open-mindedness. It discourages hasty and superficial problem examination and stimulates critical thinking. Empathy discourages belief rigidity and encourages cognitive and personal flexibility.

We are built to understand the emotions and actions of others. Empathy is a major force in human behavior, so attaching empathy to learning in order to change behavior (apply learning) is essential. There is hard evidence that empathy and academic performance are correlated.

Our goal is to attach feeling to learning, to make the learner care about the story and their role in the experience. Gaming is the ideal environment to utilize empathy in learning. In order to capitalize on these benefits, we follow some guiding principles. We attach all learning to “self” by providing agency to the learner. We enable the learner to construct the learning for themselves and to use what they know to relate to the world around themselves.

Because we often understand ourselves through understanding the needs of others, we create an environment with a sense of community. In game play, we activate the learner’s intrinsic motivation by building relationships with non-player characters (NPCs), the AI guide, and learner peers. This socio-constructivist approach enables learners to make connections and build a sense of community, increasing empathy and engagement.

Our methods of building empathy include using
Narrative and Sensemaking. An outcome of a well-designed, empathetic gaming learning experience is Persistence.


Narrative is the game story, including the situation, the learner role and goals, NPC character motivations, talents, and needs, the problems to be solved, and the skills to acquire or the goals of the game.

We use narrative to increase the learner’s emotional proximity so that they identify with their role in the game. Story can cause feelings of pleasure, drama, and stress, to name a few, and strong emotions lead to memorable experiences.

With plot hooks, the learner experiences unanswered questions they are compelled to answer or they are called to action and are motivated to solve a problem. Narrative helps focus attention, aids in comprehension, and creates curiosity in the learner, all motivating factors. Performance and feedback fuel the learner’s motivation and persistence.

Role play has long been proven as an effective learning experience. It is inherent in gaming, since learners are embodied in experiences. As they experience the game, learners engage in learning, critically reflect, and solve problems. They synthesize diverse information, analyze outcomes, and identify causal relationships between concepts.

Well-designed narrative does not allow for a passive learning experience. It is immersive and demands participation in the story and in the learning.  

From a learning perspective, narrative is a cognitive framework that supports problem solving and enables the learner to assign meaning to their experiences. The schema provides a structure to foster skill development and content knowledge by requiring skill application and knowledge to complete the game. Narrative enables us to use multiple modes of information that enable the learner to solve problems, and provides opportunities for reflection, evaluation, exemplification, and inquiry. It is naturally scaffolded and provides opportunities for metacognition and reflection by asking key questions and guiding the learner to think about what they’ve accomplished (learned) and how that will lead to the story goals (learning outcomes).


Sensemaking is the articulation of the unknown. It enables a learner to make sense of the world so they know how to act in it. In game, when the learner asks, “What’s the story?”, they are sensemaking. It’s a method of making sense of an ambiguous situation and creating situational awareness in complex or uncertain situations in order to make decisions.

This natural strategy requires the learner to create a “map” of a changing world, then test the map through data collection, action, and conversation in order to refine the map. The continuous effort to develop a plausible understanding of the world, testing it, and refining their own understanding helps motivate the learner to make connections in order to act effectively.

In order to get the most out of this strategy, games must be designed with stimuli placed into a framework within the learner’s zone of proximal development so learners can understand, explain, and then apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information. These adaptive challenges require responses just outside of a learner’s existing skill set, taking advantage of the gap between what they want to achieve and what they can achieve. By acting in game, they are able to understand their new reality and assign meaning to new concepts.  

In gaming, we have a unique opportunity to create a virtual environment that immerses the learner in an environment that directly relates to their learning goals. Through sensemaking, learners can use their reasoning, intuition, logic, and emotional intelligence to navigate successfully through stories and simulations to move from “what is” to “what it can be” based on the learner’s decisions. We can create meaningful, interactive, and challenging worlds involving the learner as the conductor of their own development.


An important aspect of sensemaking is motivation, or the reason that explains or justifies actions. In gaming, learners are motivated to make sense of their world, which is a key part of their success or failure.

Extrinsic motivation pulls a learner to complete an activity because it is important or because of a reward or a threat. Intrinsic motivation is what the learner finds interesting and can be linked to learning through fun. Sustained participation in any learning activity, or persistence, is closely related to intrinsic motivation.

In learning, motivation leads to the activation of efficient cognitive strategies. Fun, a key element in gaming, is a potent source of intrinsic motivation. Games engage learners emotionally, activating pleasure and desire, eliciting ludic tension through chance and strategy, rules and freedom, reality and fiction.

Motivation StatesIntrinsic motivation is a balance between challenges and skills, curiosity and proficiency. Our goal in game design is to capitalize on motivation-based synergies in game in order to activate intrinsic motivation.

Motivation-based synergies: Values, Power, Usability, Openness, Candor, Humility, Hunger

Taking advantage of key factors of motivation ensures the game is as effective as possible. These essential elements of game design include best practices on what include and what to avoid in order to design an effective, motivating game.


Values: Building our games with embedded values expressed in the rules activates intrinsic motivation.  We enable the learner to test the values of the game and compare and contrast them with their own. The learner can experiment with values in the game to learn what would happen with a different set of values.


Power: Enabling learners to confront and test the rules in game and experiencing meaningful feedback gives the learner control. This way, the learner may gain knowledge through interactions rather than static data. It enables risk-taking, a critical factor in learning.


Usability: Ensuring that all learners have access to the game, we must keep our audience in mind by designing for accessibility. We use AI to create individualism and avoid barriers that might lower the learner’s urge to play the game (technical difficulty, gender bias, etc.).


Openness: Providing autonomy by designing gameplay with choice and space is a key motivating factor. We avoid predefined trajectories that hinder creativity and exploration (fun and learning).


Candor: Designing games to take advantage of all aspects of communication in order to create opportunities for collaborating (with AI or other students), negotiating, competing, etc., is an effective tool for sensemaking and activating empathy.


Humility: Pushing learners to honestly acknowledge the skills and talents they have and those they need to refine or improve is an important factor in motivating game design. We meet the learner where they are, and design the game so they are challenged just outside their comfort zone.


Hunger: Accessing a learner’s primal need to succeed and their desire to work hard and do whatever it takes to win the game is a fundamental element of game design. Learners in game are already intrinsically motivated, so keeping them hungry through various levels of success and failure ensures persistence in game.


Persistence is a highly valuable skill in most aspects of life, and has been shown to positively impact learning. Two aspects of persistence bolster our argument for gaming in education. First, learners persist in their learning due to their increased desire to continue playing a game. Second, educational gaming increases persistence of knowledge retention over time.

Persistence reflects the need to complete difficult tasks and the desire to perform well in the face of frustration. Learners are intrinsically motivated to persist through a game due to many factors already discussed. Thus, a well-designed game has an advantage over traditionally-delivered learning in the fact that learners are more likely to engage in and successfully complete the learning. Persistence is higher in games with the right level of difficulty for each learner, on the outer edges of the learner’s abilities. The progressive difficulty and repeated exposure to challenge creates a willingness to work hard despite repeated failure.

Another advantage of gaming over traditionally-delivered content is the effects of persistence in learning. Persistence can positively impact learning for all students, especially for struggling students. Games, especially games with risk, improve long-term retention of information, enhance transfer of knowledge, improves recall, and can even increase knowledge over time. In addition, people remember information better through Virtual Reality than traditionally-delivered content. Games can be designed with spaced repetition to instill concept review, remediation, and skill building in frequent intervals over time.

One important reason persistence is so evident in gaming is because of the strong connection between gaming and empathy. Any learner about their favorite book or movie, and they will be able to tell you in great detail about the plot, characters, and story. They have emotionally imprinted on the media triggered by their natural empathetic nature, an element of learning that is ever-present in gaming.

Because learners are more likely to persist in their learning through games, and because that learning is more effective than traditionally-delivered learning, learners better retain information and their learning persists over time.

The learner has immersed themself into the learning experience. They have used their empathetic skills to feel and engage with the narrative and have employed their sensemaking strategies to effectively navigate the experience. Through their high level of connection to the learning, they will persist through the learning experience and retain the concepts they learned. The final level of the ILXD Pyramid describes the pinnacle of the learning experience; full engagement with the learning.