How To Gamify An Event Part 2: Game Design

Sam Liberty
6 min readDec 16, 2023

This is the second part of a three part series on how to gamify a conference session. If you haven’t read the first part, you really should!

In the first section, I explained the important questions you need to get started: Who, What, and What Next? As you begin your design process in earnest, it’s important to keep these top of mind. To do this, I like to start by writing official Session Goals.

The key to success is unwavering aim.

Step 1: Write Session Goals

These can be audience facing (so you tell them, “Today we are going to do XYZ”), or they can be just for you.

I sometimes mix them, by having public and private goals. A public goal might be something like “Create urgency around climate action.” A private goal might be something more like, “Get conference attendees to sign up for our 3-day Workshop this fall.”

These are both totally fine goals, but conference attendees don’t want to be told upfront that your session is a sales pitch. They want to know how this will benefit them.

At this point, your goals may still be massaged or changed, but it’s important to have them so you understand how to guide your designs. If you design a module for your session after this, you can scrutinize it and ask yourself if it’s actually fulfilling any of your session goals, or if there might be a better way to do so.

Step 2: Brainstorm Ideas

There are many ways to brainstorm ideas. I wrote about some of my favorites in this medium post. I find it’s best to work in partnerships where at least one member understands design well, and at least one understands the topic well.

I’ve designed and ran enough of these that it usually doesn’t take long for me to hit on some great ideas. But what if you’re new to this?

T.S. Eliot once said that “good writers borrow, great writers steal.” This may be debatable, but every stroke of inspiration comes from somewhere. So think back to times you’ve had a lot of fun at a conference or workshop session and see what might be replicable.

Pandemic

Another way of borrowing is to do a brainstorm based on games. Take your session goals as inspiration and ask the question, “What games could be adapted to meet these goals?”

For instance, if your goal is “Create urgency around climate action” you might think of the game “Pandemic” which creates a sense of urgency by having players combat a growing threat that can run out of control. Could you borrow this mechanism in some way? It’s worth thinking through, isn’t it? I could see the conference room being slowly covered in blue streamers while the people on the edges of the room have to ask the people in the middle for aid. Or maybe you want to go the extra mile and design a tabletop simulation from scratch.

Pablo Saurez, Red Cross Climate Centre, throwing an irregular frisbee as part of a conference game about hurricane pathing.

Generally, I use games and play in these ways:

  1. Role-play for perspective taking and rehearsal of future action
  2. Simulation of a system to explain a problem or solution
  3. Party-game like exercises to rapidly create and share knowledge
  4. Fun framing devices to open delegates up possibilities and create positive associations with your ideas

Some games and activities combine multiples of these. Chances are, some are more aligned with your goals than others.

Step 3: Evaluate Ideas

After brainstorming you should have many more ideas than you could possibly fit into the session. I usually design a rough schedule that is about twice as long as the allotted time to start with, and then whittle it down. But how do you determine which ideas are best?

This is a good time to bring in others to “sanity check” your work. Can this be developed in time? Can it be facilitated by our staff? Are these activities appropriate to our audience? Do they strongly align with our goals?

Certain modules might sound fun, but end up as playful wastes. Sure, your delegates enjoyed themselves but did they learn anything? Did they generate knowledge? Will they take action because of it?

Other ideas have great potential, but logistically won’t work with a room of 50 or 100 guests. Save those for a future use.

I like designing sessions to have a logical flow, where the first module generates some outcome that can be used in the second module, and so on, but sometimes it’s best to create one longer experience or a few isolated ones. It all depends on your needs.

Step 4: Playtest

Yes, you have to test your designs! This is not that different from standard design or design thinking models, and can be done cheaply with simple supplies. Don’t spend a ton to print things professionally with great graphic design, because your game will likely change a lot before the day.

Mock sessions are the best way to do this, but you can (and should) also test individual modules internally. This is especially true if you are designing a simulation. Not only does your gamified conference session need to be fun, it also needs be legible both in terms of participants being able to understand what is actually expected of them and in making meaning clearly.

A complicated game-based simulation will need to be tested at least a dozen times. A simpler exercise might work with one or two tests and iterations. And once you’ve had enough experience designing and facilitating, certain exercises won’t need to be tested at all because they are in your muscle memory.

Testing is a great way getting practice facilitating and anticipating things that might go wrong on the day of your conference session. Each time you test, you should make changes to your design (better components, a clearer facilitation script, changes to the game system that better reflects reality, etc.). To accomplish all this you will need a good working group of testers who are willing to give unfettered feedback. This is game design 101, but you will need to know what feedback to accept and what feedback to ignore, especially since testers often contradict one another.

In the end, your workshop goals should be the ultimate arbiter of what changes get made to your session.

5. Finalize Designs

Once you are happy with your session, finalize the designs. This includes the graphic design and printing of the components, the final versions of the rules, and the facilitation scripts. It also includes the Run Of Show with clear expectation of when everything will start and stop, when to take breaks (if your session is longer than 90 minutes), and down to the minute schedules of each activity.

From here, all that’s left is facilitation. But that’s another article.

Sam Liberty is a game design and gamification consultant and has created gamified conference tools for the World Bank, World Wildlife Fund, International Red Cross, and others. He teaches game design at Northeastern University.

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Sam Liberty

Lead Game Designer at Sidekick Health. Co-Founder of Extra Ludic; Designing and teaching serious games for social change and real-world impact