Using abstraction to create learning games

Taking away what distracts learners to leave them with the core experience

Terry Pearce
5 min readMar 25, 2024

Let’s say you’re creating a learning game around crisis management. You want to explore ways of managing a crisis in an organisation, for example, a hospital or utilities company experiencing a threat to providing their service.

But how much detail should you put into this? Should you try to simulate every aspect of a crisis? Or should you simplify things and focus on key elements — and if you do, how can you make sure the experience is still useful? How can you make sure that people are still learning the key things they need to learn?

You’re really thinking here about abstraction: reducing or consolidating detail, to better represent it in a game. All games abstract real life to some extent. The game Pandemic, for instance, represents the outbreak of disease across the globe by means of cubes, cards and tracks, to represent the spread of disease and efforts to fight it.

Abstraction is about focusing on the essence

Videogames and board games often focus on building a city or civilisation: games like Sid Meier’s Civilization series, the Crusader Kings series and the board game Tapestry all do this well. But each one focuses on different elements to different degrees.

Is the military represented? As individual units, as armies, or as an abstract value for strength? Are individual technological advancements represented? Broken down to what level? In how much detail is the advance of technology represented? There are no right answers to these questions, except in the sense that the answers determine what the players focus on.

Give depth and detail to the representation of military struggle and you ask players to focus on this and make decisions around it. The same applies to technology, resource management or the happiness of the population.

Another way to think of the shift from detailed, direct representation to some level of abstraction is that it’s about focusing on the effect of what happens, rather than what actually happens. If you want learners to explore the impacts of various crisis decisions on people’s stress levels, you might consider abstracting stress levels by having them represented by some kind of value, token or track.

Abstraction allows us to curate the player experience

But why would you do this? Why take something complex, like the stress impacts of decisions and reduce or simplify it?

It allows you as the designer to focus the player’s attention. Real life is messy and causes and effects are sometimes very difficult to tease out. It’s not always easy to tell if somebody is stressed. If they are, is it because of your decision? Or because of something outside work? If different individuals’ stress levels increased differently, is it to do with their individual differences, or the fact that your decision affected the work of one more than the other?

In a game, we can remove the messy, the distracting and the uninteresting and focus learners on particular decisions or elements of decisions and specific chains of cause and effect. This also makes it possible to include complex, lengthy things — like the rise of civilisations or the development of organisations over the years — that we wouldn’t normally be able to see in a learning environment. We can walk through these things more quickly and in a way that’s manageable.

While it might seem that abstraction is just about losing detail and is a necessary evil in translating complex topics into a game, it can actually add focus. By reducing a complex situation to its essence, we promote that essence to a central place in the learning experience. We label it as the signal and cut away the noise.

You can abstract almost anything

You might consider abstracting anything that is messy, detailed, cumbersome or full of ‘noise’ and hard to process. Here are some examples of things that games often abstract:

  • Unit size, as individuals, squads or platoons, or individuals, teams or departments
  • The flow of time, as turns or decision points
  • Resources such as money or physical components, such as tokens, numbers or tracks
  • Happiness, or morale, as a number or track
  • Skills, as a score that will lead to a chance of success (e.g. roll less than it)
  • Chances of success, as a percentage
  • Goals, as points or points in a certain area
  • Options, as a list of possible actions
  • Time and energy, as action tokens or a limited number of actions
  • Locations and geography, as an abstracted map with simplified areas

The list could go on but this may give inspiration for other things and you can find more inspiration wherever you find games.

One idea is to abstract at a level appropriate to the ‘command level’, in other words, there will be more abstraction of on-the-ground, operational details if your players are making decisions across an organisation. Less if they are ‘playing’ people on the ‘front lines’.

Ask yourself what you care about

Another way to look at abstraction is that for any situation, there’s a what, why, how, when, where and who. Which do you care about and more importantly, do you want your learners to care about? Is it about who they should be in that situation? Or is it about how they should go about things? Or exactly what they should do from a range of options?

Whatever you want them to care about, you can make into a key part of things by abstracting away other, less important things and abstracting the key thing to an appropriate level of detail that brings it to the fore and makes decisions around it focus on the essence. For instance, if the why is important, you might want to include elements of debate and justification in decision-making. If less so, maybe you can ‘abstract away’ such considerations and leave them with pragmatic choices about optimising for certain outcomes.

Whatever you choose to focus on, remember that meaningful decisions are often the centre of good games, so think about those decision points for players: what are they deciding between? Is it at the right level of abstraction?

Your debrief can bridge the gap between the representation and reality

Of course, if you feel — or think your learners will feel — that some of what’s lost in abstraction is important, that’s fine. Real life is messy and complex. It’s not always practical or beneficial to represent all of that complexity in a game, but you can talk about it in the debrief afterwards.

Ideas like ‘well, that was interesting but real life throws this extra complexity into the mix, so what do we do about that?’ are ideal candidates for a debriefing discussion after a learning game. If you don’t abstract these ideas, your learning game may never get off the ground and there’s no experience to debate.

If you use abstraction and people then debate the differences between the representation and reality, that’s great. Your learners had an experience and are now comparing that experience to their reality and asking how it fits and what it changes. That’s a pretty good definition of some of the key steps in how we learn.



Terry Pearce

A consultant and designer in game-based learning and gamification for learning. Go to for more.