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Teach User-Focused Design with the Core Engagement Loop

By showing how a game-design concept applies to real life, Professor Chris Bennett helps edtech students create engaging online learning experiences.


Chris Bennett

Game Designer in Residence, Peace Innovation Lab at Stanford University, California

BA in Leadership and Organizational Studies

The Sims. Diner Dash. Tiger Woods PGA Tour. These are among the best-known gaming franchises, and Chris Bennett was a force behind each one. He spent almost 20 years making video games, starting off at the bottom as a game tester and rising to become a game designer, creative director, and franchise producer. To put it in more educational terms, Bennett was creating curriculum for players to experience, a rubric so that they knew when they were succeeding, and scaffolding so that they could learn step-by-step.

Now Bennett brings that real-world experience to Stanford University engineering and graduate-level education students, helping them create online learning tools that not only help users learn but also evoke positive emotional responses in the process.

“Once I was watching a little girl play one of my games. She had her hand on the mouse, and her mom was helping her—but she wanted to do it! Meanwhile, her grandmother was throwing encouragement in there, even though she didn’t completely understand,” he laughs. “I was watching three generations of the same family have fun together. I realized: This is it. I want to connect people.” As an instructor, he wants to help his students do the same.

In his Engineering Education and Online Learning course, Bennett shows his students how game-design thinking can spark such engagement. Here, students learn the principles behind game-design thinking, and the course culminates in their creation of a functioning piece of educational technology.

Most of them have enjoyed playing video games, of course. But in these lectures, Bennett is able to show them the underlying design principles of creating a compelling game.


“The core engagement loop is a way to take the tools and frameworks that we use in making games and use them in other settings to benefit people. It becomes a lens you can use to view the world.”

— Chris Bennett

Course: EDUC 391 Engineering Education and Online Learning

Course description: A project-based introduction to web-based learning design. In this course, we will explore the evidence and theory behind principles of learning design and game-design thinking. In addition to gaining a broad understanding of the emerging field of the science and engineering of learning, students will experiment with a variety of educational technologies, pedagogical techniques, game-design principles, and assessment methods. Over the course of the quarter, interdisciplinary teams will create a prototype or a functioning piece of educational technology.

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An overview of the core engagement loop

This essential principle is the heart of Bennett’s teaching. It is a tightly linked, four-step thought process: Assess, Decide, Act, Reward. Ideally, this loop is repeated throughout a game or learning tool to keep users engaged.

For example, consider the popular game Mario Kart. First comes assessment, when a player gathers information: What is happening around me in the game? Next comes decision-making: Should I speed up or slow down? Take a familiar route or a new one? Third is the action itself, based upon the options available. Finally, there is a reward: This usually includes an extrinsic (external) reward, such as zooming into first place and earning a trophy, and an intrinsic (internal reward), which is the feeling you get when you cross the finish line.

This sort of intrinsic motivation is crucial to sustain engagement in a game and keep players hitting the start button again and again. But Bennett wants to show students that the core engagement loop can be leveraged far beyond game design—by everyone from Starbucks to Fitbit to Prius.

Seeing the core engagement loop in real life

Bennett often uses Starbucks as an example of the core engagement loop “come to life.” In this scenario, instead of “players” there are “customers” who are stepping into a cafe instead of a virtual car.

First comes assessment: What are the menu offerings? Then decision-making: Do I want an iced coffee? Then action: Place that delicious order. And finally, the reward: At Starbucks, this includes the physical beverage (extrinsic reward) and the internal (intrinsic) validation that comes from the Starbucks experience. Starbucks customers enjoy the experience at their cafes for more than just the beverage itself: It can also include the comfort of their spaces, the camaraderie of the staff and patrons, and even identifying one’s self as a Starbucks customer. This is a big reason why Starbucks is so successful at luring repeat guests, he explains: Each cafe is dedicated to producing the same high-level product and experience every time, thereby evoking that important emotional response. The intrinsic rewards always go much deeper than any extrinsic rewards.

The Core Engagement Loop and Sexual Harassment

Bennett frequently explores how the core loop is enacted in real-life situations—sometimes with difficult topics. He even authored a blog on the core loop of sexual harassment.

“I’m trying to remove the core engagement loop from the constraints of a game,” Bennett says. “It works everywhere, as a way of observing. It’s a way of deconstructing other experiences and other products.” It is also, as he has shown, a way to create positive emotional experiences for customers.

Bringing the core engagement loop to life

For many students, the core engagement loop is a wholly new concept. To keep students engaged in the engagement loop, so to speak, Bennett uses an engagement loop of his own, putting them in charge of assessing, decision-making, and taking action—then letting them reap the rewards.

Talk about loops in small groups

Bennett divides his class into teams of three or four and has them spend no more than 10 minutes working on an example of the core engagement loop that exists in the real world. The groups must break out the four components of each loop.

Work backwards from the rewards

A reward is what motivates users to come back for more. In this exercise, it can be beneficial for students to first identify a reward in an engagement loop, and then work out the other pieces of the loop. To that end, Bennett asks students to identify whether the identified reward is extrinsic or intrinsic, then think about what that means for the user experience—meaning both what do users/customers receive, and how do they feel when they receive it?

Make it more real with role-playing

Students may have a hard time identifying the core engagement loop in the real world—they may only be thinking of design, not user experience. But, he tells them, “Design is driven by emotion.” Or it should be.

So Bennett encourages each of the teams to act out an engagement loop—say, the Starbucks example—as though they are the end user. This gets them out of the “creator” mindset and into the “user” mindset.

Put students in the driver’s seat

At the lesson’s conclusion, Bennett invites one or two groups to the front of the class to explain their loop on a whiteboard for a teach-back.

This technique shifts the student mindset from learning to teaching, if only for a few moments. It also engages a peer mindset in which students need to actively listen to their classmates, and then share their own take on the knowledge. And finally, it creates a different energy in the room—“a buzz, if you will, that acts as a sorbet before going on to the next course of learning,” Bennett explains.

Keep circling back to the loop

Throughout the rest of the term, as students are developing their online learning tool projects, Bennett encourages them to remember to focus on their end users’ experience—the core engagement loop—instead of rushing to a final prototype.

As part of that process, he asks that students break down their prototype experience screen by screen to pinpoint each moment of the core engagement loop. This helps them stay focused on the user experience, because that person is (like Mario or Waluigi) the driver of the loop.

“I think a bias that we run into, especially with engineering students, is that the drive to digital is a strong one. There is a greater comfort level using and creating digital experiences. After the first two classes, I see students working on nice artwork. They’re like, ‘Look at these great animations we’re working on!’ Of course, I think it’s awesome, but they also need to value the journey,” he says.

Check your comfort level

Educators considering teaching the core engagement loop might feel uncomfortable with it because it is so new.

“People might wonder, ‘Where can I read more about this? They assume it’s something they can [find] in the Harvard Business Review,” Bennett says. “I’m teaching stuff you might read about in HBR two or three years from now. If you’re not comfortable with something that isn’t in a book, this might not be right for you.”

However, there is gratification when, at unexpected times, Bennett sees the rewards of his teaching.

“I came into class one day and saw that someone had drawn the core engagement loop on the whiteboard and explained it to a classmate on their own,” he says.


Bennett feels it is important to remember the underlying theme built into his (and any educator’s) engagement with students: “Think about the emotion you want to elicit to help your students engage more deeply with the learning,” he says. “How do the extrinsic and intrinsic rewards in your teaching support the emotional outcome? How does your teaching process support the emotional outcome? How can teachers elicit and reinforce the love of learning?”

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