E-Learning, ELearning, Game Design, Gamification, Gaming, Instructional Design, Training Design
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What We Can Learn From Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft

Welcome back! This week I’m looking at a game called Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft. I cannot tell you how much I love this game, I’ve been playing it for a little over 12 months and I still can’t get enough. I could continue writing about how amazing the game is, but… Actually that’s exactly what I’m going to do. There’s a lot we can take from Hearthstone for E-Learning, both from a design perspective and from an engagement perspective. So let’s hop back in, it feels good to do this type of post again….

What is Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft?

 Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft is a digital collectible card game (CCG) developed by Blizzard Entertainment. It is free-to-play with unlimited paid content, and limited free content. Announced at the Penny Arcade Expo in March 2013, the game was released on March 11, 2014. Hearthstone is available on Microsoft Windows and OS X systems and on Windows 8, iOS and Android touchscreen devices. New content for the game involves the addition of new card sets and gameplay, such as from the Goblins vs. Gnomes expansion pack and the Blackrock Mountain adventure. By September 2014, there were more than 20 million registered Hearthstone accounts and by January 2015, there were more than 25 million accounts.

What transferable elements make Hearthstone engaging?

There are plenty of engaging features of Hearthstone that are simply not transferable to E-Learning such as purchasing options so I’m going to focus on what we can use and how we can begin to think about these features in a learning capacity.

Leveling System


Ahh, the Hearthstone leveling system, the bane of my life for the past 2 months as I’ve tried to reach the fabled ‘legend’ status. Hearthstone uses a leveling system, but one that has a slightly different feel from traditional systems. When you play a ranked match in Hearthstone (this means that your score is saved against the universal leaderboard) you receive a star if you win. There are 25 ranks in the game (25 – 1) and by achieving a certain number of stars at each rank you move up a rank and your status within the game improves. Ranks 25 – 20 require 2 stars to advance, ranks 20 – 15 require 3 stars and ranks 15 – 10 require 4 stars and rank 10 – 1 require 5 stars. If you lose a game then you also lose a star, this actually helps to create a more engaging experience as you fight back to try and earn the star you lost. At the end of each match you are presented with a screen that shows your current rank and star total – another reinforcer that you are either close to moving up a rank or fighting to keep the same rank. What I’m interested in here is the way the ranking system is used. There is an opportunity to adopt a similar system in E-Learning courses. If you have a course that is made up of individual modules then you may be able to use a system like this – think about when a learner answers a question correctly they could gain a star or experience points to get closer to ranking up. At the end of the module you can display their final rank, you can also adopt a bonus approach to scoring so that when a learner answers three questions correctly in a row they receive bonus stars/experience – the possibilities feel endless.

1vs1 Competition

Hearthstone places you against a random opponent of a similar rank to you when you play a ladder match. Think about presenting an end of module quiz, you could show the score of a ‘random’ opponent (one you’ve created) before you begin. It will help to focus the learner on the task ahead by providing instant competition. We are spurred on by the prospect of beating a high score set by someone else, the user doesn’t have to know that this has been created, to them it looks like a challenge from another player. You can also just set a challenge at the end of the course, so when it’s time to complete the dreaded assessment you can bring in another player who will score alongside the learner giving them motivation to focus on their answers.


Something that doesn’t really fit into gamification too much apart from the fact that almost all games provide a moment of comic relief, even in the most tense situations. E-Learning could learn a lot from this and start tailoring content that has a funnier element. Hearthstone uses flavour text on cards to provide some rather funny lines, it doesn’t play a big part in the game but it certainly raises a smile when you read some of the creative blurb that has been written about the card. You can use cultural references or easter eggs to lighten the mood of your E-Learning.


Make the learner lose

The main reason people come back to Hearthstone time and time again is the leveling system. There is something very powerful about creating an environment where losing can actually be the root cause of engagement. We need to think more like this in the world of E-Learning, especially when applying gamification. Take this quote:

 “The worst thing a kid can say about homework is that it is too hard. The worst thing a kid can say about a game is it’s too easy.” ― Henry Jenkins

We need to think about ways in creating a harder learning experience if we truly want to see results in modern E-Learning. Gone are the days where we could simply re-vamp a PowerPoint presentation and host it online. If we are looking to create gamified solutions then the difficulty of that experience from a learner perspective also needs to increase. It’s not longer possible to just sit and expect a learner to breeze through a course, this isn’t engaging and it won’t help the learner in the long run. Now is the time to make a difference and push for more difficult content – from an SME perspective this should be music to their ears as we can finally begin to take on board their requests for more information. We want the learner to be challenged and as a result of this their engagement and retention levels will increase. The challenge we face as designers is ensuring that we have the knowledge to accurately and fairly push the learner in the direction we want them to go in.

 “Hard fun is, of course, the idea that we take pleasure in accomplishing something difficult: the joy in meeting and mastering a challenge. As a result, when someone is doing something that is hard fun, moment by moment it looks more like “work” than “fun,” but the net effect is pleasurable overall.” – David Williamson Shaffer

Think about it this week, how can you make your learner “lose” but feel as though they want to continue playing/learning? It’s a tough task but adopting a leveling system will help them to see the bigger picture and realise it’s not long till they reach the next level, the next reward, the next social recognition, the next power up, guide them through to your end goal and make the experience beneficial to them. One way I’ve found to do this is through scenarios. If the user selects the wrong scenario option, have the response that’s given to them affect the game such as a colleague reporting the conversation to a manager, something that recreates the feeling of ‘losing.’

 “A game is an opportunity to focus our energy, with relentless optimism, at something we’re good at (or getting better at) and enjoy. In other words, gameplay is the direct emotional opposite of depression.” ― Jane McGonigalReality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World

I’m going to take a look next time at the design elements we can take, there’s some really wonderful things that we can use when designing our projects from Hearthstone. Until then have a great week!



  1. Wonderful Article! I love hearthstone and its challenges. I am an avid gamer, I did a reflection on an MMORPG Guild Wars 2 and commented on their reward designing.

    When you mentioned about scenario, i was reminder of Cathy Moore articles and her approaches to action mapping. Hope I can share it with you too!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you very much Trustin. I did play the original Guild Wars and had a great time but I haven’t played the 2nd! Cathy Moore is fantastic and there are some brilliant ideas that she writes about, her scenario crafting workshops and blog posts are also excellent. I use a similar process to action mapping called Backwards Design, but I definitely draw on a lot of points that Cathy brings out in my meetings with SMEs. It helps to create a far more engaging and meaningful output.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment Trustin.


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