Podcast 35: What makes a great learning game?

Welcome to this week’s, a question of gamification. This week, I’m talking about what makes a great learning game. My name is An Coppens. I’m the chief game changer at Gamification Nation, and also the show host for this show.

Serious games must still be fun

We are working a lot on learning related games, HR related games, and games for all kinds of marketing related business purposes. One of the key things we focus in is both gamification and serious games for business usage. We don’t just make games for fun, we want to make games that are fun, but also have a serious objective.

The definition of a serious game is a game designed with a serious objective in mind, in our case that is typically a business related scenario.

I want to make clear, when we say serious games, usually people think, they’re boring. To be honest, a learning game should still be fun to play. If it’s not fun to play, you are immediately causing a barrier for someone to make the most out of their learning experience. First things first, learning games should still be fun.

How do you make a game fun? There are many ways of doing that. Interaction is definitely a requirement. It differs very much from a training setup for eLearning, for example, where you just click next. A learning game should be making you think, making you realize that maybe I don’t know everything here and I need to explore, I need to find out, I need to discover what else there is to learn. Encouraging curiosity to delve deeper into the topic.

Learning by experiencing

What makes a great learning game? In my view, there are a couple of things. I believe a good learning game creates an experience where you are learning by doing, whether that’s the doing of whatever it is you need them to learn mimicked in a digital space or in a board game space where you go through the same motions and emotions of what a real scenario would be like.

For example, we made a cybersecurity board game where the players have to defend the company when a cyber attack happens. The game was created to help salespeople to sell more cybersecurity insurance and understand why a business owner should have such insurance. It’s a very specific objective. We created an experience, there was emotion in the game because people could lose their business, they could be fined a lot of money, they could lose a lot of money based on cyber attacks that happened. You couldn’t control the attack, but you could control your chosen response as a team sitting around the board trying to collaboratively defend the business. We mimicked real life scenarios.

Life like experiences work best for adults

With adult learners, in my opinion, the more closely it is linked to real life experiences, the more chance you have of it being a great learning game. Because you immediately provide the context that they need in order to have the ability to make sense of learning. If you think of our brain as a sense-making device, making sense of something is linking it to things that we can relate to, things that we understand. Complex topics for example, cybersecurity to a laymans person could result in responses like: I don’t know nothing about cyber and it may make them run the other way. No matter how well you explain it in your learning. Experiencing what happens, experiencing what can be done is one thing. Actually going through the emotions and experiencing an attack in a game from the same perspective as the prospective client. Also gives the same kind of feedback as if you would, have expereinced it first hand in reality. It may not be as extreme as what would happen in real life in case you were the owner of a business under cyber attack. Creating an experience that resembles real life, with similar choices and consequences, is one of the key ingredients in my view for a good learning game.

Appeal to the intrinsic motivation of the learner

The other aspects of good learning game, it’s about the intrinsic motivation of the learner. What is it that the learner needs to learn? What is it that motivates that person to learn? Most of us learn out of curiosity or out of necessity. Because we don’t know how to do something or because we are not able to do something, but we want to be able to do something. There are many reasons people learn but curiosity and how to are two good starting points. There are also people who are lifelong learners and they will always be thinking, what did I learn from this, what can I pick up from that person? No matter where they go, what they do, they are always learning.

For a learning game, you want to have a clear idea of what the learners motivation is? what is the kind of learner I’m trying to appeal to? Is it a curiosity learner? Is it, why do I have to do this learner? Is it somebody that’s on a career path and just needs that extra bit of certification to get there? Is it someone that is looking for the quick fix? Different reasons for learning will give you different game set ups and game constructs.

In some case, I would even advise against games in order to facilitate learning. For example, for the quick fix learner, don’t bother with a game, let them go on YouTube or find a checklist on how to do something. A game here would have only caused friction.

If however it’s more skills-based and more practice focused, then obviously a good learning game can help in that perspective.

Have clear learning objectives

The third key point is that great learning games should also have learning objectives. Learning objectives are things in learning design, which we always looked for at the start of a course. Learning objectives explain why should someone take the course and what will they learn throughout the course. They also define how we will know that they have learned it. Those are the sorts of key questions you want to answer before you start designing games. What do we need them to learn, to what level, and how will we know that they have learned it? That could be any topic, any given subject matter.

In the learning game, learning objectives are still important, on top of it being a good intrinsic and emotional experience to learn from. learning game design is more complex than let’s say designing a learning and eLearning course in my view. Great eLearning courses also appeal to some other reasons why people learn. The answer that also should be given is, is this essential for the end user? Is this an essential piece of learning?

In my view, a lot of learning related activities in the workplace are focused around things like compliance, tick box exercises. where every year you have to make sure that you inform your people on how to behave appropriately so the company doesn’t get fined. This happens in the financial sector. This happens in quite a few regulated environments where making sure that people do the right thing at the right time is part and parcel of the practice.

Will the learning game add value?

I would say learning games have a place, but only if they serve the purpose of getting the person to do the right thing and there being consequences. We’ve created gamified processes to let people test out of compliance training when they already know it. Because it’s repetitive in nature, it doesn’t mean that repeating it will make sure that you retain it better the next time. It often means that people switch off and will race to get through it, in order to make sure that box is ticked. Horses for courses.

If you want to make compliance training interesting, make it thought provoking and put people in scenarios where there is a gray area where the correct answer isn’t so clear cut, unless you know your stuff and where potentially wrong choices can be made. Because most companies and most employees don’t set out on purpose to do the wrong thing. Yet, circumstances may create situations where they make the wrong decisions and then they end up in a loop that they cannot get out of.

If you look at some of the big financial misconduct cases where fund managers went into a pattern of very risky investments and kept doing it because they thought they could find a way out of it. It’s those kinds of trends that you want to watch for it and those kinds of trends that actually would make a good learning game because you can test how resilient your people are in making sure that they don’t fall for trends like that and what to do in case that they feel they’re on a slippery slope on the downward curve for those things. It’s important and it’s part of what makes a good learning game. You need a good reason why the knowledge needs to exist, why it’s important and whether it actually is going to help your people or not.

Blooms taxonomy and learning games

The other thing that I often see when I look for information around learning games is that in game design people refer to “do” words, as what can the player do. This is obviously interaction related and giving the player things to do is part and parcel of any game. It’s what we design for.

A good use of a learning technology model in the learning game space is Blooms taxonomy. Some people hate it, some people love it, but if we’re looking for verbs that are ‘to do’ related, it provides you some good ideas and a good yardstick. Bloom’s taxonomy said there is a number of things that we want to encourage. We want to remember maybe facts, concepts, et cetera. You may want to understand and explain an idea, a concept, how something works. You may want to apply a specific new piece of information or a new skill to a situation. You may want to analyse how things compare and contrast, and which would be the better action or did we take the right course of action or not? Games provide a very good framework for that.

We give evaluations in games, true feedback, et cetera so evaluates and then to create a new piece of work or a new way of working or a new skill. If we look at the kind of things that Bloom’s says, that’s the six layers of the taxonomy, create, evaluate, analyse, apply, understand, remember are certainly the big headings, but you can actually find lists of verb on what people can actually do.

When I see game designers talk about, this is how you do it in a learning game and this is new because most people have not thought about that. Actually learning designers, teachers have been thinking about that for some time. Some of the verbs available to you come from these kind of frameworks like a Bloom’s, and there are others. If you’ve never heard of it, I’ll include a framework into the show notes so you can have a look at it and check your verb lists and see if they are actually useful to you or not. I think you should have a look at it. I also believe it’s pretty standard, pretty good practice to include them into learning game design.

Uncovering blind spots with games

What else should be in learning game design? It should provoke questions or raise awareness. I think a lot of the time, we don’t see, what we don’t know or we don’t know, what we do know. The game can help in bringing out either your blind spot or making obvious that you know something and that you can apply it in a specific situation.

We can use games for repetition, we can use games for new skills creation. Most games are opportunities to problem solve and they can be very in depth or they can be quick on the spur of the moment kind of problem solving. It’s a completely different ball game if we’re playing, for example, a role playing game around a sales scenario where the customer becomes increasingly unhappy with how we’re dealing with their situation and we’re not connecting, but the objective is to still make the sale. On the other hand, Tetris, where it’s different prepositions falling into a line and you have to drag them into the right place, it’s a quick decision, you know it or you don’t know it. It’s more of, let’s say, an assessment of how you know it or how well you know something.

In some of the role playing scenarios, you may have linked affects that have positive consequences, linked affects that have negative consequences, and I think they all have a place. In my view, there’s no game type that cannot be adapted to a learning space. We are working on a battle arena for learning, which is an interesting and a challenging concept to work with, but it is possible. We are making it work, and the game designers are stretching and flexing their design muscles to make sure that it fits and that it is also fit for purpose. The reason why we chose that specific game type is because our research told us that the marketplace that we are developing this for, the top grossing games was a MOBA game at a time of research, and most of the subsequent games in that markets are MOBA style games. We’re just jumping on the trend to help people learn in a much more creative way than they have been used to date.

What makes a good learning game?

To recap, it should be fun. It should be intrinsically motivated or focused on intrinsic motivation, why the learner learns, useful to the learner. It should provide feedback and it should focus on what to do and what to learn and ideally stimulate some thoughts and some critical thinking, as to how did I apply my skill or how do I learn better?

I hope that gives you an insight into my thinking around learning games and game based learning. If you have any questions in this space, feel free to ask, and we’ll be happy to help and answer your questions or work on your projects. Thank you for listening.


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