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Is gamification in e-learning missing the mark?

Will adding game mechanics to traditional e-learning help users to learn better, or is this just a passing fad? Find out more here.

Gamification in e-learning is everywhere. Take a look around learning trade shows or browse our industry magazines and you’ll see how common a talking point it is. But will adding game mechanics to traditional e-learning help users to learn better, or is this just a passing fad?

It’s the big question, does gamification in e-learning add any value? So let’s explore the potential for what it can do and whether it can change the way we design e-learning.

My lifelong obsession with video games has given me a interested view of this current trend. It feels like we’re onto something, but we haven’t quite grasped exactly what makes games compelling experiences in the first place.

If you ask most people why gamification is beneficial to e-learning they’ll normally follow the logic of…

    • Thought 1: Online training is necessary but boring; something we all have to do, but don’t necessarily enjoy
    • Thought 2: Games are fun; something that people want more of in their lives
    • Conclusion: Combining the two will create something necessary but fun

In-game training

Good games train you to get better at this by introducing easier challenges and ramping up the difficulty gradually. For years, people have been dying whilst playing Super Mario and slowly being coached up to the point of where they can master challenges that they would have no hope of attempting weeks before.So let’s look at the source, video games. If you think about how you play, video games train you to play the game you’re playing. You might not think about this, but no one can sit down with a video game controller for the first time and ace a game. People have to learn to avoid the angry turtles and not fall down the holes. They need to pick up the timing and to think about multiple things at once.

When it comes to learning games in e-learning, clearly the techniques that video games utilise to teach a player game-skills are worth taking note of.

Does a fun game make us learn?

Next question is, fun may be fun, but does fun make us learn? This is a complicated question which has been covered in great detail by others, but yes, I believe this to be the case.

If we think of fun as engagement, then having people engaged in an experience rather than passively clicking through it will undoubtedly create a better learning outcome.

But are fun games easy to make?

No, not at all. Companies that do video games well spend a lot of time and energy planning and developing games. Due to the popularity of App Store, GooglePlay and Facebook games we are inundated with video games. But that doesn’t mean they’re all good; many of them are rated poorly according to user and professional reviews.

So, to summarise so far, yes games are training tools, and added fun in learning will produce better results.

Making a good game is difficult, never mind a good game that improves learning outcomes in a corporate environment.

Not only that, we don’t just have the task of producing something fun, we also have specific learning material we have to cover as well. We can’t just ditch material or change it because it doesn’t work; the game must fit the needs of the training. Those lucky video game developers certainly don’t have this problem!

So, what’s the recipe for a successful learning game?

If you’re undeterred and willing to explore more deeply why games work, then we must ask: “What is a game and why do they evoke a positive response in players? What really makes a game go from OK to addictive?”

This is where things get interesting, because what constitutes a video game is actually very broad.

Here are some best selling video games along with their main objectives or game mechanics:

  • Minecraft, Rollercoaster Tycoon, Theme Hospital: Personalising a character or building; using your creativity to gather resources
  • Tomb Raider, Monkey Island: Using your actions to make a story progress, exploring environments
  • Super Mario, Call of Duty: Using your reflexes and accuracy to pass obstacles and managing resources like power ups and ammunition
  • Tetris, Candy Crush: Logical thinking puzzles, building a higher score
  • Wii Sports, Mario Kart: Competitiveness, using reflexes and accuracy to improve performance
  • Nintendogs, Pokemon: Collecting items and nurturing creatures
  • World of Warcraft, Team Fortress, Rock Band: Using teamwork to overcome an obstacle

The right mix for gamification success

Let’s compare this to some examples to see how e-learning is currently being influenced by games. What is the learning technologies industry borrowing from the original source?

Some cursory browsing would suggest that the main takeaways are:

  • Scoring – You got that question right, here’s 10 points. Get three correct in a row? A bonus 100 points.
  • Badges/Achievements – You completed the task/learned something new. Here’s a gold badge you can display on your public profile.
  • Leaderboards – You’re right near the top, but Bob in your team beat you this time. Want to try again?
  • Setting a challenge – Solve the problem, achieve something
  • Progression – You completed the first island, move onto the second

These features have started to be used more liberally since more companies started to gamify their e-learning. But many of these approaches are just superficial if they’re not being used in appropriate situations.

Badges, achievements and progression are all types of scoring systems, albeit spaced out differently or applied in different situations. At a basic level these scoring systems allow the game to tacitly say to a learner: “I can see what you’re doing. And what you’re doing matters.”

Leaderboards are signposting those scores up against each other and saying: “You’ve done really well compared to others” or “You’re capable of improving your score.”

Don’t get me wrong, these are powerful motivational factors, because people need to have their actions acknowledged and validated and having progress marked can make your learners feel empowered. But does this mean we should be using scoring and leaderboards in everything?

What’s the score?

There are scenarios where a scoring system would be an ideal fit. If we were training sales people to remember which washing machines touted which features, this would work extremely well. This is because although the salesperson may be motivated to learn their products better, having to remember dozens of product names with a tenuous link to their features will be boring because it would have to be done by rote; essentially the process of learning this won’t be interesting for most people.
However, by tapping into the competitive nature of a sales team by using scoring systems, you’re suddenly connecting them with each other and their learning in a way traditional e-learning could not.

And because testing this knowledge is simply a correct or incorrect answer, learners either know which features go with which product or they don’t. Therefore it’s fair to score them on this and it’s fair to compare their score with their colleagues.

In contrast, if we had a piece of learning which was focused on improving the sales technique of the people selling the washing machines, a leaderboard or scoring system is unlikely to drive engagement. Why?

As the skills involved in this are more soft-skills focused (and often involve some level of self-reflection), a scoring system might detract from the experience, especially as a relatively low number of decisions are being made compared to the product knowledge training. If you’re only making 4 actions (but these actions require a lot of thought and consideration), having a numerical score feels like a tacked on feature.

Don’t simplify the gamification concept

I’ve been in the predicament of explaining this to clients when they’ve requested ideas for a customer service training game. I’ve made suggestions along the lines of:

  1. Deliver a story of a shop owner needing to turn his shop’s fortune’s around or going out of business
  2. Show the customer’s response to what you say via changing facial expressions
  3. Get a ‘power up’ which allows you to see your customer’s thoughts
  4. Set the user various ‘missions’ based on the needs of the store, such as driving the sales of a higher value item or introducing them to a new promotional range

The response from the client was that it didn’t sound very gamey. However, when I asked what might make it feel a bit more gamified and they said “Maybe a high score and a leaderboard?”

We need to look beyond the conventional game aspects and begin to realise that learning games are more than that, and truly can transform e-learning and training delivery, when done well.

My biggest worry with the continued rise of learning games is that a focus on such a small number of the features that make games compelling, and a limited understanding of why they work, could mean that the industry is not producing gamified learning. Instead it’s just e-learning which is wearing a video game fancy dress costume.

Of course there are difficulties in producing a popular hit game, because people aren’t excited by just games anymore. Games need a reason to exist; they need to be bigger than being just a game when it comes to corporate training.

E-learning is great at taking elements from other mediums and applying it, but the danger is in forgetting why we’re utilising these elements in the first place. Don’t think of it as gamification. Think of it as new approaches to e-learning which compel your learners to learn and engage with training.

Want to find out more about gamification? See how it could benefit your organisation here.


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