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The Anatomy Of Good Gamified eLearning

You can’t go to a learning conference these days without seeing a session or ten on gamification; it’s becoming more common to be asked to “add gamification” to a learning experience. But what is ‘gamification’ and how can it help you to design great elearning?
The Anatomy Of Good Gamified eLearning

The Good Gamified eLearning

We’ve long known that playing games can help people to learn a well as being fun, that’s why we play games with our kids, and it’s not a new concept to bring games into instructional design. Disney coined the phrase ‘edutainment’ back in the 1940’s and ‘gamification’ was probably first used by Nick Pelling, creator of games for the BBC Micro and Commodor in the 1980’s. Kevin Werbach of Wharton offers a definition for the term ‘gamification’:

“The use of game elements and game design techniques in non-game contexts”.

We’ve seen an explosion in ‘gamification’ in the way firms seek to engage customers (think Nike) and the iOS and Android platforms have opened up a world of apps which naturally employ gaming elements into their feature lists. But in our sphere, that of learning and development, the notion of games design elements in what we do has been around for a fair while now. It’s a long time ago, relatively speaking in digital terms, that Marc Prensky penned his first book, Digital Game-based Learning.

We knew back then what the core principles were in games design that were beneficial for instructional design. I can boil them down to just four:

  • Engagement
  • Challenge
  • Progression
  • Accomplishment

In all of these, the game changer, (pardon the pun!) was that the learner was put at the centre of the approach, in other words, the design centered around the learner like a game centers around the player. After all, if the game isn’t about the player, there’ll be no one playing it.

So, first rule of great gamified eLearning is: learner centricity. This makes sense when you consider that it’s long been the Holy Grail of both the corporate and education sectors to put learning successfully online. It reduces lead-in time, costs, barriers to access, and - in theory at least - frees the learner from the tyranny of prescribed instruction. Putting instructional materials online often (though by no means always) means no instructor.

We can learn a lot from games design that provides a framework for making online learning experiences successful for learners when there’s no instructor present. For example, when was the last time you saw little Jimmy digesting the How To manual before getting stuck into the latest stage of League of Legends?

Intrinsic in any gaming software is good onboarding that orientates the gamer into how to play the game with a few helpful practice techniques. The game starts at an easy level, making it impossible to fail. And if you do fail, it gives you some more tips about what you’re not doing and drops you back in to have another go. Once you’ve mastered that bit, the game moves on, providing more challenges and building the gamer’s skills on those that he or she learned in the prior stage. All these features are in response to the fact that in eLearning, the instructor’s not there. Check out Plants vs. Zombies to see how these techniques are deployed.

The challenge and achievement in game design is a blueprint for the type of eLearning that engages and fulfills learners.

In addition, gamification focuses on short-term, achievable goals with clear rewards and provides a framework for learning new material. Duolingo provides a great example of learners setting their goals and working to the next level. What’s more, games give instant feedback. This is something we do all the time in good eLearning, fostering activity and formative feedback loops, which provide challenges to learners and then adaptive feedback on their response. If you think about a well-formed quiz interaction, this is what happens: you pose a challenge with a question, elicit a response and then give feedback on:

  1. how the learner did,
  2. what he or she could have done better, and
  3. what the next challenge is to help them improve.

Good learning design includes all of the gamification features I’ve just discussed:

  • Plenty of formative assessment giving you feedback on how you’re doing
  • If you’re not doing so well, guidance in what you can do to improve
  • Helping you get good at something by providing lots of opportunities to try again
  • Providing help when you need it
  • Being adaptive to your learning pace, or providing non-linear pathways that open up new and more difficult challenges that further your progress though the course
  • Recognizing achievement, either through intrinsic or extrinsic rewards – getting to the next level, collecting badges or trophies.

There’s not much here that’s news to the ear of a good instructional designer. But great gamified eLearning does look different from your usual click and read offering, and that’s perhaps because there’s now recognition that good gamified eLearning benefits as much from the input of the creative designer as it does from the instruction design and the programming. More and more, eLearning teams are looking outwards for animators, graphics experts and creative designers to come on board to bring the visual and interactive design skills that are common place in games design.

Meanwhile there are eLearning authoring tools available, such as Elucidat, which can help you to bring all the skills together to build gamified eLearning with the minimum effort using a wealth of tried and tested gaming techniques and features. There are also resources to help you; check out this free book on gamification and industry experts’ views and opinions

So in summary, to create a great gamified eLearning course you need to consider; learner centricity, engaging your learner, providing intrinsic motivation as well as extrinsic (a sense of accomplishment), with well designed challenges and rich feedback, as well as opportunities for learners to take different pathways through the course.

Was this post useful? Do you have any examples of great gamified eLearning you can share? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below. There is also a showcase featuring some examples of great gamification designs in eLearning which you can browse at Elearning Superstars.

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