8 Game Design Lessons For Learning Designers
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Game Design Lessons For Learning Designers To Engage Your Learners

Much has been written about the suitability of games for learning, and how they improve engagement and lead to more effective learning. However, I’m not talking about adding game elements to our courses here. Instead, I’m referring to the lessons that Instructional Designers can draw from games, and what we can borrow from them to make our learning solutions more valuable.

Here are 8 that I could think of:

1. Games Put Action First

Enter any game, and you are immediately plunged into action of some sort. It could be choosing your avatar or flag, selecting the level of difficulty, setting goals, or immediately getting into the challenge of the game itself.

On the other hand, a course typically starts with a welcome and then an introduction, followed by objectives telling the learner what they’re going to learn. Which is then probably followed by a senior person from the company expounding the importance of the content, and so on. We then throw in some background information to get the learner ready for action before putting them in front of an activity. By the time the learner gets to the action, they’ve already lost interest and wandered off in their minds.

What can we do about this?

Try starting with an interesting and meaningful challenge as soon as the learner enters the course. It can be a puzzle or a thought-provoking question, or a problem that the learner is supposed to solve. The course can then go on to talk about the content that will help them solve the problem, thus keeping learners engaged throughout the duration of the course.

2. Games Quickly Onboard Users

While games are quick to throw players into action, they are careful not to frustrate players with too little guidance. Most games have a swift onboarding process that explains the rules and gets players up to speed regarding what is where, what to do, etc.

How can we borrow this in a course?

Taking very little time, point out any rules and navigational elements that learners should be aware of. Explain where they can find resources in case they need help. Also, make this help available for learners to access any time they need it.

3. They Set Challenges At The Right Level Of Difficulty

Games are all about action and very little about content. They move players from challenge to challenge, starting really simple, and gradually increasing the level of difficulty as players progress through the game.

The key here is to start with a challenge so simple that it makes a person think “Oh I can do this easily.” Take, for example, a game like Candy Crush Saga. It involves matching candies of the same color. Now, who can’t do this? But after a while, you will notice that it gets gradually tougher to win. And that’s what keeps players hooked, even addicted, to the game even after hours and hours of playing.

This is called the Goldilocks Principle, which refers to setting tasks at the correct level of difficulty. If it continues to be too easy, the player loses interest and moves away. If it is too difficult, they lose motivation and move away. So, the idea is to start easy to gain the player’s attention and interest, and gradually increase the level of difficulty as they progress (to keep up with the expertise they are building in the game).

This can be easily replicated in a course. First, find out the level the audience is at (what do they already know about the topic, what is their background, etc.). Then start with an activity that’s simple enough for this audience. And as they learn concepts and move through the course, increase the level of difficulty to keep them engaged.

4. Games Give Players Autonomy

Ever come across a game that points out exactly where you’re supposed to click and in what sequence? Yet we tend to do this all the time in our courses. We predefine the sequence of content and force learners to go through it in a linear fashion, we lock navigation and don’t allow them to move forward until they’ve seen all of the content on a screen, and so on. All with good intentions, of course. We want to make sure the learner ‘gets it’ as fast as possible. We want to ensure that they don’t fail or make mistakes.

But as numerous studies have shown, this is not a very effective approach. So what can we do to provide more autonomy to learners in our courses?

Allow exploration rather than forcing a linear path of progression. I do agree that a sense of structure is sometimes required to keep learners from getting lost. In that case, we can present a recommended sequence and then allow them to decide how they want to go about taking the course. We can also avoid locking navigation or mandating, in any other way, that they have to complete certain activities before moving forward. If we make the content useful and interesting and then trust learners to pay attention, they are sure to respond in kind.

5. Games Show Players Where They Stand

This is both in terms of a player’s individual progress in the game, and also where they stand with respect to other players. All games typically use these indicators to motivate players to stay in the game and play more.

In a course, the individual indicator can be as simple as a progress bar that fills up as the learner moves through the content and activities. This will give them an idea of how much more ground they have to cover to complete the course.

Implementing an indicator of progress/performance vis-à-vis other players is trickier. We need to carefully consider whether the element of competition will motivate learners, or if it will have the opposite effect.

6. Games Make Mundane Tasks Sound Interesting

If I told you that you need to spend hours on end making tiles ‘fit’, how eager would you be to do it? Yet this is what we do in Tetris. In fact, people get so addicted to the game that a syndrome has been named after it.

I’m sure the content (any content) we teach is more interesting than simply making tiles fit. While there are many ways to make it even more appealing to learners, one surefire approach is to throw a relevant challenge at them. Human beings love a good challenge, and if it’s going to keep them engaged in the course and help them learn better, then we should use more of it.

7. They Use High Stakes

Games that use a storyline/narrative typically have goals that are larger than life. Save the planet. Rid the world of poverty. Feed the city. Shoot for the stars. You get the drift. The actions being performed by players might seem mundane (plant sunflowers, shoot pigs, dig trenches) but they usually lead up to something big.

Can we do something similar in our courses? Sure. How about “win over the customers in your conversations to win the election”? Or “find the sales leads hidden in your software to unlock sales opportunities worth millions of dollars”? These may not be as epic as the ones used in games, but they are definitely more ‘worthy’ of pursuing than simply talking to a customer or learning an application.

8. Games Keep People Coming Back For More

Games are typically never designed for playing just once. They have hooks built in to keep players coming back repeatedly. Though the game and its rules remain the same, each player’s experience is unique compared to that of others. Not only that, when the same player returns to the game a second time, their experience is different from their first visit, thus making it a fresh new one. This is either because the game is designed in such an exploratory fashion that players can achieve the same target in myriad different ways, or an element of chance (like a roll of dice) puts a fresh spin on the experience each time the player enters the game.

To imitate this freshness in our courses, we can present activities picked randomly from a series of activities. Let’s say the learner needs to complete 5 activities to complete a course. Each time they begin, they will be presented a different combination of activities, picked randomly from a set of 15 activities pre-built and programmed into the course. This certainly would mean extra work (time, budget, etc.) for the learning designer, but imagine the possibilities. If the activities are interesting, learners would not just complete your course once, but they would return to it at least a few times to see what other activities the course has to offer! Isn’t that what we typically want?

So, what have I missed? What other strategies/approaches can we borrow from game design to make our courses more engaging for learners?

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