Game elements often ignored by learning pros

Gamification has been a buzzword for a few years now but the success of Pokemon Go has, inevitably, led to a raft of ‘what can L&D learn from Pokemon’ articles whilst the even more inevitable backlash has already begun (Should employers clamp down on Pokemon Go?).

1 – Reflections on elements ignored

Electronic gaming has been a huge part of my life (at least if we use ‘time spent’ as a measure) since my brother got his C64 many years ago.  Having, therefore, played games for 30 or so years it is with interest to see a few points missed by many:

  1. Gamers are not one-size-fits all.  Like with other media, gamers are not a universal group.  There have been long running cultural differences between, for example, some Japanese-focused releases versus the American/Europe market based on real (and presumed) preference.  Opera and pop fans are not normally lumped together as ‘music fans’ but even though there are differences, for example those who primarily aim for quick fixes versus being happy to play the long game, gamers often are.  Where there is a more widespread group, such as mobile phone playing commuters they’ve been seen as the exception “casual gamers” rather than what they actually are, the majority (in terms of everyday use as Pokemon has highlighted).  What this means for learning is what we already know – we need to personalise and tailor to the audience.
  2. Games are not one-size-fits all.  Yes, there are some standard elements of games (see “What is a Game”) and there is a science behind gamification (check out Yu-Kai Chou) based on a number of neurological and psychological elements.  However, sports games versus grand-strategy games, for example, represents a decision between, say, a 10 minute commitment versus 100s of hours.  What this means for learning is again what we already know but often fail to implement – activities need to be correct for the desired outcomes, not just fitting into a set time limit based on what regulators, room booking systems, technology or other limiter puts upon us.
  3. Ultimately it is an industry, not just a game.  Games even have a CrashCourse series on the evolution of the market and related topics.  Too often learning is a breed apart from the business and ‘gamifying’ to make things more interactive/addictive is likely to just make this even more obvious.  ‘Serious games’ should be able to avoid this, others need to be used appropriately for your culture.
  4. Effectively game entertainment relies on neurology/psychology.  Gaming can become a very real addiction.  It is not some kind of magic Greek fire that the learning department needs to discover the recipe for for our own means, instead it is about making things compelling which learning pros have traditionally had mixed success with.
  5. Gaming is often to ‘zone out’.  Yes there are engagement design decisions but often a game is taking the place of a book, TV, exercise, etc. as a way to unwind and relax.  The game playing becomes almost subconscious.  The challenge here is to take a new decision when thinking about learning – when is non-engagement okay?  This shouldn’t be a lack of engagement in the way that, say, repeated ‘next’ clicking in an e-learning module creates but instead something where people are able to learn even if they are not necessarily making notes, discussing with peers, etc.  Podcasts are an obvious route to support this, for example by allowing people to pick up key corporate messages whilst on their commute.

2 – Key things to take from gaming

So what else would I say learning can learn from games?  Well there are obviously plenty of people who have written and researched on this topic.  I would particularly highlight:

  1. Be entertaining.  Tackle Netflix, Pokemon and the rest via edutainment.  Podcasts and some other educational media have achieved relative success in this.  In comparison workplace learning remains, too often, a chore.  Narrative, where appropriate, can be key in tackling boredom…remember even a mega budget Hollywood blockbuster can flop if people do not engage with the characters, story and/or special effects.
  2. Be non-linear.  Allow the learner choices, for example, I can lead my medieval kingdom in Crusader Kings down unlimited paths whilst my eLearning is too often a locked down exercise.
  3. Design for “one more go”.  We want deep learning experiences to be addictive or raise a challenge that people want to tackle.  Here we need to balance carrot and stick and this aligns with the Stella Collins’ presentation at the CIPD exhibition last year.
  4. Support around the experience.  Many games do not expect you to become a pro via game-time alone; magazines, user guides and websites have been used to provide tips, cheats and walkthroughs.  Use all the communication and information management tools at your disposal, think beyond ‘learning’ solutions for your blend.
  5. Don’t be cheesy.  Fixing learning into a model such as a car racing visualisation isn’t engaging – you are almost certainly using animation without emotion, chance, risk, etc.  You can of course be ironic in this but it would depend on your culture if people would would like that, for example, I’m trialling putting funny Easter eggs into my e-Learning and seeing what the reaction is – inevitably some people like them whilst others think I’ve lost the plot, ultimately we’re all different…see point 1.1!

Author: iangardnergb

My name is Ian Gardner and I am interested in various topics that can be seen as related to learning, technology and information. To see what I am reading elsewhere, follow me on The Old Reader ( and/or Twitter (@iangardnergb).

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