In November 2014, Certification Game held a hackathon with the intent of finding the best course design methodology for immersive and gamified eLearning. Participants came up with some very intelligent ideas that were valuable in the design process. Nearly as valuable was the participants’ collaborative brainstorming that identified general likes and dislikes in eLearning.

After combining the formal ideas with the brainstormed best practices, Certification Game identified key elements of engaging eLearning that would be the pillars for a gamified course design. Current industry trends, as well as tried and true methods, affirmed these pillars. The development team, which includes two veteran instructional designers and an experienced game developer, was able to implement the design pillars in our first course. Here’s the story: I hope it will be useful to others going down a similar path.

Best practices: Process and structure elements

It became evident that there are ways to promote engagement with process and structure elements that are completely independent from the content. Some of the best practices for structure and process we have identified and implemented are:

  • Creating short, manageable pieces of learning sets up learner engagement. Grouping learning objectives and inserting mini-games every few minutes facilitates sectioning the course. Because they are content-driven and serve to review the just-completed content, mini-games are a great place for a learner to pause or resume a course.
  • Templates gave critical structure to the course, ensuring consistency in content delivery. For example, templates included set-up and review slides, as well as tutorials.
  • Good editing enhances the flow of the course, and removes distractions and errors. Quality assurance and beta testing help make sure everything is edited properly.

Game-based learning vs. gamification: Some distinctions

The concept of learning games, sometimes called game-based learning, is not to be confused with gamification. Gamification is a huge buzzword in the industry right now, and for good reason. When implemented properly, gamification can drive engagement by effectively using extrinsic motivators. Learning games are games in the traditional sense, and have the learning objectives of the course integrated within the gameplay. Learning games can also be designed to simulate the real-world environment that the learner is preparing to enter.

The core of Certification Game’s eLearning courses are original, content-driven games, but the courses will use both learning games and gamification.

Learning games: Concepts and implementation strategies

Leaving gamification strategies aside, I’d like to highlight two lesser known concepts and implementation strategies for learning games that emerged as design pillars: simulations and mini-games.

Simulation games

Consider how NASA, the military, and commercial airplane pilots train for the high stress environments in which they work. They use high powered simulations. I cite those three partially because the organizations are well-known, people can immediately picture them, and the way they use simulations is familiar to many.

Simulations are useful in many different situations. They can be as informal as rehearsing a speech in the mirror, or playing out a scenario with colleagues.

Simulation games can do more than just provide an environment for making choices. Incorporating game dynamics and game mechanics that let the learner practice broader business skills, and using content directly from the learning objectives, provides a trifecta of learning happening simultaneously: making the choices that they will need to make in real-world situations, reinforcing broader business skills, and reviewing the specific content.

Mini games

These are very short games that only take 60 – 90 seconds to complete, and are mixed into the content delivery in order to break things up for the learner. The mini games also provide a review of what was just learned. They are games with simple rules and objectives, and are familiar to most people. Mini-game examples include Word Search, Hangman, popular television game shows, and jigsaw puzzles.

Mini games serve as good stop and resume points for the learner, and provide variety and content review. Instead of a short multiple-choice quiz, the mini games will provide a way for the student to review the content, make sure they understand it, and repeat the learning objectives.

Benefits of learning games

Learning games are powerful tools that are underutilized in adult learning. With more and more research from organizations such as the Games and Learning Society, managers as well as designers are starting to understand that games are not necessarily a waste of time. Serious learning can be, and is, even more likely to take place while playing games. Simulations let participants practice real-world application in a safe environment, and mini-games are effective for reviews.

Beyond using learning games to boost retention and engagement, and making sure to use best practices for the structure and flow of the course, the hackathon reinforced our conviction that social interaction is a must-have for immersive and entertaining eLearning. “Certify,” an in-person training concept innovated by Calvin Bench and Michael Crowther during Certification Game’s Austin Hackathon in November 2014, allowed for collaboration, promoted interaction among participants, and helped to stress the concept of social learning in the design. All learners should have support, and be able to contribute stories and clarify uncertainties to reinforce the learning objectives.

Social learning can be difficult to apply in on-demand learning, where there are no live instructors or classmates to interact with. Still, quality eLearning courses should surround the students with social resources. This is important since sharing relevant past experiences and asking questions are known to be great ways to facilitate better understanding. The value of having individuals, companies, and organizations teaching and learning from each other is tremendous. Some key elements of social learning are:

  • Learning from peers, and contributing first-hand knowledge
  • Using gamification elements such as badges and resources
  • Staying informed about the latest and greatest in their areas of interest


Aside from social learning, learning games, and best practices for eLearning structure, a final area for consideration is using multimedia to create immersive courses. Multimedia is widely used in eLearning today, so the following techniques will probably be familiar to you.

  • Video is useful in two ways. One way is in short clips that drive the story and help immerse the learner in the story’s environment. The other is in clips that elaborate on specific learning objectives and explain complexities in the content.
  • Music engages and immerses participants audibly. A specific example of this is that when the story has the learner enter an elevator, there is cheesy elevator music playing.
  • Graphics and design also come into play here. A design style that is not overly branded keeps things interesting and not repetitive. Another advantage of this is the ability of the design style to support the learner’s recall of content by using the theory of chunking. By having a different background for each group of learning objectives, people are more likely to chunk information together, and therefore retain more of it.

The long, long road of game development

It has been a long development road for Certification Game since the hackathon in Austin. Much like the hackathon’s winning idea (“Trial and Error”), the development process has been one of testing solutions and refining ideas. The hackathon was highly valuable and jumpstarted the design process. With crowd-sourced ideas from different design and development professionals, Certification Game could be sure of having the current pulse of the eLearning community.

That pulse led us to identify certain important aspects for course design. In particular, design aspects such as having a consistent structure, implementing content driven games, fostering social learning, and applying immersive media techniques proved to be pillars for the course to stand on. Those pillars were formed from specific ideas, as well as general concepts. We believe that finding creative ways to implement the design pillars supports our efforts to find our way to gamified eLearning courses.