When does gamification make sense, and how can game technology impact learning far beyond engagement and gamified apps? It’s not simply Call of Duty for learning; it’s more practical, and more effective. Virtual game technology for rapid skill acquisition is effective across the board in such areas as clinical training, sales training, customer service, patient coaching, or employee performance. When should you, when must you, move beyond gamification?

If you were to combine game technology with learning, what do you envision? Your first thought may be “gamification”—the “magic” or features from games that we sprinkle into a learning program to make it more engaging. Or perhaps you’re thinking of an “edutainment” learning game—a Call of Duty for learning! Is there more?

What is gamification?

When computer games were first created, designers developed “game mechanics” to emulate what motivated people in the real world: reward systems, badges, points, or trophies, all of which deliver a sense of progress and achievement.

Gamification aims to move these well-honed game mechanics into more generalized use within digital applications. The desired results are improved engagement, “stickiness,” and perhaps a bit more fun. With all these benefits, it’s no surprise that eLearning programs increasingly include gamification elements. Can game technology offer even more? Yes!

What types of game technology to use—knowledge vs. skill acquisition

If your learning objectives focus on acquiring knowledge, there are ample creative solutions in the eLearning space. Many apply gamification simply for engagement. The most basic engagement strategies use a game construct that learners will already know, such as Jeopardy!

However, these simple constructs will only go so far. They primarily exercise the learners’ recall of facts or ideas, and not much else. Game technology should be used to empower people to optimally apply knowledge in realistic situations, thereby help them make better decisions. As shown below, learners achieve optimal performance when they apply knowledge effectively in practical situations, driving the process of skill acquisition.

A chart displaying that learners achieve optimal performance through practical situations.

We know what works to acquire skills

If you want to train someone to apply a new decision-making skill, how would you do it? First you would probably make sure they have the requisite background knowledge. Then, you would start having them practice the skill, putting them in “safe” realistic situations, and coaching them to help them recognize the expert mental models you use to make those decisions. You would then provide more situations and continue the coaching process until the individual gains sufficient competence. 

The skill acquisition process is rooted in cognitive science.

These learning methodologies are quite intuitive and practical. Some key aspects that can be applied include:

  • Experiential learning, or “learn by doing,” makes sense here.
  • Situated cognition posits that the learning environment—the context—matters. The more realistic, the better.
  • Cognitive apprenticeship applies the ancient apprenticeship model to thinking, rather than physical skills. This methodology focuses on the importance of capturing and exposing expert mental models to the learner with continuous coaching.

Intuitively, we know this process works with one-on-one training. And it’s the way we all would want to learn: Practice in a safe environment with an expert mentor guiding us, so we don’t waste an inordinate number of hours learning by trial and error, or worse, making costly mistakes in real-life situations.

Transforming skill acquisition into a digital solution

How do we transform what works in live learning settings into a scalable, digital solution? The problem is that none of the approaches used in a live setting scale very well. There are only so many expert coaches, and people may be spread out across the country or the world—all resulting in more human capital and time- and cost-consuming travel.

An effective digital solution will emulate the live learning experience. As the first essential step, you need to develop and implement digital cognitive science principles, bringing them to life with technology. The more authentic the implementation, the more effective the digital solution will be. Game technology is uniquely suited to accomplish this task in an elegant, scalable way.

Building learning environments with game technology

When they hear “video game technology,” people often think it’s Call of Duty for learning. Since most training organizations do not have typical video game development budgets of $10 to $100 million, they must think a bit differently!

In addition, game engines are designed for entertainment, not learning. Significant adaptations are needed to deliberately integrate cognitive learning methodologies, so you will include only the game mechanics that reinforce skill acquisition. Exploring an expansive physical environment is not the goal. Rather, for most organizations, there exists the need to immerse the learner in realistic situations with virtual characters, in order to learn how to make optimal decisions. The designer can apply this skill acquisition process to many areas, including, as already mentioned, clinical training, sales training, customer service, patient coaching, and employee performance.

Why not just use video?

Of course, you can create conversations in video to show examples of what to do, and what not do. The challenges with video are two-fold:

  • First, from a learning perspective, it’s a passive experience. To emulate live training, learners want to feel like they are making decisions, experiencing consequences, and actively receiving coaching to recognize the optimal choices—essentially learning by doing. This doesn’t happen in a video format.
  • Second, video is very difficult to modify and change. Virtual characters on the other hand, are easy to manage, and always have open schedules! When designed well, you can easily update modules built with game technology.

Three attributes of skill acquisition in which game technology excels

With game technology, the designer can effectively transform attributes that accelerate skill acquisition in live training into a virtual experience:

  • Realistic situations. Creating virtual environments is the strength of game technology. The more the learner feels they’re “in it,” the more effectively their virtual experience will transfer to real-world behavior.
  • Feedback and expert coaching. At its most fundamental level, game technology is about responding intelligently to user actions. This makes it an ideal foundation for creating a learning engine.
  • Expert mental models. Since the technology works through algorithms, the designers can embed expert mental models in the choices and feedback they present to learners, allowing them to recognize and internalize expert patterns.

Choosing game technology to fit your goals

If your goal is to add more engagement to your eLearning for knowledge acquisition, gamification can provide the sizzle. However, if your focus is skill acquisition to enhance performance, then you can go beyond gamification and bring cognitive science learning methodologies to life with game technology. Virtual environments can emulate the challenges your organization is facing, so you can provide scalable training all year long, with less class time and fewer coaches. The more realistic the virtual experience, the more effectively the training will transfer to real-world performance.