Deborah Thomas, president of SillyMonkey, has an inspired solution for insipid compliance training: Serious learning games. But why limit yourself to compliance training? Serious learning games—and well-constructed gamification—can enhance any eLearning.
“Games are exciting because they use people’s core compulsions,” Thomas said. These include a compulsion to collect things, which, she said, is what drove the appeal of Pokémon Go. People also like to organize things, as illustrated by the appeal of Bejeweled. It’s possible to build these compulsions into learning games, so long as it’s meaningful and ties in with the learning objectives, Thomas said.
Playing to these compulsions helps hook learners and draw them into the game; it also reinforces the learning. “They’ll play until they get it right—and that’s what helps us embed the learning,” Thomas said. “People don’t mind failing when it’s fun and interesting like that.”
The serious game framework also leans on the element of story. A great story engages learners’ attention while teaching content, procedural steps, sequencing, prioritizing—whatever the needed lessons are. “Having a story that people can connect to—that means having a protagonist that somebody cares about, and building in the back story,” she said.
Harness the power of storytelling
Building training around stories doesn’t require a huge budget or massive manpower. “A small team can create a good story—and we’ve got the topics for it,” in compliance training, Thomas said, whether you’re creating safety training or teaching people the HIPAA rules or to recognize and prevent harassing behavior. “We can build stories on that stuff so easily.”
“We want people to be intrigued by what we’re telling them, and adding stories is so fun to do anyway. I think it helps us as designers,” Thomas said. “We get more excited about what we’re designing and developing, and then the learner gets excited about it as well. It’s win, win, win.”
Addressing resistance to games, gamification
Many in the industry don’t like the idea of using games or gamification in eLearning. Thomas pushes back against that attitude. “It’s not fair to give gamification a bad rap,” she said. Any approach can be poorly implemented. “We have lots of examples of poorly designed instructional learning and videos…”
And badly executed gamification: “Poorly designed gamification is when you take the course, and then you add some fun questions to it. You stop the learning to ‘now let’s ask some questions and do it in a fun way,’” she said. “If you have a training course that’s already developed, and you want it to be more interactive, then we add gamification to it. It can be done well. But you really do need to tear the course apart a little bit to embed the game elements so it’s part of the learning objective, not just plopped on top.”
Gamification of content is a completely different approach from creating a serious learning game, though. A serious learning game is the product you’d set out to develop—and you’d make the content work within the game framework and the story you are telling. “A great serious game has borrowed from the movie industry and from stories,” she said.
Anyone can create game-based learning
Immersive environments offer advantages to serious game developers—like the ability to track what learners notice and pay attention to, and the ability to time them as they complete processes. “All of those elements just added to the excitement of it and it helps put the learner into the situation,” Thomas said. “That’s hard to do in basic question-and-answer training.”
While an immersive environment is can enhance learner engagement, it’s not necessary. “If you can’t do a serious game, you can borrow from the things that allow you to create a great serious game,” she said, such as storytelling.
With an engaging story as the foundation, “A small team can pull that together, even in a fairly simple eLearning course—or even with just PowerPoint—by designing things that can draw the learners in and help them see the environment,” Thomas said. “We can make a difference even with very low-end stuff, just by making it compelling. We want them to be intrigued to pick it up.”
“There’s a wealth of information out there,” Thomas said. Indeed, the resources and information about creating games and adding gamification to eLearning can be overwhelming. To help L&D teams get started, Thomas recommended a few of her favorite books:
- The Gamification of Learning and Instruction Fieldbook: Ideas into Practice, by Karl Kapp
- Fundamentals of Game Design, by Ernest Adams
- Advanced Game Design, by Michael Sellers—don’t let the “advanced” title scare you away, Thomas advised.