Gamification at Play

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eLearning is exploding. Since its early beginnings in the mid-1980s it has grown to become a $100B industry worldwide and will cross $300B by 2025. It is relatively easy to set up, allows interactivity, and can deliver educational material on any connected device, worldwide. Most eLearning is delivered linearly, but new methodologies like micro-learning and gamification indicate how it can easily incorporate new innovation and how these new ideas find popularity. Gamification, for example, is now a full-fledged industry, estimated to cross $40B in global revenues by 2024. As it gets adopted widely from the classroom to the boardroom, it is important to understand what Gamification is, and how it should be used to derive maximum learning impact.

We play games voluntarily because they make us happy! It turns out that games are also extremely successful at achieving very high levels of concentration and participation among the players. Gamification in education is an attempt to achieve that kind of engagement in study environments by introducing game-design elements like points, leader boards, badges, avatars, etc. into non-game situations. In the context of eLearning, “gamification” generally refers to adding game-like elements (e.g. an evaluation in the form of a quiz). This is distinct from game-based learning, such as using an existing game like Angry Birds or Football to teach concepts of physics like trajectories and momentum to school kids. Another type of game-based learning is teaching through “serious games” i.e. games designed specifically to teach academic subjects like Math or Art History, professional skills like Coding or life skills like conflict resolution but still incorporating engagement techniques like fun. Finally, “simulations” are realistic replications of real-life scenarios (e.g. a flight simulator), used for training or research, with as many real-world complexities included as possible and fun generally not a factor. For the purposes of this article, we will use “gamification” to refer to all of the

above, but specifically, concentrate on gamification in education via eLearning modules.

“Drink Me”

In the wonderful book “Alice in Wonderland”, Alice falls down a rabbit hole and comes to a room with a tiny door. She wishes loudly that she could be ten inches tall so she could go through that door, and lo-and-behold, a bottle appears before her, with a label that says simply, “drink me”. She checks the bottle to see if it is marked “poison” anywhere, and finding it isn’t, proceeds to drink from the bottle. The taste is strange, but not unpleasant at all, and reminds her of roast turkey and buttered toast. As soon as she drinks the potion, she becomes 10 inches tall, allowing her to go through the little door and onwards towards the rest of the adventures in the book.

Learners are like Alice. They find themselves in new situations where they need to learn something new for their grades or their careers but don’t know-how. A game is like the bottle. If it is intriguing, chances are learners will give it a try out of curiosity or desperation, but proceed slowly, sub-consciously testing out how they feel- is it interesting? Easy to play? Fun? Finally, they expect something lasting from the game- to be entertained and to walk away with some learnings. If it seems they are making considerable progress, chances are they’ll come back.

The Games People Play
A game is like any other consumable item- there has to be an initial hook that motivates people to give it a try. Studies show that voluntary participation is key, otherwise, it may seem like one more thing they have to do, and that leads to quick disengagement (L&D managers, are you paying attention?). The hook can be anything- the game may appear unexpectedly like a Christmas gift (say, in a link in the inbox with promises of delight- just make sure it is sent from a trusted source J), or it may be something that already has social pressure attached to it, because everyone else is talking about it, or may even make a bold claim- “Play this game and you will master Calculus!”. Whatever it is, the game’s mystery may entice people to begin playing, but it takes more to keep them engaged. In other words, what’s inside the bottle has to match the sense of intrigue the sign creates. It must live up to the promise to be effective and to do that, it must deliver a sense of achievement, competition and fun.

Achievement is an intrinsic motivator. Brain chemistry actually changes when people feel a sense of achievement. Dopamine release creates pleasure, and the release gets bigger as more achievement occurs, making the participant return again and again to the activity providing that sense of achievement. However, the achievement cannot be total. There has to be more to do- another level, another undefeated enemy, another unsolved puzzle which entices the player to keep playing more.

Competition works quite differently. An extrinsic motivator, competition releases adrenaline and testosterone to maximize the effort to emerge firs among competitors, and if a win occurs, the brain also releases dopamine, while if a loss occurs no dopamine is released and testosterone levels drop. This means winners keep returning and taking on bigger challenges while losers recede. This is known as the “Winner’s Effect”. This rather cruel social Darwinism can be offset in a modern society. A game allows participants to try over and over. It also allows them to rewind to the point of failure, learn from their mistakes (especially with good guidance) and change losses into wins. Once success comes, the turnaround begins. Gamification thus allows educators to teach students the very important lesson that failing while learning is an integral part of learning.

Finally, there’s fun. Fun is an essential part of the pleasure, one of the prime biological motives of living. If something is fun, we are more likely to seek it out. It turns out that fun comes from two distinct sources- challenge and uncertainty. Challenges have to be just hard enough to seem difficult but not insurmountable. Uncertainty of outcome is best described as a phenomenon where people repeat their actions most frequently if the rewards of their actions are lucrative, but unpredictable in scale and frequency. This idea comes from two results of a famous experiment and are called “Variable Ratio Reinforcement” and “Variable Interval Reinforcement”. It makes sense and explains the phenomenon of gambling!

From Games to Learning
Building effective gamification in education settings requires building a strong game-like experience around a strong core of training expertise. In our experience, gamification in learning yields the best results if the following three practices are kept central to the module design process:

  • Quality- Quality refers to operational aspects of the module that make the playing experience a positive one. These aspects include the UI, gameplay, and proper functionality of all features. A great tip is to tailor the module’s look and feel to the organizational culture where it will be deployed. Pay attention to cultural norms, geographic relevance, and familiar practices. Do insert aspirational features that improve players’ engagement levels like color palettes, stylizations, and characters that are most likely to appeal to the players. Quality is also about the content. Outdated, irrelevant content looks terrible in the modern aesthetic. Information and use cases should be current. Finally, establish “social sharing/acceptance” of the module as one of the KPIs- if your module isn’t getting talked about, nobody will use it, at least not willingly.
  • Player attributes- Think about the target audience. It is often said gamification in learning primarily appeals to millennials used to mobile devices and video games. That isn’t entirely true. Pay attention to what the target audience will find appealing. However, gamified Learning works best if players have some familiarity with device-based gaming, so consider including a familiarization practice in the client’s organization before rolling out the module. Consider handing out several devices on which the game will be played so players can get used to them, or create a video campaign with small levels of interactivity to get the target audience used to the idea of gamified learning. Then launch the actual module.
  • Finally, ensure that the learning objectives are closely matched with the game’s features and gameplay. Consider the skills required to succeed at the game, and see if that skill development will help meet the learning objectives. For example, suppose the learning objective is to give new hires preliminary training in sales negotiation. In that case, a candy-crush type game won’t be very useful, but a quest or fantasy type might be. Also, consider secondary learning objectives. For example, a school may want to provide math and reading practice through a game. However, if the gameplay relies almost entirely on narration, then the game designers have lost a chance to get the players to learn to read to extract relevant information!

The Missing Pieces
eLearning Gamification is not a panacea. For instance, several surveys show gamified learning doesn’t always improve learning. Therefore, it is important to remember that gamification, like books, is a tool- just one of many that work in concert with each other to improve the result of the training effort. With that in mind, here are a few mistakes to avoid when designing a gamified learning experience:

  • Augment, don’t automate: Gamification in learning isn’t designed to replace teachers or peers. Rather, it is designed to improve engagement in students so they are more receptive to what is being taught. Thus, it is useful to think of modern learning as “blended learning”- making a lesson game-centric, for example, allows a teacher to step back and become a mentor on students’ journeys of self-discovery. However, teachers also play important roles as guides, motivators, and disciplinarians. Furthermore, core learning objectives of reading, writing, and problem solving still require teacher intervention and will do so for the foreseeable future.
  • Sensitive material: Some things are not a game. Corporate training about POSH, for instance, or disaster relief training is not suitable for games with “fun” elements, as they need to be handled with sensitivity. However, simulations can be used in training.
  • Know your audience and your motivation: We have talked about this before, but considering how many gamification initiatives fail because of poor matching we think it is important we mention it again: Don’t design a gamified eLearning module unless you know who is going to use it! Also, don’t gamify a module just because it is “the thing to do”. Ask yourself this question: “What would I lose if I removed the gaming elements?” If the answer is “nothing”, it’s time to ctrl+del it! Too much gamification without a purpose is distracting (not to mention costly) and actually reduces the effectiveness of the module. On the other hand, fascinating new applications for gamification are emerging, like using immersive VR technology to help Vertigo patients cope with their phobias. Now THAT’s interesting!

Gamification is an incredibly powerful tool to build greater participation but needs to be used effectively to add value. Here’s a summary of the main points we discussed in this article:

  • Gamification attempts to create game-like environments in traditionally non-game scenarios like classrooms and workplaces.
  • A good game needs to deliver a balanced sense of achievement, competition, and fun to keep players interested.
  • In addition to applying good game-design philosophy, a gamified eLearning module still needs to ensure the quality of execution, matching gameplay and game design with the culture of the target audience, and matching game design to learning objectives.
  • Gamification is a tool, not a magic wand. It should be used only where appropriate. Avoid using game-based learning when there is a possibility the audience may not like the approach, when the content is not appropriate for inserting “fun”, and when it tries to overachieve itself by trying to substitute for the teacher. Gamification will also not fix problems with the underlying process, nor create behavior changes that stick.

Learning is a journey, not a destination. As we gain greater access to new technology and an ability to share more ideas about cultural, collective and individual preferences, learning will continue to evolve, steadily moving towards a personalized, customized approach that helps all students master learnings in their own unique way. Gamification is an important, but ultimately only one tool in this continuous evolution of the way we learn and teach.

Manipal Technologies has been a leader in education for over 70 years. Today Manipal Technologies’ eLearning content is used by some of the world’s biggest banks and construction companies, as well as governments and the United Nations to train millions of employees and partners. Leave us a free comment, or reach out to us for a free consultation!

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