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Ideas Instructional Design

When Games and Training Don’t Mix

Skeptical about gamifying your training? Yeah, so are we.

It would be strange to argue that games don’t offer richness, engagement, and motivation to the traditionally static experience of learning. Because of these possibilities, the impulse to add something gamey to training is understandable. Adding the right level of these mechanics could make your training more memorable and interesting. But before you do that, walk out onto a veranda at dusk, stare into the darkening sky, and ask yourself, “What am I really hoping for?” Listen to the wind. Are your intentions pure?

There is a growing belief that game mechanics deliver benefits, but it’s less conclusive that gamification reliably improves learning over other methods. To this point, author and instructional designer Karl Kapp offers his perspective in his TEDx Talk, “Life Lessons … from Video Games”, and compiles his findings on the less established landscape of how games impact learning. He underscores the point that studies measuring improved learning are often small and hard to apply more broadly, or they find that specific conditions are required before significant learning improvements can happen.

If you’re being real with your content and the needs of your learning audience, think about all the ways a game might be the wrong choice for their training. Sometimes the practical challenges of developing a training game can outweigh the potential benefits. Here are some things to consider.

Game Mechanics and Learning are Often in Opposition

In theory, games and learning are a good match because, together, they make the educational experience more challenging. But often in practice, a good game is too challenging when users want their learning experience to feel natural and accessible. You are asking a lot of a user to endure the difficulty of both grasping a new game’s rules and of comprehending a new skill or behavior. As a result, when you require learners to master separate game mechanics and rules, you often sacrifice the user’s understanding of and attention to the content. If a game takes a while to understand, you may have designed an interesting game, but you may also have prioritized gameplay over learning.

This is a problem when the game mechanics don’t inherently relate to the behavior you are trying to teach.

Unfortunately, it is exceedingly rare that cohesive, fun game mechanics or rules truly echo and support desired training behavior.

Meaningful Content Rarely Fits In

Even if you can find game mechanics that harmonize with the decision-making skills required for the training, it is even rarer that any kind of content can physically work in the game interface. Training content usually requires text to communicate meaning, and fun, fast games do not lend themselves to displaying or using text well. Exceptions might include short, clear definitions, facts, or steps formatted in a matching, sorting, or trivia-style game. For more complex concepts, or concepts that are subjective, awarding the user points feels arbitrary, or worse—unfair.

Learners often want to do little more than give a cursory scan of any text in most games, yet effective training often hinges on them internalizing the text more carefully. Attempts to shoehorn lengthy content into a game often results in compromised gameplay, confusion, or tedium. If your content requires extensive approval and vetting, you can count on some level of gameplay getting diminished with each round. Designing a game for the sole purpose of a “break” or change of pace has some merit, but is often at the cost of high production effort.

People Don’t Want to Have Fun at Work

Some upper management optimists believe that people want to have fun at work; that fun, when added to work training, can improve the overall impact and make employees more receptive to the proposed behavior change. Yes, it’s hard to argue that fun, when people consider their personal definition of it, can improve adult learning. The problem is that fun is a highly subjective experience. Everyone’s idea of fun is different, in the same way that everyone’s sense of humor can vary. To that end, this limited study is qualitative and relies on the subject providing descriptions and interviews as its core methodology.

Complicating that is the fact that training is often not where people seek out their idea of fun. They are already primed to not have fun while learning at work, and assume that the two don’t mix. That’s not to say it is unachievable, but it is asking developers to assume a very tall task from the start. Complicating that even further is the truth that many people resent the idea that “fun” could be decided for them, especially when it’s packaged and served to them without their consent—just as no one wants to be told that a joke is funny when the joy in humor is naturally discovering the punchline for yourself. As a result, if learners detect that something is there to trigger that personal experience of “having fun,” they may be quick to make sure that it doesn’t.

People Don’t Want to Read Directions

Even if people are legit up for having some fun during work training, no one wants to read something carefully before having fun. In the context of required training, those are often opposite behaviors. So the moment you ask someone to pause and absorb text about how to play a game, the user is already losing interest in the proposition.

The theory of learned carelessness helps explain this behavior: People tend to assume things will go fine and may opt to take a risk in an unfamiliar situation. These shortcuts are sometimes to preserve cognitive resources. Visual directions make things easier on the brain, but they still won’t reach the tenuous learner who is already skeptical of playing a game. If you forego directions altogether, learners justifiably get confused and irritated, considering the game unfair or a distraction from their primary responsibilities.

Finally, intrepid users who like the premise of a game might happily skip the directions and start to play, only to bail on it when the mechanics seem to run counter to their instincts of how it should work. So, in addition to being extremely difficult to entice learners into wanting to play at all, even when a user makes the effort to immerse themselves in the game, their commitment is so fragile that it becomes a highly unattainable task to maintain it.

Games Require Too Much Production Effort

This is potentially the most compelling reason to reconsider integrating games into learning. Developing game mechanics is often a complicated effort, is often highly iterative, and is often perfected only after a programmer has spent a significant amount of time creating it.

Games are subjected to strong opinions from clients, usually much stronger than any other instructional approach. As such, they are more vulnerable to bugs and rework. Even a highly functional game can be distasteful to parties on the client team, simply because they don’t enjoy games or the difference in visual styles compared to more familiar courseware. Even in a best-case scenario, investing time and resources in gamified training comes with higher risk.

The Less Cynical Part Of The Article

There are so many exciting benefits of games, both for a society and for humans. Training-based games simply require more careful consideration. They are often most effective when a main objective of the project is just that—reaping the benefits of gaming.

If there is a clear desire to introduce learners to the kinds of navigation, strategic demands, and distinct functionality of games to a learning culture, minigames can be a great way to appeal to an audience.

Packaging short facts, clear steps, product knowledge, or information into a creative and intuitive game mechanism can build a degree of awareness, recall, association, and retention.

Games can simulate certain psychomotor or physical skills, giving users a chance to build muscle memory for rhythm in a real-world task. They also can be a solution for enhancing a sense of community among colleagues or fostering productive competition.

For some audiences, games offer reprieve from overly familiar training, or can be an inventive way to practice new concepts. In some cases, achieving some or even one of these factors might be acceptable in the context of a larger approach. In any case, being realistic about the role and value of mixing training and games is the first step in making them great.

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