The computer games industry has seen explosive growth in recent years. Energized by the virulent nature of social networks and the increasing capabilities of mobile devices, gaming is bigger than Hollywood.
The fundamental premise behind most gaming experiences is the journey that participants are taken on - a journey through levels of increasing difficulty toward the eventual mastery of the game. During this journey, players can remain engaged for hours, days, and even weeks at a time. It is estimated that gamers have spent approximately 55 million years of cumulative playing time in the online game World of Warcraft. You might call this total engagement.
Gaming's objective of moving participants toward mastery sounds strangely like the mission statement you might attach to your next learning solution. If your outcomes are aligned, but your engagement tactics are not, then perhaps you are missing a trick.
What could we learn from games that would help us make our online learning experiences as engaging as World of Warcraft, without rendering our own 3D world and filling it with magical beasts and trolls? Following are three key lessons from game design that we would do well to integrate into our next e-learning project.
Define a starting point and objective, but not the path to be taken
One of the fundamental skills in gaming is decision making. In any given game environment, the player will be faced with a series of choices that will influence his progress through the game. Should you turn left or right? Should you throw this angry bird at that pig? And so on. Rarely in games is there a single method for completing a given task; while one path might be the best course of action, many other paths could result in progress toward the same result.
How often do we see this level of autonomy existing within online learning? Not often, I would suggest. Instead, our learners are much more likely to be faced with the dreaded "next" button. This approach fails to give participants the necessary control they require to feel in charge of their own fate. They are simply along for the ride.
It isn't often important that everyone follows the same path when completing a piece of learning; it is simply more convenient if everyone experiences the same journey, whether this suits their needs or not. If you give learners a starting point, an objective, and a method for assessing when they have reached the objective, then you have done enough. Specifying the precise path is unnecessary work for you and unpleasant for them. Keeping the pathway open and flexible allows learners to make the decisions that influence their progress.
Next time you are faced with this sort of challenge, try defining a "mission objective" for your learners and point them in the direction of the resources they will need to succeed. The rest is up to them.
Stop measuring page numbers, and start measuring experience
One of the staple features of most e-learning is the page number, or progress indicator. We're very good at providing this sort of progress report for a learner working through a given piece of learning; it is rare to see e-learning without it.
The page number is a classic example of measuring the wrong thing. Listing page numbers merely gives the illusion of progress while actually presenting the learner with a motivator extrinsic to the learning process. The learner believes that if she clicks the next button x more times, she will have completed the learning. However, idly clicking through pages is rarely the path that leads to true insight.
Learners need a method for keeping track of their progress that allows them to reflect on the journey they have taken and to measure their efforts compared to their peers and their objectives. Games often choose to reward effort and progress with an "experience points mechanism." If a user passes quickly through an area, incurring very little interaction with the environment, then he is unlikely to accrue much in the way of experience points. However, if a user takes the time to complete an activity to the best of his ability, perhaps repeating the same exercise again and again, then he is rewarded with more experience points. Every action possible within the environment is worthy of points; some actions are weighted heavier than others.
Users who go through this process are learning the secrets to success and the tactics to win. They know how they did something the first time, and they adapt their strategy to do it better the next time. Experience points give users a tangible and direct benefit for doing something more than once. How you choose to ultimately reward experience is up to you.
Play with people, not computers
Like most e-learning, games tend to run their course over a limited number of hours. Certain complex strategy-based games aside, most games have a limited replay-ability. Once you've done it, you've done it. Designing a game to be social can change all of this - game designers know this, and it's why they invented the multiplayer concept. The simplest way to promote replayability within a game is to take the focus away from the scripted elements and to introduce the natural complexity that comes when playing against other people.
If we want to get our learners on the journey toward subject mastery, we must introduce a depth and complexity to our learning that only other people can bring. Once we've introduced other people into our experiences, it becomes possible for us to influence their learning. In this, we can find greater meaning about the nature of the learning as we seek to reconcile others' opinions with our own.
This approach only works when the game is inherently social in nature, however. The World of Warcraft is no misnomer; it is a "world" filled with people. Without them the game wouldn't work. If you give learners the option to interact with each other, some will choose not to. This lessens an individual's impact on the group and breaks down the social contract in which everyone is required to participate. In a social game, the social element isn't optional. The same should be true of your learning.
It is important to realize that much of what makes games engaging has very little to do with blowing up zombies, building civilizations, or fighting trolls. Ideas such as autonomy, progression, and socialization hold the real secret of gaming engagement. These factors are backed up by decades of psychological research, ranging from studies on the effect of control, to the idea of flow or being "in the zone," and the field of social cognition.
We can learn from and implement these gaming concepts into our e-learning design today. You don't have to bypass the development barriers associated with creating games to use the mechanics. Implemented well, these lessons will help you to engage your audience in their journey as effectively as any game.