The features that make games fun are exactly what need to be incorporated into workplace training.

"Fun is just another word for learning." This sentence does not stem from some lofty education pamphlet or e-learning supplier brochure with the inescapable stock image of a group of Millennials smiling and excitedly pointing at some nondescript laptop. It is the conclusion that game design doyen Raph Koster arrives at after pondering the question, "Why are games fun?" in his book A Theory of Fun for Game Design.

The central enjoyment of games, Koster explains, is the experience of mastery you get from overcoming challenges—that good feeling that leads to a fist pump when you get a strike in bowling. Games are essentially machines for producing fist-pump-worthy challenges such as chasms to jump, puzzles to solve, and monsters to kill.

What sets apart game challenges from the challenges of everyday life is that they are well-structured. In Super Mario Bros., the goals, possible actions, and consequences of each action are clear and well-defined. You are able to fully focus on one goal. As your skills grow, so does the difficulty and variety of challenges to ensure that you are never bored from rote repetition nor frustrated by a challenge too hard.

Games satisfy innate human needs

Koster's designer insight into the fun of games is borne out by psychological research. Leading the field is self-determination theory, a robust body of theory and research on intrinsic motivation, or why we enjoy doing certain things for their own sake.

According to the research, we enjoy certain activities because they satisfy three innate psychological needs. We all need to feel

  • related—supported by and supporting others
  • autonomous—having a sense of willingness, agency, and congruence with our self in what we do
  • competent—sensing that we can affect change in the world, and that we get better at that.

When Koster speaks of "mastery," he calls out this third need.

Because everyone has to learn the same thing at the same time, classes and training sessions are frustratingly hard for some and boringly easy for others. Instead of being guided in practical problem solving, learners have to sit through endless presentations. And their autonomy is thwarted on every step of the way.

Beyond cargo cult design

It is little wonder, then, that learners disengage from training initiatives, but willingly invest countless hours into games and become deep experts of the task at hand. Educators have tried to use games to motivate learning. However, few engaged with the deeper question of how games structure learning in a motivating way.

Instead, people still often fall for a kind of "cargo cult" thinking: Unfamiliar with modern technology, Melanesian islanders during World War II did not comprehend how and why Allied forces airdropped food and supplies from their bombers—nor why they disappeared when the war ended. At a loss, they built wooden effigies of airplanes to bring back the gods and their gifts. Just so, many edutainment and "gamified" applications re-create the surface appearance of games, hoping that the gift of fun may magically drop from the sky in return.

So what would it mean to apply the structure of games to education and training? Teasing out some common design features can help us grasp what learning from the structure of games might mean, and how we could apply them in our own practice.

Accrual grading

In typical grading, students either score the average grade of their performances, or start out with an A and then see their grade degrade from there with every suboptimal performance. Motivationally, this is madness. Either you receive continued punishment for any glitch at the beginning, no matter how much progress you make after that, or you are put into constant fear of loss right from the get-go.

In contrast, everything you do in games only gets you further. Challenge by challenge, you accrue "experience points" that add up to "levels."

Visible status and progress

On every action, games give you constant, formative feedback whether you succeeded or not, and how you might improve. At the same time, with experience points, levels, progress bars, collected "loot," a log of completed "quests," and so on, you always know exactly where you stand, and what you still have to do to get to your goals.

You see that every little bit counts, and that you are making progress—and with that comes feelings of competence. Educators have implemented this in their gameful classrooms in all kinds of ways such as online spreadsheets where students can look up and compare their current standing.

Nested, challenge-based learning tasks

Good games are structured in nested sets of goals with increasing complexity. In Super Mario Bros., you have the long-term goal of saving the princess, which breaks down into medium-term goals (finish level 1, 2, and so on), which break down into short-term goals (cross this passage, collect these three items).

Each goal entails a learnable challenge of different variety and increased complexity, and challenges always are embedded in a concrete, real-world (well, game-world) task. You don't learn to jump for the sake of learning to jump, but to cross that chasm before you. This ensures that you always see the relevance of your goal, and that you always have a next goal just within reach of you, which compared to the big task (save the princess or master coaching) feels utterly doable (collect this key or console this upset co-worker).

Player choice

Furthermore, good games give players many different routes to the ultimate goal and, thus, many different short- and medium-term goals from which to choose. This provides a strong sense of autonomy.

Learners can choose to work on their challenge at their own pace and level of proficiency. A more advanced learner can start right at the complex challenges, a beginner might solve many basic challenges until he feels really comfortable with them.

The role of the educator flips from being the central dispenser of content to that of a mentor supporting individual learners in their current challenges, and what new challenges they might pick from there.

Freedom to fail

In games, failure is the central route to learning. You learn how to achieve the long-term goal through a cycle of probing a new strategy, observing how you fail (and why), devising a new strategy based on that, and so on. What makes game failure fun (or at least not as stressful as a failed test) is that it comes with no serious consequence attached.

As many psychological studies demonstrate, such failure is good learning. Fear and stress are utterly demotivating, and in chronic form, lead to learned avoidance and neurologically damage our capacity to concentrate and learn deeply. In good gameful education, you therefore can redo a challenge as often as you like until you master it.

Competition and cooperation

Many educators see competition as a double-edged sword, and rightfully so. Still, games and gameful classrooms often use competition to good effect. The key is attention to how it is designed.

Teams are pitched against an environment, with each member taking a specified and indispensable role, which provides a sense of relatedness while preventing free-riding. When teams are pitched against each other, this happens in a nonzero-sum fashion. Coming out first just adds more points to each student's grade account; the students in second and third place can still earn their As through other activities.

Start playing

Maybe the most important thing educators across all examples of well-done gameful learning have taken from game design is the design process itself. With every implementation, they try out new strategies, see what works and what doesn't, and adjust and try different features accordingly in the next one.

The core of any good design lies less with broad theoretical strokes than how the thousand little details add up, ever adjusting to changing circumstances.

To quote board game designer Rainer Knizia: "The life blood of game design is testing. Why are we playing games? Because it's fun. You cannot calculate this. You cannot test this out in an abstract manner. You have to play it." In this sense, what I sought to provide in this article is not a finished recipe, but an invitation to start playing.