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Angry Birds vs the Microsoft paperclip: exploring the issue of choice in gamification

This post was written by Kayleigh Tanner and first appeared on the Epic blog on 28th February 2014.

In terms of gamification, it’s hardly Rumble in the Jungle, is it? One of the sessions I watched at Learning Technologies 2014 was ‘The good, the bad and the ugly: applications of gamification to e-learning’ presented by Igor Cenar, CEO, JollyDeck Ltd. That’s where the link between the paperclip and gamification was made.

Whether you class that paperclip as gamification or not, just what was it that many people found so annoying about it? It sounds like a great idea in theory – just-in-time help whenever you need it. But to me, it felt a bit like the overzealous waiter who hovers and fills your glass each time you take a sip.

Choice and control

It seems to me that one of the most appealing elements of games is the choice. Whether to play a game is a choice a user controls. Playing Angry Birds is never likely to be a compliance requirement! And making a compliance course look a bit like Angry Birds is not likely to increase learner motivation if the approach to the learner experience doesn’t change.

One thing research tells us is that learners like some element of control. And it’s an area where digital learning can really differentiate itself from synchronous learning. You can:

  • allow learners to work at their own pace
  • allow them to go back over elements when they choose
  • let them choose their own path through a course
  • offer optional resources, links and case studies.

And yet so often e-learning is even more rigid than a face-to-face training environment.

Do learners choose to learn?

But if you allow a learner choice, will they choose to learn? It’s certain that if you force learners to look at every element of a course, that’s not a guarantee they will learn. But sometimes, a choice will lead some learners to explore even more than you asked of them.

When my son was about six or seven, he was given his first PlayStation.  He was particularly fond of a certain skateboarding game. Once he had exhausted pretty much all the game contained, he looked at the instruction book and found he could create his own skate park. This idea interested him enough that he was prepared to read through the instruction book, experiment and then build something.

I am very sure he would not have pursued this goal had it been a piece of homework set by a teacher, or had I been standing over his shoulder offering helpful suggestions. Yet his choice resulted in what I considered some pretty impressive learning for his age!