Posted on 8th January, 2019 by Rich Calcutt & Alan Stewart
When they’re well-designed, elements of gaming can make learning compelling. In this blog, Lead Learning Designer Rich Calcutt and Learning Designer Alan Stewart examine the point of points in gamification, and offer three great tips to make your learning feel meaningful.
Around 40 years ago, during the golden age of video game arcades, gamers would play knowing that winning was impossible. Playing primarily for fun and prestige, they would insert coins or tokens, knowing there was no way of successfully completing games—points were their reward and a gauge of their progress.
But over the years, as the format of games changed and became less ‘endless’, players began to care less about points in gamification and respond to more complex incentives. These days, alongside points, we are familiar with some of the most basic mechanics (or rules) of gamification, such as:
- Multiple choice questions
- Diminishing time to complete challenges
While all of these elements can potentially contribute to effective eLearning games and gamification, there is a train of thought that suggests they are fairly uninspired in modern learning terms. As gamification continues to grow in popularity across organizations, what other reward options are out there to challenge and motivate learners?
Challenge Learners to Retain Points in Gamification
Let’s start by thinking about different approaches to points. Say you arbitrarily offer a certain number of points for answering a question correctly. An obvious alternative would be to reverse this and challenge players to target loss aversion. A good example of this is a game called Papers Please, in which players are put in the shoes of an official in a fictional authoritarian state.
Players’ points are represented by their salary and savings, but they can lose them through fines when they make mistakes, as well as on costs such as rent, food and protecting their family from illness. There is a powerful incentive for players to retain points in gamification in order to stay in the game.
Experience points are a trope used by a plethora of games in the industry today. The hugely popular and compelling game awards points to players after they have carried out tasks such as completing quests. They can then spend this currency on tools to enhance their experiences in the game.
Use Gamification to Build Connections and Collaboration
While leaderboards can be useful for making learning more social, it isn’t always correct to assume that people feel connected through competition. Interacting with other gamers as you race to score the most points at Pac-Man can be fun, but there are more sophisticated ways to nurture a connection between gamers.
Games produced by the former developer, Telltale, were known for requiring players to make difficult moral choices before revealing what percentage of their fellow deliberators made the same tough choices as them. This is a much more rewarding form of connection for some players, as well as involving an intriguing additional element of psychology.
Opportunities to provide support rather than competition can create strong connections. In eLearning, we know the value of bringing people together through conversations and discussion forums.
One game that offers this spirit of collaboration is Bloodborne, a notoriously difficult action role-playing game. To help navigate the danger-strewn missions, players can leave each other notes—passing on their experience, even if they’re taking on different challenges several weeks apart. Within the game, players can also rate these notes according to how useful they found them.
Teamwork is vital in most workforces, and another very popular game, Overwatch, creatively brings this to the fore. While its premise is a class-based first-person shooter, each player is part of a team. And each character assigned to a player has different strengths and weaknesses, such as speed or medical capabilities. This type of connection makes people feel unique and highlights their specific contribution to the success of their team in the game.
Enhance Understanding and Link to Learning Points
Empathy is another quality that can be developed by games. Spent, an online game about avoiding bankruptcy and poverty which has been played more than four million times in over 218 countries since 2011, demonstrates this well.
One of the levels uses an engaging grocery store mechanic. Given a set budget for the month, gamers must avoid going bankrupt while making a monthly grocery shop. Unfortunately, junk food is significantly cheaper than healthy options in the game (and, often, in real life!). This cleverly illustrates a key learning point around why families living below the poverty line might eat less healthily. It’s a good example illustrating that when message and mechanics are aligned, the learning resulting from it is even more powerful.
Gamification is also being used to effectively communicate learning points in areas such as customer service and healthcare. Games around managing insulin on a day-to-day basis, for example, have been used to educate learners about diabetes.
Another example is a competitive gameplay environment that we developed with the aim of keeping young people on an asthma trial. Two years into the trial, this approach continued to produce 100 percent adherence from participants.
For students and professionals, acclaimed puzzle-platform game Portal has provided a level of mastery that transfers to real-life knowledge. As players navigate a series of laboratories, they can use a variety of solutions to solve puzzles set within compelling gameplay.
Portal excels at teaching players a totally novel (at the time) gameplay mechanic. The game teaches you how to use your ‘portal gun’ to solve challenges that start out basic, but become more and more difficult (and deadly) as you progress. In its later stages, the game removes the support structures and forces the player to improvise using the skillset they’ve built so far to overcome the game’s most difficult puzzles.
Points in Gamification: Providing Adventure and Stimulation
We’ve looked at some of the ways you can take your gamified eLearning courses to the next level. Of course, let’s not forget that there are other ways to show progression and achievement in games. Story, social collaboration, progressive mastery of game mechanics, among others are all important elements of a great, engaging game.
When it comes to points, there are arguments for and against using traditional point-scoring. But the main aim of gamified learning should always be to give learners unique, interesting and meaningful experiences.
As learning managers and designers, we need to go above and beyond simple points and leaderboards and consider new and innovative ways to align gamification mechanics with learning points. Above all, creating a sense of adventure and exploration is a great way to improve engagement levels and keep people coming back to learning.