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3 Myths About Games-Based Learning in the Workplace… Busted!

Ryan Timpany, Technical Digital Designer, at LEO Learning, shares lessons from the front line of creating dynamic games-based learning, and looks at why this area of learning is only just becoming widely popular.

Gamification has often been perceived as frivolous in workplace learning. But its considerable power to deeply engage learners is increasingly benefiting L&D teams. As well as transcending demographics, game elements can be a force for good in helping people to learn and master new techniques—as long as they’re designed effectively.

If you’re a learning professional, you could be missing a great opportunity to add this emerging medium to your training programs. So what are some of the enduring myths holding businesses back from exploring game-based learning approaches?

Dice on a chessboard to represent the concept of games-based learning and gamification

Myth #1: A Serious Subject Can’t Be Conveyed—Let Alone Taught—by Games-Based Learning

Some learning professionals are wary of suggesting or commissioning a game or elements of gamification in learning programs. This is driven by a fear that it will trivialize serious subjects such as compliance, health & safety, or conduct rules training.

Even if a game-based approach appears to be a good tool for training, they suspect that it will be off-putting and alienate certain learners. In truth, the same qualities that make gaming engaging outside of L&D can make it extremely effective in professional training.

There are many aspects I could mention here, but let’s start with goals and motivation. In well-designed games-based learning, learner goals are clear. They may not be easy to achieve (in fact, a difficult challenge may compel learners to return again and again in an attempt to solve it) but learners know there is a way to prevail.

They also know roughly what they need to do, how close they are to achieving their goals and that a sense of satisfaction (and possibly celebration!) is likely to ensue if they succeed. This all adds up to a sense of control and achievement, which is one of the reasons why games-based learning can be fun while enforcing key knowledge about serious subjects.

Along with making these goals well-defined and measurable, effective game-based learning also provides clear progression along the way, and feedback on progress. Video games include these as a matter of course, but some eLearning courses fail to marry learning objectives with obvious and stated goals. An educational game with clear goals is therefore likely to be more compelling than an eLearning course with less well-defined goals.

Myth #2: Games-Based Learning Only Engages Certain Types of Learners

Another lingering stereotype is that games are predominantly a pastime for adolescents. But more and more people are playing recreational games. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest professionals of all ages have an appetite for gaming. In the US, research has shown that even in the working age group that is least likely to play video games—people aged between 50-64—40 percent of people play video games on a computer, TV, console, or portable device.

The split between men and women who play games across all ages is roughly equal, and the figure rises to around three in five people between 30-49. Less surprising is the finding that more than two-thirds of individuals between the ages of 18 and 29 play games.

Photo of an older person playing a game on their tablet

Whatever their age, the key factor in the success of games-based learning lies in knowing who your learners are, what they need to learn, and how to design learning that appeals to them.

According to games designer Jesse Schell, the author of ‘The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses’, you should ask yourself:

  • What problems your game-based learning asks the player to solve
  • What hidden problems can arise as part of the learning
  • How your game-based approach can generate new problems so that players feel enticed to keep coming back

In Zero Threat, an award-winning game created by our sister companies Eukleia and BAFTA-winning games studio PRELOADED, to raise cyber-security awareness in businesses, learners are given control of an IT network that is under constant attack. The game recreated dozens of risks they might not normally be aware of. The interactive gameplay provided tests for learners from all angles, whether in taking steps to deal with phishing emails, malicious websites, infected USB sticks, or deliberate insider threats.

Ideally, games such as Zero Threat help learners to experience a state that you may have heard described as “flow”. This allows learners to enjoy the exhilaration of creative accomplishment that occurs when undertaking challenging but achievable tasks. Gameplay also includes a points system and a series of rounds that learners must complete in order to win the game. These are just two of the types of incentives you can use to make your learning addictive.

Myth #3: Gamification Cheapens the Message of Learning

As learners, we often construct models of reality in order to practice—think of running a fire drill or performing a roleplay in a workshop. Just like a traditional handbook or instructor-led training, game-based learning is a medium that can potentially be used to your advantage in any way you see fit.

Learning designers call practice opportunities simulations, using them to give learners a safe space in which to experiment and improve. These can be particularly useful when it comes to building learner knowledge in critical situations.

It would be impossible, for example, to allow doctors to test their skills in a complex operation setting in real life. And in Zero Threat, learners are given the chance to explore their decisions without facing serious repercussions such as real data theft.

A screenshot of learning game, Zero Threat

As David Arnold, a game designer at PRELOADED, points out, this kind of learning can be an excellent method of driving up retention and engagement in order to reinforce key learning points.

Simulations simplify the complexities of the real world and allow learners focused practice, but that doesn’t mean they dilute or dumb down the importance of the learning. In fact, the repetition of games-based learning can emphasize the importance of making the right decisions in critical situations and help people to exercise mastery.

Flight simulations for pilots and emergency simulations for cabin crew, for example, are a common and accepted part of training. While they might not entirely recreate the pressure of a real-life health and safety or security emergency, they can provide a highly realistic way for learners to prepare to face the scenario in a genuine setting.

Designing a complex game is more challenging than designing a standard course, as scoring systems and game mechanics must be tested and refined. But well-designed games and elements of gamification can be powerful tools for learning as part of your training strategy. With their popularity on the rise, now could be the time for your organization to find out how gamified learning can help you reach your business goals.

4 Tips to Consider When Introducing Learning Games to a Training Program

  • Interrogate your desire for wanting a game. For some learning needs, it may be the best solution… not so for others.
  • Don’t let the game become an obstacle to the learning.
  • Success in the game should ideally mean forcing learners to adopt the same ‘cognitive schema’ required of them in real life.
  • The deeper, the better: the inclusion of only superficial gaming tropes (e.g. arbitrary points, badges, etc.) can often lead to only superficial learner engagement.

To see an example of games-based learning, check out this example of a blended learning game

See the example

This article originally appeared in Training Industry Magazine, March/April 2019.