Rob Caul, CEO of Kallidus and Instructional Designer Joshua Roberts explore how to use gamification in e-learning

Published in Training Journal magazine, July 2015

As the world of work continues to change at a rapid pace, organisations must evolve their L&D practices and are increasingly turning to technology to support the transformation. Gamification has become one of the most talked about topics in corporate learning today. Organisations are actively exploring how game processes can be used to create more engaging e-learning content.

This year’s annual CIPD L&D survey (1) shows that 59% of L&D professionals expect their organisation’s use of e-learning to grow within the next two years. This is not surprising given that high-impact e-learning can transform L&D and deliver productivity and cost efficiencies. But all too often, monotonous ‘click-next’ content fails to deliver on e-learning’s true potential. How often do you hear learners singing the praises of e-learning or saying the course they took last week was fun?

Enter gamification, providing a welcome opportunity to make the learning experience more exciting and enjoyable by engaging the senses and creating a more immersive environment. This is particularly important in today’s dynamic workplace where there is so much attention-grabbing information at our fingertips; it’s hard to capture the often short attention span of learners, let alone sustain it.

Gamification is far from ‘the latest fad’, with IBIS Capital (2) predicting that the world market for serious gaming and gamification will rise from $2bn in 2012 to $7.4bn this year. Learners are driving demand.  Almost 80% of learners in recent studies (3) said that they would be more productive if their learning environment was more game-like; over 60% said that they would be motivated by leader boards and increased competition with other learners; and 89% said they would be more engaged with an e-learning application if it had a points system.

However, amidst the inevitable hype, there is some confusion around what gamification is and how it differs to games-based learning with both terms being used interchangeably in the industry. So firstly, let’s take a look at the differences and then how gaming techniques can enhance e-learning.

Gamification versus game-based learning   

Gamification is not the standalone use of games in e-learning but instead the application of game mechanics and game-inspired features to a non-game environment to engage and motivate people to learn and achieve their goals.

Gamification uses rules and rewards to tap into our innate desires for status and achievement and promotes active learner participation while encouraging positive behavioural change. Currently, it is the preferred approach for corporate training compared to game-based learning because it is much easier to apply to today’s learning ecosystem. Points, levels, leader boards, badges, trophies and quests are typically used to encourage greater focus, competiveness, productivity, collaboration and creativity. These features can bring an element of fun and excitement to what could be perceived as ‘dull’ subject matter, while helping the learner to achieve their learning goals and objectives.

Part of the beauty of gamification lies in its ability to address the most common problem with e-learning today: that people think they know what to expect from a course. Gamification helps create mystery, exploration and mastery by giving people the chance to fail until they have solved a problem or honed their skill. The end result is a more effective learning experience which is partly attributed to the removal of preconceptions about what the learner is supposed to learn and hence that all too familiar ‘click-next’ mentality.

In comparison, game-based learning is the process of using real games to support or teach a new concept or a specific skill. A good example is the use of Minecraft to teach history or SimCity to teach people about architecture, city planning or economics. Game-based learning is a powerful tool because it can help users to develop problem-solving skills and it promotes self-driven learning while facilitating friendly competition. You are far more likely to find it in school classrooms and other non-corporate working environments as it can be a challenge to sell its benefits into business leaders. Let’s face it, how many organisations are going to be willing to let their employees play Minecraft at work because it helps develop creativity?

Optimising the effectiveness of e-learning

The gamification of e-learning content isn’t as complicated to achieve as it may initially sound. The skill lies in using the right techniques, theory and application methods rather than technical advancement or coding. But like any other learning technique, to prove its worth in the workplace, goals need to be clearly defined from the outset and there needs to be a sense of realism in terms of both the opportunities and limitations of applying gamification in e-learning.

If you are looking to ‘gamify’ your e-learning, here are five tips to help you on your way to achieving success:

1. Tap into the dopamine cycle 

Before you start developing content, familiarise yourself with the dopamine cycle of ‘pleasure’, ‘challenge’ and ‘achievement’, as this holds the key to using gamification to improve the learner experience and drive engagement. Think about your core objectives, how you are going to address each stage of the cycle, and how you can optimise motivation within the course. Incentives like winning points, badges, trophies and getting to the top of a leader board can activate learner engagement and achieve real and lasting behavioural change. But remember, first and foremost the focus should always be on achievement rather than reward, and this means giving your learner an experience that they feel genuinely pleased about completing, not just giving somebody a badge for logging onto the system.

2. Know your learners

Everybody has different preferences and needs regardless of their generation, so make sure you know your learners and understand what makes them tick so that you can engage with them more effectively. Some people will probably love fantasy games, while others may be occasional game players who have only ever used apps, so you will need to develop something that appeals to the cross-section of your learning community. Otherwise, you could risk alienating people or failing to get the results you want to achieve. Above all though, what you develop needs to be exciting: if learners are having fun and actively participating in the learning, then they will be more likely to acquire the information, knowledge and skills they need.

3. Scenarios are the gateway to gamification

Scenarios are one of the most powerful applications you can use when gamifying your e-learning content, because they give the learner the opportunity to make meaningful decisions while general principles of a theory are being introduced. Scenarios give learners the power of choice, which is an important factor for motivation and engagement. Time spent developing solid narrative and thinking about how you can hook the learner into a personalised approach will be time well spent, and can make a real difference between success and failure. Try not to make things overly complex or difficult: using branching scenarios is one of the best ways to begin gamifying content.

4. Break content into bite-sized chunks

Limits to short-term memory capacity make it essential to prioritise and break information down into bite-sized pieces that are easier to digest and remember. This is known as content chunking. Try and focus on developing ‘less is more’, brain-friendly gamified e-learning content that allows individuals to learn and practice skills, prior to having to demonstrate mastery of those skills. Breaking content into short-term, medium-term, and long-term goals will help avoid cognitive overload while helping to drive engagement through mystery and achievement.

5. Adopt a free-flow approach

Try not to restrict the flow of content, unless of course you have a process that needs to be conducted in a precise way. A free-flow approach that allows the individual to explore the learning environment can help to bolster the dopamine cycle by helping to create that all important sense of mystery and intrigue. Such an approach can help transform even the driest of content, turning the chore of seemingly tedious learning into greater enthusiasm and interest from your learners.

The sum is greater than the parts

It is important to consider all five tips in conjunction with each other. Each one on its own will not be enough to ‘gamify’ a learning experience or increase learner engagement.

A good example is the use of badges and trophies, which should be used to support other gamification principles such as challenges and quests. It usually best to make badges and trophies the last thing you add to a course so that you can see the learning interactions as a whole and establish where the peak of achievement will occur in the learning and where the spikes of reward should be.

Remember, users want to be rewarded when they feel they have achieved something. The worst thing that a gamer can say about a game is that it’s too easy and the same will hold true for gamified e-learning. So, the more effectively you grade levels of difficulty, the more satisfying and engaging the rewards will be, and this means looking at the whole picture rather than focusing on individual features in isolation. It is also beneficial to consider the convergence of gamification and social media when designing content. It is amazing how much users love to share their badges and trophies on social media and how this can help to develop and engage a wider audience.

What does the future hold?

So is the future of e-learning game-based? The adoption of true game-based learning requires a change of mindset in the corporate workplace. But in the meantime, gamification will continue to grow in popularity as tech-savvy Generation Y becomes more dominant in the workforce. Gamification will also continue to rise in popularity as it proves its worth as part of well defined L&D strategies.

During the past six months we have seen an increase in clients looking to deploy gamification to make learning more interactive and fun and to improve knowledge retention. Their different needs and objectives each require a different approach to gamification. For example, we recently developed a destination virtual board game to reinforce learning from five different e-learning modules. We used a combination of point scoring systems, bonus rounds, achievements, video scenarios, computer opponents and leader boards to create a highly engaging multimedia-rich environment.

For another client we created a gamified healthcare module to help improve patient care by giving the learner first-hand experience of what it is like being taken to hospital from the perspective of someone with dementia. The use of strong narrative and scenarios helps ensure the insight and knowledge learned online can be put to good use in the workplace. This is an example of how gamification in e-learning allows employees to see the real world applications and benefits of the subject matter in a risk-free environment.

Although gamification has become one of the hottest learning topics today, the concept of motivating people using a gaming experience to help them to achieve their goals has been around for centuries. Games like Candy Crush and Angry Birds and the rise of digital, mobile and social technologies in everyday life have brought gamification into the spotlight. As a result, organisations are increasingly recognising that using gamification to build self-esteem and reinforce it with peer recognition is a powerful means of unlocking motivation and responding to today’s raised expectations for engagement.

For L&D professionals a gamified future will require familiarisation with the dopamine cycle and hence a good grasp of the science behind the art of gamification. Also a greater understanding of how to use technology to enhance learner engagement and the ability to think innovatively and offer creative solutions will become more important skills than ever. Plenty of exciting gamification developments will no doubt continue to emerge over the next few years.

Are you ready to press play to integrate gamification into your e-learning strategy?

For further information visit www.kallidus.com or follow @kallidus on Twitter

References
CIPD Learning and Development Survey, May 2015
IBIS Capital
elearningindustry.com

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