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  • Rikki Lee

'Gamify' Your Learning Program

People love to play games. And they don’t mind that they’re constantly learning while they’re playing, simply because the experience is fun. Depending on the game, you adapt to new situations and learn lessons along the way to help you win; if you fail to learn, you’ll probably lose.

For example, you might learn how to: understand your opponent’s body language (poker), plan a strategy (chess), apply the process of elimination (“Clue”), use the laws of projectile motion (“Angry Birds”), or assess your team’s strengths in a battle (“Call of Duty”). Unfortunately, most of the knowledge and skills you learn while playing games can’t be used in real-life situations.

But games (especially video games) are addictive. Almost two-thirds of U.S. households have at least one person who plays video games three or more hours a week, according to the Entertainment Software Association’s 2016 report. Coincidentally, many of these gamers work in organizations where trainers and instructional designers—people like you—worry about how to present important information in a way that motivates learners and maximizes retention. One way to do that is to make the learning experience more like a game, so that it’s both intrinsically interesting and extrinsically rewarding.

If you’re new to the concept, “gamification” takes game-design concepts and applies them to learning. Gamifying doesn’t mean creating a real game, which usually requires thousands of hours to develop. Rather, it takes your existing curriculum and adds creativity, introduces challenges, provides immediate and meaningful feedback, and hands each “player” more control so that they can learn at their own speed. It usually doesn’t require the purchase of expensive software or the need to create animation, full-motion video or 3D simulations.

Gamification usually offers learners game-like rewards and promotes continuous repetition. In a self-paced, on-demand course, all learners begin at the first “level” or module. They earn “experience points” as they answer quiz questions, hunt for “Easter eggs” that present interesting facts and add points to their total, win a “badge” after mastering a learning objective, view their score ranked on the leader board along with others in the course, and so on. If learners want to place higher, they might have to repeat the level. Or they can advance to the next level, which builds upon the previous level’s knowledge. Their goal is to complete the final level with enough experience points to achieve mastery of the content and win a “trophy.”

You can obviously do more with gamification on the computer than in the classroom, but different game-like elements can be applied to any setting. Whether you’re training employees on policies, practices, procedures or other information, you can incorporate game-like elements into the learning experience to make it more fun and exciting: letting a learner choose the sequence of topics, integrating simulated or real-life scenarios to present an important issue, putting a tight time limit on a rigorous activity, and displaying a progress bar on every slide. (Chances are that you’re already using these and other elements of gamification in your instruction, whether you realize it or not.)

As with any adult learning, the curriculum you gamify should help learners deal with situations they face every day on the job, such as making choices, learning from mistakes and understanding consequences. However, the game-like elements should be added to improve or increase learning, not just for the sake of adding them. Also, they must be explained so that they make sense to the learners, instead of confusing them.

New versions of elearning software and learning management systems offer tools for instructional designers to add challenges and create game-like rewards. For classroom training, gamification can include social networking, where learners gather to form groups or “guilds” and collaborate on a problem-solving “quest” or “mission.”

But before you embark on your quest of gamification, consider a few helpful tips:

  • Conduct research. Although it’s been around for decades, gamification is changing rapidly as learning techniques and technology advance. Study the latest methods by reading a book, taking a professional webinar, and searching the internet for sample gamified learning designs. Learn both the effective and ineffective ways to gamify your curriculum.

  • Know what you’re getting into. It takes many more hours to introduce a game-like approach to a self-paced course or classroom session. Also, if not executed properly, gamification can negatively impact the instruction. By knowing what the challenges are and how to overcome them, you won’t be frustrated and give up. Start with timed activities or role-playing scenarios before introducing a rewards system. Add different game-like elements for each module or course instead of the same ones all the time.

  • Think about your learners. Are they primarily video game-playing Millennials or bridge-playing Baby Boomers? Are they likely to roll their eyes or even balk at gamification in their learning, or is it something they might be excited about? Will a competitive gamification structure create a divide between more and less competitive learners? Some employees enjoy playing games in any situation, while others may think games trivialize the learning experience. In any case, setting up gamification around your target learners will help achieve success.

  • Gain buy-in before you launch. Gamification has its supporters and skeptics, so you may need to persuade members of your training team to give you permission to try it. Work on your elevator pitch, and have examples to show how gamified learning can be more effective than traditional methods.

  • Tell learners what’s new before they take the class. It’s difficult to change a lifetime of classroom experiences. Adult learners expect a traditional learning environment where they can lose focus every few minutes. Unless they’re already mentally prepared, they may not appreciate your request to participate more in their learning. Some learners might not be pleasantly surprised with a new gamified approach. So don’t simply announce what you’ll be doing on the day of training. Instead, let them know weeks in advance that the experience will incorporate game-like elements to make the learning fun but still relevant.

  • Know when and when not to use gamification. Some curriculum must be presented in a traditional, straightforward manner with frequent repetition and demonstration; this is usually the case when training essential skills, legal compliance and job safety. Gamification also doesn’t have a place in certification programs. However, training in soft skills, such as customer service or sales, can be improved with role-playing, competition, collaboration and other techniques.

If you’re interested in making learning more fun and exciting, take the chance to gamify. As you become familiar and more experienced with different techniques, even you can advance to the next level.

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