The Future of Games for Learning

The Future of Games for Learning


Last week, I blogged about three emerging trends in elearning, as revealed by the annual Horizon Report, which analyzes potential uses of emerging technology for learning. While the paper was very insightful, it had one omission: a discussion of the opportunity to use games for learning. <--break->
All kinds of games, not just video games, are incredibly powerful at engaging users voluntarily in learning new skills and solving challenges -- and doing so on an ongoing basis. How can we apply these kinds of game designs to professional learning?

Learning experience designers have an opportunity to use game mechanics - rewards, achievements, levels and challenges - to make study and training fun by creating systems of competition that promote positive engagement and emotions.

I’ve spent the last few days at the annual SXSW conference, where Jane McGonigal has described how games motivate and engage people with incredibly positive effects. McGonigal takes games a step further than learning: she believes that augmented reality games can motivate people to change their real world activities and behavior to solve real world challenges like climate change and obesity.

At her SXSW talk, McGonigal engaged all of the attendees in a game of Massive Multi-Player Thumb War (see photo). It was fun with a point: after the Thumb War was over, the most positive result wasn’t a new status badge on our Four Square profiles. We were excited to have interacted with our neighbors, smiled, laughed and been challenged. Achievement badges aren’t enough. It’s your engagement with your peers, with challenges that are surmountable, that is the true magic of games.

Applying this kind of game design to corporate training could look like this: an computer hardware manufacturer decides to use a game for customer support staff to learn new workplace practices. The learner enters the game world through a web-based portal or a mobile app. She starts with an assessment game, where she is challenged to lead a customer through a maze of broken hardware. They make progress together by knowing what problem solving steps to take.

If she gets step 2 wrong, for example, the game will send her to level 2 of the learning game, where she is led through the maze by one of her peers who has already beaten this level. Perhaps colleagues have opportunities to earn points for themselves by helping each other “level up”. Perhaps people earn points, titles and achievement badges that might influence their professional advancement.

Why do games work? Gamers spend 80% of their time failing, but they keep going because the win means so much to them. Applying games to corporate learning encourages resiliency, fun, positive emotions, new skills and new self-confidence.

Not Just Game Play: Game Design

At another panel, leading game designer/educators described how beyond game play, engaging people in game design spurs even deeper engagement and learning. These designers have created game environments where children start by playing a few introductory levels of a game, and are then challenged to design the next levels of the game. The students master new material and new skills because they’re a prerequisite to design.

In addition to the content mastery, the iterative process of designing games -- think, design, play, test, repeat ad infinitum - puts analytical and problem solving skills into practice. Learners could practice these skills in teams to capture the benefits of multiple skillsets and perspectives.

What’s Next?

The use of game mechanics for learning, marketing and consumer engagement is the hot topic at SXSW, and there are hundreds (if not thousands) of companies developing new applications for the marketing, education and nonprofit sectors.

In the professional training landscape, there are excellent designers who create custom learning games with fun results. But the future that interests OpenSesame is the development of off-the-shelf games that will serve the needs not only of large organizations that can afford custom development but also those of small businesses who want to connect their employees to engaging learning experiences. We can’t wait to see what’s coming.