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Think Like a Game Designer: Incorporate Action Into Your Learning Design
Tuesday, November 28, 2017
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In games, players immediately take action, make meaningful decisions and volunteer to spend more and more time finding treasures, defeating villains, or getting game characters to work. Meanwhile, many corporate e-learning experiences are less than engaging. The learners are reading objectives, listening to talking-head videos, or skimming introductory text. Instead, instructional designers need to steal ideas, techniques, and methodologies from game designers and incorporate them into our designs.

Game designers have made some of the most mundane human activities interesting and engaging. Case in point: The Sims. A person playing The Sims literally spends his or her time getting the Sim out of bed, feeding them, getting them to the bathroom to get clean and dressed, and then sending them off to work. Not once but over and over again throughout the game. Somehow, the boring, daily routine that we all do transforms into an engaging and interesting game.

The decisions that go into making The Sims an exciting game need to be incorporated into the learning modules we design. So let’s look at one techniques game designers have used in The Sims and other games and consider how we might be able to incorporate those design techniques into the learning we create. 

Action First

We need to design for action, not content. Many of the e-learning modules I’ve seen or evaluated start by telling the learner some piece of content or information. The module tells them what they are going to learn or why this content is important or that the CEO thinks this course is important. In contrast, The Sims, doesn’t do much telling. When you start the game, almost immediately you need to make selections and decisions. What character? Where should the foundation for the house be located? Where do you put the bathroom, living room and bedrooms? What should your Sim do for a living? In other words, the game involves action and decision-making from the very beginning.

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Classroom instruction and e-learning modules need to start with action and activity. Make the learner do something right way. Force them to make a meaningful decision or to solve a problem or even answer a question. Game designers tend to think action and activity first, instructional designers tend to think content first. Break out of the content first mindset and force learners to do something right away. Don’t start with objectives, introductions, or content.

Creating a need for action or decision making within a learning module should not be a difficult task. Often learners are receiving training because the organization expects a certain behavior. For example, an employee in a bank might receive training on what to do if a customer wants to deposit $40,000 cash. Or, an employee in a retail environment is being trained how to respond to a customer who is interested in the technical aspects of a product rather than the aesthetic elements. The result of most learning experiences is that we want the learning to do something differently or better at the end of the instruction. We want them to exhibit the right actions as a result of instruction.

Create learning that engages the learning in performing the right action. Don’t tell them the right action, have them perform the right action. Start the module for the bank employee by having the employ make a decision as soon as they enter the module. Start with “one of your customers walks up to your teller window with a suitcase and says they want to deposit $40,000. What is the first thing you would do?” This type of opening requires the learner to make a decision and to take action. They aren’t reading learning objectives or skimming an overview of banking rules or listening to a video of the compliance officer detailing the importance of compliance, instead, they need to make a decision. The learner, before any instruction, is immediately involved and making a decision.

Final Word

Game designers seem to instinctively know what engages players. In reality, it’s not instinct, its knowledge that has been gathered over many decades of developing engaging games. If game developers don’t make engaging games, no one buys their products. There are no mandatory game requirements.

Game designers know how to create engagement because they’ve experimented with techniques and processes until they discovered what works. Borrowing from those years and years of experiments and trial-and-error can enable learning designers to create engaging instruction. While there are dozens of simple and sophisticated techniques that go into creating engaging games, we can start with the simple and straightforward technique of making the learner do something at the beginning of instruction. Making a learning take some type of action is a good way to begin to think like a game designer.

Want to learn more? Join me at ATD Techknowledge 2018 in San Jose in January for the session, Start Thinking Like a Game Designer: An Interactive Learning Experience, which is part of the Serious Games and Simulations track.

About the Author

Karl Kapp is a professor of instructional technology at Bloomsburg University in Bloomsburg, PA and is the author behind the widely read “Kapp Notes” blog and a regular contributor to ASTD’s “Learning Circuits” blog. Karl has written or co-authored six books on the convergence of learning and technology including the bestselling book “The Gamification of Learning and Instruction.” In that book, Karl explores the research and theoretical foundations behind effective game-based learning. He examines everything from variable reward schedules to the use of avatars to the use of games to teach pro-social behaviors. Karl’s latest book is a fieldbook which takes the ideas from the Gamification book and provides instructions for implementing those ideas. It’s called “The Gamification of Learning and Instruction Fieldbook: Ideas into Practice.” Karl is committed to helping organization’s develop a strategic, enterprisewide approach to organizational learning. He believes that effective education and training are the keys to increased productivity and profitability. He can be reached at www.karlkapp.com.

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