People often ask me, "When are games the right solution?" My quick answer is, “When are they not?” However, I encourage them to shift the question to this one: “How do I choose the right game for my learning need?” because I am convinced that a game-based approach works in vastly more situations than it does not, and I love playing games with people to help illustrate this fact. At ATD 2016, I facilitated play of three different games in the span of 10 minutes to help people recognize the power that games can have in learning. 

In those 10 minutes, we played:

  • Cat and Mouse: a game that illustrated how a simple role switch can completely change our motivations and actions.
  • Newton: a game that helped illustrate the five modes of dealing with conflict.
  • Numbers Race: a game that showed how drills or practice work to memorize key information can be converted into a mentally engaging challenge for learners.

Games can be used far more broadly than many think. When should you use a game? How about when you want to:

  • Immerse participants in a learning experience, motivating them to expend time and mental energy on learning, as opposed to just clicking “Next” or passively listening to a PowerPoint-driven presentation.
  • Motivate learners to achieve a goal, arousing their interest and involvement using a challenge to achieve.
  • Provide learners with meaningful practice that includes specific, timely feedback and opportunities to retry and improve.
  • Provide a safe means of practice or "trying on" different roles and getting learners to view things from different perspectives.
  • Keep learners focused on content that would otherwise be tough to stay engaged in. 

A well-designed game immerses the learner in the learning experience, motivating the learner to master a challenge or achieve a goal. It provides the learner with meaningful practice. It offers specific, timely feedback that constantly cues learners as to how well or poorly they are doing. It requires a turn-based approach, which means people get spaced repetition, repeating skills over time. 

Games can often provide a vehicle for story creation as people find a safe, comfortable way to role-play. Critically, they also often elicit an emotional reaction within players, and emotion acts as a powerful form of "cement" for memory. Coincidentally, these features all match the elements required for someone to learn something, as illustrated in the image below:

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Boller Gaming Figure

Best of all, games can span the gamut from no-tech to high tech; they may involve nothing more than the people gathered in a room or be a rich augmented reality or virtual reality experience (think Pokémon Go). Games can be designed to address cognitive skills across Bloom's Taxonomy of Learning. You can create simple remembering games or complex synthesis games. 

To learn more about the power of game-based approaches and what it takes for people to really remember what they are learning, here’s a few resources you can check out: 

I will be at the ATD Core 4 Conference in late September doing a session called “The Fundamentals of Learning Game Design.” Hopefully some of you can join me and play to learn!