DevLearn Thoughts: Is Game Based Learning Misunderstood?

We had a great time at DevLearn 2012 in Las Vegas. Since we were there in part to launch or Knowledge Guru™ learning game engine, we were especially tuned in to what was being said about learning games at the conference… and what other game based learning products were being shown.

Sharon Boller introducing Knowledge Guru at DevLearn

Sharon Boller introducing Knowledge Guru at DevLearn

One thing is clear: learning and development professionals are almost unanimously aware of game based learning as an important trend. Many are already knowledgable, and those who have not used game based learning yet are rapidly looking to increase their understanding (it was no surprise that Karl Kapp’s session on games was packed!). With any learning technology trend, it is important to distinguish the true learning value from the hype… and back it up with some serious research.

Along with all the enthusiasm, game based learning risks being misunderstood. Some may see opportunities for game based learning where it is not actually the right solution. Others may not understand the true benefits of game based learning and write it off before giving it a try. Here are a few misconceptions about games we heard at DevLearn… and our attempts to clear the air.

1. Misconception: Game based learning is the same as gamification, right?

When companies get started with game based learning, they often decide to add badges, achievements, and points to their online learning. These elements can certainly motivate learners to keep going and make an experience more fun, but they are NOT a game! Game based learning is a completely immersive experience with a game goal, rules, and repeatable set of game mechanics. If your learning experience doesn’t have rules or a back story… it is not a game.

This does not mean games cannot have elements of gamification and vice versa. Many games have points, badges, and leaderboards built right in… and a gamified experience can have elements of story and purpose, such as scenarios in an eLearning course with points attached. We like to think our Knowledge Guru game engine is actually a nice mix of game based learning and gamification. There’s a narrative at the beginning and a game goal you work towards, all while climbing the leaderboard. Here’s how game based learning and gamification differ in Knowledge Guru:

Game Based Learning Gamification
The Knowledge Guru challenges you to deliver three scrolls to his Pagoda at the top of his mountain of Knowledge in order to become a Knowledge Guru yourself. Players answer three iterations of the same question while earning points, seeds of knowledge and pearls of wisdom in order to climb the leaderboard and earn a high score.

2. Misconception: There’s no way to track learner activity in games, so I can’t use it.

In the past, this has been true. If an activity is happening outside of the LMS, learner activity could not be tracked. Even for activities inside the LMS, data is usually limited to completion and knowledge check scores. Thanks to Tin Can API, this is no longer the case. It’s a new eLearning standard that allows all manner of learning experiences, from the grandiose to the granular, to be tracked and accounted for. That means all of the activities, achievements, and milestones learners accomplish in a game can easily be tracked in an LMS… if you are Tin Can compliant. And with ADL and AICC announcing their collaboration on Tin Can API as the NEW eLearning standard, Tin Can (also called Experience API) will only become more of a standard.

3. Misconception: Games should only be used as reinforcement activities. They can’t replace courses.

Some learning professionals are so deeply entrenched in the world of designing, developing and deploying courses that they cannot fathom using a game instead. Sure, games work great as part of a broader curriculum with courses, forums, videos, and other learning elements… but they can also use a game as a standalone learning exercise. For example, our A Paycheck Away learning game about homelessness is a self-contained educational experience. All the learning happens in the flow of the game and there is no need to study introductory material before playing. Even though Knowledge Guru is question based, it is well-suited to be used as a primary learning tool. AJ George wrote on the Iconlogic blog about her experience learning football facts on one of our sample Knowledge Guru games just by playing:

And that world turned out to be a place where the game throws you right into a question without giving backup information. My first thought was that this was a shortcoming. It seems counterproductive to throw a learner right into a quiz without first giving them the knowledge needed to potentially answer the questions correctly. But as the quiz progressed, the same questions were asked again in a different format. The new wording of the questions and the answers forced me to carefully read each question and all of the answer choices. And about halfway through the quiz, I realized that this quiz was doing something my boyfriend has continually failed to do: it was teaching me the rules of football.

4. Misconception: Games are too “fun” for a corporate setting

In Sharon Boller’s DevLearn Morning Buzz on learning game design, a participant commented that the cartoonish, animated feel of many games would not be suitable to her learners. They only responded well to realistic, games depicting people in a corporate setting, she said. While this may be true in some situations, we often find that a game with a fun, non-corporate theme is more engaging and motivating. Why? It’s a break from the drudgery of past courses, webinars and instructor led training! Learners are happy to be doing something different, and that change of pace makes them primed to learn more from the experience. Don’t be afraid to break from that corporate look and feel every once in awhile.

5. Misconception: Games distract from actual learning

There are times when game based learning and gamification can get in the way of learning. Consider these thoughts from John Barnes, who tweeted at us during DevLearn:

John is right: we do start learning the mechanics of a game the more we play. That means games pose the same danger in learning as standardized tests do for children in school. Players might learn the game mechanic better than they learn the actual material, just like kids can learn how to take a standardized test without retaining the subject matter long term.

This can be avoided by either carefully embedding the learning into the game mechanic itself or making sure the game mechanic is not overly distracting from the content being presented. The approach will depend on whether you are going for a solution more focused on game based learning or gamification.

What do you think? Is game based learning misunderstood? Where is game based learning headed? We’d love to hear your thoughts.