To Game or Not to Game? The Best Ways to Use Games for Learning

So, you think you want to use a game to help people learn. You’ve got the “what,” but do you know the “why” and the “how?”

There are many reasons to use games for learning… and also times when you’d be better off picking a different interactive learning experience. The best way to figure out whether or not to create a learning game, and to get the project started, is to ask the right questions. Karl Kapp has two short but sweet blog posts with questions you should ask before creating a learning game. Read part 1 here and part 2 here.


When mapping out a learning game design project, you need to determine the instructional objectives… and how the gameplay will serve those objectives. You’ll identify demonstrable tasks that can be completed through the game, and you’ll also decide whether or not a game can mimic the context where learners really need to apply the skills. I could go on, but Karl covers all of these in his posts.

Once you’ve decided that yes, you want to use a learning game, you have to decide whether it will be the primary learning activity or a reinforcement tool. This decision will influence the game’s content, design, and your internal promotion strategy. Yes… you should promote your game internally to get people to play.

Using a game as the Primary Learning Method

Games are most useful as the primary learning method when the content is highly immersive. Context is vital to learning, and a game that mimics the situation where learners will have to recall information or complete a task will aid in retention and performance.

We took this approach when creating A Paycheck Away, a board game that simulates the problem of systemic homelessness. Players play as a profile of a real homeless family and must make realistic decisions to try and get out of homelessness. While the game is a tabletop board game, the situations are realistic and spark real emotions. An issue like homelessness simply must be taught in an immersive experience like this that gives context to the problem. A quiz-style game teaching facts about homelessness simply wouldn’t cut it.

A Paycheck Away - Game as Primary Learning Method

A Paycheck Away game board

Conversely, a gameplay experience that is closely linked to how people learn best can also be useful as the primary learning method. Our Knowledge Guru® game engine is designed to utilized the principles of spaced learning, immediate feedback, and repetition to maximize retention of new information. When players play the quiz-style game as a primary learning method, they learn the information by getting questions wrong, reading the feedback explaining their misstep, and trying again.

Knowledge Guru game as primary learning method

Players learn from the immediate feedback in Knowledge Guru

Using a Game for Reinforcement

Games are also great for reinforcing the learning that happens through an eLearning course or instructor-led session. After people complete the regular training, you can simply send them the link to play a game or invite them to a face-to-face session. The key with using a game for reinforcement is to promote it well and remind players consistently that they should come back and play.

ExactTarget, a digital marketing company, used Knowledge Guru to help employees prepare for a product launch. Since they are a marketing company, they did exceptionally well at promoting the game internally, and saw a high rate of participation as a result.

Take a look at some of the emails and advertisements ExactTarget used to position their game as a reinforcement activitiy:

Internal Advertisement of Learning Games for Reinforcement

Example of a banner ad displayed to employees

Email messages that include a link to play the game are also very effective.Send internal emails to encourage game play for reinforcement

Games are Fun… Which Makes Participation Easier

“Fun” can be pretty intangible, so business types sometimes shy away from citing it as a goal for training. We’ve seen that the “fun” factor of games is a big motivator for getting players to come back and reinforce skills and knowledge. Even giving a basic game eye-catching graphics, a narrative, and a sense of purpose goes a long way.

We use a pre-game narrative to set the stage for Knowledge Guru games. The first page is pictured below with our soon-to-be released Business Theme Package.

Fun, story-driven nature of games can make people want to complete reinforcement

Whether you decide to use games as the primary learning method or as reinforcement, asking the right questions up-front and designing it with “fun” in mind will help set you up for success.

A Paycheck Away, Our Learning Game For Change, Was a Game Changer

We hosted a public game play session of “A Paycheck Away” as part of the Spirit and Place Festival last Friday, November 9th. 140 people gathered together to play as a homeless character and try to get out of homelessness within three months. We’ve play tested this game several times with groups of all shapes and sizes, and the results of game play showed us just how powerful game based learning  and “games for change” can be. The game was even featured in NUVO here in Indianapolis.

A Paycheck Away - Game Based Learning

You see, a major component of the A Paycheck Away experience is discussion that happens before and after the game. We start the game by asking people to write their perceptions of homelessness on a piece of paper. We typically see things like “drug addicts, lazy, too prideful to go live with family, or mentally ill.” The picture that emerges after playing is quite different. As it turns out, so much of what life throws at us is out of our control — it’s luck. And homelessness is really a symptom of more widespread societal problems… not a cause.

And by the end of our game play session… participants were coming up with solutions. Lots of them, in fact, players left quite a pile:

Solutions from A Paycheck Away

Participants wrote down their ideas and solutions while debriefing.

That’s the power of game based learning. Sure, watching a video or presentation on the problem of homelessness might make you feel bad about the situation, but games immerse you in a scenario and allow you to feel what it’s like in an emotional level.

One challenge of holding a game based learning experience in a short window of time like we did is getting everyone up to speed on the rules quickly. Think of the time it might take you to learn the rules of a new video game or board game with family. We did not have that kind of time to devote to our event! Our goal was to have people play through three months of homelessness in one hour. We did this by creating a “Game Master” role. Game Masters were trained prior to the event and acted as Township Trustee, Employer, Banker, and Settler of Disputes. They guided people through the experience and explained the rules as they went. This approach was highly effective for us.

Robby Slaughter - A Paycheck Away Game Master

Robby Slaughter (left) leans forward to explain a rule to his table. He was a trained Game Master.

Without further ado, let’s look at some of the central issues surrounding homelessness our players identified… and potential solutions

Central Issues Surrounding Homelessness

    • Childcare costs make it hard for homeless parents to take jobs. Childcare is expensive and many low wage jobs do not equal the cost of childcare.
    • Many homeless individuals lack transportation. A shortage of bus lines mean it is impossible for them to get to potential jobs.
    • Quality early childhood education and daycare services are not available in poor communities.
    • Even though early childhood education and quality education in general are important to outcomes for children, many individuals in a community who do not have children do not want to pay taxes to support public schools. This ultimately hurts the community because it contributes to a future generation of individuals who require more public assistance.
    • Individuals with an hourly job who have a sick child may lose their job if they skip work to take care of the child.
    • Having a fixed income, or a government pension in the case of homeless veterans, helped their characters’ situations quite a bit in the game.
    • Lack of good, steady jobs is more of an issue than lack of cash.
    • Having a spouse makes homelessness much more manageable, both for emotional and financial support.
    • Homelessness is only something that happens when it is already too late to provide meaningful help.
    • When government assistance has too much red tape or too many restrictions, it can become very limiting.
    • Ultimately, it is through working that people truly become self sufficient, yet low wages of many jobs leave the homeless no better off than if they stayed on public assistance. It’s a vicious cycle.
    • Daycare is not available at night for people who work in the evenings or work a second job.
    • Being homeless actually takes alot of energy. The homeless are trying to figure out very short-term things while living day to day. They actually have to budget more carefully than those in the middle class.
    • Ultimately… luck plays a much larger role in life than most players thought. Not everyone simply made a bad choice.
    • Many of the homeless are actually employed or underemployed, but simply cannot afford housing because their wages are too low.
Suggested Solutions to Homelessness:
    • Create a program where the elderly watch young children during the day. This would reinvigorate the elderly while providing less expensive childcare.
    • Emphasize basic financial education and personal budgeting more in public schools.
    • Create more effective organizations to connect people to jobs.
    • Create a program that connects people for ride sharing and carpooling so they can get to jobs that are off a bus line.
    • Lobby for improved public transit in urban areas.
    • Create more cheap, affordable housing that is mixed in to both low and high income areas instead of creating divisions in urban communities.
    • Improve early education for 2-5 year olds and make it mandatory.
    • Help homeless and low income families create small businesses in a co-op model of exchanging basic goods and services to help them get out of survival mode.
    • Develop more “all-inclusive” village or communal groups similar to the Amish or rural towns with community transportation, child care and health care.
    • Teach farming and gardening in pockets of urban areas. This allows people to build basic skills, produce goods to sell in farmers markets, and barter for other needs. This could be similar to Heifer International, but with a local focus.
    • Create job training and support programs that many people receiving public assistance must attend as part of their assistance.
    • Make some forms of birth control available over the counter (OTC).
    • Open the lobbies of some downtown businesses at night for the homeless to sleep on a temporary basis.
    • Allow wealthy suburban areas to “adopt” a rural neighborhood through a coordinated charitable program.
    • Make substance abuse programs more available and inclusive to families. Create after-care substance abuse programs to provide an ongoing support system.
    • Give tax breaks to employers who give people a “raise” in the form of free childcare or transportation to work rather than just a salary increase.
    • Create shared homes and co-ops where the homeless can live with roommates.
    • Encourage more community-oriented, family first values in children.

Again, these are solutions A Paycheck Away players proposed to help solve homelessness after playing the game. Some of them might work, others wouldn’t. What works in one community might fail in another. The point here is to focus on the sheer volume of reactions and solutions we generated after just an hour of playing a game. It’s tough to get that type of engagement through a traditional presentation.

One of our goals for this game is to facilitate it for other groups in the future. In exchange for a donation to Dayspring Center, a temporary homeless shelter in Indianapolis, individuals or groups can purchase a game and hire a trained facilitator to come and lead the experience. Contact us to learn more. You can view a photo album from the event on our Facebook Page.


We Host Our First Game For Change This Friday… and It’s “Sold Out”

We are passionate about game based learning at BLP. We’ve read the research – and conducted some of our own – and seen both with client projects and the case studies of others that it is a powerful tool for learning. We even launched Knowledge Guru, our very own learning game engine, at DevLearn last week in Las Vegas. So yeah, games are a big deal to us… and we think they are good for so much more than just a good time.

And as we have mentioned over the past couple of months on this blog, we are also big believers in Games For Change. A movement inspired by visionary game designers like Jane McGonigal, we are finding that games are not just fun — they can make a better world.

With that issue in mind, we embarked on our first “game for change” project, a learning game about homelessness. It’s called A Paycheck Away, and it’s being played this Friday, November 9th at the Spirit and Place Festival in Indianapolis.

I had planned to post about the game this week in an effort to promote the game and raise awareness, but here’s the thing… the event is already full! 140 game players have already signed up! We would say the event is sold out… but the tickets were free.

…If you are still hoping to attend but haven’t registered, never fear. We expect some attendees to drop out this week, so there should be a few spots for walk-ups.

We see statistics all the time about homelessness. We know it’s an issue and we see signs of it almost everywhere, but how often do we really FEEL the problem? How does it become immediate and emotional for us? Most importantly, what will it take for our society to end homelessness, and is this even possible?

A Paycheck Away is a learning game with a heart…. And a purpose. We want to change the conversation surrounding homelessness from hopeless to hopeful. On November 9th at the Spirit and Place festival, that’s what we’ll do. Mindblowing. Heartbreaking. Real life. Inspiring. These are all words play testers have used to describe A Paycheck Away.

The board game that puts you in the shoes of a real homeless person or family. Players experience the difficult problems a homeless family faces and start to see homelessness as a symptom – not a cause. Do I buy new school uniforms for my kids or feed my family? Do I take a job and pay for childcare and fail to break even or stay home with my kids? The game helps you see how these situations are not black and white… and seldom the result of one bad choice.

We are starting a new conversation about homelessness – avoiding the stereotypes and “there’s nothing we can do” mindset that many of us have. Together, we’ll come up with new perspectives and solutions to address the issue and get people involved.

And for all of our friends and colleagues in the field of game based learning, we’ll be looking at this whole experience as a case study. What outcomes will we see from players? Will this game really make an impact? What kind of feedback will we receive? We can’t wait to find out… and share it all with you.

For now, we just want to share our excited for this event. After multiple play tests and iterations, we are ready to share the finished product with a room full of players. Check back soon to find out how it went.