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.

Learning Game Design and Gamification Professional Development Opportunities

Did you know the best way to design a digital game is to start with a paper prototype?

Or that the ADDIE model for designing learning solutions doesn’t work so well with games? You should use an agile approach instead.

Here’s one for the Directors and Managers reading this: did you know that your Learning Designers may not have the skill set to start designing effective instructional games, even if they are great at creating eLearning and ILT? corporate learning games - playtesting

Getting Started in Learning Game Design

We’ve said it before and I’m sure we’ll say it again: game design is a unique skill set. Creating instructional games, where the game mechanics actively encourage and support learning, is not a skill that comes overnight. If you want your instructional games to do more than award points and badges, you’re going to have to study game design… and invest some time (and maybe money) in professional development. If you try to design a learning game without proper study and practice, you’re vulnerable to a few common mistakes:

  • Game mechanics that fail to support, or even detract, from the learning: Sharon Boller referenced an early mechanic of timed responses we tested with Knowledge Guru in a recent blog post; since the goal of Knowledge Guru is not to answer questions quickly but to answer them correctly, adding a timed element into the game took away from the learning and stressed players out.
  • Games that are too simple: Players will get bored quickly if a game is too linear. The design of a “Click Next” course is not going to translate well to an instructional game.
  • Games that rely on blind luck: In a learning game, the decisions a player makes should directly affect their success in a game. The players should not feel their success hinges on a random drawing or roll of the dice.
It takes practice to avoid making mistakes like these… but your investment of time and focus will pay off. Experienced designers eventually learn how to link game mechanics to the desired learning experience. That’s when games really show their value for learning.

Professional Development Opportunities for Learning Designers

Let us help. Whether you just want some free information to guide your own learning, a day-long workshop experience that gives you a repeatable process you can use to practice designing games, or a tool you can use to create games easily without worrying so much about the design, we have something for you.

We’ve been growing our game design skill set over the past couple of years through peer groups, conferences, designing our Knowledge Guru game engine and custom game development for clients. Now, we have two great opportunities to share some of that knowledge with you. One of them is even free.

Play to Learn: Designing Effective Learning Games

Play to Learn - Designing Effective Learning GamesSharon Boller, creator of Knowledge Guru® and President of BLP, partners with Karl Kapp, Ed.D, to lead this all-day workshop. We walk through the research and case studies that support the efficacy of games, evaluate digital games and board games to generate ideas, then break into groups and go through the process of creating paper prototypes and play testing. You’ll leave with a 5-step roadmap you can use again and again on game design projects.

Sharon and Karl have gave this workshop at ASTD ICE in May 2013… and it quickly sold out. This session, held in downtown Indianapolis, will be the most cost-effective ways to attend the workshop. The best part about this workshop? You get to prototype your own game… and test the prototypes of others. Have a look at some of the prototypes past participants created:

[camera slideshow=”play-to-learn-game-examples”]

Karl Kapp and Sharon Boller

The Details:

  • August 28th, 2013
  • 8:15 am – 4:15 pm
  • Held at ExactTarget in downtown Indianapolis
  • 20 N. Meridian St, Indianapolis IN46204
  • Cost of $459 includes a copy of Karl’s book, “The Gamification of Learning and Instruction”

Eventbrite - Play to Learn: Designing Effective Learning Games

A Primer On Play: How to Use Games for Learning

Not ready to commit to an all-day workshop? We’ve been offering our free webinar on game-based learning basics for 6 months now. Several hundred people have attended… and the webinar shows you the basics of getting started in game design. You’ll learn how the power of feedback loops and linking game mechanics and learning elements can help you combat the forgetting curve.

May 11 am webinar - Register Now

You can also register here.

Just a Starting Point

Designing an effective learning game is not a tasks you can complete in a single afternoon. You’re not going to learn pick up all of the skills you need in a one hour webinar, or even in an all-day session. We like to think our offerings are great for kick-starting your game-based learning knowledge, but they are definitely just the starting point of your learning. The hard work is the practice.

What we can do is teach you how to practice and give you the tools to continue your own learning. In our sessions, we share the research and case studies we have found valuable in the field of instructional game design, and give you the tools you’ll need to teach others in your organization that games are a good idea.

Keep in mind that neither Karl Kapp or Sharon Boller started out as game designers. In a recent interview, they both shared how they began their careers in instructional design, saw the power and value of games early in their careers, and started incorporating games and immersive experiences into the solutions they developed.

Even if you and your team of instructional designers are new to game design, you should not be discouraged. Many people have added real game design skills to their toolkit, and you can too.


This Week on #TalkTech: Cisco and Social Learning, Simplifying #mLearning and Fantasy Elements in Learning Games

#TalkTech is the “flipped” approach to Twitter chats. We publish all the topics a few hours before the chat so you can show up at 3 pm EST / 12 pm PST on Thursdays ready to discuss. We discuss three topics a week and the chat lasts around 30 minutes.

We’re shaking things up in 2013 here at #TalkTech! Every couple of weeks, a guest curator will be picking our topics and leading the discussion. Not much will change format-wise… we’ll still publish the weekly post here and the topics will still be tweeted by @BLPIndy, but a guest curator (besides yours truly) will pick the topics and be ready to lead the conversation during the chat. If you are interested in being a guest curator for TalkTech, let me know!

Topic 1: How does Cisco combine social learning and games with traditional learning tools?

Cisco and Social Learning

Cisco has long been a leader in using the latest technology to educate partners and customers. They were ahead of the curve when it comes to social learning and game based learning when they launched their “Cisco Learning Network” in 2008. It blends all sorts of learning tools together: Discussion boards sit alongside certification programs. Skill evaluations are readily available, as are multiple online games, such as the popular Binary Game. It’s a powerful example of how an organization can combine multiple forms of learning together to make online learning as effective and enjoyable as possible. What do you think makes the Cisco Learning Network a great tool? What would you add or take away?

Cisco: A Learning Social Community

Topic 2: What are the best ways to simplify #mLearning design while meeting client expectations?

We often look to RJ Jacquez’s mLearning Revolution blog for inspiration when it comes to mobile learning design. He put forward some great ideas to help instructional designers kickstart 2013 with a  well, simple, call to “Simplify, Simplify, Simplify.” What are the best ways to accomplish this task? How can instructional designers convince their clients to focus less on the content and more on the learner experience?

Our 2013 Mantra for mLearning: Simplify, Simplify, Simplify [Lessons from LinkedIn]

Topic 3: Why is it a good idea to incorporate fantasy elements into instructional games?

Fantasy Elements in Games

Many companies have a rather serious image of themselves. The thought of implement a learning solution with a fun, “out there” theme seems decidedly “off message.” But learning game design expert Karl Kapp takes a different view in his recent blog. Karl cites research that shows how fantasy themes can help cement memories. The novelty actually makes content more memorable than making a game too realistic. Read his well-researched post and let us know what you think.

Using Fantasy in Instructional Games

If you’re new to Twitter chats, don’t forget about awesome tools such as that automatically save the hashtag and help you focus on the conversation!