(We have created an 8-part comprehensive report containing a series of one-to-two page “briefs” regarding learning game design. This is part 1: The What and Why of Gamification. If you would like to see the white paper in its entirety, check out the White Papers section on our website.)

Gamification of learning can mean a few different things:

  • • Creating learning games INSTEAD of courses and allowing people to play as they learn.
  • • Creating highly realistic simulations that mirror real-world environments. These simulations allow people to gain and grow skills in a “safe” environment as opposed to an actual work environment where mistakes could cost money…or even lives.
  • • Adding common game elements to courses without creating a game.

What “common game elements” are we talking about? Here are a few, all of which are interrelated:

  1. 1. Competition – creating leader boards or achievements that let learners compare their progress against other learners or simply against a previous “personal best.” The badges available to Google news readers are an example of this.
  2. 2. A social component – creating a means for people to dialogue and showcase their progress in a game.
  3. 3. Points and scoring features – so people can measure progress as they go.
  4. 4. Missions, quests, or challenges for people to master – ways to capture people’s imaginations and immerse them in an experience. They may go through various levels of play with each level becoming more complex.

When we take those game elements and develop a learning game, we create a powerful tool that can motivate and engage learners in ways that “Click NEXT to continue” learning experiences never will (whether online or courtesy of a lecturer with PowerPoint slides).

There are numerous articles and papers on the “why” of using learning games. Jessica Trybus, the Director of Carnegie Mellon’s Center for Edutainment wrote a terrific white paper that outlines the “why” of learning games. Some of the research-documented benefits she cites:

  • • The ability to add meaning and motivation to the learning experience; learners engage in games in a way they simply don’t in a traditional course. People frequently tune out in traditional courses. Their goal may be to get through this as fast as they can. They often are much less motivated or engaged.
  • • The ability to simulate emotion; learners experience emotions that can mirror the emotions they might experience in the workplace – creating a very realistic practice situation.
  • • The ability to offer frequent and meaningful feedback to learners so they can self-adjust their performance to improve their game play.
  • • The ability to create safe practice zones for using skills.
  • • The ability to create “levels” of play that can equate with learners gaining increasing proficiency at a skill and requiring less support as they execute the skills.

Many people dismiss games as frivolous or don’t see them as legitimate learning tools. They see games as sacrificing solid instructional design for fun. On the contrary, Karl Kapp, in his book Gadgets, Gizmos, and Games (Pfeiffer, 2007), does a nice job of refreshing readers on Robert Gagne’s learning hierarchy* and linking different kinds of games to this hierarchy. I’ll go further and point out that serious games (the most robust, realistic experiences) can take learners all the way through the hierarchy – helping them gain “declarative knowledge” in early levels of the game and build to using principles and problem-solving in later levels of play.

The “why” of learning games is well-documented by research. Therefore, the remainder of this paper focuses on explaining the “what” of game design and how you get started. We start by defining what “game” and “game design” mean and we then move on to describe some of the key elements of creating effective games.

*This hierarchy organizes knowledge/learning from simple to complex: declarative knowledge, concepts, rules, procedures, principles, and problem-solving. Gagne says you have to master the simplest levels before you can master the more complex ones.