Many think that “gamification” is merely the latest instructional design fad or gimmick. Others might think “serious games” are just a way to dress up otherwise dry instructional content– “lipstick on a pig”, so to speak. Still others understand that using positive reinforcement and competition can maintain user attention and stimulate learning, but they worry that incorporating gaming into their training and education materials may not achieve the desired results.

Given, the prevalence of these perceptions among many in the training and education community, it is not surprising that gaming, and serious gaming in particular, are misunderstood and underutilized by most training departments. It may be useful to provide a few examples and some tips to help clear up these misconceptions.

One example of a gaming solution for a real problem is the case where a State court system needed to educate its target audience on best practices for lawyers representing individuals in the juvenile justice system. The issues included representing clients who were disadvantaged either mentally or physically, who were often indigent, and who generally lacked knowledge of safeguarding their own welfare. The objective was to help the lawyers, who often provided services “pro bono,” to maximize their effectiveness in dealing with this unique subset of clients.

After discussion with the client, the agreed design approach was to utilize multiple real-world scenarios and situations that would occur in “A Day In the Life of Juvenile Advocacy Lawyer.” The scenarios were supported by photos and stop action video of the “clients” and the learners were surveyed after each scenario for their best response. There were no incorrect responses, but participants were awarded bonus points for a “best solution.” No points we awarded for other responses and feedback was given based on their response pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of each. However, to earn a “promotion” a certain accumulated number of bonus points were required at the end of the course. “Competition” in this case was simulated by a notional player and their scores were presented to the learner next to their own.

This simple approach was met with an enthusiastic response by this notoriously critical and often distracted target audience and the courts anecdotally reported favorable results. The course was additionally displayed at national level conventions and subsequently adopted in whole by numerous other State and local court systems.

This technologically simple method of incorporating gaming into what could have otherwise been just another dull required learning activity is a basic example of how, with little additional resources, training departments can increase the effectiveness of their material. Other solutions may additionally involve branching, actual “head-to-head” competition, and incorporation of “blended” activities such as discussion boards and “peer-to-peer” feedback.

There are also some best practices that are recommended by Chris Pappas, Founder of the eLearning Industry Network, the largest online community of professionals involved in the eLearning field. According to Chris, here are 7 top tips to integrate serious games into your eLearning course design (many of which were included in our example course—can you spot them?)

  1. Make learning goals and objectives the star of the show.
  2. Your learning goals and objectives should be the top priority. At one time or another, we’ve all participated in serious games that didn’t follow this all-important rule. They may have amused and entertained us, but we didn’t come away with any new information whatsoever. Thus, they didn’t offer us any real world value. Every element you add to your serious game should support the primary learning objectives, from the online game mechanics to the online game script. Keep in mind that your online learners are working on a tight schedule. They don’t have time to sit through a half hour serious game in order to build skills or gather new information. You must research their preferences, performance gaps, and expectations to create a quick online gaming experience that meets their needs.

  3. Use online game mechanics to positively reinforce behaviors.
  4. One of the main purposes of using online game mechanics in your gamification strategy is to reinforce behaviors or knowledge. If online learners successfully complete a task or pass an online exam, they move onto the next level or earn coveted points. This positively reinforces favorable behaviors and encourages them to repeat them. However, offering incentives too readily can reduce the effectiveness of your eLearning game. Be careful about what you reinforce and how often. For example, an online learner who receives points for simply clicking on an object or reading a passage won’t assign any value to those points. They know that ANY action will be rewarded.

  5. Include realistic and memorable eLearning characters.
  6. Your serious game should feature eLearning characters that connect with your online learners in a meaningful way. This requires that they are memorable, realistic, and well-developed. For example, each eLearning character should have their own personality traits and motivations. There must be a reason why they are behaving in a certain manner. These eLearning characters must also face a challenge or obstacle that online learners can relate to. Ideally, this conflict will mimic a real world situation that the online learner faces on a daily basis. Take your time creating the perfect plot line and setting the scene, making sure that the online learners know who is who and how they are related.

  7. Serious games are only part of the solution.
  8. Serious games are a valuable eLearning tool, but they shouldn’t be the ONLY one in your eLearning course design. As a matter of fact, serious games are merely a piece of the puzzle, and you should pair it with other eLearning activities and eLearning assessments that enhance comprehension. For best results, focus on one goal, skill, or task when you’re developing your serious game. This allows you to explore all aspects of the topic without overwhelming your online learners. It also ensures that your serious game still falls under the category of “microlearning”, meaning that online learners can access it repeatedly to increase their knowledge retention.

  9. Choose an eLearning authoring tool that features in-depth analytics.
  10. There are a variety of eLearning authoring tools that now feature serious game tools, such as eLearning templates and asset libraries that include eLearning interactions. However, when you’re choosing the ideal eLearning authoring tool you should be on the lookout for in depth analytics and reporting. These features give you the ability to track online learner progress and identify areas for improvement. For example, if most of your online learners are stumbling through a level of your serious game, it’s a good indication that it is too challenging or confusing. You may also need to include more eLearning activities to your eLearning course that focus on those specific ideas or concepts.

  11. Get online instructors and facilitators on-board.
  12. Bring as many people on board as possible and solicit their feedback, especially online instructors and facilitators who interact directly with your online learners. You should also hold a pre-launch or orientation meeting where you discuss all of the online game mechanics and instructions. Keep in mind that these team leaders need to offer ongoing support to your online learners while they are participating in the eLearning game. They must be aware of the rules and how to properly use the system. Give your online instructors eLearning videos, tutorials, and anything else they need to ensure the best possible online gaming experience.

  13. Add online forums and social media to your eLearning strategy.
  14. One of the drawbacks of serious games is that they are often asynchronous, which means that online learners must progress through the levels on their own. There is nobody to commiserate with after they’ve triumphed over a difficult challenge. They cannot ask questions about a puzzle that is posing problems in the second level. Adding social media and online forums to your eLearning strategy changes all of that, however. It gives online learners the chance to reach out to their peers, address their concerns, share tips, and discuss the subject matter. In short, it offers them a social, interactive, and collaborative outlet that magnifies the benefits of your serious games.

Serious Games = Serious Learning