Stop Boring Content: Gamify your Learning in 8 steps that make a difference!

• 5 min read

gamification_imgGamification seems to be one of the most widely discussed topics within the learning community lately, however Game Based Learning (GBL) or Serious Games have been around for quite some time (have any of you played Oregon Trail or a flight Simulator, or learned to program by modding a Portal Level). I think its time to bring it back to the discussion. While there is some industry discrepancy around the terminology (GBL vs. Serious Games), I’m going to mainly focus on describing a basic way to design interesting learning content.

Using an appropriate learning theory or pedagogical basis for developing gamified content is just as important as Gamifying your platform yet it seems that it is not getting as much buzz at the system-level as Gamification Engines within the LMS (thought this is still an extremely interesting subject). While the pedagogical or instructional model of building out Gamified learning objects or serious games is intense and an art form on its own, most serious instructional designers can follow the below steps to accomplish the basics of creating really cool and engaging content.

One of the biggest challenges of building out GBL courses that I have experienced is that everyone prefers different styles of games. Some people love sports, some love games, some like first person shooters, some like castle defense, some like role playing; the list can go on forever. My strategy to solve this using GBL is to use actual experiences that your learners will face on the job. Put them into a situation and let your system (either course or platform) judge how they do. Regardless of the type of game play style they prefer you will make them much happier by engaging them in real situations rather than directing them down standard PowerPoint based eLearning page-turner course (although those have their uses).

I like to use these 8 techniques as a basis in my instructional design treatment for courses that often times end with good GBL (they also work great for Gamified LMS though we have talked too much about these already!):

1. Win Scenario – This is one of the most important ways to create a basic Gamified course. By defining the win scenario you define all of the course objectives in a clear way. How do you “beat” this unit? How do I “win” this course? This is a great learning method that allows you to convert the boring instructional design competency mapping to a fun “save the princess” game. Every fun game has objectives to it; beat this boss, collect these 5 artifacts. Do the same with your course, and tell your learners about it.

2. Story Line – This technique is another one of the most important steps to make your learning material Gamified. This should define the overall concept behind the course or training.  Typically this step should define an overarching story or consistent theme to situate the content in an interesting context or scenario for the learner. I love using case-based learning or problem-based learning models when defining a storyline.  Both of these are perfect to get your learner curious about the materials you are working with. The key element for your story line should be using actual elements within the job experience that your learners will face to define the story.  Situate it in on the job reality and you will gain engagement points from your learners.

3. Quests – These are your different units that tie into the overall storyline of the game. They are fantastic as they allow your learners to concentrate on specific tasks prior to relating back to the overall Storyline.  Try to avoid cheesy concepts and try to make them situated to the actual work environment while making them based on real things that the learner will need to know. These smaller chunks help to break up the tedium that sometimes occurs with some engaging challenges.

4. Course Avatars – While going through the learning experience it’s helpful to have an avatar system that actually reflects the learners’ accomplishments.  Allowing your learner to design their own avatar allows your learners to create a more personal bond with the course.  After the design, however, the learner should see their leveling and badges reflected within their avatar icon. It may be surprising how important this can be to some learners.

5. Points system – The point system should be used as a positive reinforcement model for moving the user through the course. If a learning objective is accomplished, award points should be granted. Also don’t be afraid to take away points (as long as they can be earned back) as this can also be a motivator.

6. Leveling – Leveling is a great way to provide your learners with a method of keeping track of how they are doing within a course or learning environment. It lets your users know how they are doing within the learning environment. More importantly if you are working with a great budget and can use a sophisticated development platform (Unity comes to mind) combined with TinCan (xAPI) you can use leveling to give your learner cooler abilities or unlock new learning adventures (not to mention the awesome analytics you can get on the back end).

7. Badging – Signifies a visual reward for accomplishment.  This could be based upon leveling/points or used as a rewards system.  Badging for its own sake should be avoided other than to get the student used to the concept. Badging could be used to keep motivation within the course. After completing a quest a badge could be awarded. Badges should be displayed somehow within the course avatar and should be used in conjunction with leveling.

I love to give my learners something that they can use those hard earned learning levels towards. At the end of the day most learners should be intrinsically motivated however, winning a free vacation for the most points collected or the highest level attained is a great extrinsic reward that may motivate me just a little more.

8. Learner Urgency- The game needs to develop some sort of buy-in mechanism that acts as a motivating element as well as creating a sense of urgency to complete tasks.  We don’t want the learners to be too stressed, however, we do want to make something that motivates them to finish the tasks at hand. Leaderboard updates, time limits on tasks, or my favorite method; Give rewards for levels or points accomplishments (these work).

These are a collection of 8 techniques that you can use in your instructional course design strategy or even as a model to define your Gamification platform. To my professional game design friends and colleagues feel free to comment freely and add your wealth of experience as I am sure that I left out about 992 other techniques and awesome tricks of the trade 🙂

– Josh