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Andrew Jackson

Pacific Blue Solutions


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Serious about games and gamification pt2


In the second of this three-part series, Pacific Blue's Andrew Jackson looks at the challenges of gamification, and what consitutes a 'game'. 

The ingredients of a good game

'Good game, good game', was the regular catch phrase of Bruce Forsyth when he hosted the popular TV programme 'The Generation Game' in the 70s. No wonder it was so popular. Most people love to either watch or take part in games of some kind. We do so from childhood and the allure of a good game rarely weakens as we move into adulthood. And with the popularity of games in general and computer games in particular, it's no wonder that talk of gamifying learning is such a hot topic at the moment.

But what is 'gamification', exactly? No surprise, perhaps, that different people have different definitions. But for the purposes of this article, let's call it, applying game-based elements or components to your learning to promote effective outcomes. And applying these elements and components is about much more than awarding badges or points to increase motivation and participation - although all these are without question important components of game-based activity.

In my previous article on this topic, I took issue with the often expressed idea that upcoming generations who have spent their childhood playing computer games are somehow fundamentally different from everybody else. I couldn’t disagree more. As just mentioned, we all love a good game - either as spectators or participants. Sure, computer games take the complexity and sophistication of playing a game to levels previously impossible to achieve. But in reality, we have all been influenced one way or another by playing games. And, in reality, the basic elements of a game are fundamentally the same, regardless of the medium.

"For skilled and knowledgeable instructional designers and trainers, gamification is old news. They have been adding elements of games to their learning for decades."

One important aspect of gamification for learning that is often overlooked -it is not new. If your view of learning is 'chalk and talk' or good old page-turning elearning, then gamification of your learning might seem like a new (and possibly scary) addition to your worldview. However, for skilled and knowledgeable instructional designers and trainers, gamification is old news. They have been adding elements of games to their learning for decades. The challenge ahead is not about whether adding gamification is something your learners will enjoy. First-hand experience and anecdotal evidence suggest that when done right (and 'done right' is an important caveat) learners are pretty satisfied with it. Nor is the challenge about whether gamification works. There's a fairly substantial body of research to suggest it does. The real challenge ahead is threefold:

First, until there is a massive shift in the availability of cheap and easy technology to produce so-called 'serious games', most L&D professionals will never be able to consider the fully-fledged computer gaming experience advocated by some. For most of us the issue will be about whether we can apply the benefits of gamification without busting our budget.

Second, we need to better understand the components and elements that make up a game. Then we can make informed, intelligent decisions about which components or elements to apply to a given piece of learning.

Finally, we need some practical, realistic and cost-effective ways to use the game elements we identify within our existing delivery mediums, such as classroom and elearning courses.

While I fundamentally disagree with Karl Kapp's analysis of 'boomers' versus 'gamers', (as explained in part 1), he and several other experts have done invaluable thinking around what it is exactly that makes a game a game. Here's a summary of some key elements of games and their relevance to your learners:

  • Creating an abstract of reality. Actual reality is messy. Providing an abstraction of reality is a great way to minimise complexity, focus your learners on what's really important and help them understand cause and effect in a given situation – with much greater clarity than is usually possible in real life.

  • Setting goals. Including a clear goal in a game adds purpose, focus and the ability to measure outcomes.

  • Setting rules. These can range from simple operational rules (i.e. how you play the game) through to implicit behavioral rules. In a learning context, you can also include instructional rules that relate specifically to the knowledge or skills being learnt.

  • Working with or against others. Others here can include the game itself, not just other players. Working with or against others, provides plenty of opportunity for conflict, competition or co-operation.

  • Working against the clock. Time can spur your learners into action and apply additional pressure to their environment. Additionally, time can be used as a resource that learners need to use with thought and care.

  • Giving rewards. You may decide to make getting rewards and points easy - as a way of hooking people into your game early on. Alternatively, you may decide to make rewards and points hard to achieve, as a means of increasing motivation

  • Providing feedback. There is plenty of opportunity to build in intrinsic feedback. In other words, your learners can immediately see or feel the consequences of their actions and decisions.

  • Enabling different levels of engagement. You can vary the level of challenge and difficulty available to your learners as a way of building motivation.

  • Telling a story. This always helps provide context and meaning.

  • Keeping flow and sequence. A good flow and sequence helps 'hook' the learners early on and maintain their interest throughout – this is sometimes referred to as the 'curve of interest'.

  • Thinking about visual design. This definitely doesn't have to be about realism, but your game should be visually appealing and recognisably authentic.

  • Providing a replay option. This provides a very important opportunity for your learners - the opportunity to fail. This enables your learners to reconsider their actions and decisions - particularly important when you are teaching principles or approaches that can be applied in several different ways.

In the final article of this series, I’ll explore how you might apply some game elements to your learning without needing a massive budget. And without turning yourself into a computing games specialist or developer. I'll also look at some of the pros and cons around introducing gamification to your learning design.

Read part one of the series here

Andrew Jackson is co-founder of Pacific Blue Solutions. Pacific Blue works with individuals and organisations to create more effective, results-driven learning – with a special focus on the intelligent application of instructional design principles. Create boredom-busting elearning that incorporates elements of gamification with their free Effective E-Learning Toolkit

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Andrew Jackson


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