Monday, 13 October 2014

Games, Games, Games - Gamification and Learning

In the last few years much has been made of games playing and its connection to learning.  In fact gamification is as hot a topic as you get in the learning tech world and it’s been that way for the last couple of years.  The thing is, we need to understand that there’s a huge range of computer games ranging from the simple to the incredibly media rich and complex (not necessarily the same thing).  Some modern games look more live TV than they do computer generated and with the technological acceleration that we’re a part of it won’t be long before you won’t be able to tell the difference I’m sure (let alone true 3D).  The first computer game I had was tennis.  It didn’t resemble much in the way of tennis if I’m honest, it was more like two long thin rectangles (the racquets) on either side of the screen, a vertical line in the middle as the net and a little square s the ‘ball’; some ‘gamification’ used in learning hasn’t really moved past that - and I’m not suggesting that’s a problem, but we just need to be aware of gamification really means.

If your idea of gaming is Grand Theft Auto or commanding armies and building clans then elearning on the whole just won’t satisfy you.  This isn’t saying that you can’t have learning in games; I love to mess around on word type aps on my iPhone with a Scrabble or Scramble type base - sure I’m learning by potentially expanding my vocabulary - but here’s the important thing; what’s the intended take-away from playing Scramble?  If it’s to try to expand my knowledge of words then maybe it’s a great example of elearning.  If it’s to entertain me, then it’s not really elearning is it?  I mean, I may get some learning out of it, but that doesn’t necessarily make it elearning?  Or does it?  Play some first person shooters and they probably won’t prepare you to fire an automatic rifle or use a high-powered sniper rifle  - but they give you some understanding about military communications or basic tactics (and yes, these type of games definitely have a military application, particularly when paired with actual rifles).  Again, the difference between elearning and accidental learning maybe about intent - but again, does that matter?

Thing is, the games that are intentionally for elearning are often a lot more basic than these.  I’ve seen a good example of customer services software where the scenario plays out and your responses can change the responses of the customer in an entertaining way that could be classed as a game.  As a piece of elearning it was pretty successful.  It was engaging (certainly more so than ‘click next to continue’ learning), with some well-thought out scenarios and responses that realistic enough to make you want to play.  There’s  a good reason that gaming in learning is often limited to this type of scenario project rather than GTA style mega 3D graphics.  Money.  The games business is a huge multi-billion dollar industry.  People pay a lot of money to get their hands on the latest games, not to mention paying for the latest and best hardware to play it on and high-speed internet necessary to connect them to other like-minded individuals.  The elearning industry at the cutting edge end is big-business; but not for the likes of small and medium sized businesses and investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in the build of learning games has not been seen outside of simulators. 

That means that if you’re going to use gamification then you’re going to have to either take a step back or work for a company with a ridiculous budget for producing a game with true learning.  But taking a step back isn’t necessary a bad thing either.  The early days of gaming in some way were the most exciting; sure there were huge limitations with graphics and memory (16kB RAM pack anyone?) - now if that doesn’t sound like an elearning dilemma that we can relate to then I don’t know what does.  My favourite games in the early days were not the Jet Packs or the Manic Miners (yes, I’m really that old), they were the simplest of all games, the adventure games.  For those of you that can cast your minds back that far, the most addictive type of games I knew were text adventure games - for those not in the know they were called text, because there was absolutely no graphics (and then later the odd screenshot).  They felt like there was no ‘plot’ obviously there for you, you had to explore your surroundings and work out what to do, solve the puzzles and achieve whatever the subject of the game was.  Then there was the simple theme type platform game that was so simple and without the greatest graphics, but again it keyed into our basic desire of wanting to achieve something to get to the next level or get the highest score.

So if we’re talking gamification in elearning we’re probably going to have to be creative because we have to generate something in our learners similar to the type of feeling that those early games gave us.  Even some of the most recent successful games have been simple; whether your birds are angry or flappy the key is that they are addictive - that’s the whole point, you want to play them.  They’re like the cleverest type of objectives because they generate in the player a huge desire to keep playing.  If you could tap into that so that your learner just ‘had’ to keep learning, just imagine the potential!  Our aim as instructional designers is often focussed like a modern game on the way things look and how impressive they are and we sometimes overlook the simple addictiveness or learner needs.  Sure great looking graphics are a necessary part of design, but if your learning looks great but is really uninteresting it will be as unsatisfying as a bad game.  The worst game I remember from the arcades when I was growing up was one that used laser disks (big DVDs without the ability to store much).  It was beautiful with full TV type quality action that kept pausing and you had to do something.  In essence you could either move one way or the other by moving your joystick or leaning (if you had the simulator version) and then depending on what you did something would happen.  Take that back to our text adventure game and that’s the equivalent of you having to either say ‘move left’ or ‘move right’ and that’s it.  Boring.

The other thing about games that’s similar to learning is finding the right level of difficulty.  If a game is too easy there’s no competition and it needs to be really long to work (and your elearning budget may not stretch to really long), it needs to be enough of a challenge to make it worth completing - same is true of learning if you really want to test someone properly then it should be a challenge of doing (rather than just knowledge recollection or obvious choices).  I can’t help liking games where there’s a leaderboard so you can test out your abilities.  Would be quite cool if your elearning could do that too.  Imagine that passing was one thing but you devised a skill based trainer where there was a leaderboard for completing with both 100% accuracy and a time?  That would be cool.  Or an Angry Birds type game scoring where you needed to complete but got so many stars on each part - you could complete the whole learning with one-star in each part but you may want to go back and get three stars in each part.

Last thing I want to bring in is the idea of trial and error.  I know lots of you may not like the idea of trying something to see if it works and failing, then trying again, but growing up that’s one of the very important ways we learn things.  My old text based adventure games were built around that idea, you had to be innovative and not be afraid to fail - when you got it right and unlocked another area it felt real good.  In elearning that could be not front-loading your learning but starting with the game, letting people find out funny things that can go wrong and even try and improve their performance without totally knowing what they’re doing.  The sound design is obviously necessary to make sure that somewhere somehow we’re not only getting some success but learning about what we’ve done to get there.  I’d love to see more imagination in our elearning games, more challenging, more allowing for learners to get it wrong and still find a way to succeed in the end.

Okay, very very last thing (this is quite a long flight to LearnX in Melbourne if you’re asking).  Time.  Time may be the single most limiting factor when producing gamification in elearning.  Plants v Zombies the biology class version probably won’t be available next week, so again you’ll need to innovate - if you come out with something really cool, please let me know and if I like it I’ll chuck it up on my blog or website for others to see.

Happy Gaming :)