Power Up! Game-based learning white paper

This is the opening to a white paper on game-based learning I’ve written which you can download here.

 “A game is a problem-solving activity, approached with a playful attitude.” – Jesse Schell, Professor of Game Design at Carnegie Mellon University

“Games are the most elevated form of investigation.” – Albert Einstein

In recent years there has been an explosion of interest in using video game techniques (or ‘gamification’) to make non-game applications more fun and engaging. Gaming strategies can now be seen in a wide range of contexts including business (gamified marketing campaigns and loyalty programmes), health (the gamification of fitness through programmes like Wii Fit and Nike+), government (the application of ‘nudge’ tactics and behavioural economics) and the military (war games and simulations). So whether you enjoy playing games or not, it’s important to understand how they’re shaping the world we live in.

The concept of game-based learning is not new. Effective teachers and instructors have always understood the power of games to motivate and inspire. From using chess to develop strategic thinking; Backgammon and Monopoly for mental arithmetic; Scrabble for spelling and vocabulary; to sophisticated driving and flight simulators – games make learning fun. The buzz word of the moment – ‘gamification’ – has simply reactivated interest in how games can increase learner engagement and influence behaviours.

In this white paper we’ll look at how game-based techniques can energise online learning programmes. Throughout the paper we’ll provide examples of game-based learning that has made a positive, measurable impact. Some techniques (such as immersive 3D virtual environments) require substantial levels of investment, while others can be produced quickly and cost-effectively with just a little imagination, planning and game-based thinking. If you’re interested in gamifying the provision of learning in your organisation, this white paper will give you some useful food for thought.

Easy to understand and remember

In the same way that the novel defined 19th century culture, and cinema was the dominant art form of the last century, video games are the most influential medium of our time. And what do all three media tap into? The human fascination with stories, characters and goals.

Many online learning courses fail to engage because they transmit too much information in an uninvolving and decontextualised way, i.e. screen after screen of dense text, diagrams and bullet points. So why not take a lesson from game designers and reimagine your training course using a compelling story? As well as being more fun and engaging, research shows that stories are much easier to remember than text and bulleted lists. Let’s take a look at some examples…

Download the full Power Up! white paper now.

Game-based simulations

Recent evidence-based research (Sitzmann T: “A Meta-Analytic Examination Of The Instructional Effectiveness Of Computer-Based Simulation Games”, Personnel Psychology 2011) provides compelling reasons for using game-based simulations in adult training. After analysing 65 studies and data from 6,476 train­ees, Traci Sitzmann found that trainees who used simulations gained the following performance improvements over a comparison group who were trained with other forms of instruction (e.g. lectures and assignments):

  • 20% higher confidence levels
  • 14% higher skill-based knowledge
  • 11% higher factual knowledge levels
  • 9% higher retention levels

These findings chime with my own experience of using simulations in a wide range of training interventions over the last 14 years. Learners respond enthusiastically to game-based simulations because they provide an authentic but risk-free environment where you can practise skills, and also feature motivational devices (exploration, challenge, feedback, rewards and virtual coaches) which makes learning fun and addictive. Game-based simulations can also help overcome ‘e-learning fatigue’ in organisations where learners have become tired of clicking through linear tutorials. But to maximise the business impact of game-based simulations, it’s important to deliver them within a blended learning model which provides learners with the opportunity to discuss how newly acquired knowledge and skills can be applied in the real-world. As Traci Sitzman notes: “Games are beneficial for practicing work-related skills, but trainees must first learn work-related knowledge to apply it during game play. Furthermore, a debriefing ses­sion after game play is beneficial for ensuring that trainees realize how their experience in the game is applicable to the work environment.

While playing the computer game LA Noire (where you take on the role of a detective investigating a series of crimes in 1940s Los Angeles), I was reminded of a fraud investigation simulation I produced several years ago.  As part of your detective work in LA Noire you must interview ‘persons of interest’, ask them the right questions, and decide if they’re telling the truth.

LA Noire

Still from LA Noire, produced by Rockstar Games.

The fraud investigation sim I worked on featured a similar interactive approach. We filmed actors talking straight to camera to mimic the experience of being in a tense, face-to-face interview situation. Depending on your choice of questions, the characters under investigation would react accordingly (sometimes with explosive results!). Similarly to LA Noire, the goal was to challenge learners to ask the right questions and get to the truth.

Realism and authentic practice activities like this are key to effective game-based simulations. As Ruth Clark (“E-learning & the Science of Instruction”) makes clear: The surest road to learning is to engineer overt interactions…Rather than asking learners to ‘click on the guidelines for a good client response’ design a simulation in which they will respond to the client and see the client’s reactions.”

Evidence-based research conducted by academics such as Traci Sitzman is starting to validate what many training practitioners have known for years: game-based simulations can provide some of the most effective, motivational and memorable learning experiences the e-learning industry has to offer.

My top 10 e-learning experiences. What are yours?

As you’ll see, I’ve used e-learning in its very broadest sense in this list i.e. learning via electronic means. These are entirely personal choices (I’m sure someone else could put together a more ‘verifiable’ list based on awards won, measurable impact etc.) and on another day I’m sure I could come up with a completely different top 10. I’d be fascinated to see what other people’s best e-learning experiences have been, so please comment with your own favourites. So here they are in reverse order: my top 10. What are yours?

10. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas 

On my first visit to Los Angeles I had the most profound sense of déjà vu while driving from the airport to my friends’ house in Culver City. Why? Because I’d done the drive before, in the simulated world of GTA: San Andreas. It’s no wonder that airlines, oil companies and the military invest so heavily in simulators when they provide such powerful and memorable learning experiences.

9. Business Link: My New Business  

Ok, forgive me for name-checking a project I worked on recently but I learned something in one of the tax modules which has resulted in lasting behavioural change for me, at least. What exactly? How to use the % button on a calculator! For years this had been a mystery to me. Why weren’t we shown how to use it at school?

8. Captivate tutorials

Although Captivate can be a mind-bendingly frustrating experience (Aaarrrggghhh, it’s crashed *again*!), Adobe’s tutorials for this software (both in-built and on their website) are clear, easy to follow and got me producing professional looking Captivate demos and simulations for clients in no time at all.

7. BBC Languages

Need to brush up on some basic French or Spanish before going on holiday? Then visit the BBC’s fantastic Languages site which features a range of videos, audio clips and interactive materials to get you ready for your trip.

6. Web Monkey

When I managed to blag my way into the multimedia industry in the late 90s (after leaving University with an English Literature degree and zero practical skills) Web Monkey was a revelation. This site gave me a solid grounding in HTML and JavaScript which has been invaluable over the last 14 years of design, development and consulting.

5. Allen Interactions & IGN Game walkthroughs 

In joint place because I couldn’t choose between them (and didn’t want to do a ‘top 11’)…Michael Allen is an instructional design hero of mine and the case studies and demos on his company’s site are a great source of inspiration for how corporate e-learning can be done with imagination and flair. IGN’s game walkthroughs are great, not only for helping me through some tricky levels in Zelda, COD and Half-Life 2 but by giving me a deeper insight into game mechanics which has informed my own approach to instructional design.

4. Inside Disaster.com  

This interactive documentary allows you to experience the Haiti earthquake as a survivor, journalist or aid worker. Compelling content, high quality videos and branching scenarios which make you an active participant in the story…this is a brilliant example of what e-learning at its very best can achieve.

An obvious but undeniable choice. People whinge about the odd inaccuracy here and there (as well as the blatant mischief-making, which is part of the fun!) but as a first-stop reference tool, Wikipedia is unbeatable.

2.  Mavis Beacon typing

Ah Mavis, where would I be without you? Ok, I’d probably be right here right now but jabbing at the keyboard 20wpm slower than I am currently. When I graduated and joined the massed ranks of the unemployed during the last recession, I was lucky to be living in an area which provided subsidised computer classes for the jobless, including access to the Mavis Beacon typing course. I’ve no idea what this software is like now but back in the 90s it featured a car racing game with a simple but brilliant motivational device: the faster you type correctly, the quicker the car travels; every time you hit a wrong key, a fly splats on your windscreen and the car slows down. I was hooked and have been happily touch-typing ever since.

1. YouTube

YouTube is the Godhead of online learning. After years of puzzling over the greatest guitar riff of the 1980s (‘This Charming Man’ by The Smiths, just in case you were wondering) I mastered it in an hour after watching a guy on YouTube do a tutorial in four easy steps. As a Photoshop dabbler, YouTube has been a tried and trusted friend for every aspect of this powerful but utterly counter-intuitive piece of software. A wealth of searchable, relevant content – generated by real enthusiasts – is the key. This is what the corporate world needs to take note of. The YouTube learning model has immense practical application in the workplace: we need to capture the skills, knowledge and experiences of our best people and share them online. And if your company’s internal network doesn’t have the bandwidth to deliver video, why not set up your own YouTube channel?

Sadly, I fear many people’s favourite e-learning moment might well be…‘Switching It Off!’ That’s because too many e-learning courses are boring, over long and delivered via cumbersome Learning Management Systems. But, as hopefully this list goes to show, e-learning doesn’t always have to be like that.