Why should you, as a learning designer, take a game design workshop? What is the relationship between games and learning? I want to suggest that there are very important reasons why you should.
Just so you don’t think I’m the only one saying it, in the decade since I wrote the book Engaging Learning: Designing e-Learning Simulation Games, there have been a large variety of books on the topic. Clark Aldrich has written three, at least count. James Paul Gee has pointed out how the semantic features of games match to the way our brains learn, as has David Williamson Shaeffer. People like Kurt Squire, Constance Steinkuhler, Henry Jenkins, and Sasha Barab have been strong advocates of games for learning. And of course Karl Kapp has a recent book on the topic. You could also argue that Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun is another vote given that his premise is that fun is learning. So I’m not alone in this.
But more specifically, why get steeped in it? And I want to give you three reasons: understanding engagement, understanding practice, and understanding design. Not to say you don’t know these, but I’ll suggest that there are depths which you’re not yet incorporating into your learning, and you could and should. After all, learning should be ‘hard fun’.
The difference between a simulation and a game is pretty straightforward. A simulation is just a model of the world, and it can be in any legal state and be taken to any other. A self-motivated and effective self-learner can use that to discover what they need to know. But for specific learning purposes, we put that simulation into an initial state, and ask the learner to take it to a goal state, and we’ve chosen those so that they can’t do it until they understand the relationships we want them to understand. That’s what I call a scenario, and we typically wrap a story around it to motivate the goal. We can tune that into a game. Yes, we turn it into a game, but by tuning.
And that’s the important point about engagement. We can’t call it game; only our players can tell us whether it’s a game or not. To achieve that goal, we have to understand what motivates our learners, what they care about, and figure out how to integrate that into the learning. It’s about not designing a learning event, but designing a learning experience. And, by studying how games achieve that, we can learn how to take our learning from mundane to meaningful. Whether or not we have the resources and desire to build actual games, we can learn valuable lesssons to apply to any of our learning design. It’s the emotional element most ID leaves behind.
I also maintain that, next to mentored live practice, games are the best thing going (and individual mentoring doesn’t scale well, and live practice can be expensive both to develop but particularly when mistakes are made). Games build upon that by providing deep practice; embedding important decisions in a context that makes the experience as meaningful as when it really counts. We use game techniques to heighten and deep the experience, which makes it closer to live practice, reducing transfer distance. And we can provide repeated practice. Again, even if we’re not able to implement full game engines, there are many important lessons to take to designing other learning experiences: how to design better multiple choice questions, the value of branching scenarios, and more. Practical improvements that will increase engagement and increase outcomes.
Finally, game designers use design processes that have a lot to offer to formal learning design. Their practices in terms of information collection (analysis), prototyping and refinement, and evaluation are advanced by the simple requirement that their output is such that people will actually pay for the experience. There are valuable elements that can be transferred to learning design even if you aren’t expecting to have an outcome so valuable you can charge for it.
As professionals, it behooves us to look to other fields with implications that could influence and improve our outcomes. Interface design, graphic design, software engineering, and more are all relevant areas to explore. So is game design, and arguably the most relevant one we can.
So, if you’re interested in tapping into this, I encourage you to consider the game design workshop I’ll be running for the ATD Atlanta chapter on the 3rd of June. Their price is fair even if you’re not a chapter member, and it’s great deal if you are. Further, it’s a tried and tested format that’s been well received since I first started offering it. The night before, I’ll be busting myths at the chapter meeting. I hope I’ll see you there!