Gamification for Adult Learners

by Pamela O’Neal
Association for Talent Development, Heart of Central Illinois Chapter

Employee performance and engagement can be improved by applying elements of gaming to the workplace.

Gamification is a big buzzword in the world of learning these days. But what is it, and what is the difference between “gaming” and “gamification”?

Gaming, or game-based learning, is learning through the use of games—typically point-and-click games in which learners guide avatars (graphical representations of the user or a character) through activities or questions to gain knowledge or information. This can lead some skeptics to believe that games are not educational: they look too fun, so what educational merit could they have? However, those of us with young learners know of the amazing adventures to be had on educational websites like PBS Kids, FunBrain and BrainPop. (Check them out for some entertaining and engaging learning ideas!)

We often think of gaming for young learners, but what about adult learning theory? Don’t we want to be entertained as well?

Leveling Up
Enter gamification, which gets a bad rap because it sounds like gaming. It isn’t. Gamification is not about playing a game, but about using gaming mechanics (achievements, avatars, levels, badges, rewards, etc.) in order to increase engagement. And it works. Who doesn’t want to be engaged?

Think about how we like to learn. Are we competitive and motivated by challenge? Do we like to receive rewards or recognition for our accomplishments? How about social learning? And who doesn’t like to “level up”?

I find it interesting that in school (traditional K-12), learners start out at 100 percent and can only go downhill from there. We start out “perfect” and fail forward. Acquiring a “successful” grade doesn’t mean we achieved something new; it means we didn’t fail miserably. We succeeded in taking our exam and not failing past an “acceptable” average.

That is not inspiring and it doesn’t seem very rewarding. But by utilizing elements of gaming for learning, we are able to engage learners because we start at the lowest, easiest point and level up as we learn. We climb our way to the top. Stand up and yell “LEVEL UP” next time you accomplish something: it’s just fun! Which is more motivating to you: failing forward or leveling up?

Complete the Groundwork
As with all good instructional design, however, we cannot just jump into the fun of it all. We have to start with the basics: defining the objective. What measurable business objective are we trying to achieve, or what learning problem are we trying to solve? What behavior must change, and how will we measure it? We need to complete the groundwork before applying gaming mechanics.

Enter the needs analysis. Know it, learn it, do it. I can’t stress this enough; it is that important. If we miss the mark at this stage, we have no hope of accomplishing our learning objective. Then, once the hard stuff is identified, we can factor in the pizazz and really make our learning dazzle and shine.

When you are developing objectives, you must use actionable verbs. “Understand” and “know” are not measurable—you cannot assess what someone knows outside of quick memory retention, so don’t do it. If the measurable objective is knowledge, use actionable verbs—such as “label,” “identify,” “describe” or “define”—and then provide learners the opportunity to exhibit that knowledge in one way or another. If in doubt, visit Bloom’s taxonomy for clarification... it’s an easy Google search! Okay, rant over, moving on…

Well-Designed Gamification
Monica Cornetti, a leading guru on gamification, published an easy-to-read book entitled Totally Awesome Training! Activity Guide: How to Put Gamification to Work for You. Among dozens of tips and ideas, she provides insight into well-designed gamification, which will:

  • encourage problem solving;
  • promote teamwork;
  • give players a sense of control;
  • reward out-of-the-box thinking;
  • reduce the fear of failure that inhibits innovative experimentation; and
  • support diverse interests and skillsets.

Ultimately, that is what we want, right? As educators, we want motivated, engaged learners who are free to explore in a safe environment and overcome some gap, achieve some outcome or learn a new skill. As learners, we want to acquire knowledge, or learn a new skill that is fun, entertaining, relevant and… yawn… not boring!

When properly developed, gamification can be a successful tool to increase engagement and motivation. However, simply adding on elements of gaming to poorly defined objectives will end in an epic fail. So do your homework, spend about 80 percent of your time in the needs analysis and writing objectives, and figure out how you will measure success. Once that is locked down, add some fun and flair.

Follow a story (fairy tales are great), create some characters, embark on an adventure, and add some elements of gaming to the mix. You’ll soon be entering a new world of adult learner engagement that will take you places you never dreamed about! iBi

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