What can eLearning learn from video games?

Video games can be irresistible. Many of us, from our teens to an age where we really should know better, have succumbed to the temptation to just try one more level, blast one more screen of zombies or pigs, find that last missing coin, only to look at the clock and find its 4am.

I cannot claim to have seen many eLearning courses that command such devotion from their users.
Of course, most video games are nowadays developed with budgets that we in eLearning can only dream of, but the underlying principles of engagement, immersion and design excellence could hardly be more relevant, and are remarkably simple to apply.

So here are my tips for bringing gaming ideas and principles to your eLearning.

1.      “It is the ability to choose which makes us human”. Dump the linear in favour of hub design. Let the learner explore, discover, make choices and feel they have control.

2.      “Do it, fix it, try it”.  Encourage learners to dive into a scenario or case study before they have all the facts, then make the facts available in context. It’s amazing how those boring facts come to life when you need them to solve a problem.

3.      “Specialist subject – the bleedin’ obvious”. Don’t make the user wade through bullet lists of learning objectives, or those dreaded user instructions where you point out that the X in the top corner closes the window, the right-facing arrow means Next and the left facing arrow means Back. We already know! Otherwise we couldn’t have got to this screen in the first place! Get on with it!

4.      “Feedback is the breakfast of champions” (stupid quote of the day, surely it’s Weetabix). Games continually tell you how you are doing. Try to find engaging graphical ways of measuring progress. You can also have more than one progress indicator. There’s a great example of this at the end of this blog.

5.      “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed”.  Don’t be afraid to let your learners fail. Think how long it took you to get 3 stars on every level of Angry Birds. Users don’t mind “losing” so long as they are encouraged, get positive feedback on their progress, and get challenged to try again.  Build in risk of failure – having to go back and start the case study again is a strong motivator to focus, especially if you “lose a life” in the process.

6.      “Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious”.  Many of the best and most successful video games include the elements of humour and surprise. Why not eLearning? It may not seem easy to bring a good laugh into a course on, say, financial regulation – but actually it is. Use your imagination, and remember you don’t need to be ROFL funny. Even the mildest play on words can come as welcome light relief to the poor benighted compliance student.

7.      “Thank you Mario, but our Princess is in another castle”. There is not a lot of scope for randomness in most e-learning projects, but you can create blind alleys, make sure they add to the learning and then encourage the learner to explore them. Remember this when designing branched case studies – all that creative effort and no-one ever goes down the “wrong” route because the right route is too obvious. Give them an incentive to explore.

8.      “Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change”. Games often use adaptive systems, adjusting the content, level of difficulty or choices to the level of the user. How relevant is that to eLearning?!

9.      “The gift of sound and vision”. Use high quality graphics and sound. The YouTube generation has made us remarkably tolerant of low quality video, but this is not the case with audio or with the overall user experience. Poor quality audio can be worse than none at all. We are also now so used to high quality intuitive UX from our home and mobile technology that even with our limited budgets, the quality of the graphic design is increasingly important to attracting and retaining the learner’s attention.

10.  “None of us is as smart as all of us” (Japanese proverb). When it comes to peer motivation, we may not be able to compete with World of Warcraft, but we can integrate simple social media tools into our eLearning, add league tables in the LMS, show the learner the last five answers to an open question, and so on.

If it still sounds a bit difficult, I recommend you to explore the Parliamentary Education Service web site. Here is just one example, a worthy winner at the 2010 eLearning awards which incorporates almost every one of the items I’ve listed – MP For A Week.

Finally, a game.  Can you match the quotes above to their authors?
a.       Anon (Jap.)
b.      Ken Blanchard
c.       David Bowie
d.      Madeleine L’Engle
e.      Basil Fawlty
f.        Stephen Hawking
g.       Michael Jordan
h.      Shigeru Miyamoto
i.         Tom Peters
j.        Peter Ustinov

Right, now back to those pesky pigs.
Answers  1 d, 2 i, 3 e, 4 b, 5 g, 6 j, 7 h, 8 f, 9 c, 10 a

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