Gamification: How to use Game Dynamics in Learning

There’s a family story that i once threw a Monopoly board across the room rather than accept defeat. I’m not sure i remember it quite that way, but i do know that the battered box is relegated to the cupboard these days and holidays are more tranquil for it. The current game of choice is Scrabble, played, for preference, in the pub, on a Sunday afternoon, with friends. Or xBox, challenges on long evenings, defeating hordes of aliens and saving the world before the pizza arrives. You’re welcome.

Gamification - the board game

Games capture and hold our attention in ways that have guaranteed organisations will take an interest. This engagement is the ultimate goal of learning and if it can be achieved through subterfuge, so be it. The pervasive rise of so called ‘gamification‘ (20 points, or more if you can hit the Double Word score. although not permitted by the official Scrabble dictionary) reflects this quest.

But for every game i play, dozens lie unwanted and unused under the sofa or relegated to the dusty shelves of charity shops. Why? Because they lack a certain something: they fail to deliver the promised smiles and laughs shown on the faded box. They fail to entertain.

Entertainment is, of course, one thing, but effectiveness is quite another. In the organisational world, we may want to entertain, but underneath it, we want to encourage learning, to effect change.

To do so requires an understanding, not of the entertainment provided by games, but rather of the underlying mechanics that power them. If we want to use game dynamics with any effect, to be effective, we need to move beyond simply copying the outward trappings of games, the scoreboards and badges, and we must explore the behaviours that they utilise and trigger, then understand how that can feed into the journey of learning.

We must use this knowledge in our learning design, to ensure that the games we deploy are in fact developing the right skills and not just developing gaming skills. And we must ensure that we have multiple dimensions of reward to ensure we cater for all aspects of the community, not just the gamers.

I want to explore some key aspects of game application and then reflect on how they can best be applied in organisational work.

Aspects of Gamification

Let’s start by thinking about ‘Competition‘. It’s often the first type of game mechanic that’s applied to organisational learning. League tables, scoreboards, winners and losers. But how does it relate to reality? Are we making it competitive because it aids learning, or are we making it competitive because it’s built into our toolbox of eLearning tools and it’s all we know how to do?

In life, what competitive advantage does competition give us?

Most of what we explore in the Social Age is about community and collaboration: one could argue that communities form as a response to competition, that they are, in fact, the polar opposite to the brutality of competition.

Community allows for us to build shared value and shared purpose and to divide labour and specialise accordingly. Instead of me having to master every aspect of a production process (say, making bread), i am able to perfect my own part of that process through specialisation (say, inventing containerised shipping of bulk ingredients that makes the loaf two percent cheaper). I am no longer a generalist: i’m a highly tuned specialist, but in a community of diverse specialists, the community wins.

So when we use competitive elements in games, when we use scoreboards and trophies, are we rewarding individual self interest at the cost of collaboration? We may engage, i may want to come top of the scoreboard, but is that truly in the interest of the community for me to do so?

It’s no trivial matter: i suspect that scoring and ranking are amongst the top most applied gamification techniques, but may in fact to be driving precisely the wrong behaviours. We may be training people to exhibit the very behaviours that least benefit the community.

By contrast, ‘Cooperation‘ can generate a different dynamic. Cooperation is an agile skill, but it’s highly contextual: the cooperative behaviours that allow us to solve one problem may be at odds with the ones needed for the next. Agility indicates that we form alliances in response to context, and in the Social Age a key factor in the viability of those alliances is our reputation.

What this means is that the alliances we form in a game context may not be those that we need in the real world: it may be the skills of ‘alliance building’ which are relevant, not the actual alliances themselves. If this is true, then we may want to avoid team formation, or at least be aware that success is not measured in the cohesion of a team (which may originate in existing relationships) so much as the significant behaviours exhibited in team formation.

There’s also something to consider about reciprocity: cooperation within a game is likely to rely on internal reciprocity: doing something for me within the context of the game (e.g. Swapping one of my Stations for one of your Blue properties in Monopoly). We both have something to gain. In the Social Age, particularly in the context of Social Leadership, we talk about operating with no expectation of reciprocity in the moment: it’s sharing based on humility and the health of the community in the expectation that the value we build into community will deliver it’s own results in time. So even something as apparently simple as encouraging cooperation may not deliver as clear cut learning results as we could expect.

The true learning may be about the foundations of cooperation, not just rewarding successful cooperation: the two things may be different.

I really like games approaches where the cooperative approach is based on successful diagnosis of the challenge, not just on pure team formation. This can manifest in ‘Quest‘ type games, where the nature of the quest can inform the decisions we take on team formation. This mirrors the agile ecosystem of the real world, where we need to form communities around specific challenges, recognising that those communities may be temporary.

Reward‘ itself is an important aspect of game dynamics: are we rewarding meaningfully? Consider the ways that people can experience reward. There’s reward based around resource: win and you get something, for preference, something rare, treasured or pleasurable. Then there’s status: win and you are recognised for your sporting, intellectual or aesthetic prowess! Reward can be immediate or deferred: you can walk away with the prize, or the prize can vest over time (perhaps through increased status within a community).

We should recognise thought there is not necessarily a linear relationship between effort and reward: there are contexts where explicit reward may not be desired or beneficial. People may not want to stand out, especially if competitive behaviours is seen as anti collaborative, which may be true for empathic or cultural reasons. Just because we like games doesn’t mean we should assume it’s universal.

Different types of reward structure can propagate different types of behaviour: an abstract reward may permit exploratory or more risky behaviours than a straight cash prize, which may carry more immediate value. If all that is at stake is a position on a leaderboard, we may be willing to exhibit different behaviours than if cold hard money is involved.

In any event: view reward as a factor that impacts every aspect of playing the game, not just the prize-giving at the end.

Understanding the context and permission for ‘Risk‘ is vital, especially when we deconstruct the different types of risk at play.

There may be risk around something physical, like safety or the loads placed on a building. There may be reputational risk, where failing will damage confidence. There may be offset risk: win the game here but carry a stigma elsewhere. We shouldn’t view risk as something to be avoided at all costs or mitigated. Sometime a healthy amount of risk can pay benefits: it moves us out of our expected zone of behaviour and response and allows us to experiment with new behaviours (rehearsal) and consequence. Of course, it only does this if we have both permission and space to practice. Get it wrong and we are rehearsing on the job, which is ok, as long as that has been planned for!

Risk modifies behaviour. Try walking along the white line that runs down a road (check for cars first… that’s one type of risk!). Now put a plank the width of that line two feet off the ground and walk along it. Most of us are more careful. Just a little. Put it ten feet up and i’m very careful indeed: a hundred feet up and nothing would persuade me to walk it, at least not without a safety harness.

Attitude to risk is proportional to ability to offset it (and possibly to understand it).

We can use risk within learning games to modify behaviours or to steer scenarios in particular directions, but if we are clever about the design, we may want to include a necessity to confront and take risk on, because it’s a great modifier of behaviour. Just remember, how real the risk is impacts on the responses we choose. If we wear the safety harness, we may throw ourselves off, just to see what it feels like.

Some of the better applications of games in learning are around formation, rehearsal and implementation of ‘Strategy‘. This can happen in two ways: implicitly or explicitly.

Implicit and Explicit Games

Let’s say you work in a burger bar and the training consists of a game to practice making the burger. The point of it is to help you coordinate all the elements: where you put the pan, where you break the eggs, how long you cook them for. You are building a strategy (as well as manual skills and rehearsed behaviours) for success. We can modify the game by ‘forcing‘ it to give you a bad egg, to see how you react, but whatever we do, the context is explicit: you’re learning to make a burger.

In implicit strategy, the actual application may be shielded. For example: you have to go on a quest in a magical kingdom to find some treasure, but to find the treasure, you need to cross a lake, force open a door and climb a cliff. To succeed, you need to assemble a team, which will include negotiating a split of the treasure. The skills you are rehearsing may be applicable in the real world, but you are rehearsing them in the abstract, in a present space. We are not rehearsing strategy in an applied sense, but nonetheless we are executing strategy to achieve a goal, which may carry parallels in the real world and, indeed, allow you to rehearse behaviours that can carry across into the real world.

Playing with implicit and explicit modes of learning design can provide benefits: it may let us focus on the skills in the abstract from application and engineer modes of rehearsal that are unconstrained by the ‘real world‘. On the flip side, if we rehearse in the abstract, we may need to explicitly make the links back to the real world. Simply succeeding in the abstract scenario is not enough: if we don’t make it clear how it impacts in the real world, we are failing.

I’ve been playing Star Wars Commander on the iPad: when i get distracted for a few days, my Base gets raided and i lose resources. Sometimes a lot of resources. This potential for ‘Loss‘ is not accidental: it’s engineered into the engagement tools of the game, intended to annoy me, intended to get me back in to play some more (and build more resources). Mobile games are leading the way in Engagement strategies, because they have a clear financial gain from getting me to reengage and play more.

This notion of loss is one that we can benefit from understanding: how we can apply it, how it can be used to learn. Within role-play or simulation games, we can actively manipulate scenarios to include aspects of loss to both force people to confront change but also to generate an engagement to rebuild.

I mentioned the Star Wars game: ‘Building‘ is a key part of the experience. You build a base and apply both functional and aesthetic decisions when doing so. Endless hours of tinkering with your base/farm/railway/space station. This ‘housekeeping‘ function of games is often ignored in organisational applications. People like to curate a space, like to design, like to build. There is mileage in understanding how and why and creating spaces for people to do this. It’s engagement.

Games like Sim City or indeed Star Wars Commander are open ended: they have no final act, because the interactions are about building and fending off adversity. Even if you managed to build the perfect city, a tornado may strike and put you back into disaster management mode (a good application of ‘loss‘ to generate engagement. But the loss must be limited: when attacked in Star Wars, you don’t lose all your wealth, but rather a percentage of it, so if you are attacked multiple times, the amount they take decreased each time: a set percentage, but a diminishing return, always leaving you with something to start from. How much loss we can bear without disengaging is a fascinating concept and highly relevant to learning.

Sometimes we talk about ‘disturbance‘: too little and we will not change. Too much and we will disengage as it’s too much effort to rebuild. It’s a balance, it’s about choreography. Continual monitoring rather than just heading for a league table.

We talked a little about ‘Adversity‘ already, considering how an uphill struggle can generate it’s own type of momentum. In serious games, we have a permission to take this to extremes: we can use adversity to test resilience, diagnostic skills, problem solving and agility. But it has to be in purpose of an objective. In a game like HALO, you face increasing levels of adversity whilst completing a broadly linear path of exploration and conquest. Indeed, complete the third game in the trilogy and you end up facing an endless stream of ever harder adversaries until you fail: there is no victory possible, but for that reason, i found it of limited appeal. There needs to be at least an astronomically distant prospect of success if we want people to strive.

The acquisition and marshalling of ‘Resources‘ sits within many games, especially ‘god’ type games, where you are building and deploying things. I particularly like some of the multi dimensional aspects of resourcing and reward used by some of the latest mobile games, which have clear applications for Social Age learning. For example, in the Star Wars game, you can collect gold coins, alloy and crystals. Some buildings are bought for money, some require alloy, and crystals, well, they are catalysts. They make things happen faster. You can use crystals to complete a building faster (buildings go up in ‘real‘ time, often taking a week or more to complete).

Now, you can harvest money and alloy, but crystals you buy for real life cash. So you can speed the game up with real money, or you can play for free, but more slowly.

Similarly, even playing for free you can adopt different approaches: you can be acquisitive, battling others to conquer and steal their resources, or you can be nurturing, never going to war, but fine tuning your base. This would be slower, but perfectly feasible. You can also choose to cooperate, sending your troops to help others, interesting with no reciprocal mechanism: a very Social Age trait. There’s definitely mileage in exploring resources in organisational games: maybe looking at how we can set up real trading of virtual game resources to link the abstract back to reality?

Finally, let’s consider the benefits of ‘Recklessness‘. If we consider how we can apply games, we shouldn’t rule out unconstrained destruction: letting people fully destruct test the limits of an environment. It’s not behaviour we want to condone, but maybe it’s all part of exploration: prototyping behaviours and exploring consequence in a safe space. It is, after all, what we do as children, so i guess it helped us learn somewhere along the line…

These are just some of a wide range of dynamics in game design: my purpose was to provoke exploration and reflection, for myself and others, into the nuance we can bring to game design, into gamification. The ways we can move beyond avatars and scoreboards to more meaningful mechanisms and applied game dynamics that are focussed not on just experience, but more on application and excellence. Games to help us learn.


About julianstodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
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