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Gamification for Training

I recently came across the term and book Gamification, by Gabe Zichermann and Christopher Cunningham, which seems to have taken the marketing world by storm.  The word refers to “the use of game play elements for non-game applications.” Companies are using it to make their websites, social media, and mobile apps “sticky, viral, and engaging to their customers.”

I also had the pleasure of meeting Gabe after his recent presentation at the NEMOA Direct Xchange Conference for direct marketers. As I listened, I considered not only how gamification could help Trainers Warehouse, but more importantly, how it could help teachers and trainers understand and maximize the effectiveness of learning games? My reflections on how gamifying learning is both old and new,  can be found on both the Gamification blog and below.

Gamification History

While it’s a hot buzzword for today’s marketers, it’s hardly a new concept for teachers and trainers. In the early 1980′s the term “edutainment” came into vogue as software developers looked to create applications that would be both educational and entertaining. Their goal, three decades ago, was to marry children’s computer games and learning.

Two decades ago, in the early 1990s, Active-Learning (AL) became a much talked-about topic in the adult learning world, and has continued to grow in popularity since then.  Active learning covers methods such as class discussions, “think-pair-share,” student debate, video discussions, role playing, and of course, game-play. In fact, during this time, Trainers Warehouse, has grown as the go-to source for creating tools, toys, and games to make learning more innovative, fun and effective.

Although the concept is not new, watching the evolution of Game-Based Learning (GBL) has been exciting.  In grade school, I remember matching games were quite popular, as a method to learn vocabulary or concepts.  10 years ago, Jeopardy-like games were the go-to game paradigm for energetic, competitive learning reinforcement games.

Today, we look to games to do even more heavy-lifting—not just help to reinforce and remember information already presented, but we look to games as a way to introduce new information and engage the mind in fun, challenging, emotional, competitive, and memorable ways. As an example, see how third grade teacher, Mr. Pai, has transformed his class.

Finding Games

Ideas for games that support a variety of learning initiatives are everywhere – in books, in card decks, for sale online, for free in blogs and in social media discussion groups, for hire through consultants.  Games seem to have been created to cover every topic under the sun — icebreakers or openers, teambuilding, communication, leadership, project management, process improvement, customer service, sales, marketing, banking, you name it.

Making Games

If you can’t find a game already created for your content, you can create your own. Lots of “game guys” are out there waiting to create a snazzy customized game for you, complete with all the latest and greatest in game design. It will take some time and some “kish-cay” (my son’s term) – but it’ll be good.  However, if that is simply cost-prohibitive, you can still “gamify” your training with popular game structures or “Frame Games,” (a term that Dr. Sivasailam Thiagarajan, a.k.a. “Thiagi” uses), consisting of generic shells into which you can load your own content, for instant customization.

Some games are geared toward information discovery—that is, learning new information. Others act as learning reinforcement and memory aids.  Many do both.  Following are some popular options.

Jeopardy-like games: This is my starting point, because it’s so popular and familiar. Although there are many free versions online, those tend to be loaded with advertisements and do not look particularly professional.  The great thing about Jeopardy-like games is that they can be easily adapted for live, webinar, and online learning. They can also accommodate individual play, team play or “all-play” needs. Although Jeopardy is often perceived as a reinforcement game, you can also use it to introduce new material—starting and stopping the play to explain a new concept, explore nuances of an answer, or clarify confusion.

Other TV Game Shows: the vendors listed above also base learning games on TV favorites such as: Family Feud, Who wants to be a Millionaire? Wheel of Fortune, Money Taxi, Hollywood Squares, etc.  You can easily add your own content into these games.

Points and Prizes: First, consider what behaviors you’d like to reward – participation, correct answers, timely attendance, etc.? Next, choose a currency to award when students display that behavior.  It can be points, play money, self-made scratch tickets, raffle tickets, candy, tokens, or anything else collectible.  At the end of your session, reward a prize to the winner and/or the one who’s made the best comeback.

Throwables: Balls connote game play. They can be used to call on individual contribution or team play. You can easily toss a ball around to solicit contributions. To make a game of it, set people into teams and reward points for correct answers, or take away points for “dropping the ball” with an incorrect answer.

Interactivities: Interactivity Games are a new style of participatory play developed for online learning. They are generally short and quick, and can be easily inserted into your online course, no matter what authoring tool you happen to use. Sports games, puzzles, flashcards, and Jeopardy-style games all translate well to the online learning environment.

What we can learn from Gamification

Clearly, we have a myriad of options when it comes to training games. The question for us seems to be not whether to play, but what to play? and how to play? in order to maximize effectiveness. Be aware that true Gamification experts optimize playing experiences for a range of player types, identified by Bartles as Killers, Achievers, Socializers, and Explorers.  As trainers looking to simply engage our learners at a deeper level, we haven’t segmented our participants into Player Styles (we have enough industry debate Learning Styles!). Perhaps that’s our next challenge.

Meanwhile, let’s embrace the findings of our friends in the marketing department, who have done the research to know that game play is most satisfying when players get to:

  • Compete (against themselves or others)
  • Accumulate points or currency
  • Move to increasing levels of difficulty
  • Face new challenges and celebrate achievements
  • View success and status on “leader boards” that show the highest-ranking players.

Indeed, many of the games listed above are successful game experiences because they already employ many of these basic techniques. They are also effective learning techniques because they motivate participation, evoke emotion, challenge the brain, and engage our minds.

However, like marketers, let us always keep in mind our reason for playing.  For trainers, it’s not to win customers, build fans, or collect survey results – but our games do have a purpose. We are responsible for the growth and development of people.  We must view games as engaging vehicles for learning and only select games that will achieve our desired learning results.

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