Learner Engagement – Are Games the Answer?

Games for Engaging Learners

If you read industry journals like “T&D” from ASTD or Associations Now, you’ll see that engagement is hot. Everyone is talking about increasing engagement, and many are turning to gamification, social learning networks, and anything else they think will work to increase learner engagement.

I often get asked by clients and attendees of my gamification education sessions, “Are games really the answer to increased learner engagement and knowledge retention?”  Sometimes I think people are shocked when I tell them, “not always”. The truth is, learner engagement is not easy to crack, if it were, there wouldn’t be so much debate about games for training, using rewards, and points to motivate learners or the like. If you want to know the truth; it’s the content that matters!

 

Why content is king

Often, we will be approached by organizations whose learners are falling asleep during their courses, or they are not registering for the course at all. So they ask us to “convert” their learning into a game. They believe that if only this experience were more like a video game, learners would engage!  But the fact is, often the biggest obstacle to engagement is the content, itself. And wrapping a game around that won’t fix the problem.

There are two simple questions I like to ask when it relates to content.  “Does the learner need to know this information in order to do their job?”  “Is it clear how this content will help the learner do their job better or get a better job?” If you can’t answer “yes” to most of the content within a course, then you will not have engagement, no matter how many mini-games you include.

Learners need context and relevance.  When it’s clear to your learners “what’s in it for me” – the WIIFM – then you will immediately increase engagement – no bells and whistles required.

 

Recognition rings loud in your learners’ ears

As a game-based learning developer, we often look at increasing learner engagement by using leaderboards, status posts, and badges, but true engagement comes from something even more basic.

Most of us in education and training love to learn. We seek self-actualization. Knowing is enough for us. But the fact is, learners often take education to fulfill more basic needs. One of these is the desire for recognition.

Our businesses rely on a workforce that is continually learning and developing. But how often do we recognize this? How often do we publicly congratulate “Jill for completing that leadership class”? Do we include her learning achievements in her annual performance reviews? Do we recognize Jill as a model to her peers?

As we demand more from our people, and expect them to develop personally and professionally, recognizing their effort is critical if we want that behavior to continue and flourish throughout the organization. They don’t necessarily need a certificate, a Facebook badge or status update. They just want recognition.

 

Everyone loves a challenge

In the early days of online learning, I took a class on game-based learning design. While much of it focused on theory and models, where all of us sat listening to a lecturer, there was a unit that involved us partnering up to compete in a game of “Lemonade Stand.” Many of you are probably familiar with the game. You are given supplies: lemons, water, sugar and some marketing money for signs. Your challenge is to generate the most revenue using only the resources you were given. You then need to look at the weather conditions, traffic and decide how much lemonade to sell and how much to charge.

We all competed against one another and my team won. It was a challenge to beat the other teams, using strategy and skill, and now, years later, the learning concepts involved in this challenge stick with me even today, as I run my own company. Bottom line. To increase engagement, imagine ways where you can create an open-ended challenge that can model the behaviors you want to teach. This will not only increase engagement, but also learning retention.

 

Points are just points, until they are given significance

Gamification has taught us that if you add points to anything, you increase engagement, right? Wrong. We’ve produced games that involved complex scoring mechanisms and point systems. But when these were launched, the learners immediately learned that the points didn’t really mean anything, and so motivation was lost.

Instead, consider the successful technique of using “unlockables.” Make certain messages, animations or levels only available after the learner has earned enough points . Instantly, the learner’s perception of the content becomes more valuable. This is the trick to increased engagement.

Another great approach is to enable points earned in these learning events to be redeemed for prizes. Prizes can range from free song downloads to gift certificates and often come at no cost to the organization thanks to advertisers who sponsor the prizes. This not only increases the learner’s motivation to complete courses, but also brings them back for more. Now that’s engagement.

 

Learning should create opportunity

Finally, it’s important that the learning results in opportunity. There’s a reason that college attendance is at an all-time high right now. Students see a degree as the key to a better job, better money, a better life. If you can demonstrate how your learning will help increase the learner’s opportunities, this will increase their engagement.

By following the tips share here today, you’ll not only increase engagement, but you’ll earn big rewards for you and your learner. Do you have any tips you would add for increased learner engagement? If so, please share your ideas with other readers by commenting below.

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Jack McGrath

President & Creative Director at Digitec Interactive

Jack is an instructional designer, inventor, screenwriter, dramatist, professor, speaker, and Shakespeare junkie, but you can just call him "The Bard." On the academic side, Jack earned a B.A. and Master of Liberal Arts from Rollins College (are you noticing a theme here?) and is currently studying Spanish at Valencia College. A long-time distance learning professor for Seminole State College and nationally-recognized speaker on eLearning, Jack stays busy both in and out of the office. He has been an instructional designer, producer, multimedia developer, writer and project manager on eLearning titles for organizations including YUM! Brand Restaurants, The Walt Disney Company, Chase Manhattan, among others.

Spirit animal: Jackalope
Diet-breaker: Boston Kreme donuts
Comfort object: My office slinky (says something, right?)
Personal vice: Chewing nails (usually just my own)
Useless talent: Plays the harmonica (hey, it helped pay my way through college)
Unreasonable paranoia: Very, very tall buildings
Wishes more people cared about: Fulfilling their potential

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