Planning game-based learning

Games are already a mainstream tool for learning, but many global businesses are more seriously considering the option again. This is due to the increase in the ability to provide cost-effective complexity and visual appeal within games.

The first question normally asked by such companies is whether game-based learning is just another fad. Keep in mind, however, that game playing is as old as humankind. The urge to play games seems intrinsic, so it’s hard to imagine a more lasting learning vehicle than games. Scientists have shown the value of play in human development, and how the act of playing promotes creativity and happiness in adults. To combine important learning objectives with an activity that taps our natural desires is truly an ideal combination.

Another frequently asked question is how effective it is, but game-based learning can be incredibly effective. Games put active participation at the heart of the learning experience, and the more engaged learners are, the more likely they are to retain and apply what they’ve learned.

Well-designed games that motivate players are what make them ideal learning environments. Effective games draw learners into virtual environments where they work toward a goal, choose actions and experience the consequences of those actions along the way. Learners make mistakes in a risk-free setting, and through experimentation, they actively learn and practice the right way to do things. This usually transfers well to real life. Those who are in their twenties grew up learning with games. They learned about American history by playing Oregon Trail. They learned keyboarding skills with Mavis Beacon. They learned geography from Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? and math with Math Blasters (Figure 1).

Corporations and other organizations around the world are recognizing that games promote cognitive reasoning and information retention. These days, games are much more advanced, immersive and engaging. There are elearning games that teach everything from sales techniques to medical procedures. Even world governments use games to instruct. A few years ago, China funded the creation of Glorious Mission, a game used to train military personnel.

Research has shown that gaming, in the right context, is more effective than traditional elearning. On October 20, 2010, ScienceDaily published a summary of a University of Colorado Denver Business School study that “found those trained on video games do their jobs better, have higher skills and retain information longer than workers learning in less interactive, more passive environments.” Games can significantly improve retention (Figure 2) and can also improve problem solving, creativity, risk assessment and risk taking. Gaming also supports B.F. Skinner’s theory that behavior is a function of its consequences. As in real life, when most people have a negative consequence to something they do, they don’t do it again. In gaming it’s the same concept: you go through that particular door and fall down an elevator shaft and lose the game. Are you going to do that again? Probably not.

Additionally, games will augment existing learning programs by reinforcing messages and will expand the reach of training with fewer resources. Game-based learning can address many kinds of training for new recruits, managers, directors and sales teams — the utility of games is vast. Simulation games can be used for skills training. Character-based games can be used in a multitude of ways and can impart a myriad of trainings from soft skills to product or process knowledge. Game-based learning is effective when developed with stories, continuous challenges, rewards and competitive winning.


Eight types of gameplay

When we’re talking about game-based learning, there are eight fundamental types of play that successfully combine gaming with acquiring skills or knowledge. That’s because the goal is to impart information, not just to entertain the audience.

The first type is multiple choice and true-false. We all know this mechanism from just about every test we’ve taken in school. Unlike normal gameplay, which is purely about entertainment, learning gameplay is expected to teach, reinforce and test knowledge. Multiple choice and true-false questions are still incredibly effective at reinforcing and testing what people have learned. They’re also great tools for refining what people have learned by calling for subtle judgments or by using distracters. In games, multiple choice and true-false questions are particularly useful because everyone is familiar with them. Players immediately know what to do with minimum explanation, so when it comes time to either gain a useful tool or to circumvent some kind of obstacle, multiple choice or true-false questions aren’t completely disruptive of the gameplay.

Puzzles are games in and of themselves, so they’re perfect problem-solving challenges for conveying or testing knowledge within game-based learning. Most people find puzzles inherently compelling, and they don’t see them as interruptions within a larger game. Puzzles are also a fun way to link concepts together, and show a player how multiple parts are joined for the good of the goal. They’re also great for teaching people how different functions or departments within an organization work together, or how to use different resources to solve a problem.

One hot area of gameplay is turn-based games. Think, for example, of how popular certain games such as Words With Friends are among the people you know. Taking turns is a way to create interaction among people and yet allow gameplay to take place when it’s convenient. Task and report is one such device. Players can send out tasks to their teammates, and the teammates report the results of that task back to the team. It’s a great way to get people within an organization to connect with each other, even if they work in different offices scattered around the globe. The social aspects of gameplay are becoming more important all the time, as organizations look for ways to align their employees around a common purpose or create a sense of shared identity.

A fourth technique is matching. Businesses are always trying to create connections in the minds of their employees, for instance matching product features and product benefits, or matching customer problems with the right solutions. Matching gameplay is a good way to link different concepts together. Often, this is the principle activity of a sales or marketing department. Playing matching games is a way to make those connections in the minds of the people who need those connections in the field, whether they’re answering a phone or asking a C-suite officer about a business challenge.

Searching for a hidden object — the quest — is as old as human literature. It is the essence of the hero’s journey, and people today still find it compelling. Hunting to find something is a great motivation for overcoming obstacles and acquiring knowledge, which is what game-based learning is all about. Never underestimate the power of the quest to drive members of your organization to play, and finish, a game.

Shooter gameplay is what many people first think of when they think of computer or mobile games. Believe it or not, this is a highly successful technique in game-based learning. Many employees who aren’t playing puzzle games in their free time are likely to be playing shooter games, and this technique can bring a whole new level of excitement to a multiple-choice question. It’s also a stellar strategy for getting players to make quick decisions — shoot the right answer before it disappears. The same dynamics that have kept the shooting galleries at amusement parks popular for so long work exceedingly well in a learning game.

The seventh type of gameplay is a race through an obstacle course. This one has never lost its popularity. With challenges to overcome, the race makes for a compelling learning game. Whether the goal is to complete the course in the shortest time to rack up the most points, or to solve the problems in the best possible way, a race is a perfect way to integrate knowledge through play. Once again, the motivation is quick for players to grasp. The concept is familiar, and the desire to do well seems somehow inherent in our very humanness.

Sorting is something most of us learn in preschool and kindergarten. It’s hard to imagine an organized activity that people learn earlier, other than basic play itself. Sorting is a way for employees to compartmentalize information, to link concepts and words, and to practice quick recall. Sorting is the first step in strategic thinking, and it works just as well in learning games as in life.

In the end, most successful game-based learning programs include two or more types of gameplay. That’s because variety is good, and because most games involve both a learning phase and a testing phase. Different play can be appropriate for different purposes. For instance, if your call center needs to learn how to identify upsell opportunities, you might have a learning phase in which obstacles must be overcome by multiple choice questions, and then a practicing and testing phase where you play games that involve matching or shooting. A key to retention is follow-up, which is why games that encourage repeat play are so effective.


Localizing for a multilingual workforce

Cultural factors have a direct impact on learning styles and on the effectiveness of a game-based learning program. When you’re going global, you need to consider a whole set of cultural differences that will impact your success. Here are a few tips to consider.

Internationalization is about neutralizing the English content from your elearning framework or source files. In other words, our cultural imprint on these things sticks out like a sore thumb, and you want to fit in, not stick out. The key here is to build in support for translation right from the start. The more you plan for it, the easier it’ll be. If you’re going to translate games across language and culture, you’ll want to externalize the content, use Unicode characters and suitable fonts, design screens for text expansion and text direction, allow users to type in their own alphabet, and ensure sorting and number formats are correct for the audience.

Design for culture and globalization — in other words, know your target culture and market, and be prepared to adapt your gameplay to it. Do all cultures play games like Who Wants To Be a Millionaire or Jeopardy? Most likely not. That’s why it’s important to understand your target audience’s preferred gameplay and to modify your game to fit local needs. This is what leads to a successful global game. Animations, for example, should be adaptable to target languages. You also want to avoid graphics or icons that have specific definitions to the source language or culture. There’s plenty of imagery and content that can work cross-culturally. But you want to avoid, for instance, a giant US dollar sign on the chest of Captain Money if your game is going to the Middle East. It’s all about seeing things that other cultures will see quite clearly — things we otherwise pass right over.

It’s nice to customize training content for the region whenever possible. Make new scenarios, write local, relevant dialog, or employ different (and perhaps more appropriate) game techniques. Maybe your audience doesn’t appreciate a heavy use of audio in its games, or prefers a simple interface rather than a highly interactive and complex one. You’ll be more successful if you find out the tastes of your local audience and then try to match those tastes.

If you can, create a game development program that includes input and review from your in-country stakeholders. This is a path to a smoother roll-out and a better audience experience. Although the collaboration might add time to your schedule, the process will help avoid a lot of expensive reworking and save you money in the end. It’s also useful to define parameters for each collaboration milestone. What are you trying to accomplish and in what order? This gives your collaborators a view of what’s coming, and helps them focus on the issue at hand. For instance, our meetings will target the following issues, in order: project plan definition, unique training objectives, confirming learning approach, storyboard and scenario reviews, content development and graphic design. Your in-country stakeholders will feel involved, will feel less stressed and your workflow will be more effective in the end.

Audio in games can range from sound effects to lengthy narration. It’s an important tool to consider early on in the process. Some audiences like extensive audio, and some do not. On the downside, audio is expensive, particularly if there are multiple characters in the game. You may be able to replace some audio with nonverbal content and savvy interface design. This can save you some money and possibly increase the impact on your audience. You can also save money by reducing characters. A game with five character voices going into eight languages may mean 40 different recordings.

Additionally, localized audio files can become as much as 50% larger than source English files — Spanish, for example, often takes more words than English to say the same thing. This can eat up your bandwidth and lengthen the amount of time it takes to play a game. On the upside, audio can make your game more immersive, compelling and effective. Remember, we’re not just playing a game, we’re learning something, too. Sometimes it’s better to say it rather than have it scroll across a screen. Once again, it all depends on your particular audience. The trick is to think about audio up front when choices are easier to make.

Don’t forget translation memory (TM). One of the benefits of game-based learning is the possibility of repurposing the core game for different content. This is quite doable if it’s factored in from the start. Let’s say a game is going to be localized for different markets and locales. In that case, you should consider using TM as well. This is a type of software program that pairs source content with the translated segments of your game. Because the content builds up over time, it can help provide consistency for future translations and provides cost savings for future editions as your content accumulates. It’s another way to leverage your investment and repurpose your learning games. After all, the need for learning doesn’t end when a specific campaign or initiative ends.


Take the guesswork out of budgeting

How much does it cost to build a game? You probably already know that the answer depends on the kind of game. There are quite a few variables that impact the development and deployment costs for game-based learning.

The variables to consider when budgeting for a game can include the development platforms — how many and which ones. Consider if the games can be reused, and what kind of creative components will be included. Custom illustrations, multiple characters and multiple voices can increase costs substantially, but they also enhance the experience. Also, consider the timing; the sooner it’s needed, typically, the shorter the game itself will need to be, which tends to contain costs. Always factor in project reviews: how many subject matter experts, how many internal reviewers and how many review cycles will be involved.

Once game-based learning is established as a normal part of business, it’s bound to become one of the most popular aspects of work. The ideal of interactive, highly-engaging training and education is ancient. A Chinese proverb says: “Tell me, and I’ll forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I’ll understand.” Additionally, the gap continues to grow between older, passive training methods and a workforce that lives an ever more interactive, multimedia, user-controlled lifestyle. With game-based learning tools to bridge the gap comes the promise of vastly more productive and engaged workers who embrace learning rather than view it as a disruptive burden.