6 Design Tips for Building Effective Learning Games
We all know that gamification is an effective, enjoyable, engaging learning tool. But how do you design a game for your course?
I learned to type from an old computer game. I was probably ten or twelve, and although I’d been using a computer for several years at that point, I had yet to learn how to type on a keyboard. However, I was almost old enough to need to being turning in typed school assignments, so my mom picked up a copy of Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing and had me work on it for a little bit each day.
Honestly, she didn’t have to push me all that hard. Mavis Beacon was addictive. It offered several typing games, each designed to teach a certain skill—where to find letters on the keyboard, where to find numbers, how to use capitals and punctuation, and (the hardest) how to gain a sense of rhythm. (I remember this last game used the visual of a piano with a metronome that would get faster over time.)
Looking back, it’s a perfect example of effective gamification in e-learning. It created a fun experience that taught a difficult skill in memorable, meaningful ways. And the good news is that the elements used to make Mavis Beacon so successful can be repurposed by any educator wanting to apply the same principles to their course. Let’s take a look.
What is an e-learning game?
E-learning games come in all shapes and sizes. They can be crossword puzzles, branching training scenarios, music exercises, or trivia quizzes. However, they all share several core principles:
- Knowledge-oriented. Have a goal. Make sure your learner understands the goal. Not only that, but make sure they understand what they have to do to reach the goal. It’s hard for learners to feel motivated without clear objectives.
- Rule-based. Tell your learners what they need to do to win. If the rules of the game aren’t clear, your learner will become frustrated and give up.
- Interactive. Games are an example of active learning. Reading a book—enjoyable as it might be—is not a game. Neither is watching a video or listening to a podcast. Your learner must be able to give input for it to be a game.
- Challenging. Games are fun because they’re hard. If a game is too easy, then learners will become bored because they aren’t making progress.
- Engaging. Incorporate meaningful scenarios into your games that your learners might encounter. Abstract games that don’t have clear applications to real life will quickly disinterest most learners.
- Responsive. Give feedback at all times. Learners should know if they’re doing well or if they’re failing.
I would add “fun” to the list, but if you then asked me how to make a fun game, it would just be a repeat of all the above points. So, if all that sounds fun to you, let’s take a closer look at how to use them in an actual e-learning game.
1. Start with a learning goal.
The goal of Mavis Beacon was to teach typing—it’s right there in the name! Your course should have a similar, definable goal. You might think this was too obvious to need stating, but it’s surprisingly easy for the learning objective to get lost in the weeds.
Similarly, instructors can sometimes make the mistake of incorporating elements that have nothing to do with their goal. If you’re trying to teach customers service skills, for instance, it may not be the right time to include tips on how to upsell products. Your employees might end up learning the wrong lessons and start inappropriately selling to customers who are frustrated and looking for help.
Example of a clear goal: A puzzle game that helps learners improve their vocabulary.
2. Teach the rules one at a time.
My first typing games involved accustoming my fingers to the positions of letters on the keyboard. As I remember, the screen would show a display of two hands, and then one finger would light up, and it would tell me to find a certain letter with that finger. Early on, it would give me a couple letters at a time, and switch between them, slowly introducing more letters over time. If it had tried to begin by having me memorize where all the keys were at once, I would probably have given up.
Learners can quickly become overwhelmed if they are presented with all the rules at once. This can make it harder for them to remember the rules, as well. Teach new rules only as they’re about to become relevant.
Example of taking things one at a time: A language game that has learners practice grammar concepts.
3. Use relevant scenarios to demonstrate concepts.
You’re trying to teach negotiation skills using scenario-based training. Negotiations happen in all contexts, so you have a range of options to draw inspiration, from famous historical treaties, to big business deals. But what if your course is targeted toward first-time freelancers? It probably won’t help them to have a scenario about a Fortune 500 CEO, because even if they aspire to be one someday, their current life situation has very different stakes.
Keep your scenarios grounded in situations your learners are going to face. It will help them identify the appropriate response to similar situations when they go to apply those lessons in real life.
Example of a relevant scenario: A training simulation for managers that has them navigate various employee, customer, and supplier relationships while running a virtual store.
4. Layer lessons on top of each other to help the learner grow.
If you learn an idea once, then set it aside completely to move on to the next idea, then after a few more ideas, you’ll have forgotten what the first one was and have to start all over again. The better option is to have learners continually incorporate previous knowledge into their new tasks. Mixing in previously mastered material with the new material will also help the learner grow in confidence, which in turn will make it more fun.
Example layering lessons: Chess puzzles that grow in complexity as learners master the movements of each piece.
5. Build challenges appropriately.
Mavis Beacon was very deliberate in layering on new challenges. First I had to learn all the letters on the keyboard. Then I had to mix in capitals. Then I had to learn where all the numbers where, and after that I had to learn punctuation. This progression built logically from one step to the next, without any one step being too big of a leap, kept me coming back for more.
Think carefully about the distance between challenges. Do you have several challenges in your course that don’t seem all that intimidating, only to have quite a large leap without enough preparation? If you ask your learners to make too big of a leap, many of them will fall short.
Example of escalating challenges: A piano exercise that incorporates new finger movements with increasingly fast tempos.
6. Provide continuous feedback.
Typing is largely about muscle memory. And if you’re going to train muscles correctly, you need instant feedback any time you make a typo. Mavis Beacon would give an error signal each time I hit the wrong key, and that helped me adjust more quickly, just like how, in real life, playing the piano gives immediate feedback any time you hit a wrong note.
Of course, the same applies to other knowledge as well. It is very hard to unlearn wrong information. The longer a learner continues in their mistake, the harder it will be for them to correct it. They might even come to the point where they have learned both the right and wrong way of doing things, and can’t remember which is which.
Example of continuous feedback: A trivia quiz that tells learners whether they answered correctly after each question.
Polish off your game with trophies, badges, and learning points.
People love to be rewarded, but they also need those rewards to be meaningful. For some people, the “reward” may simply be completing a certification or training program and getting back to work. But most learners will appreciate—and hopefully enjoy—a little thoughtful customization.
For instance, if you’re using a leaderboard as part of your gamification, you could award a trophy for whoever scored highest at the end of the week. That learner could have the trophy icon in their profile until the scores for the next week came in. That would encourage your learners to keep participating in order to have a shot at winning the trophy or maintaining their title.
A badge is less competitive and more collectable. Learners could earn badges through demonstrating a range of skills, or through completing various micro content. You might also offer badges to learners who had participated in the community in some noteworthy way. Unlike a trophy, the badge wouldn’t disappear, but it might be upgraded over time.
Finally, you can reward learners with “learning points” that could then be applied toward more courses. You could set challenges each week and offer a certain number of learning points to whoever completed them. They can also be combined with badges and trophies.
Each of these gamification elements is a way to help make learning irresistible. Make the game good enough, and your learners won’t want to put it down.