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Untold Play

The four ways to use games in learning: From adapting principles to going bespoke

The four ways to use games in learning:  From adapting principles to going bespoke

I often have conversations with people who are enthused about using gamification, or games, in learning. But just as often, they’re a little hazy on exactly how they can do this. People use the term ‘gamifying’ something to mean anything from adding points to creating a full-blown simulation game.

The terminology can be confusing but I think it masks a simpler underlying principle. Games-based learning, in its broadest sense, is about looking at games and saying, ‘hey, when people play games, they engage really well and they learn–can we use that power to make learning better?’

When you put it like that, in very practical terms, there are four ways to do it. At the ‘slighter’, less obviously games-based end, you can take the principles and workings of games and build them into everyday learning, without actually playing a game. Or you can use an existing game, if you think it fits with the learning objectives. Or you can adapt one so that it does. Lastly, you could design a bespoke learning game.

Use the principles of games to enhance learning 

Games are made up of all kinds of small elements. Obvious ones like points and levels and less obvious ones like choices and caretaking. If you take any of these individual ideas and design them into a learning activity that’s not itself a game, many people would call that gamification. The language app, Duolingo uses achievements, points and lives to motivate people to work through learning new words and grammar. 

Another way to design principles from games into learning experiences is to make learning activity-based. You could say this is just a kind of gamification – it’s taking something from games and using it outside games. But it’s possibly the core thing that makes games engaging – you’re playing them, you’re doing things. So, designing learning experiences where the learner does things rather than listens or watches is a great way to harness the power of games. 

The Transform Deck is a deck of cards I designed to inspire people to create more activity-based learning experiences. Yu-Kai Chou’s Octalysis Framework is full of ideas about what could be adapted for use outside games. Andrzej Marczewski’s gamification elements is another set of ideas. Using game principles is the lightest-touch of the four ways: you’re not actually playing a game.

Find an existing game that fits your learning needs

You could just use an existing game, if you want your learners to actually play rather than just experience the principles. But you need to find the right one. It could be a commercial game not designed specifically for learning. Like Escape the Boom, a simple game you play online and via mobile. Using limited information – one player can see the bomb, the other players the bomb-disposal manual – it explores communication barriers and teamwork. 

Or you could use a game designed for learning. Evivve is another online and mobile game where players work together to harvest resources from a sci-fi landscape, to save Earth from disaster. They need to communicate well, make a plan, divide responsibilities and overcome obstacles. It’s great for learning about teamwork, leadership, communication, delegation, and a bunch of other topics. 

There are plenty of other games out there that might be suitable for your learning objectives but the downside is that you won’t always be able to find one for every situation. 

Adapt a game so that it fits your learning needs

Adapting an existing game is a way to broaden the range of games that might work for you. The board game Codenames is all about giving clues to link two or more words together. The original game uses pretty random words. But you can easily adapt it, especially in the online version, by switching out the default words for words that focus on your topic. The game then becomes a fun way to revise and review a topic: it forces players to think very carefully about the words, what they mean and their connection to each other. 

Or you can create even more involved adaptations. Splendor is another award-winning board game, about building up a store of gemstones, which you use to purchase even more valuable ones. Corrado de Sanctis of the Agile Games Factory has adapted this basic idea to focus on Agile concepts – so by implementing smaller Agile practices, you build towards being able to introduce more in-depth ones. The game, The Agile Mind, works in a similar way to Splendor but uses Agile in place of gemstones. 

This can be a more advanced and complex process than the earlier options but at the simple end, adapting a game can just be about briefing and debriefing it differently, or replacing words and images with more relevant ones. 

Create a bespoke learning game from scratch

The most advanced option is to create a learning game from scratch. That way, you can focus it exactly on your learning objectives. This takes a lot of time and know-how, though. It can be a tricky problem to work out the best combination of game goals, rules and obstacles to get your players practising and exploring the skills you want.

With Sarah Le-Fevre of Ludogogy, I designed a learning game called The Gift Horse. We wanted to explore how to inspire people about their personal development. The game we came up with uses a real-life animal as an inspiration. If you chose a tiger, you might ask: how would a tiger solve the issue I’m facing? This is a simple explanation – there’s more to it than that but it gets across the basic idea. 

Designing a game is also a longer process than the other options. The process of playtesting and balancing the game so that unexpected effects don’t get in the way can be lengthy and many iterations of design-playtest-redesign can be needed to get a game that’s really engaging and hits the learning objectives. 

Which of the above do you use, or could you use? 

I’d love to hear your ideas about how to use these four options. Is this something you’ve done? Or can you think of a way you’d like to use one of these? Let me know. Or, if you’d like to talk about how I could help you to implement one of the four, book in a chat.