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Untold Play

The six levers of games-based learning: what makes learning games effective?

The six levers of games-based learning: what makes learning games effective?

by Terry Pearce

2 years ago

That games are effective learning tools has been shown again and again, with great clusters of evidence collected by Karl Kapp and Jane McGonigal, among many others. But why do they work? 

The most important question may be: what do games do well?

My favourite framing of the question is: what do games do, to help people engage, learn and get more from the experience? As part of my work using games to design and facilitate learning experiences, I’ve built a framework to answer that question.

And this may be one of the most crucial things to keep in mind for designing learning games. To create better learning experiences, aim for them to do more of the things that make them effective, and less of the things that don’t. 

This is more important than making them ‘fun’. Yes, we want games to be fun, but if you take fun in its broadest sense, that’s just another word for engaging. And of course learning won’t be effective unless it’s engaging. 

Games do six key things to engage, and help people develop and grow.

Appropriately enough, it was while creating a learning game – an escape room – that I crystallised my ideas around this. I themed the escape room around examples of effective learning games, and I noticed each one doing some things in particular really well. I made these things the answers to the escape clues, and as I did, this six-category model emerged. 

I’d welcome any thoughts or comments, as it’s quite new. Maybe it needs refinement. But for me, it spells out what games do to help people learn. And broken down this way, the six help me build new learning games that lean into the strengths of the medium.

Each of the six levers rests on the fulcrum: ‘When we use games in learning, we…’ 

  • Put the learner at the centre
  • Set learners an open challenge
  • Let learners explore
  • Let learners fail
  • Give learners meaningful choices
  • Nudge learners towards the behaviours we want

Phrased like this, as well as completing that sentence, they’re imperatives: do this. Do more of it. We can look at learning games – or any kind of learning experiences – through these lenses, and say, ‘are we doing enough of each? Can we improve things by doing more?

Put the learner at the centre

The difference between a lecture and a learning game is the difference between being a protagonist and a spectator. Video games have long outstripped movies and books as the most popular form of entertainment, because they cast you as the protagonist. It’s more engaging being at the centre of things. 

Videogames revenue growth from 2001-2021, compared to music and movies.

In learning, being at the centre of things makes everything else flow. You can’t help but learn when you play a game. Think of real life: we’re at the centre of our own lives. We learn from our decisions, from experiencing things. We can learn second-hand, but it’s just not as effective – we’re having to learn from an imaginary position, rather than a lived one.

When it comes to learning through games, a starting place of strength is to structure an experience in terms of what the learner will be faced with, and what they’ll do or be able to do. Is the player at the centre? Are they taking actions? Are they playing the central role? Are they more protagonist, less spectator?

Set learners an open challenge

With the player at the centre, games give them a challenge – usually with a range of ways to resolve it. The player has the chance to use their ingenuity and creativity to solve the problem of the game in their own way. 

Solving challenges in our own way is a major town on the high road to learning. As a child you didn’t learn to walk by being lectured on it. Think about the most complex lessons you’ve learned – physical, emotional and psychological – and think how often you learned them through working out the best way you could, for yourself.

When building learning experiences, there can be a temptation to minimise options, to make things linear. Resist that temptation. Say, ‘here’s the challenge: how are you going to meet it?’ Mimic the way life makes our best and stickiest learning happen. 

The challenge could be getting a certain result in a scenario, or building something with certain resources, or maximising a result or score that can be built in a variety of ways. Take the skills, techniques and ways of thinking that we want to build, and make them the ones they’ll probably need to succeed.

Let learners explore

Another key thing players do in many games, which mirrors key activities in real-life learning, is explore. Babies put everything they can get their hands on in their mouths. Adventurers check out every inch of a landscape. 

A good map is an invitation to explore.

This is a process of building and exercising evaluative skills in the domain in question. If there’s only one place to go next, things go back to the linear. If you have to work out for yourself what looks most appealing to explore next, and then which parts of what you found are most useful, you’re evaluating. You’re engaged.

So consider not suggesting an order of play. Give options, locations, a landscape. This could be a literal landscape, or a metaphorical one. Give players possibilities. A sandbox, even. Draw inspiration from games like Minecraft, Western Legends and Crusader Kings 3. Do you need to tell them what everything does or where things are? Would it engage them to work it out for themselves?

Let learners fail

A game that you succeed at, 100%, first time, isn’t a great game. You expect a game to challenge you. You try one way; it’s not perfect. You try another until you succeed. 

This can be a challenging principle for traditional training and learning. A lot of advice suggests making learners feel good about themselves. And certainly, you don’t want your learners to feel like failures. But if you want to motivate them, a 24-carat gold feeling to induce is: ‘aha! That didn’t work, but it gave me enough insight that I think I can get it next try.’

Feedback is crucial to this process. Learners need to understand what was imperfect about last time so that they can build better solutions and grow their skills. So make the experience challenging. Make it so that the obvious way won’t succeed first time. Make sure failures carry feedback that players can use. And let them try, try again. 

The learning game Culturallye, where learners always fail at first when joining a new ‘culture’.

Give learners meaningful choices

If all roads lead to the same place, the choice of road is meaningless. The best games make players feel like their choices matter. Which means consequences. Role-playing games are great at this. Join faction A? Faction B won’t like you. Join faction B? Forget about being friends with faction A.

Multiple strategies or paths to victory are great for this, too. A high-risk, high-reward path or a safe but steady path? Prioritising discovery, or prioritising development? Fingers in many pies, or eggs in one basket?

In your learning experience, think about decision points. How can you make learners feel their choice is momentous? That all choices are viable, but all will have consequences? Make paths appealing, but sound notes of caution about their disadvantages. And let the players decide for themselves, and reap what they sow.

Choose Your Own Adventure books: many gamers’ first experience of consequences.

Give learners a nudge

When games want learners to do certain things, they look to rewards and motivators. What will nudge people towards doing one thing rather than another? Towards playing again, or towards repeating the core actions or processes of the game?

There are many frameworks that can give us ideas for nudges and triggers. The Octalysis Framework is among the best. The most common – and often easiest to build triggers and nudges are points, badges, levels and leaderboards. 

At their best, these can be hugely motivating, telling players what to care about, and giving a useful framework for rewarding progress. At their worst, these can be demotivating and lazy. The term ‘chocolate covered broccoli’ was coined to illustrate how these can be a thin veneer of manipulative motivators over an essentially boring task.

So use nudge intelligently. Which framework fits? How can you use a nudge to make your players want to do something, and feel good about having done it? Decide on core actions or processes and give the players reasons to do them.