The Training, Learning, and Development Community recently hosted Learning by Doing: Games and Gamification for Instructional Design. It was three days with ten sessions and fourteen speakers that added up to one amazing conference focused on learning games.
I’ll share my five key takeaways from the event in this post, along with resources that were shared throughout the event. TLDC members can view the conference recordings on TLDC’s website.
Here is a list of the conference sessions, in the order in which they were presented, along with links to the speakers’ LinkedIn profiles:
- From Boring to Brilliant: A Case Study of an Award-Winning Game, with Jen Yaros
- Starting in Media Res—Lessons from Game Tutorials That Apply to L&D, with Alison Sollars
- How Video Games Make Me a Better Learning Professional, with Cara North, Jonathan Hill, Jacqueline Hutchinson, and Jonathan Rock
- Games-Based Storytelling, with Stephen Baer
- Story Whys or Storywise? 5 Mind-Altering Reasons to Use Storytelling for Gamified Learning, with Linnea Conely
- Epic Heroes: Exploring Narrative in Course Design Through Play, with Keegan Long-Wheeler
- Avoiding Common Pitfalls in Story-Based Learning Game Design, with Kayleen Holt
- The Making of a Game-based Training Experience, with Mallori Steele and Shonda Hodge
- Visual Literacy—A Universal Way to Communicate with More Pictures and Fewer Words, with Kevin Thorn
- Master the Art of Creating Virtual Escape Room Games for Effective and Engaging Learning, with Stacey Herod
Key Takeaways for Designing Learning Games
The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.
The title of this section is a quote from Stephen R. Covey. He may not have been talking about learning games, but the wisdom still applies. As several of the conference speakers advised, the game can’t be the main focus when learning is the goal.
Most of the speakers who shared games they had developed also shared the learning objectives and the business goal. (If you’re not already thinking about business goals when designing learning experiences, I encourage you to read Cathy Moore’s book, Map It. A link is provided in the Resources section at the end of this post.) An example of a business goal that Jen Yaros shared was “Reduce errors in orders and create more effective and efficient communications.
It’s easy to get caught up in the fun of designing a game for learning, but we need to stay centered on what we’re trying to accomplish with the design. If we constantly center ourselves by referring back to the business goal and learning objectives, we can avoid falling into the trap of getting carried away with “fun.”
If your target audience isn't listening, it's not their fault; it's yours.
This time, the section title is a quote from marketing expert Seth Godin.
One-size-fits-all solutions rarely work for everyone. That’s why it’s so important to fully understand our audience when designing learning games. For example, the escape room Stacey Herod demonstrated was one of two, designed for different learner personas at Microsoft.
Mallori Steele and Shonda Hodge shared how they needed signoff from SMEs and stakeholders during a “playtest” before piloting their story-based game with learners. The playtest feedback was harsh, with reviewers suggesting sweeping changes. But Mallori and Shonda said no. They decided not to make changes before the pilot, opting to wait and see what learners said. And guess what? The learners loved the game. They gave ratings above 9 on every evaluation metric, along with positively glowing comments.
Knowing our audience is critical. The target audience for the game was very different from the SMEs and stakeholders. Mallori and Shonda knew their audience—engineering professionals who enjoy sci-fi, and felt that they’d enjoy the game, which involves communicating with aliens on another planet.
Another part of knowing our audience is understanding what motivates them. Stephen Baer discussed four types of learner motivations.
Our designs should appeal to all these motivations.
When the why is clear, the how is easy.
(I’m not sure who originally said this one.)
As always, we should be intentional about our design decisions. For example, Jen Yaros shared a slide that listed learning game elements and the rationale behind each one. A breakdown like that would be useful in our course design documents.
All our design decisions should be grounded in research. Linnea Conely and Stephen Baer both discussed the benefits of stories for learning (as did I, briefly). Linnea’s presentation delved into some really interesting neuroscience, with references at the end of this post.
Alison Sollars discussed research related to learning games, including the value of explicit tutorials and feedback. Interestingly enough, even when participants call explicit tutorials “boring,” those tutorials almost always lead to better performance.
Stacey advised avoiding basing prizes on speed (such as how quickly learners can escape), because this shifts the focus and causes learners to rush. Another takeaway from her session is that the escape room was designed as a facilitated workshop, so it’s not a standalone experience. This type of blended approach allows greater opportunities for deep learning and rich discussion than asynchronous eLearning alone.
A few of the speakers (including me) discussed the importance of choosing a game design that’s appropriate for the content. In my sample game—a “what not to do” example—an escape room was used to teach about ethical business practices. But locking learners in a room (even virtual) doesn’t seem like a great fit for ethics training, right?
A little less conversation, a little more action, please.
In this section, I’m using Elvis’ iconic lyrics to highlight the importance of being concise. (Yes, I know, this is something I’m not great at!)
Kevin Thorn’s session focused on visual literacy and how we can better communicate with more pictures and fewer words. He shared that visual language—that is, the language of communicating using visual elements—produces better problem-solving, increases retention, and enhances decision making.
As someone who loves words and reading, I struggle with making myself “murder my darlings” (old writing advice for ruthless editing). This is something Shonda Hodge demonstrated very well, as she shared the final learning game story compared with the original version, which was probably twice as long.
In my session, I talked about making the most of our learners’ time and the importance of having others test our learning games. Reviewers can help you determine whether the design meets your intended goals and whether elements designed to be fun or humorous truly are. Getting others to review can help you reduce wordiness as well. Just remember what Mallori and Shonda learned about how different the feedback can be if reviewers are not members of the target audience.
We do not learn from experience; we learn from reflecting on experience.
This section’s title is from educator John Dewey. We know that reflection is a critical part of learning. Yet, too often, learning games offer no chance to reflect on what was learned. That’s why I appreciate the blended solutions that were shared:
- Stacey Herod’s escape room game was part of a facilitated experience and a precursor to on-the-job training.
- The story-based game Mallori Steele and Shonda Hodge discussed was designed to complement an instructor-led course.
In addition, Keegan Long-Wheeler shared a card game he developed called “Epic Heroes” that (in his words) “prompts improvisational storytelling to challenge our thinking.” In the game, the participant draws three random cards and creates a story with them, connecting each card to a real-world example. These cards (linked at the end of this post) provide a useful tool for reflection that could have a plethora of potential uses.
Along the same lines as reflection, a few of the speakers discussed the importance of letting learners make mistakes. After all, they are sometimes the best learning opportunities we have.
We need to make sure the learning environment is a safe place in which to make mistakes. Alison Sollars advised adding complexity over time as a scaffolding technique. Jonathan Hill shared some example games and discussed how he designed the points—as a health meter—so that even if the user’s health meter ran completely out, they would still be able to continue. Making the learner start over should be reserved for only the most critical failures.
To wrap up, here are my five key takeaways from the conference about designing learning games:
- The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. Focus on the business goal and learning objectives.
- If your target audience isn’t listening, it’s not their fault; it’s yours. It’s critical to know your audience and tailor the design to their needs.
- When the why is clear, the how is easy. Be intentional about design decisions, which should be grounded in research.
- A little less conversation, a little more action please. Edit ruthlessly to make the most of the learners’ time.
- We do not learn from experience; we learn from reflecting on experience. Build in opportunities for reflection, and allow opportunities to learn from mistakes.
And here’s a bonus takeaway that doesn’t apply only to game design:
Our role in L&D (especially for instructional designers) is to act as consultants to our SMEs and stakeholders. After all, we are the experts in learning experience design, so we need to have the kind of courage and stick-to-itiveness that Mallori and Shonda showed. Rather than being order takers who jump to make every change that’s requested of us, part of our job is to push back when we know what’s being asked isn’t necessarily what’s best for learners or the organization.
Resources for Designing Learning Games
TLDC members can view the conference recordings on TLDC’s website. If you are not already a member, consider joining for only $10 a month or the discounted price of $75 a year. I don’t receive anything for recommending TLDC; I just really love the organization.
Resources shared throughout the conference are listed below.
- Alison Sollars’ Presentation Slides
- Alison Sollars’ References
- Designing eLearning Games Using Interactive Stories, blog post by Kayleen Holt
- Keegan Long-Wheeler’s Epic Heroes Card Game
- Mallori Steele’s and Shonda Hodges’ Presentation Slides
- Monomyth Online Epic Heroes Card Game Website
- Visual Language Lab reference list from Kevin Thorn
- Assessment Game Example by Cara North
- Camp Killi Walka Game by Jonathan Rock
- Cinecraft Nomenclature Game Demo
- Detective Training Game from the Training Arcade
- Fist to Five Game by Jonathan Rock
- Football Manager
- GOBLIN Adventure Game
- HackOps virtual reality game example
- Jonathan Hill’s Portfolio
- Mission: Turfgrass eLearning course by Kevin Thorn
- Scenarios from The Training Arcade
- Stronger GMPs Game by Jonathan Rock
- That Dragon, Cancer
- Who Hacked? Microsoft Game Demo
- AhaSlides: interactive presentations
- BranchTrack: digital scenario/simulation authoring tool and game-based platform
- Caktus: AI tool
- Canva: Design tool
- CenarioVR: VR authoring tool
- Construct 3: 2D game engine
- FreeSound: Free Audio Files
- Genially: Design tool
- Grammarly: Free writing AI assistance
- io: Find and share indie games online for free
- Open Game Art: Find free art for games
- Pexels: Free Stock Photos
- Pixelmator Pro: image editing
- io: create interactive video stories
- The Training Arcade: Games & Gamification Platform
- Twine: Branching scenario development tool
- Unreal Engine: 3D creation tool
- WellSaid Labs AI Text to Speech
- Wirewax Studio: create interactive video
- Visual Language: Global Communication for the 21st Century, book by Robert E. Horn
- The Hero with a Thousand Faces, book by Joseph Campbell
- Map It: The hands-on guide to strategic training design, book by Cathy Moore
As an Amazon Associate, I earn a small amount if you choose to purchase a book from the affiliate links above. This helps to support this blog and does not affect your price.
- DriveThru RPG: RPG download store
- Experiencing ELearning: Christy Tucker’s blog
- “Explaining ‘I can’t draw’: Parallels between the Structure and Development of the Structure and Development of Language and Drawing, research paper by Neil Cohn
- Gamicon Throwdown
- Sententia Gamification Certifications
- Teaching: A Path to L&D (free community of practice for transitioning teachers)
If you enjoyed this recap, check out these others:
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