Learning Games and Gamification

Handheld video game console with the following text on the screen: TLDC Recap. Learning by Doing: Games and Gamification for Instructional Designers
Learn five key takeways for designing learning games, from TLDC's Learning by Doing conference for instructional designers.

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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.

The Sessions

Here is a list of the conference sessions, in the order in which they were presented, along with links to the speakers’ LinkedIn profiles:

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.

Simply throwing entertaining elements at your training does not necessarily engage your learners. What you include in the training should always serve a purpose and tie back to the learning objectives and goal of the training.

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.”

For me, the biggest draw for using videogame mechanics is that there is something immediately engaging that draws your focus and your attention. . . . The question is, ‘how do we incorporate those without overpowering the message? How do we use the power of it to focus the mind where we want it to go?”

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.

When you activate someone’s emotions . . . they’re going to want to do something about it, so make sure you provide a structured, positive outlet for those emotions.

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.

Boring doesn’t equal less effective, and exciting and fun doesn’t equal helpful and effective.

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.

One of the things that is so important with games and storytelling is that you want to make sure that it’s not all success. People are going to learn from their failures.

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.

Closing Thoughts

To wrap up, here are my five key takeaways from the conference about designing learning games:

  1. The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. Focus on the business goal and learning objectives.
  2. 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.
  3. When the why is clear, the how is easy. Be intentional about design decisions, which should be grounded in research.
  4. A little less conversation, a little more action please. Edit ruthlessly to make the most of the learners’ time.
  5. 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. 

We are people who are agents for change. You know, we are trying to create change in our organizations. . . . That’s our job, and that is what we need to be focused on.

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.

Speaker Handouts

Game Examples




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.

Miscellaneous Resources

Take the Inclusive Learning Pledge

If you haven’t already signed the Inclusive Learning Pledge, please take a moment to read it. If you agree with the values, guidelines, and principles, I invite you to sign and share the pledge. 

Let’s build a more inclusive world, one learning experience at a time!

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