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Gameification of eLearning

Storming in a Teacup

Many workplace learning professionals will be familiar with Tuckman’s Forming–Storming–Norming–Performing model of group development.

The basic idea is simple – a group of people come together to do some work (Forming), there’s a bit of push-and-shove as people jostle to make sure their own view of the world is listened to (Storming), then they begin to settle into a routine (Norming) and finally, after all this monkeying about, they begin to achieve results (Performing).

Tuckman would have us believe this process to be inevitable. Based on my own experiences, I’d have to agree.

I also think the model applies to new words; everybody hates terms like ‘Social Media’, ‘curation’, ‘affordances’ and ‘usability’ at first. But then we all find ourselves using them on a daily basis (or even putting them on our business cards. . .)

Gameification is such a word.

What is Gameification?

Forming:
Gameification (or ‘gamification‘, if you must) really came into its own in 2010. It means, according to Wikipedia:

. . . the use of game play mechanics[1] for non-game applications

Whole books have been written about what game mechanics are. I recommend Jesse Schell’s The Art of Game Design for anybody involved in Digital Learning. It’s awesome. With Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun coming a very close second. Both books are all about learning.

Storming:
Some people hate the very idea of gameification. They say that it should be called pointsification. And that it totally misunderstands and misrepresents what games are all about.

And they’re right, for the most part. A lot of gameification stuff is absolute crud because it’s a cynical attempt to make you buy something or a clumsy attempt to make you change your behaviour.

But there are some people who see it as a way to save the world.

Norming:
Debating whether the term is good, bad or ugly is still going on.

But if you use Flickr or FourSquare or Epic Win or Nike Plus or Air Miles or (you get the picture), you’re already taking part in some kind of gameification thing.

(And, of course, eLearning has a very close relationship with Serious Games.)

Performing:
Roughly speaking, there’s two ways to go about gameifying Digital Learning:

  • Skinner-Boxing
  • Dungeon Mastery

One is quick but (potentially) very dirty. The other is hard, time-consuming but offers endless exciting possibilities.

Two Ways to Gameification

Skinner-Boxing
A Skinner Box, otherwise known as an Operant Conditioning Chamber, is a device designed to test stimulus-response mechanisms in animals. One of the ideas of gameification is that if you offer your punters something like ‘points’ they will respond (or become ‘engaged’) just like a rat or a pigeon sipping sugar-water in a box. You can see how that might become very dirty very quickly.

Hoever, that’s only one way to look at it.

I took a day’s face-to-face workshop (supposedly ‘totally unsuitable’ for an eLearning deployment, according to the client, due to its contentious content and the need for open and open-ended discussion) and translated all the learning objectives and discussions (I kept notes from delegates’ contributions and comments for about 20 sessions) into blog posts, each written by one of seven personas (again, based on observing delegates).

Then I launched the blog (along with some Performance Support resources) behind the firewall and encouraged people to comment, write their own posts and generally get social.

To encourage the ‘social’ part, I added in the Big Door WordPress Plug-in, which adds ‘gameification in under five minutes’ to your site.

I’d love to be able to tell you that this out-of-the-box gameification worked – but it didn’t.

The plug-in needs users to have WordPress accounts, which my learners didn’t have or want. So I ended up doing the gameification bits manually using good old-fashioned Community Management skills.

But it’s early days, the tech is relatively new and I don’t see any reason at all why it wouldn’t work.

Here’s some more reading about gameification plug-ins and resources:

Overall, I’d say this approach is one to watch rather than one to dive straight into.

Dungeon-mastery
This is a lot more difficult. And, if you’re prone to crapathy, you should avoid.

It basically involves turning your learning content into a ‘dungeon’ to explore rather than a route to follow. I suppose it’s similar to an Alternate Reality Game, in many ways.

I’m building a Digital Learning environment with a couple of colleagues for something which is heavy on technical detail, while at the same time mired in politics and potential cognitive bias. In other words, a typical barely repeatable business process.

We’re basically building an environment (in reality, an entire fake company one division at a time with characters and a history) with far more more content than one learner could ever hope to ‘complete’ – maximalist, not minimalist, with multiple viewpoints and perspectives – so that each learner has to ‘explore’ and make choices. Some of the areas will only be available to people who ‘unlock’ them. If we do our jobs right, some of the areas will only be discovered by accident. Every interaction is thoughtful when you get to decide where to go next. And, of course, there’ll be crisis and drama.

It’s hard work and I’m imagining a pay-off in months and years rather than days and weeks. But I think, in the long term, that it’ll produce something which enables really rapid digital learning.

This diagram probably sums it up best – it shows the evolution of the First Person Shooter game over the last 17 years:

Which one does most eLearning look like?

Footnote: The idea of the dungeon comes from Julie Dirksen’s typically wonderful post, How CarTalk can save your eLearning, in October 2009. See the post and my comment (the first one) for a more in-depth ‘mission statement’ for Digital Dungeon Learning. And the catalyst came when one of my software development clients casually announced that they’d decided to not hire UX specialists in favour of some ex-First Person Shooter designers for their highly-complex interface. Games – not quizzes – will be the interface metaphor of the coming decade or so. As Julie Dirksen says, when you start looking you see games everywhere.

Image: FPS map from this thread on map design at Reddit

Author: Simon Bostock Simon Bostock works with Training and Organisational Development Strategy, Digital Learning design and Content Strategy for Knowledge Management. He blogs as Hypergogue, which he likes to explain is about learning and pedagogy but for cyborgs. He also blogs quite a bit about 'games for more than fun' at Gameify.org Website: http://hypergogue.net Contact: http://simonbostock.me

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