Six Truths About Implementing a Learning Game that Gets Results


I love games—but that does not mean I think a game is the appropriate option for every learning situation. I do not think it will always equal the most effective or efficient means of helping people learn. In fact, I wrote a post recently clarifying how games differ from learning games because a lot of people are thinking about commercial video games when they contemplate incorporating games into their learning strategies.

If you are a chief learning officer or training manager/director who is trying to figure out whether games should be part of your learning mix—or how best to use them—here are six truths for you to consider:

1) Games and simulations require expertise to design well; you have to understand game design as well as instructional design. They require several rounds of play testing and iterative design to produce a game that fully engages your target audience AND achieves the desired learning and performance outcomes. They do not fit well into a “let’s draft it, pilot it, and finalize it,” three-step process. You may need to go through 5-8 iterations to get a custom game right. If you attempt to implement a game that you have not thoroughly tested, you are likely to be disappointed by the results you get.

2) Games are not a panacea. They do not spark crazed excitement in learners just because you say the word “game.” You have to market a game and plan its implementation just as carefully as you would any other type of learning solution. A game is not a cure-all for everything that might ail your training initiatives. Ideally, you have defined a clear purpose for the game and carefully integrated it into your learning solution—rather than inserting it as an afterthought to try to incorporate a “fun” activity in the learning experience. Make the game meaningful and tightly linked to your desired knowledge and skill outcomes. Learners are smart people. They will figure out if a game lacks relevance pretty quickly, and they will reject the experience.

3) A game is best suited as PART of a learning solution rather than as the entire learning solution. For optimal learning, games need to be set up and debriefed in some fashion. They can be a great reinforcement for learning, a great opportunity to practice a skill, or a great opportunity to create a shared experience that then transitions into something else. If your implementation does not include integration with other learning components, the game will be less effective as a learning solution than it otherwise could be.

Example 1:  Several years ago I designed a daylong workshop for a pharma company on single-payer systems (the rest of the world vs. a multi-payer system, which is the U.S. model). The day began with a 45-minute game/simulation called Access Challenge. The game objective was to get your drug onto a customer’s formulary. What made the simulation unique was that the pharma teams were selling to government agencies on different planets, who each had a different type of payer system and different population issues/concerns. The simulation was a level-setting experience for participants so everyone had a shared experience of working with single-payer systems before we got into the details of the day. After learners completed the simulation, we had an excellent foundation for the remainder of the workshop, which was not game-based.

Example 2: We recently were fortunate to earn a Brandon Hall Award in the games/simulation category, along with our client partner, ExactTarget. ExactTarget used Knowledge Guru to create a game called MobileConnect Guru, which was part of a training initiative designed to prep employees, resellers, and distributors on the launch of a new product. The game provided multiple repetitions of key content and was the last component learners completed prior to the product’s launch. ExactTarget’s results were impressive, but the game alone would not have gotten them these results. They designed a highly effective multi-method approach to helping people learn and remember. We describe this “recipe” for learning and remembering in a Bottom-Line Performance blog you can find here. 

4) Your stakeholders are often poor judges of what the target audience will like and find useful. Do not trust the stakeholder group to deem what should and should not be implemented. Your stakeholders are not your target. What they themselves are intrigued by might be deadly dull to your target learners. Conversely (in our company) what the product dev team likes might be way, way too game-y for anyone else in the company. Match the game to the audience, not the people paying for it. This is a tricky business, but it can be done.

5) Recognize the power of games in helping people learn AND remember. A well-designed game incorporates many elements that foster long-term retention. A well-designed game has high replayability, which means learners will naturally get numerous repetitions and practice sessions—which is essential to remembering. They provide frequent and voluminous feedback, which is essential to learning something correctly in the first place. They will incorporate a variety of game elements that foster a desire to play. Some games will even leverage a strong story or narrative, which has a high correlation to long-term memory. (Stories engage our entire brain; the brain literally “lights up” when a story engages it.)

Example: Cisco uses the Knowledge Guru game engine as part of its new sales association program (CSAP). Players consistently rate the games extremely high in terms of their value in learning AND remembering (4.93 on a scale of 1 to 5). A game can combine knowledge recall with scenarios that allow the player to apply the knowledge in a job context, which is a powerful memory-builder.

6) The more effort required to learn to play the game, the less cognitive space available to learn the content. If you feel strongly that you only have 30 minutes available for learners to play a game, then do not implement a game that easily requires 30 minutes just to figure out the rules of play.  Unless you are designing an immersive simulation, keep your game’s objective and rules pretty simple.  The game’s complexity needs to match the amount of time you believe learners will spend playing the game. If you are planning a complex, immersive simulation, then your implementation strategy needs to allow time for players to fully engage in (and learn from) the experience. This probably means 3 hours, not 30 minutes.

If you want a deep dive into learning game design, I wrote an entire white paper on designing learning games. You can download it here.

If you want more info on learning and remembering, check out my white paper titled When Remembering Really Matters. It talks about games and much, much more.