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Why Adults Should Love Game-Based Learning

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I’m publishing this blog on Valentine’s Day, a day that is supposed to be all about love. This blog is about love, but not the romantic type. Instead, think about a hobby or activity that you love. Kids, for example, might love to play soccer or love to play video games like Minecraft. These types of games and activities keep children engaged, often for hours at a time.

LearningWorks for Kids even created a new term for the combination of engagement and games: engamement.

Engamement refers to the amplification of a child’s focus, interest, and learning. It implies a cognitive and affective absorption that goes beyond mere attention and focus and encapsulates a love of what one is doing.

The bottom-line: kids love to play games. But did you know that most adults actually don’t like to play games? You might even be nodding your head because you don’t typically enjoy playing games yourself.

This is especially true in the workplace. According to Dr. David Chandross in an article from Game and Train, when people are faced with the choice to learn via a game or no game, they tend to choose no game because think games are a less efficient way to learn. They erroneously believe they will save time if they just listen to the lecture or watch a video. As Dr. Chandross points out, the evidence suggests that this is not true… but most adults don’t know the research.

This isn’t to say that all adults don’t like games. In fact, BLP President Sharon Boller absolutely loves to play games! She even channeled her love for games into a new book called Play to Learn, which comes out March 3rd.


You can order Sharon’s new book, “Play to Learn,” from the ATD store.


Here’s what Sharon has to say about games:

“Using games in learning takes a strategy. You cannot assume that everyone is going to embrace game play even though games are proven to be more effective than non-interactive methods of learning.”

She goes on to say, “In addition to people perceiving that a game could be a huge time-waster, there are two other barriers you have to consider and plan for: 1) People being afraid of looking stupid in front of their colleagues and 2) People not wanting to be “losers” in a game play situation. Games cause some people great anxiety.”

But we know adults should love game-based learning because…

We know learning games are a powerful learning tool. Sharon offers four great reasons why adult learners should love game-based learning (and why you should incorporate it into your next training curriculum):

1. There’s more fun to be had.

We don’t mean “ha-ha” funny kind of fun. We mean “fun” as in highly engaging. Well-designed game-based learning is immersive learning, and immersive learning results in better outcomes.

In this blog post, Sharon lists different game activities people find fun and what makes them engaging.

2. Games can be either competitive OR cooperative.

Some people do love competition, but in learning situations people tend to do better when the game play is cooperative. Competition can mean one person or team wins and all other teams lose. Cooperation tends to get all players involved and immersed and avoids the one winner/many losers approach that so many people fear in games. Cooperation also mirrors what most organizations hope their employees do within an organization.

3. Games are social – and most adults enjoy social interactions when they feel safe.

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We’ve seen it hundreds of times in Sharon’s workshops. People literally light up and lean in as soon as the shift goes from a presentation to a game play situation. Most of us love to interact with others; it stimulates the emotional part of our brain. That, in turn, triggers memory. Learning games give people a safe way to interact. When playing a digital game, the interaction might come in the form of discussions with coworkers about the game. In tabletop games that are part of a live workshop, the interaction comes from cooperating together to overcome a challenge. Either way, the social element is one most adults like when the interaction is structured to make it easy and comfortable to interact.

4. Games give you continuous feedback – and most of us love feedback about ourselves.

With game-based learning, there is always feedback about how you are doing – and opportunities to adjust strategy or decisions based on the feedback you get. Most people love getting info about themselves and games give people a lot of it.

But if they don’t want to play games, what do you do?

While these are all great reasons why adults should enjoy games and want to play them, we know you’ll encounter resisters. Here are four strategies Sharon recommends you try:

1. Make it mandatory.

Yep. Sometimes the easiest route to overcome resistance is to simply make something nonnegotiable. Your employees’ time is limited, and most of them only have the energy to focus on the activities that are truly essential to their jobs. Our experience shows us that the organizations that are most successful require that their employees play the game and integrate game play into a larger learning initiative that is critical to job success. In studies we’ve done, we’ve seen mandatory work out very well with employees reporting afterward that the game was the most effective and enjoyable part of the learning initiative.

2. Appeal to the goal orientation within most of your learners.

Most of us are intrigued by a challenge and motivated to accomplish goals. So, if you want to appeal to learners, give them a meaningful challenge to overcome. Challenges stimulate the inner competition we have with ourselves (can I do this?) and help us focus. A challenge tends to motivate and engage learners much more than a lecture or “page-turning” eLearning course does. It converts resistance into intrigue if the challenge seems meaningful to them and isn’t too hard or too easy.

3. Keep the rules simple and easy to understand.

Fear of looking stupid is compounded when rules are complex. Make the game easy to learn and people’s anxiety goes down quickly. Provide tutorials for online games and provide clear directions and a guided start to games done in a live environment. You should also incorporate levels into game play so players can master an easier level before the game grows more complex.

4. Focus more on cooperation than competition.

When people don’t have to fear being labeled a “loser,” they are more eager to play. People also naturally tend to want to cooperate with teammates or others, which increases the likelihood of engagement. If you do opt for competition instead, avoid emphasizing winning over learning. Don’t make a huge deal about the winner (which makes the losers feel badly). Make a huge deal about how much people will learn.

If competition is truly what makes sense, try to have people compete as teams rather than as one individual against another. Make it possible for people to “catch up” to a leader so as to avoid people checking out early if one person gets too far ahead.

5. Don’t call it a game!

Yes, you can do that. You can call your learning initiative whatever you want. If the word “game” scares people or makes them cringe, figure out another way to frame the experience. You can avoid negativity entirely if you phrase something as a “challenge” instead of a “game.”