Why Adults Should Love Game-Based Learning


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 pre-order Sharon’s book, “Play to Learn,” on ATD’s website and receive it by March 3rd.

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.


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.”


What’s the Benefit of “Fun” in Games?


Yes, I know. You’ve heard that games are very useful for learning. However, it’s less about creating a game than actually understanding what it is that people find “fun” about playing games. There is power in understanding what makes games engaging to us. Armed with that knowledge, you can use it to inform your learning designs.

This table offers a quick summary. Use it to inform your decisions when designing learning games or learning activities that you want to actually keep people engaged.

What’s fun, why it’s fun, and how it can affect learning game design.
Game Activities People Find Fun What Makes Them Engaging Implications for Learning Games
  • Grapple with challenges.
  • Triumph over a challenge after working at it.
  • Achieve something (a win state, a trophy, a new level).
  • Figure out solutions to problems.
  • Create strategies that lead to a win or resolution of a challenge.
  • Mental satisfaction of overcoming adversity or some difficulty.
  • Sensation of mastery and accomplishment.
  • Mental stimulation; using their brains and savvy to find a solution.
  • Compatibility with many people’s natural tendency to be goal oriented.
  • Thoughtful incorporation of goals, challenges, and adversity can be linked to real-world job situations.
  • Goals are everywhere in the work world: sales goals, productivity goals, safety goals, retention goals.
  • Challenges abound in the workplace: time, money, and resource management; economic challenges; adverse event challenges; innovation challenges.
  • Problem solving and strategizing are higher-order skills that many workers and companies need more of. Games become a useful way of encouraging this type of thinking, if it’s required for the job.
  • Earn the title of “winner.”
  • Feeling of well-being and pride that comes from the admiration and recognition that winners and achievers often get.
  • Having employees that feel valued and recognized is critical to sustaining engagement. You can leverage this need in your game’s design.
  • Collect, explore, or escape.
  • Being active mentally stimulates us and keeps us from feeling bored or distracted.
  • Feeling of accomplishment; this is closely linked to goal achievement.
  • Action often generates an emotional response. Emotion interests us.
  • Engagement in a learning activity is typically measured by how involved a learner gets; activity-based elements tend to generate more involvement than passive ones, such as reading or watching. If mental activity and physical actions are required of us, it’s harder to disengage than if we remain passive.
  • Collaborate with others to work through a challenge or get something done.
  • Desire to feel valued by teammates.
  • Desire not to let someone down (if playing on a team).
  • Desire for interaction with others.
  • As with action, interaction often generates an emotional response. Emotion interests us.
  • To accomplish goals, people usually have to collaborate with others. Learning games lend themselves well to cooperative play, which helps build collaborative behaviors.
  • Role-play or imagine themselves in a different context.
  • Desire to feel creative.
  • Ability to safely explore something we’d normally consider too “out there” to be a part of.
  • Enjoyment of pretending or imagining; it can be very freeing.
  • In the workplace, mistakes can be costly. Allowing people to role play or imagine in a game is a safe practice area that causes no harm.
  • Fantasy can also be a useful way of helping workplace learners accept a situation they would otherwise object to as not being realistic enough to fit their specific work world. The fantasy elements make it clear it is not supposed to be an exact representation of their world.
  • Imagination in game play can also cultivate creativity and innovation – two desirable things in a workplace.




Where is game-based learning headed? An Interview With Sharon Boller


I interviewed Bottom-Line Performance President and industry thought leader, Sharon Boller to learn more about current game-based learning trends and where this learning strategy is headed in 2017. Sharon has been writing and speaking about game-based learning since at least 2008. She hits the road this fall with Karl Kapp to deliver a series of workshops on learning game design, and rumor has it a book is on the way in 2017. Her hands-on work with clients gives her a unique perspective on how games are currently being used for learning and what trends we will see in the year ahead.

What are the current trends in game-based learning?

Today, a lot of people try to use or mimic common game show-style games in eLearning courses. We’re still stuck trying to figure out how to do things that have to be SCORM compliant. That’s the now, but the good news is that people are at least trying to come up with different solutions that are more game-like as opposed to boring training material and simple recall games.

Where is game-based learning headed in 2017?

More and more learning games will be designed as casual mobile games that people will play on their phones. The focus will be less about what we can stick in a traditional eLearning course and more about reaching people on the device they most frequently use, which of course, is their phone. Mobile learning lends itself really well to these micro-learning experiences that people want.

Another trend we’re going to see is mobile learning stop being labeled as a trend and viewed as more mainstream. We’ll also start to see more robust games that help people use judgment and build decision-making skills instead of just procedural knowledge.

We’ve seen clients have great results with this approach, both using Knowledge Guru to deliver games on mobile devices and with custom mobile games we have designed and developed.

How do you see virtual reality making its debut in the learning game world?

Virtual reality is going to be a little different from other things that have come along. Mobile learning has taken a long time to reach adoption. But virtual reality won’t have the same extreme curve because it’s not very expensive; you can buy a virtual reality headset for just a few hundred dollars. This will help make adoption a lot easier and will create a virtual reality uptick in our industry.

When can we expect to see this uptick in virtual reality adoption?

I don’t think virtual reality is tomorrow, but I think you’ll start seeing people using applications and believing they can make virtual reality happen in the next couple of years.


What makes virtual reality so appealing?

It’s the emotion. Virtual reality immerses people in natural environments that they would otherwise never dream of experiencing in reality. It emulates such realistic situations that it triggers the same emotions you’d feel if you were actually there in real life. Game-based learning has a similar effect when the games evoke strong emotions in players. And emotion is key for embedding memory. So when you can do something that evokes emotion, you’ve created a much more powerful learning experience as opposed to a flat eLearning course with basic scenarios that simply tell you what happened.

So emotion is one of the reasons games are a good learning tool? What does learning theory say about the connection between emotions and learning?

Learning theory is organized into three domains: the cognitive (thinking) domain, psychomotor (physical) domain, and affective (emotional) domain. What you find is that if you don’t engage the heart or affective domain, oftentimes you can’t bring about change. So what’s emerging are these games for change or games in this affective domain that try to change our minds or attitudes about certain things.

Can you give an example of a game you played recently that incorporates virtual reality?

There’s a free game online right now called Lifesaver. Lifesaver uses stories and games to help people recognize the value of learning CPR. To play the game, you use the spacebar to do compressions and then you get feedback on whether you’re doing the compressions too fast or too slow. So this whole emerging arena in learning games is focused on games that relate to the affective domain.

This is why virtual reality could be especially beneficial for medical device and healthcare companies. You can operate on someone in virtual reality and there’s no risk. Yet it gives players a series of experiences that evoke those key moments of a surgical operation in a way that is faithful to the emotional experience real surgeons have in the operating room.

People will make the transfer to virtual reality a lot faster after they realize that instead of putting someone in the operating room, out on the factory floor, or in a mining environment, operating a $2 million piece of equipment, they could design a virtual reality experience and have meaningful practice without the liability.

Are there any other game trends you think may emerge in the next few years?

I think we will see resurgence in board and tabletop games and people actually coming together. One thing we’re seeing already is greater interest in solutions that let people connect in real-time. People recognize there is a space for games that allow for socialization. One of the cool things I talked about in my recent blog post on Pokémon Go is that even though it’s a digital game and people play on their own, it also fosters a sense of community and personal connection with others.

We’re also seeing more and more clients who choose to include a high-end tabletop game as part of a product launch meeting or instructor-led training session. The “Feed the World” board game the Mosaic company included in their Brandon Hall award-winning curriculum is a great example.


Gaming, Micro-Learning and Mobile: The Perfect Trio


If you follow so-called learning trends, you’ve been hearing about micro-learning. It’s everywhere. It sounds fancy. Suddenly, learning professionals want to call all of their training micro-learning, even if it does not fit the description. Sharon Boller, president at BLP, offered a word of caution about micro-learning last year as the hype was growing. Like other learning trends such as mobile and gaming, it is not a be-all, end-all solution to every training need.

We’ve been creating learning experiences that would now be called micro-learning for many years. In 2012, Sharon wrote about the concept of ‘learning snacks’ in her Learning Trends, Technologies and Opportunities white paper:

Across our client base, the consistent demand is to limit course length or to somehow modify the instructional design so that it’s possible for someone to “consume” a course in smaller chunks. As tablets and phones enter the workplace, we also see clients getting excited by “just-in-time” access to ePubs and reference tools. There’s a bigger push to reduce the total time spent in formal training, while conversely a perception that people need more and more information to do their jobs effectively.

In its simplest form, micro-learning is a terrific way to reference materials, look things up, do things, etc. In its most advanced form, micro-learning allows you to reinforce, deepen and extend learning. But when we talk about trends like micro-learning, mobile, game-based learning and the like, it’s important to remember that these trends are not entirely separate from one another. They are really part of a single trend: a shift towards anytime, anywhere, engaging learning solutions that foster long term retention and performance improvement.

Let’s look at how these three approaches to learning work, and play, well together.

Game-Based Learning Drives Engagement


Countless studies have shown the benefits of game-based learning as opposed to traditional training approaches. Game mechanics and game elements, when designed well and linked to appropriate learning objectives, can motivate learners and help them connect with training on an emotional level. Games can soften the resistance some learners feel when faced with a required training. The innate characteristics of games, such as feedback loops and narrative story, also make it easier for learners to remember what they’ve learned.

Micro-Learning Improves Retention


When done right, micro-learning lessons are not one-off, disconnected events. They introduce a concept, then build on it in short chunks. In fact, the best micro-learning is designed using spaced repetition to reinforce key content and objectives over time. A game-based learning or gamification solution that encourages short play sessions over a longer period of time can be highly effective at improving recall if the content is reinforced with each repetition. A word of caution: introducing new content with every micro-learning lesson or gameplay session is little more than a distraction.

Knowledge Guru games use spaced repetition and feedback loops to distribute content to learners. We also incorporate spaced repetition into the custom blended learning curriculums we create for BLP clients.

 Mobile Learning Increases Adoption



For any learning solution to be successful, its needs to be readily available on learners’ device of choice. Unless you work in a call center environment or at an organization where phone use is prohibited,  mobile is your best bet. Most of us habitually check our smart phones throughout the day, perhaps beginning and ending each day with screen time. By delivering game-based learning in short bursts on a mobile device, you make it easy for learners to take part.

How Knowledge Guru Brings Game-Based Learning and Micro-Learning to Mobile Devices

Knowledge Guru games are broken into short topics that are playable in just a few minutes a day on mobile or desktop. As learners play, Administrators can turn on auto-reminders through email or push notifications that remind learners to come back and play. Learning objectives are progressively reinforced as players return over time.

Learn more about Knowledge Guru


Commercial Games vs Learning Games: Avoid the “Bling”


I recently had a conversation with a game developer who was interested in becoming a subcontractor for us. While we do almost all of our development in-house, I thought I would entertain the conversation to see his capabilities.

This developer shared several examples of games he had developed. All the sample games featured gorgeous graphics and lots of “action” in the games. This included things flashing, scores popping, and new game elements introduced as I advanced through levels. On the surface, it was quite impressive!

“Candy” Isn’t Enough

The trouble was that, while these game elements can be very addicting and engaging in a commercial game, they can get overdone and distracting in a learning game. The commercial developer’s goal is to keep players engaged in their game. The problem is that game developers tend to use a lot of “wow” factor and eye candy to keep the player interested. They will intentionally try to frustrate the player just enough to be motivated to make in-app purchases so the player can more easily progress through levels. And, if it’s well-done, this approach works well. Heck – even when it is NOT that well-done many players stay connected.

Candy Crush is a game that exemplifies “sensory overload” and millions love to play it. Other mobile games have followed the Candy Crush format, some more successful than others. I evaluated various commercial games, including a lesser-known game that is very similar to Candy Crush, here.

However, when devising a learning game, you have to carefully balance the complexity of your game mechanics and elements with the learning needs of the game. And your game developer needs to understand this and believe that less really is better.

When it Comes to Learning, Less is Better


“Less is better” is one of the four lessons of game design that I explained in my ATD blog post, Lessons from the Trenches of Digital Game Design. Less is better is all about managing learners’ cognitive load. Novice learning game developers often design a very “fun” games that make learning harder rather than easier. They load their games up with rules, pile on different game elements, and incorporate multiple dynamics (e.g. the “how” of achieving a game goal) to keep player interest high.

However, in typical corporate environments, players may have limited time to play and multiple distractions competing with their attention. Game play that is too complex will either frustrate learners if it’s too hard to learn quickly, or distract them from the learning they need to do. They can become engrossed in winning the game while failing to focus on the learning. Instead, they get distracted by collecting resources, competing against time constraints, or accumulating lots of points. The learning gets overshadowed by rule complexity or too many game elements.

The job of a learning game designer

A learning game designer’s job is to combine solid instructional design and game design so the learning is incorporated into gameplay. The game rules support the learning need and the game elements function as reinforcers. Commercial game developers may not embrace this “less is more” philosophy.

There is a misconception with learning games that it’s the fun of the game that keeps learners engaged. It’s almost as though we’re trying to hide the learning. It’s sort of like chopping up vegetables and pouring chocolate sauce over them so no one realizes they are eating vegetables. This typically doesn’t work. Even if we do eat the concoction we made, the “bad” of the chocolate sauce outweighs the benefit of any vegetables we might have consumed.

When I play test learning games, I always see that engagement comes when players love the challenge and goal associated with the game – not whizzy-wig game mechanics, graphics, or game elements. A learning game with well-managed complexity provides solid game play AND an optimal learning experience. Be cautious of any “learning game design” that has people do a bit of “learning” and then offers up game play as a reward for doing the dull learning part. Instead, look for (or try to design) a learning game that incorporates learning into the game play experience itself. Learners will appreciate it – and be engaged by it.

Build Your Skills at Designing Learning Games

Want to build your own skill set at learning game design? Karl Kapp and I co-authored a new book called “Play to Learn: Everything you need to know about designing effective learning games.” We share real examples of in-person and online games, and offer an online game for you to try as you read. We also walk you through evaluating entertainment and learning games, so you can apply the best to your own designs.


How to Create a Game-Based Learning Strategy


I was speaking to a client the other day who said only 10% of her workforce completes the training they are supposed to take on the LMS. She thinks training completion is low because the content isn’t engaging and wanted to know if a learning game could fix it. I told her that there is no “easy button,” and games are not a cure-all for for boring content or bad learning design.

Game-based learning can improve learner engagement, but only if you start with a strategy. Years of research shows that game-based learning can increase not only learner engagement, but drive both higher retention and completion rates. Industry professionals are now spending less time debating what the research says about games, but many organizations still struggle to correctly implement games that drive meaningful results. Adding a learning game to the mix just to ‘jazz things up’ could be like putting a Band-Aid on the problem when surgery is really needed.

How do you implement a true game-based learning strategy that will actually work? A strategy where learners actually learn and retain at higher levels? A strategy that drives measurable results?

Here are some key points to keep in mind when creating your strategy:

1. Know your audience

Key stakeholders often get this wrong. I had a seasoned training director tell me that since his audience was mostly women, games just wouldn’t work. Really? According to the Entertainment Software Association, of the 155 million gamers out there, 44% are women. There are marketing games that tout a player demographic of 52% women.

2. Make it relevant

This is where many game-based learning strategies fail.   First, learners want activities that are relevant to the learning material and their job. If the game is relevant to helping them retain material or gives them time to practice with material they will use often, then it’s worthwhile. If not, learners will reject it. If you’ve tried a game before and it wasn’t adopted well by your learners, this might be the culprit. Avoid drawing the conclusion that games won’t work with your learners if this is the case.

3. Make learning the focus

Many folks want serious games to be, well, less “serious.” They want more action, more sound, more addictive qualities to the game. The problem is that the more complex the game design or game-play is, the less cognitive space is left to learn the knowledge and skills you designed the game to teach in the first place.

4. Timing is everything

Learning games work best when implemented as part of a blended learning approach. At Bottom-Line Performance, we’ve implemented games as pre-work to a larger training event or instructor-led training as well as post-work for multi-module eLearning curriculums to help learners reinforce what they learned—particularly material they really need to know from memory.

5. Measure the outcomes

To drive measurable results, you have to know what you want the desired learning outcomes to be and have a way to access the data you need to measure those outcomes. If your LMS reports only completion, choose a platform that can deliver reports detailing how players performed.

Of course, implementing a strategy at your company will involve many more steps than what I have shared here, as well as testing to gauge the response a game-based learning approach has with your learners. Whatever your desired business outcomes are, make sure your game-based approach is based on sound instructional design.


5 Keys to Success with Legend and Quest

Want to make your first Knowledge Guru game roll-out a success? While the platform itself is easy to use, a bit of planning and preparation goes a long way. The following “keys to success” will help you make the right decisions before you start designing your Legend or Quest game… and help you make your game content instructionally sound.

1) Choose the right game “type” for your endeavor.

Knowledge Guru offers you three options: Drive, Quest or Legend. Each one can a give you an impactful learning experience, but this article focuses on Quest and Legend. Sometimes either option is equally good. Here’s a few of the major things to consider:

  • Do you HAVE to support IE8? If so, use Legend. Quest will not work within Internet Explorer 8. If users cannot switch to a modern browser (IE9 or higher, Chrome, Firefox), then you’ll have problems.
  • Do you want people to play as part of a live event? Either game type can be used. Legend is the optimal choice if you want to break up game play throughout the day and have players focus on a single topic per play session. Quest is a strong option if you want the game to serve as an overall review of the day. You can have players complete a single world within the game, which would include all the day’s topics. They can then finish their games on their own – getting two additional repetitions of your content following your live event.
  • Do you have a theme? Legend gives you 8 different themes to select from; Quest gives you three. Some customers even opt for a custom-made theme. Which one is right for your event/learning experience?
  • Do you want to incorporate video? Use Quest. Legend does not support video within the questions.
  • Do you want to include “performance challenges” as well as the question/answer format? If so, choose Quest.

For more detailed comparisons, you can check out these Knowledge Base articles that do a detailed comparison of Legend and Quest.

2) Make your game smaller as opposed to bigger.

Both Legend and Quest are designed to maximize learner retention of content. However, if you overload your game with too much content, you will hurt your players’ ability to remember.  Novice authors can go a bit crazy on crafting questions and suddenly find themselves with 8, 9, 10 or even 11 question sets within a single topic. The result is player fatigue and overload on their brains. They end up remembering very little.

If you truly have lots and lots of content to cover, consider crafting several “mini-games” that can be spaced out. The Legend game type is particularly good for designing this type of solution. You can have a highly effective Legend game that has only three topics with three question sets in each topic.

3) Get good at writing question “sets”

Question Set

The single biggest challenge novice game creators have is recognizing when they are not writing iterative questions. Our Knowledge Base has a great article on how to write iterative questions. We encourage you to read it before you create a game, or to evaluate a game you’ve already created. Here’s a terrific formula to think about when you craft a question iteration:

  • Make the  question on the “A” path (Legend) or “A” world (Quest) a recall of the fact. This can be done as a true/false or a multiple choice option.
    • Widget A has three benefits. Two of these are durability and low cost of operation. What’s the third?
  • Make the question on the “B” path or world a bit more difficult by crafting a fill-in-the-blank or having them reference.
    • When you sell Widget A to customers, you need to share three benefits: ______ , ___ _____ of operation, and _____ease of________.
  • Make the question on the “C” path or world scenario based. Have them incorporate the fact into a job situation they would typically encounter.
    • You are meeting with Joe at ACME construction. He is concerned about replacement costs of Widget A. Which of the three benefits below is the one you should communicate to Joe? (NOTE: The answer would be durability. The distractors would be the other two benefits.)

4) Make your questions contextual to the players’ jobs and personal to them.

We all care about what matters most to us. So make sure your questions place your players in their jobs whenever possible. Here’s a terrific “formula” to think about when you craft a question iteration:

  • You are in a lab….
  • Your manager wants you to….
  • Your customer asks….

5) Incorporate visuals and video.

People respond well to images and they like watching short videos—just think about the popularity of YouTube. If you can show them instead of tell them, do it! Here are things you can do with an image, even one made in PowerPoint:

  • Give the player a context or “setting” for a scenario or a visual of what a customer might look like.
  • Present data that a player needs to analyze before responding to a question.
  • Show the flow of a process or the steps in a process.
  • Present a vignette of a selling situation, a feedback session, a customer inquiry, etc.

7 Steps to an Effective Serious Game or Gamification Implementation


Are you a do-it-yourselfer? When it comes to serious games, ATD says you probably are.

In an ATD survey conducted for its 2014 research report, Playing to Win: Gamification and Serious Games in Organizational Learning (link), 71% of organizations reported that they prefer to develop serious games in-house. 83% said they planned to develop gamification in-house.  I’d say that’s a confident group! In the same survey, only 20% of organizations were already using serious games for learning, while 25% were using gamification. That means most organizations have never used games for learning before and plan to do it without help from a vendor.

The challenge of in-house game design

One of the reasons serious games are hard to create successfully in-house is the lack of game design skill most organizations have on their teams. Your instructional designers may be good, but have they played lots of games? Have they designed games before? Many instructional designers continue their education and earn masters degrees in instructional design. Can you master game design by taking a one-day workshop?

Getting Around Game Design

Organizations often get around the lack of in-house game design expertise by using game templates or a full fledged gaming platform. When the platform you use already has gaming built in, all you have to do is think about your content. A platform can make life much easier for your team… but creating the game itself is less than half the battle.

You still have to implement your game. And that’s where things really get interesting.

If You Build It, They Won’t Come… Unless You Have a Plan

No matter how fun your game-based solution is supposed to be, you will still need a plan for launching it, promoting it, and measuring it. How will you communicate about the game? Will you require players to play? How will you incentivize play… or do you need to incentivize? These are all questions you must answer as you implement a serious game or gamification initiative.

In my role, I get to collect stories from organizations who wish to submit for industry awards. These are typically the “best of the best.” They planned for success, either partnered with us to build a solution or created their own game with Knowledge Guru, and drove meaningful business results from their efforts.

What’s interesting about these award-winning implementations is just how similar they are. I find that the companies that are most successful with games and gamification in their organizations take many similar approaches when it comes to implementation.

So whether you are preparing to launch your first-ever serious game, or are looking to make your next initiative more successful than your last one, consider these tips for a successful implementation:

1. “Required” works best.

Let’s face it: employee time is limited, and most of us only have the energy to focus on the activities that are truly essential to our jobs. Even if your serious game is fun, is it equal or greater than the myriad of entertainment options available to us around the clock? Our experience shows us that the organizations that are most successful with serious games require play. For example, Johnson & Johnson has integrated Knowledge Guru into employee goals & objectives for the year.

2. Blend into a curriculum: use as part of a learning solution.

You probably have lots of training initiatives happening in a calendar year. Games might be a great addition to the mix, but you should not plan to replace all of these existing training events with games. The case studies I have gathered all show organizations having the most success when games are part of a larger blended curriculum or strategy. This allows you to narrow the focus of your game to cover a specific skill or set of knowledge.

3. Use the game as a reinforcement (most of the time).

Games and gamification make great reinforcement tools. In fact, most organizations we have worked with position games as either a reinforcement, or a motivating first exposure to content that will be covered in greater detail later. It is also easier to launch a game as a reinforcement when you are attempting your first go-around with serious games.

4. Offer incentives and/or provide sufficient motivation.

No matter how you dress it up, completing a serious game is still training that is part of a job. Unless your learners are highly intrinsically motivated, we recommend providing prizes and rewards. Encouragement from senior leadership can be even more effective. The grand prize winner of a Knowledge Guru game hosted by one of our Financial Services clients specifically cited how meaningful it was to be recognized by company leaders as part of winning the game.

5. Create a communications strategy around the game.

Learning and Development leaders need to think more like marketers when implementing all types of training. Every single case study I have seen of a successful Knowledge Guru implementation incorporates some sort of multi-part communications strategy to get the word out about the game. This could include many things, from advertisements in a call center to a series of emails or even a collection of advertisements placed throughout a company intranet site.

6. Use reporting and adapt the training.

Most organizations first get interested in games because they want to motivate or engage their employees. This is only part of why games are powerful organizational learning tools, though. For example, Johnson & Johnson was able to identify a specific learning objective that learners were missing as a group, then adjust their overall training to better focus on the weak process step. The organizations that are successful with serious games and gamification take advantage of the data they gather on learners and act quickly to adapt their training and processes.

7. Gather insights via surveys.

It is not uncommon to survey learners after a training initiative is completed… especially after a pilot. Games are no different. The surveys conducted by Knowledge Guru customers have revealed many valuable insights that impact future games. In one survey, a player commented that they learned a more effective way to do their job through the game that had not been covered in company-wide training. Our client was able to take this information and launch new training to teach the effective process to the rest of the department.

See Four Case Studies In Our Recorded Webinar

Want to learn more about how to implement effective serious games? I cover these implementation tips in the recorded webinar below, adapted from my ATD International 2015 presentation. You’ll also see four case studies from organizations that have implemented a serious game that drove real results.


Turn Your Product Knowledge Training into a “Hero’s Journey”


You need to deliver training to your employees and want it to be “engaging.” You’ve read articles and attended webinars that discuss making learning experiences engaging, yet most of the advice seems vague. What is an engaging learning solution? Why do some learners find a certain type of training engaging, while others do not?

The challenge you face is even more difficult when your content does not exactly jump off the page. Teaching call center employees how to follow a critical procedure or pushing product information to sales reps in an exciting way is not a simple task. And while learning solutions must include instructional design that purposely leads to retention of this type of content, retention cannot happen if learners are not motivated to learn.

…That is, unless we take a look at what truly motivates people. When we consider our learners as human beings who are influenced by culture and driven by common goals, we can begin to see what approaches, stories and themes will truly motivate them.

One such theme is The Hero’s Journey.

What is the Hero’s Journey?

Mythologists (the people who study myths across cultures) will tell you that The Hero’s Journey has been repeated over and over again throughout human history. You’ve seen it before: the hero leaves the safety of home to face great challenges and ultimately overcomes those challenges. She returns home victorious and shares this victory with her people. We see The Hero’s Journey all around us: in movies, in books, in classical myths and modern stories. It’s a classic pattern where the individual inevitably identifies herself as the hero or protagonist.

The Hero’s Journey is retold over and over again because it is meaningful to people. It almost always leads to a powerful and inspirational story. That’s why when you are looking for a way to motivate employees to follow a process or learn about a new product, creating a “Hero’s Journey” for them to follow is a great place to start.

Here are three ways you can transform your next training initiative from required activity to heroic quest. The approaches work especially well for product knowledge training… and we have seen them used effectively with process training and customer-facing training as well.

1. Start With a Challenge

Instead of listing out learning objectives, start your next training experience with a challenge or goal. All of the Knowledge Guru themes we offer start with a goal or “Quest” of some kind. In addition, many customers create a broader theme or narrative that they use within their LMS and throughout email communications sent to players.


Every “Legend” game theme starts with a challenge of some kind. Players begin a heroic journey to become a Knowledge Guru.



In the “Quest” game type, players are on a journey to unlock knowledge. The game itself is structured as an extended quest where the learner is the hero.



In this “Hazard Communication” course we developed for a Fortune 500 client, learners are challenged to become a “Safety Sidekick.” This becomes their quest throughout the course. The course went on to win a 2014 Horizon Interactive award.


2. Make it Personal

While goals and challenges are motivating to learners, unnecessary content is the opposite. Make sure that you are presenting the right content to the right learners throughout the experience by personalizing the learning.


At the end of each world in the Knowledge Guru “Quest” game, learners play a minigame that is personalized based on their weakest content areas.



Many of the custom eLearning solutions we create allow learners to select their role and receive content tailored to their individual needs.


3. Make it Last

The Hero’s Journey is seldom complete in a day… let alone a 30 minute eLearning course. For example, Johnson & Johnson broke their “Talent Guru” game into a 5-week program with short gameplay sessions and competition each week. By extending your learner’s journey, you also increase the benefits of spaced repetition: learners retain more knowledge when they have the opportunity to apply it multiple times over several days or weeks.


Knowledge Guru’s “Quest” game type allows users to lock worlds for a period of time and email players when the world is ready for play. This breaks gameplay into short, manageable chunks over an extended period of time.



How Games & Gamification Can Help Align Processes and Procedures


Some people cringe when they hear the words “process” or “procedure.” Others appreciate and value them. Either way, processes and procedures are essential to a successful organization. That’s why so much of the training organizations deliver year after year is supposed to help align employees with a process or teach them a procedure they must follow.

In an article on process training I wrote for our BLP Lessons on Learning blog, I shared that 41% of respondents to our 2014 Learning and Remembering Survey listed policies, process, and procedures as the primary type of knowledge employees must know on the job. This was the most mentioned training topic!

Learning and remembering survey

The challenges L&D professionals listed in their survey responses likely sound familiar to anyone involved with process training. Organizations struggle because they have too many processes, too much training for employees to consume, lack of buy-in with key middle managers and lack of real motivation to change habits in the first place. That last reason, getting employees to buy into the “why”, is especially important. It’s not so much a matter of learning as it is an issue with motivation.

…Let’s assume that your employees are human beings who are intelligent and capable of following basic steps. They could learn the process and follow it if they wanted to, but they have not found a compelling reason that motivates them to do so. — excerpt from “Is Your Process Training “Nice to Know” or “Need to Know”?

Many of our customers, Johnson & Johnson and Ally Financial to name a few, use Knowledge Guru games to teach a specific process that learners need to follow. We also create many custom learning solutions that include a gaming component where the goal is process alignment. While games or gamified solutions are sometimes the answer, they can only do so much when you have a process problem instead of a learning problem.

How can games and gamification help align processes and procedures?

I mentioned above that games may not be the answer if you really have a “process” problem. We sometimes conduct a training needs analysis with clients to discover if this is the case. If the real issue is that employees either A) do not know the process or B) are not motivated to follow the process, games and/or gamification can help.

Serious games and gamification can…

1. Help employees remember how to follow the process.

We always emphasize the importance of aligning game mechanics to instructional design principles. Our Knowledge Guru platform utilizes spaced learning, repetition and feedback loops, for example. The “Quest” game type includes a Bonus Gate where questions that players missed earlier in the game are shown again. When serious games are aligned with the science of remembering, learners are more likely to retain key facts long after they play.


2. Make Middle Managers Happy… or at Least Happier.

In environments such as call centers or factory floors, managers do not want their employees to take large amounts of time away from their work. Training that is distracting or disruptive to the flow of work will often not be supported. Many of the benefits of serious games and gamification can be realized in just minutes a day. Knowledge Guru “Quest” allows administrators to set how frequently players can play and also allows them to “lock” worlds for set lengths of time. An email reminder can be enabled to invite them back. This way, employees only play in small chunks.


3. Motivate employees to learn about the process.

Most learning professionals first turn to games or gamification because they hope to engage or motivate their learners. Points, badges and leaderboards can help with this… but they are not often enough to motivate by themselves. Your solution might also incorporate story, avatars, minigames and aesthetics to create an experience employees will find interesting.


4. Help build context and relevance.

One of the best way to increase adoption of a process is to show the “why.” Any game-based solution should make liberal use of relevant scenarios that ask learners to correctly follow and apply the process. Custom-built games can go even further by incorporating characters, stories and gameplay that mirrors the workplace. Watch out for solutions that present scenarios “at random” or via an algorithm! There is value in controlling the order in which content is seen so that learners can build on past knowledge from previous sections of the game.