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Learning & Development Blog

Can Games Transform the eLearning World?

Over the last year or so, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to incorporate games into eLearning development projects. What I hadn’t stopped to fully consider is why I would do that. Games seem like a really cool way to add some fun to learning and seem to pose little or no risk to the learning outcome.

Fortunately, the question Why persists, and I am beginning to better understand why (and how) we should incorporate games in learning.

In his recent Wired article (March 2011) “Better Living Through Games,” Clive Thompson describes how editors at UK’s Guardian newspaper created a web app videogame to involve the public in analyzing millions of pounds’ worth of bogus personal expenses filed by British politicians.

The game randomly presented the players – the public – with the questionable receipts. If a receipt looked suspicious, players could write a description and hit an Investigate This! button. To add an element of competition, a leaderboard tracked and displayed which players had made the most finds.

According to Thompson,

In less than four days, some 20,000 players analyzed a stunning 170,000 pages—and the Guardian published some of the most egregious discoveries. … It turns out that the mechanics of videogames can transform the world—making even the most arduous tasks pleasant and rewarding.

In the same article, Thompson quotes Jane McGonigal, a game designer and author of Reality is Broken, to help us understand why games work. According to McGonigal,

When we play a game, we think creatively, collaborate, and persist.

It is not enough, however, to just add a Jeopardy or Wheel-of-Fortune game to our instructional design. While games like these provide a fun alternative to boring quizzes, they do not provide context. To be effective the game must make work seem like play. The flow, the choices, the thought processes, and the risks must be realistic and relevant. Mistakes or guessing should cause realistic consequence.

In her guest blog post on LEEF blog, Koreen Olbrish, CEO at Tandem Learning, outlines several theories that justify games and simulations as learning strategies, including these:

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow Theory

Koreen describes Csikszentmihalyi’s flow theory as follows:

In short, flow is the state of mind/being in which one is completely immersed in the task at hand. There are many elements of games and simulations that, when designed effectively, can help our learners achieve a state of flow: rich back stories and characters, compelling plotlines, and that delicate balance between something that is difficult, yet still achievable.

Rieber and Play Theory

According to Koreen,

In his writings on Play Theory, Lloyd Rieber presents compelling evidence of the validity of games as a learning strategy. He also cites the work of Piaget, Papert, and other leading theorists in his papers: Seriously Considering Play and The Value of Serious Play.

Incorporating games in learning makes good sense; doing so can transform learning – and quite possibly the world. Why? In part, because games inspire creativity, collaboration, and persistence. In part, because games align very naturally with many long-standing learning design principles. In part, because games – based on realistic scenarios – can help learners achieve a state of flow.

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