From behaviour-changing games to game-changing behaviour

I’ll start with a shameless plug: Learning Technologies 2012, conference and exhibition, takes place on Wednesday 25th and Thursday 26th of this month at Olympia – and I’d love you to come and visit us on stand 33. We’ve brought together our ideas on serious games, learning on-the-move and assessment into a single engaging mobile app. If you haven’t yet registered for the exhibition, you can do so for free here:

Also, my colleagues Nick Baum and Alex Webb will be debating the pros and cons of gamification in workplace learning at a two seminars to be held on the exhibition floor, details online here and here. If you’re thinking “Gamification, what’s that?”, it’s the “use of game design techniques and mechanics to solve problems and engage audiences” (says Wikipedia). See also last year’s blog from Alex.

That’s enough plugging; let’s get down to L&D business. I’m a sceptical enthusiast for serious games. I’m enthusiastic because I think there’s much that we can bring from the compelling nature of games to the design of learning experiences. And I’m sceptical because there are challenges, both social and technical, that fellow enthusiasts seem keen to ignore, with accessibility and diversity of audience at the top of my list of concerns.

Let’s stick to the positive aspects for now. At Saffron, we’ve long held the belief that learning should be all about behaviour: ‘knowing how’ and ‘knowing why’ count for much more than ‘knowing that’. Which is why we say that e-learning should focus on the choices that people make in their day-to-day work: that way, the content is both obviously relevant and readily testable. A serious game can take that idea to the limit by using ‘branching’ scenarios such that the learner has to live with the consequences of earlier choices – just as in a game (oh and, by the way, as in life, too). The more realistic and plausible the choices are at each decision point, the better the opportunities to provide performance-improving feedback.

This style of e-learning design works particularly well when there’s a skill to be learnt and hence the game provides a safe environment in which to practise. But to be a success as a serious game, it has to be just as compelling as a game played for fun: the storyline has to be plausible and engaging; the rewards and penalties need to “feel right” as well as steering the learner in the appropriate direction; and there has to be visual appeal too (subject, of course, to those concerns about accessibility).

So what about that game-changing behaviour my title promises? First, I’d like to stress that gamification doesn’t simply mean designing and implementing serious games for changing behaviour and/or improving performance. There are many more, and possibly better, opportunities to use “game design techniques and mechanics” for workplace learning than that. And second, we all know that a step change in performance doesn’t come about simply from a blended programme of self-study, games, informal and social learning and so on.

There’s a lot of emphasis these days on creating a “learning architecture”. I’m not a great fan of the expression (but I won’t stop to say why now) though I’m fine with the sentiment. But we should always remember that bringing about behavioural change requires more than just learning, whatever forms it may take. We need an architecture that includes performance-related rewards and disincentives – reinforcement, as they say in change management: that really will be gamification in action!

We’re looking forward to welcoming you stand 33 at Learning Technologies 2012!