Tacit learning and the lessons of content-heavy gaming for IDs

As an avid gamer with more than my fair share of first-hand gaming experience, my toes curl at the half-hearted attempts at ‘gamification’ that creep into elearning like a serial photo-bomber.

In an age of simplified, some might claim distilled, mobile gaming, where simple interactions lead to addictive gameplay (i.e. ‘flappy bird’, ‘angry birds’, anything to do with adjectives and birds -tepid seagulls anyone?) – businesses and instructional designers have desperately grasped for that golden mechanic. The one small interaction that can transform their learning from mind-numbing compliance into addictive learning experience.

For me, however, they seem to be grasping at the wrong mechanics. Scoring and rankings are great, but they require difficulty to become interesting (if Flappy Bird was easy, it never would have caught on). That difficulty is the mechanic through which a user, or a learner, becomes interested in bettering themselves and beating the game. The game puts the user into situations that test their abilities and this motivates the user, improving their performance and increasing their interest. In our example, the difficulty in flappy birds is derived from the precision it requires to guide the least aero-dynamically shaped bird in existence through an increasingly complex series of jutting pipes.

But nobody learns a thing from Flappy Bird, apart from perhaps the fact that life isn’t fair and that green metallic pipes are anathema to dysmorphic birds. Nor do we become better people through our increased aptitude at digitally flapping. The content is devoid of anything substantial (it barely includes a bird) and so the whole experience imparts nothing but a hollow addiction that is gone as soon as it arrived.

Learning, however, is content-heavy. It is full of material and to make this material difficult but addictive – to make the mechanic of guiding a learner through the content interesting – is a much more complex task. It requires more than scores and rankings tacked onto simplistic interactions.

If one wants to make this level of content interesting through gamification, one needs to look at popular games that channel enormous amounts of content. For example, role-playing games such as Mass Effect, Fallout and even Grand Theft Auto are infinitely better resources for instructional designers to study how gamification can increase a learner’s interest. These games revolve around freedom and how the user’s choices have implications on their environment. In all of these games, the user is compelled to empathise with characters, immerse themselves in a world and make important decisions that will affect the game’s conclusion.

Not only that, their future behaviour in the game is impacted by the lessons they learn (through story, difficulty and repetition) early on in the game. By the end, the user will be better at the game, and able to reel off unbelievable amounts of information about the game’s world and what they have achieved within it. They will have learnt. This exemplifies the real power of gamification to ‘sneak’ the learning in through the backdoor, achieving objectives and improving future performance by challenging and enthralling the user.

These games all have themes and messages which are built into their world, not explicitly stated but rendered through their structure. These are similar to the learning objectives we build into our e-learning. For example, Fallout is about the complexity of basic human nature and the resourcefulness of humanity. To describe it like a learning objective, by the end of Fallout the user will have learned that you can’t trust what desperate people say. Similarly, Mass Effect is about racial tolerance and the dynamics of a political system. By the end, the learner will have improved their negotiation skills and can distinguish between all of the alien races they have encountered. These things are implicit in the material and are taught to the user through story. Who says the content of elearning can’t similarly be implied and engaged with?

Nobody is suggesting we replace traditional compliance training with Grand Theft Auto, but the fact that someone can actively enjoy – not only enjoy, but consider a leisure activity – the learning of so much content is something that instructional designers have to sit up and notice.

So, how can we utilise the mechanics with which these content-heavy games become fun? How can we best apply the lessons of content-heavy gaming to our instructional design? We can build scenarios, include branching choices that make a sensible and entertaining impact on the outcome of these scenarios, even using traditional story arcs (beginning – middle – end; protagonist, antagonist, final showdown) to drive home allegorical points about the content we are trying to impart. The point is to have a coherent narrative that positively reinforces the behaviour, decisions and knowledge that we want to teach.

This change in approach can be understood by the less gimmicky phrase ‘tacit learning’. Tacit learning refers to knowledge taught by how the content is represented and the way in which the learner engages with it, rather than the words of the actual content itself. It is like the brand messaging that all clients care to build into their courses; “We want it to feel sharp and innovative”, “We want it to feel cosy and friendly”. You achieve this by telling the story in a certain way, involving characters in a certain way, constructing interactions in a certain way (all so they are ‘on-brand’).

Intangible messages, often so desired by our clients, ranging from soft-skills like attitude change to improved performance, are best served by this same tacit approach. These can often be the hardest lessons to impart, because you cannot change someone’s attitude by just yelling ‘WRONG!’ in their face, you have to demonstrate it. I implore you to think about how your interactions and the structure of your stories or characters, when done correctly, can complement your content and demonstrate your message.

We also need to embrace difficulty. It is very easy to shy away from complex and nuanced interactions that some clients may patronisingly deem ‘too hard’ for their learner. Difficulty isn’t boring, it is quite the opposite. So long as it is structured correctly to take into account the content and learning objectives, a learner should rise to a challenge. If they do, you are capturing their interest and improving their performance. It’s not about frustrating the learner. It’s about demonstrating that the bare minimum isn’t good enough. Showing them an attainable skill level that will motivate them to improve. In an easy game, people want to avoid being the worst. In a difficult game, people want to be the best.

‘Gamification’ has a bad reputation because it commonly focuses on the trappings of superficial mobile gaming: the timers, scoreboards and simplistic interactions. What instructional designers are missing is the content of games, how they are structured and how the story arcs and themes are realised within them. It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean big-budget graphics or gun-toting criminals talking about anti-bribery; some of the most addictive and engaging experiences I have ever had were from detailed text-based games. What I mean is that great scenarios and difficult interactions are examples of great gamification, and therefore examples of great learning.

For better gamification, and therefore better learning, we need to focus on our content and not cheap, simplistic ‘flappy bird’ mechanisms. We should flesh out our scenarios, by paying attention to story and the ‘world’ of the elearning and how that world pertains to the ‘themes’ (the learning objectives) of our ‘game’ (the course). We shouldn’t be afraid to challenge our learners and create interactions that thereby captivate our learners and encourage them to improve their performance.

I am lucky to work for Saffron Interactive, a company that has figured this out.

Edward White

Edward was an instructional designer and project lead at Saffron Interactive. Full of ideas, with a huge passion for sophisticated narratives and gamification, he’s always looking to push the elearning envelope and challenge the status quo.