March 27, 2022

No. 9 — Teaching lessons from video game designers

There are a lot of things that facilitators, coaches, and trainers can learn from video game designers about how to create engaging learning experiences. A quick clarification first: 

“Engaging” is not the same as “addictive”. You’re engaged when you make an active and focused investment of effort. It has to do more with doing, experiencing, and thinking, than with points, leaderboards, and daily rewards.

Now that we took that out of the way, let’s dive in. 

Great facilitation offers frameworks for understanding and taking action. And games are just that: a framework superimposed over a set of activities. 

But what’s so effective about the framework that’s used by games? (Specially considering that 4 times out of five, gamers don't complete a mission, run out of time, don't solve a puzzle, crash and burn, or die...) The framework is effective because  it easily turns boring things into fun and rewarding experiences, and teachers and facilitators can apply those same game mechanics to their practice to make learning more fun.

In this video, Mark Brown argues that there are 4 principles that keep players engaged in a game: pacing, narrative, a long-term goal and a compelling challenge. I think the same principles apply to keeping learners engaged. Let’s unpack each one. 

#1. Pacing

Pacing is the rhythm of the gameplay. Just as with a movie scene that lasts forever and where nothing really happens, players get easily bored lingering on one type of game for too long. The best video games have different kinds of “pillars”: combat, climbing, puzzles, dialogues, cinematic pieces… and they swap between these pillars constantly to avoid repetition.  

Teachers, coaches or facilitators also need to vary the pace of their sessions. This can be done through:
  • Intensity 
  • Changing the rules
  • Adding novelty 

Intensity is about varying the rhythm of the experience in a fluid, almost natural way. 
👾 If you think about great video games, you’ll notice that after an intense firefight usually comes a calm puzzle.
✏️ The equivalent for a learning experience is adding variation: from an intense dialogue, to quiet self-reflection. From active teamwork, to an introspective debrief. 

Changing the rules is about introducing constraints. Rules place limitations on how players can achieve a goal, which then pushes them to explore previously uncharted possibility spaces. 
👾 Garry’s Mod has the interface of a first-person shooter, but instead of killing enemies and blowing buildings apart, players have the possibility to create their own objects and worlds. 
✏️ In learning experiences, you can change the rules by adding extra pieces of information or including more variables to a problem. You could add a new constraint to a coding challenge, or purposefully restrain important information to motivate decision making based on insufficient data.  

Adding novelty is about introducing entirely new ideas. This can be done through mechanics, areas, roles, and tools. But also by building anticipation and mystery.  
👾 Mario games are really good at this because you never know what to expect from stage to stage. Another example is Hollow Knight, a game lets you know that you’ll be getting new powers but it doesn’t tell you what they are. 
✏️ Suppose you’re facilitating a leadership workshop: you could introduce an unexpected guest to a role playing scenario, or bring your learners somewhere completely different. 

#2: Narrative

Once upon a time, long ago and far away (or perhaps not so long ago), teachers did not use Power Point presentations or even chalkboards. They simply shared their knowledge through stories.

Stories are powerful devices. They forge connections among people. They build familiarity and trust. And they are easy to remember. 

Several works of the Middle Ages such as One Thousand and One Nights used a literary device called a cliffhanger to incentivize the audience to return the following night to see how the characters resolve a particular dilemma. The “to be continued…” caveat at the end of some series fulfills the same purpose. 

👾 In general, a character arc is an integral part of any story. Video games build on this fundamental element by tying character progression to player progression. They keep you wanting more by weaving complex stories that leave you wanting to know how everything ends. 
✏️ Stories can serve multiple functions for facilitators, too: sparking learners interest, aiding the flow of lectures, making material memorable, overcoming student resistance or anxiety, and even  building rapport… You could pose interesting, unanswered questions to keep your learners curious (or tell them a partial story, and reach the conclusion at the end). 

#3: Long-term goal

Great video games (just as great learning experiences) let you make progress towards a long-term goal. A long-term goal focuses the gamer’ attention and continually orients their participation throughout the challenge. 

👾 Video games give players a level cap that they can work towards or a map full of collectibles they can eventually find. 
✏️ Facilitators could give students a roadmap of achievements during (and even after) the learning experience. You could share with them something to look forward to. 

#4: Compelling challenge

You stay curious by enhancing both complexity and comprehension, by finding a medium-level of confidence. If the “right” answer is too obvious, you wouldn’t be curious – it's "too comprehensible". And if you had no idea what it could even be, you also wouldn’t care – it's "too complex".

Here it’s worth mentioning that a compelling challenge is not necessarily winnable. In fact, some of the most engaging games (like Tetris), are filled with failure, but the players will keep coming back if the runs are relatively short, if they feel a sense of getting better each time, and if they know the next session will be markedly different. 

Learning experiences can should challenge learners, either by mental work that revs up their cognitive faculties, discovery work that makes them feel curious and motivated, teamwork, which emphasizes collaboration and cooperation, or creative work , which makes them engage in meaningful decisions. "Winning" it's not necessarily the end goal. In fact, you usually learn best when you fail. 

Engagement and play 

When it comes to learning, it's almost impossible to skip the word "engaging" from the conversation. And that's exactly the area where teachers, coaches and facilitators should think more like game designers. Facilitating engaging learning experiences is very similar to crafting a great game: with varied pacing, a compelling narrative, a clear long-term goal and a balanced complex/comprehensible challenge, learners will not only learn better, they'll also have much more fun. 

I'm Stefy. I write a newsletter about designing and facilitating learning experiences. Have some thoughts on this? I’d love to hear from you – ✉️ drop me a note or DM me on Twitter

About Stefy

✨Hi! I'm Stefy. Here's where I follow my curiosities and write mostly about learning. Have some thoughts on this? I’d love to hear from you – ✉️ drop me a note or DM me on Twitter