Learning games, gamified learning, gamification; familiar buzzwords to anyone working in educational publishing and e-learning. Over the past years I’ve come to realize that in order to make the best use of these ideas, you first need to know a bit more about game design. Therefore, when an opportunity arose to participate in a course on digital learning games last summer – in beautiful Tallinn, no less! – I immediately decided to sign up.

In early July, I took the ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn and what followed were five long, intense and highly productive days of taking a digital learning game from idea to prototype. At the beginning of the course led by Martin Sillaots, a lecturer and researcher in digital learning games at the University of Tallinn, every participant was invited to pitch a game idea. We then picked the best ideas, formed project teams, and then off we went into (often heated) discussions about learning goals, game mechanics, challenges, characters, game assets, environments, graphics, rewards, narratives, motivation means and countless other little things that, when put together in just the right way, constitute an engaging learning game.

It won’t surprise you to hear that after five days our games were far from finished. However, what mattered to me, an educational publishing and e-learning professional of several years, were the less-tangible learning outcomes: an understanding of how profoundly designing a learning game forces you to think about your content, and what publishers can learn from game design for their efforts in gamification.

Lesson 1: It’s all about engagement

As a publisher of learning materials thinking about gamifying your content, you’ve probably asked yourself these questions: Why should I do it? In which ways do learners benefit from gamified content? And maybe: Will I need a professional game designer to create pedagogically sound, gamified learning materials? (I can answer the last question right away: No, you won’t.)

To answer these questions, you must first define gamification. Essentially, it means adding game-like activities and elements to existing content in order to enhance learners’ motivation and engagement with the material. If applied mindfully, gamification can help you reap a game’s unique benefits for learning: “Game-like activities are more engaging”, explains Martin Sillaots. “In a presentation, a teacher can cover more topics, but students will usually remember very little. With gamification and game-like activities, the teacher can cover a smaller number of topics, but because the students are involved actively they will remember most of the content.”

Lesson 2: Easy ways to gamify your content

Gamification can take many forms, many of which we’ve become so used to in the digital age that we no longer take note of them. At the most basic level, you may choose to add points for correct answers and a scoreboard or feedback to your interactive exercises. Adding sound effects, a timer or a lives count are other easy ways to give your materials a more game-like feel.

Taking these ideas even further, gamified materials may include rewards,such as badges or trophies, for carrying out activities and solving tasks correctly. Collecting these rewards is even more engaging and challenging if the learning material is split up into several levels with different, “even better” rewards for each completed level. And if you think that your gamified material should include characters, you can consider adding avatars to your product.

Finally, many popular games include some form of a (sometimes optional) competitive element. For many – but not all! – users, a competition is engagement in its highest form.

What would you see and hear at a coffee place in Finland? In learning games, all the details have to fit together. (Artwork by Nevana Niagolova)

Lesson 3: Less isn’t more

Since you now know the great variety of options there are, which one should you choose?

If you are considering gamification as a way to make your learning materials more engaging, your first intuition might be that “less is more”. While the desire to implement one option that works well rather than several that don’t is, of course, understandable, remember a key principle in game design: Everything in a game has to make sense. In other words, the challenges and everything else that happens in a game should fit the goal, in your case: the learning goal. It is worth paying attention to how content and game-like elements work together to achieve it.

For instance, if you would like to add a timer, consider whether it should run backwards or forwards, and in what way either option might affect learners’ motivation. If you add points and/or a scoreboard, note that, as Martin Sillaots points out, “simply collecting points isn’t very challenging. Implement a group of game elements that interact nicely with each other, such as challenge, feedback and achievement.”

Lesson 4: Content matters

My last lesson is probably obvious to anyone in our field, but it still needs to be said: The better the quality of the content, the more it will benefit from gamification. “Gamification isn’t fairy dust,” says Sami Kuivasaari, CTO at Ubiikki. “It can make quality content more engaging, but you can’t assume that some gamification elements will turn monotonous content into motivating game-like learning material.”

And, of course, not all kinds of content are the same. If you are thinking about digitizing and gamifying large amounts of content that is not very engaging to start with, taking all the above-mentioned considerations into account – and possibly revisiting your content accordingly – will take more time than adding just a few game-like elements does.

What we can learn from games is that details matter and when all of them fit together, their effect on learners’ engagement cannot be underestimated.

Julia Rigal,  Project and Account Manager at Ubiikki

Want to learn more about how to gamify your content using Cloubi? Stay tuned for a peek into the Cloubi gamification toolbox in the following issue of Cloubi News, our monthly update!
Team members Sorin Pavelescu and Nevana Niagolova working on our Finnish language learning game “Jaksaa!” (not in picture: Milena Dimitrova)