Gaming the System: Harness the power of games to drive learning

As e-learning providers struggle to motivate learners to complete web-based courseware, gamers are glued to their screens for dozens of hours each week.  What if we could harness the power of gaming and instead of wasting hours of time playing digital games, we could help individuals and organizations meet their learning goals?

Not every game is created equal, and many so-called educational games are time fillers and wasters.  How can you ensure that learning games will create value?  Here are five characteristics that learning games must meet:


  1. Based on sound learning theory.  Games readily lend themselves to experiential, social, cognitive and behavioral theory.  The key is to make sure the games are designed around theory.
  2. Linked to organizational or academic goals.  Playing educational in corporate training or academic settings isn’t enough.  The games must be linked to learning goals and outcomes or they will simply be time fillers.
  3. Results oriented.  Games must have outcomes that provide rich data (not just a score) for assessing and evaluating learning outcomes.
  4. Engaging.  Games must be engaging, exciting, and downright addictive (think Farmville) if they are creating the kind of immersive learning experiences that we need.  Interactive learning components like quizzes, surveys, videos, podcasts, and even blogs can’t touch the all-consuming motivation of a great game.
  5. Cost effective.  If you have ten million dollars laying around, you can hire a top game designer to create something pretty amazing, but most organizations and certainly education environments don’t have that kind of funding.  We need to develop strategies to create games that meet the first four criteria without breaking the bank.

How can organizations use games to reach their learning goals while meeting the five criteria above?  Tell us about a great example of a learning game and provide a link if available to an interesting site.


  • An impressive share! I’ve just forwarded this onto a co-worker who has been conducting a little research on this. And he in fact ordered me breakfast because I stumbled upon it for him… lol. So allow me to reword this…. Thank YOU for the meal!! But yeah, thanx for spending the time to discuss this matter here on your blog.

  • I have seldom used games as a means of actually teaching material, except maybe for a team scavenger hunt to introduce them to content. I’ve always used games as a means of review or form of Level 2 assessment at the end of a module. That being said, I think of our reading in the texts about Virtual Reality and how that platform could essentially teach through interactive gaming.

    I really believe that games are untapped commodity in learning and development technology. There will always be the typical use of “game show” models, but there are so many types of interactive role playing games that could be created, especially in areas such as customer service. I point to this from the article:

    Some findings which could impact the training effectiveness for front line workers include:
    • The more immersive the game environment, the better it is suited to teaching procedures and processes over facts.
    • The combination of graphics with spoken text significantly increases memory of the content.
    • Practice with video games can increase eye-hand coordination to such a degree that learners will make fewer mistakes in physical activities (e.g., cash register operation) and be able to perform manual tasks faster. Performance at both has been shown to improve at statistically significant levels.
    • Game play builds superior eye-hand coordination, an increased capacity for visual attention, faster reaction times and improved spatial visualization skills.
    • Participants in Gaming for Learning studies have identified motivational factors that influenced their likelihood to respond well, including:
    o challenge (not too hard and not too easy)
    Page 8 of 31 The MASIE Center Learning CONSORTIUM
    August 2005
    Gaming for Learning On-Ramp Paper
    o exploration (opportunity to discover new things)
    o control (manipulating the virtual environment through keyboard/mouse or gamepad)

    So, I believe more than ever that corporations need to be looking at all that gaming can offer their learners in workplace training.

    • Your post was very intersting and it made me re think gaming as an option for learning in the workplace. I essentially find work and games to be on the opposites of the spoectum. I went and looked at the article in our textbook on “Using Gaming to Energize Dry Material” and it made some really good points.
      1. Players interact with contect, demonstrating their knowledge and ability to apply the information.

      I think this does make sense. I think when I thought of gaming i was think more animation, which some adults might find distracting and not take as serious.

      Promoting excitement was another topic. I do agree that if the games can promote excitment it would allow individuals to become more engaged and remember the lesson a little more.

      I think if the games have good content and is relevant to the day to day activities designed for your workplace this might work.

      I dont think all learning should involve games but more difficult or boring subjects may have a chance with gaming.

      Thanks for making me rethink my answer.

  • I have not had an opportunity to use learning games in any of the organizations I’ve worked in recently. However, I have taught online classes and agree it is hard to motivate learners to participate and to continue to stay engaged in the class. And yes, the possibilities are endless if we can harness the power of gaming and apply that to individual learning.

    Nonetheless, even prior to online learning capabilities, students would excel in Art, but fail in Humanities. The challenge is not so much creating the perfectly valued add program, as it is tapping into the psyche of the learner. What is the key to their motivation? What’s in it for them?

    We know from Psychology 101, that motivation is rooted in our basic need to minimize physical pain and maximize pleasure. Providing incentives, rewards and disincentives to fill the learners’ needs and combing that with the five characteristics that a learning game must meet will help to ensure that learning games create value.

  • I found this article fascinating as I like to incorporate games into my courses for low level learning such as retention of the material. I believe that when incorporated correctly, games can add a sense of excitement and competition to the learner which can help them to engage in the lesson. What I cound so fascinating about this article is the prospect of incorporating such advanced gaming into all levels of training. The idea that even small organizations will soon have the ability to create simulators and virtual worlds for learning purposes really is exciting to me. I train individuals on software programs and in my experience a lot of individuals are afraid of “messing up the program” while in a learning environment. Even when I ensure them that it not the “live system” they are still apprehensive. The idea of creating games and virtual worlds where the students can walk through a mock scenario or a day in the life of their job would relieve them of these fears. My only concern is the cost and time associated to implement these projects. I hope that over time the costs will decrease as the organization that I have been employed with are hesitant to invest money in new training technologies. Even the organizations that were Early Adopters, sometimes were more hesitant with training budgets then other budgets. But if we could find an affordable way to incorporate these gaming devices into training, I think this would be an extremely exciting and worthwhile implementation!

  • I am fascinated by technology and what it can do for us. I found a few things online that I would like to share.

    First, there are some very powerful and fascinating statistics about games & generational learning in this article.

    Here, I just thought games would make our training more fun, engaging, and increase retention! I really liked the article and the message let’s use games, but make them meaningful, and we’ll be perpetuating happiness ambassadors a.k.a. excelling workers!

    Also, you can see the video of Jane’s McGonigal’s Gaming Can Make a Better World, use this link:

    I also came across this interesting video (see below for the links) about how gaming may soon be part of every aspect of our lives from receiving points for brushing our teeth to earning government tax breaks every time we take the bus to tattoos. This, not so distant future, is thanks to the emergence of cheap sensor technology and the availability of wifi. The presentation was delivered at the DICE (design, innovate, communicate, entertain) 2010 conference by Jesse Schell.

    I really liked the idea that he shared of a college professor who tied grades to Experience Points (points for turning in homework on time, points for attending class, points for participating, etc.) and he saw the students’ engagement and quality of work improve dramatically. This got me to thinking about how we design information, reference, and training. What if a company could create a learning program (game) that rewards the learner with experience points that are tracked from a number of different, sources such as reading an internal blog or sales best practice, participating in a virtual role play, watching a customer feedback video, and visiting specific content located on internal websites and aggregated by sensors that are calculating your learning game points.

    Currently my company does something similar with this concept/technology in regards to Health Insurance. If you do enough activities on the site, you can get enough points (500) to qualify for a discount on your health insurance premiums. I’m not sure how much of that leads to improved health care (in some cases, getting the points is too easy), but it probably creates some awareness. Also, by looking at what type of activities people do, they can cater the messaging and content to better meet the needs of the users

    Simulation based learning experiences help users test their mental models. The simulation or game allows an individual to make decisions and then receive feedback on the success of their selection. As the user makes choices and receives feedback from the system the interactions of variables in the simulation or model become clearer. This is especially valuable if you are trying to teach non-linear dynamics, like saving for retirement, or sustainable development. This is an interesting article about IBM’s CityOne – lots of application to the training world.

  • Game playing can have a significant impact on how training is viewed. Most people dread training because it is boring and there is so much information crammed into the training session. There is little or no time to process the information. I think using games as a part of learning would be a well deserved gift to employees. However, convincing management that games are not a waste of time will take some persuading.

    In order for management to see the value of game playing, the game must be relevant to the objectives. For instance, if the Human Resource Department needed to train employees on Sexual Harassment, instead of a PowerPoint presentation or an Instructor lecturing, role playing would be more effective and memorable. Role playing actively involves the learners making learning more powerful. The cost of role playing is very minor but the impact on learning is huge.

    One large corporation using games for learning is IBM. They use Second Life. Second Life is a Virtual World where the possibilities are endless for a company. Real life situations can be explored without the risk of harming the company or employees. It is an incredible experience.

    • Irene,

      Great article on IBM, they are doing all kinds of cool things over there.


    • Irene,

      I agree that management really needs to see the relevence in game playing in order to incorporate it into a training session. Management sometimes has the preconceived notion that gaming is just for fun and there is no learning associated with it. I completely disagree and think that it can be a great tool to utilize in learning situations. Second Life sounds like a great way to explore complex situations without impact on the real world!

  • Roxanne
    There was an awful lot of information to take away from the article by Dwyer. My main point was how games are originally perceived as play. In order to get to the benefits of games you have to get past the preconceived notion. I, myself, had to get past the initial misunderstanding that games are play time. Games can be powerful if developed with the learner in mind. Games also can help enhance learning power which can be beneficial to organizations. Of course the points you brought are excellent ones. Thanks for reading the article.

  • I think having games in the learning environment can be beneficial and it is a good way to get a class to interact and actually have a little fun. I’ve never experienced games in the work place for learning purposes, however it would be neat to experience. Here is a good article I found

    • I know engagement and motivation is essental to learning in the workplace but I think it is important to establish when games fit the criteria. We have diversity classes and harrassment classes that I think should not incorporate games. But if the class is for day to day activities it might be ok to fit in the curriculum. Here is a link that helps understand the importance of engagement

      But it is for day to day activities in the wiorkplace.

  • I’m intrigued by the concept of games, because I’ve worked in the association community for almost my entire career and the cost of developing games is quite prohibitive. I imagine it to be different for the corporate environment. But like Linda and Roxanne, I think there is a fine line between serious learning and games that become a caricature rather than enforcing learning concepts.

    • Hi Sue,
      Where I work, we use lo-tech games and high-tech games. But to Kathy’s point- the low-tech typically relate to bloom’s lower level skills like-knowledge.

      • The other thing I’ve been mulling over is the terminology: gaming. We all think of games as something children play, rather than serious learning tools. A fun activity might be thinking up an alternative term rather than “games.”

  • Games are not always the best way to teach higher level skills–but are a nice review for rote learning. If we consider Blooms Taxonomy,
    most games are only used to address the lower level skills like knowledge and don’t take participants to higher levels. If we can develop games that address higher levels of thinking like evaluation, synthesis, and analysis, we may find they are more valuable tools.

    • Hi Kathleen,
      I wanted to share my experience with using games for higher level learning- we worked with SMEs to build an e-learning that had simulalations and branching scenarios- we also used a vendor. It was a lot of work and a lot of time- fortunately, the end product was well received. Unfortunately, the relevancy of the information was short-lived as processes changed- we knew there was a risk with evolving business environments and requirements.

      • Roxanne, I am wondering if building your scenarios was also expensive. I’m imagining it was–when you work with an outside vendor to develop something that is sophisticated enough to appeal to a demographically varied audience, I imagine the cost as being high. It’s a shame that the information didn’t have a longer shelf-life.

      • Hi Sue,
        Yes it was expensive- but unfortunately sometimes you have to proceed at risk.

      • Do you think if you reframed from games and allowed the elearning to be “green” continuing to evolve with the processes of change it would have made a difference?

    • In doing a bit of online research, I came across this article from T & D (October 2010), indicating higher retention rates for trainees using games compared to those who did not. The caveat, of course, is that the success depends largely on instructional context (not as the SOLE means of training) and design. Interesting.

  • How can organizations use games to reach their learning goals while meeting the five criteria above?
    I am struggling to embrace games as a delivery modality. When done right, I think they can be effective.
    According to Game-Based Learning: What it is, Why it Works, and Where it’s Going – “ Good game-based learning applications can draw us into virtual environments that look and feel familiar and relevant. According to Dr. Susan Ambrose, director of Carnegie Mellon’s Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence, this is motivational because we can quickly see and understand the connection between the learning experience and our real-life work.”
    It is vital that the learning goals are kept in mind at all times. The selection of a particular game must be carefully selected otherwise learners are lost in the game and do not learn anything. It may be important to choose a game format that is widely known so that time is not spent explaining the rules of engagement. Also, the trainer should explain the purpose or objectives of the game and then debrief at the conclusion to help ensure participants walk with what they were to have learned.
    Tell us about a great example of a learning game and provide a link if available to an interesting site.
    Games were overused at my last departmental meeting – every topic had an associated game. While I appreciate the attempt to keep the audience engaged and provide a fun learning environment, it lost its effectiveness due to over use. I don’t have any example of “great” learning games. I have seen replicas of Family Feud, Trivia pursuit, Who Wants to Be Millionaire, Are you Smarter than A Fifth Grader, and Jeopardy used with varying levels of success.
    Here the author provides some examples of when and how to use certain games based on the objectives:
    Examples of games:

  • Hi Linda,
    I must say that I am slowing embracing games. I personally do not like them as a trainer or learner. But I see how positively participants respond. A few years back I worked with a team of trainers to develop global training. For our topic, we had a ton of information which was relevant to the day-to-day job functions of the participants. There was no way that we could have delivered the information in lecture format. We elected to use a simple game- we divided the groups in teams and had them buzz in to answer questions. Our section was consistently rated the highest amongst all the topics covered at the meeting.

  • Linda S. Griffin

    I am up un the air about games being associated with learning or organizations. Especially if this is higher learning. I think games take away the seriousness of the organization learning tactics or elearning in classroom.

    • Hi Linda
      Reading your post made me think of the time I first heard about games for use in learning environments. I immediately thought of play time (games). But in fact games can be useful in learning environments and work environments if the development and delivery are modified frequently to keep up with changes that occur. In the article (weeks module) from The Maise Center Learning Consortium, (p. 18) they make the point that the first venture when creating gaming should set the tone for future projects relative to games and learning. But the word games or gaming can take away from or come across as you say, as not having any seriousness about it.
      I found this article on the web by Kevin Dwyer. He talks about what comes to mind when the word game is mentioned. The entire article is an interesting read

      • Hi Darlene
        Thank you so much for sharing the article by Kevin Dwyer. What stood out to me the most was “For games to be effective, they must be related to the workplace by providing knowledge, reinforcing attitudes, and initiating action that is important to job success. They must also teach people how to think, access information, react, understand, and create value for themselves and their organizations.”

      • Thanks for the article it is a good read. I understand how games have to be suitable to the organization to get people engaged. I just think games are just what they are games and in an organization when it comes to learning there should be other options. Just call me an old fogy

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