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Does Gamification Kill Classroom Training?

Fun is just another word for learning – Raph Koster (Game theorist)

When I see my five-year old son’s curiosity as he examines new objects and uses them in new ways, I’m always amazed by how much fun he seems to be having in those moments of wonder. Children are driven to touch and discover their worlds and make it their own. Now well into his questioning-the-world phase (“Why is the sky blue?” being just one example of many), I’m moved to wonder how we lose the elements of fun, feedback, and experience around learning throughout our lives. Why is it that 15-year olds often sit in classrooms like wet sandbags unable to be motivated to interact with teachers and engage with the educational material? And how is it that for adults, the classroom becomes merely a welcomed excuse for not going to work but to take some days “off” from their regular routine, instead of embracing learning and having fun?

Observing my son, I can recognize the intellectual curiosity inherent in children: What happens if I drop a spoon on the floor? What’s my parents’ reaction if I yell or make a loud noise? What’s the reaction when I take a cardboard box, put it on my head, and pretend it’s a pirate hat? For him, learning and using that new knowledge to make his experience fuller at the same time are what constitutes fun. And the immediate feedback that he gets from his environment only adds to that experience.

During the course of our lives, learning becomes detached from creating experiences and getting feedback. And so it turns from fun to a dreadful exercise with often devastating results: the knowledge taught is forgotten pretty quickly, with the whole education effort becoming a waste of everyone’s time. In the corporate world this can be costly, and if you don’t know how to use the tools properly or effectively, work becomes more inefficient, expensive and possibly even dangerous.

Which leads me to the following questions:

  • How can we make training more fun, add rich experience and gain feedback?
  • How can we enable trainers to add these elements to their materials?
  • Why is training separate from work rather than embedded into it?

Innovative Education Models

In 2007, a school in New York City called Quest 2 Learn hired several full-time game designers with the aim of  making every class, every exercise, and every interaction with learning materials into a game. In the same year, a  San Francisco Bay area school project called Rocketship model began giving children from lower income neighborhoods access to specifically designed computer games that provide learning material in a fun way. And the Khan-Academy, with its thousands of educational videos, has become a beacon for how classroom dynamics can change. Suddenly, what students had previously considered difficult turns out to be much easier than they’d thought. Not only that, the children who attended these schools or availed themselves of these videos began volunteering to do more school work and go at their own pace (and sometimes even faster) through the material.

In these scenarios, teachers turn from teaching machines into consultants, advising each child individually what they could do and where they could take their learning experiences. In the process,  teachers have more quality time to give to each of their students. This model has worked for professions such as tax advisors, where manual tasks like entering tax data into forms and systems is outsourced, thereby freeing up tax advisors to focus  more time on discussing the right tax strategy with their clients. Another example can be seen in the medical sphere, where doctors arrange for first raw diagnoses to be carried out by outsourced resources. When you look at the examples mentioned above, this model clearly seems equally viable for the classroom.

Teachers were among the first to realize that a playful approach works wonders when it comes to getting students to be more active in the classroom environment. And it wasn’t just  teachers: parents also saw the merits of gamified learning. Embedding the material in a larger story, giving kids a mission, providing feedback by appending stars and stickers, encouraging kids to collaborate, and many more techniques that we find from game design helped to get kids going, have more fun, be more curious and make the content more memorable.


Which brings me to a rather heretical question: when it comes to the workplace, why do we even use classrooms at all?

Why not embed learning into the workplace instead? Why do we ask employees to attend week-long classroom sessions to learn new skills, when most of their new-found knowledge often evaporates by the time they get home? Instead, why not make the workplace itself into the classroom environment and every work interaction a learning experience?

When was the last time you read a manual to learn how to play a game on your smartphone? How is it that a three-year old knows how to play Angry Birds without needing a single adult to teach them? Games can be pretty complex in their features and strategic depth, yet game designers are not forcing children to first take classes in order to play the game.

On-boarding via a game exposes you to just the right amount of functionality that you’d expect to have at that time: practically none. But step by step, the system teaches you and gives you more challenges while your skill level rises. Without noticing, the system brings you to a level of mastery by keeping you in the “flow zone”. The better you get, the more difficult and complex the game becomes. There are safeguards in place so that you can fail without risking too much, and maybe even brag about your failure (“Did you see how my car exploded when I hit the pole outside the race track?”). You can play through multiple scenarios, simulate different outcomes, and learn the workings of each of them. The eight-year old who exclaims “I lost the game because I spent all my gold on just one city” understands that you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket. This child is also more apt to see parallels in other contexts, perhaps even more easily grasping during a history lesson how nations and communities can fail.

Peter Thiel, PayPal co-founder, internet billionaire and venture capitalist investor, remarked that universities can’t teach you anything about building your own company. Thiel even created scholarships known as Thiel-Fellowship for students under 20 who leave university to start their own companies. Other renowned authors and managers like John Hagel III (author of The Power of Pull) advise business and management students to leave the university path and start playing the game World of Warcraft, because leading a guild with 25 plus members to slaughter dragons and complete missions are full management experiences that can’t be taught in the existing education system. You need to recruit and interview new guild members, debrief the team, plan, prepare and execute the missions. Former Starbucks CIO Stephen Gillet is the most prominent example of someone who attributes part of his career success to the management skills he learned as Guild Master in the MMORPG World of Warcraft.

With other words: Classroom training is dead! Long live embedded training!

Training should be embedded into your regular workplace tasks. Not an easy goal, but the transformation has already begun.

More on Gamification

This entry is part of The Future of Education series.

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      Author's profile photo Jelena Perfiljeva
      Jelena Perfiljeva

      Good post. I think all managers should be required to play Civilization because it teaches that it's much more effective to keep your citizens happy. 🙂

      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member

      Nice post.  

      I'm glad you covered both k-12 and corporate training.

      From an application designer's perspective this resonated.  I've always believed that 'if the app needs documentation, then the designer has failed'.  This aligns nicely with the basic game design principle that you described above.

      On a related note, we need tools that enable the common man (not just software developers) to easily develop games, 'micro-games', or even fully weave gamification into our tools and processes (where appropriate; see Daniel Pink's Drive for a discussion of where it is not appropriate).  There are a few emerging examples, but this is still an opportunity 🙂 .

      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member
      Blog Post Author

      There actually are game design tools for the "rest of us":

      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member

      Maybe for the rest of us engineers and cogheads.   I'd put forth that Jumala, Gamesalad, and Aris, scratch the service of usability for the common user / lack in key features.  All nice ideas, in ongoing development.   We'll see someday.  Very far away from hitting the mark.   An opportunity still exists.

      (I've personally tried Gamesalad and Aris.  Jumala tells me to download a copy for a platform that I don't have access to (PC); nonstarter.)