Achievements in Learning: What We Learn from Games

I ran across an interesting article in Gamasutra (“The Cake is Not a Lie: How to Design Effective Achievements“) by Lucas Blair. Like many articles about game design, there’s lots of synergy with instructional design practices. Whether or not you are going to make your instruction gameful, it’s worth a look. The article is a two-parter and in this post, I’ll look at Part I.

Achievement in the game world and in learning

In  gaming, achievements often become synonymous with rewards and the latter are often made synonymous with points. Similarly, in learning, achievements are often conflated with grades and test scores.  However, a better framework might be to consider achievements as the outward markers of feelings. For example, achievements should herald the sense of pride and accomplishment you gain when you’ve “got it!“— some new knowledge or skill—and you’ve internalized this new knowledge/skill to such a degree that you can provide your own transformative spin.

The more connected an achievement is  to this “Aha!” feeling, the more rewarding it will actually be. So, just as games fail when points are the only trappings of achievements, so too does instructional design fail when you hand out that certificate of course completion that does little more that note that a learner has  slogged through the course. As Blair notes, measurement achievement, given to players (learners) for completing a task in a certain way and with a certain level of competence is far more valuable than completion achievement. Achievements in learning (and in gaming) should create a sense of confidence and increase intrinsic motivation.

Making learning compelling: Boring versus interesting tasks

Your learners have to take a compliance class. You, as an instructional designer, may be groaning, “This will hurt me as much as it hurts you” because you know that your learners will be arriving at your training session/digital learning module with a feeling of being put upon. You may be scratching your head trying to figure out how to motivate your learners.

As noted by Blair, “Because players are not inclined to do [boring] tasks on their own, intrinsic motivation is unaffected by the use of rewards as an incentive.”

Therefore, there are a number of nonexclusive strategies to address  learning tasks that are perceived as boring:

  • Make the learner aware of the value of the task
  • Connect the task to an engaging story
  • Use extrinsic motivators

The first two bullets relate to altering the learner’s perception of the learning as boring. The third bullet is a more  iffy proposition if used by itself, since different  learners will  value extrinsic motivators differently.

What if learners arrive interested in the subject? Can you assume that the same strategies will work on them? Blair writes  that you shouldn’t overdo the rewards when a task is already intrinsically motivating. Instead of “focusing artificial interest in a task the achievements should be attentional,” i.e., focused on helping players/learners see strategies. Feedback can be more important than rewards when it comes to an inherently interesting task.

Of course, perceptions of tasks as boring or interesting are highly individual, so it can be challenging to provide a range of achievements that are adapted to the personal needs of your learners. It might be a worthwhile approach to create learning modules that branch based on motivation on arrival/perceptions of personal relevance of the learning topic.

Creating a sense of flow in learning

Just as a game player can achieve flow, that state of balance between a challenge and belief that success is possible (Csíkszentmihályi, 1990), achieving flow is an important part of learning.

Blair outlines four approaches for creating flow in games:

  1. Provide alternative objectives
  2. Make achievements available for players at all skill levels
  3. Demonstrate that others have succeeded (e.g., make the leaderboard visible)
  4. Provide an avenue for social persuasion(e.g., forums that provide players with social support and encouragement)

You can readily see the parallels to instructional design. We can provide goals and subgoals that are tailored to individual strengths and intrinsic motivations, as well as scaffolded learning modules that address the needs of novices and experts. The benefits of supporting learning through social networks are also not hard to sell.

I think the value of point 3, the idea of surfacing a learning leaderboard, is probably more questionable. Do learners benefit from knowing that others are mastering skills/knowledge while they are struggling? Even if  not struggling, does a learner’s perceptions of the value of his/her learning depend on measuring this value against the  successes of others?  While this may be a cultural construct we’ve grown up accepting, I’d place this strategy pretty low on the list. However, a different spin might be placed on a learning leaderboard that celebrates not points/grades/scores but unique achievements and provides a way to model learning approaches. Rather than the sterile leaderboard, consider the blog or forum that celebrates creative efforts and allows leaders to articulate their way of tackling problems. Create a leaderboard that identifies potential mentors rather than one that suggests a hierarchy of achievements.

Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, New York: Harper and Row, ISBN 0-06-092043-2.

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