Human attention is scarce, and many L&D professionals know this fact intimately, especially with regard to learner engagement. The term, ‘attention economy’ is an acknowledgement of this scarcity and that the events and content in our environment far outweigh the capacity of normal human attention.
With this in mind, the gaming industry has been able to hold the attention of many, as evidenced by being five times bigger than the film industry. Some of the best minds in the business spend their days creating highly engaging content and experiences. L&D is starved for this knowledge, and it makes sense for us to steal, ahem, learn some of the hard-won lessons that gaming has to offer.
I spoke to the people who straddle the worlds of L&D and gaming to understand how the industry can amp up its efforts by borrowing from an industry that has spent much of its resources understanding how to capture attention and instil learning that doesn’t detract from the experience.
🚩 A note before we put on our backpacks and venture into the wilds - this isn’t a handbook on gamification. This is about what L&D professionals can learn from the industry and culture of video games.
What L&D can learn from gaming
While there are myriad ways that gaming can be L&D’s muse, I looked at 7 elements in particular:
- Onboarding made engaging
- Connecting learning with emotions
- Data-centric learning journeys
- Community-driven learning
- Skills checks and using failure to learn
- Encouraging problem-solving from different angles
- Putting the experience in learning experience
Ready player one? Let’s dive in. 🕹️
Onboarding made engaging
The first few months of any new role can be an overwhelming experience.
In gaming lingo, the process of learning the rules is called tutorials. Game designers, especially those of complex games with intricate mechanics, have already thought long and hard about how to onboard new players. This shows in the evolution of games as the industry has matured.
Josh Cardoz, learning strategy consultant, recalls,
“When I played the original Final Fantasy VII (1997), the concept of in-game onboarding didn’t exist and so the instruction manual that the game came with was easily 40 pages long. Imagine waiting that long to play a game you’re so excited about! Now, tutorials are peppered throughout the game so you don’t get taken out of the game. In modern games, you learn as you do. You’re thrown into the action from scene 1 - regardless of your ability.”
In a nutshell, learning a game can’t outweigh your engagement with it. If you’re stuck reading reams of text just to play, you’ll probably give up pretty quickly to find something easier to enjoy.
L&D faces the same quandary. How can you facilitate onboarding that keeps someone engaged without taking them out of the flow?
Josh Bersin wrote about learning in the flow of work back in 2018 which has now been accepted as the norm. There are organisations already using the model of adaptive just-in-time learning that would be familiar to gamers.
Perhaps the best place for L&D to start taking notes is from the nearest gaming console.
- How can the concept of onboarding in gaming be applied to employee onboarding in organisations?
- What lessons can L&D professionals learn from game designers about keeping learners engaged during the onboarding process?
- How can organisations create a culture of continuous learning and development, similar to the way gamers constantly learn as they play?
Connecting learning with emotions
Studies have shown that emotions have everything to do with learning.
Video games can be a narrative experience that successfully ties emotion with experience.
Game developers are masters of evoking curiosity to promote engagement. In ‘Integrating Curiosity and Uncertainty in Game Design’, the writers outline the importance of understanding curiosity so game designers can better use techniques to support engagement.
“When players lose confidence in their ability to close the uncertainty gap, a previously pleasant level of uncertainty can become unpleasant or even intolerable, On the other hand, the game can support players in feeling confident about their ability to close the gap, even if the gap itself is large. For example, games that provide feedback on how “warm” a solution was can help players feel comfortable with uncertainty.”
- Alexandra et al. (2016)
As L&D strategists, it is vital to understand the nature of curiosity and confidence as driving emotions in someone’s learning journey.
“Many games are great at recognising the emotional awareness of players in their design. People connect with stories that make them feel something. Just like great learning experiences create value when they evoke a feeling in the user.
In a game, just like in real-life, you’re the star of the show. Emotional storytelling plays a huge role in everything we do. From the movie you remember because it made you cry, the emptiness towards the person who first broke your heart and the joy of learning how to finally use a tool.
Emotions are the most powerful tool we have at our disposal.
Spend time in your learning design to be emotionally aware of your audience. Deploy tools like emotional mapping to help you.
Bottom line, if you ignore emotions, your design won’t bring change.”- Ross Stevenson, Learning Strategist at Filtered
How can L&D successfully utilise emotions to make learning more impactful?
Content providers like TED@Work know the power of emotional engagement and utilise rich storytelling techniques that evoke emotion to teach and inspire.
The key is to understand your users and their motivations well, and not to disregard emotions. A thriving learning culture is made not with tech, or even content, but with human connections.
Example: Anthony Knott, Senior Instructional Designer at Ubisoft
We’ve recently started to deliver VOD content, which is stylised to be similar to the kind of content gamers/streamers produce on YouTube.
We provide walkthroughs, involve skits, the occasional meme – making sure the experience is as close to what people would enjoy in their own time, whilst delivering a valuable lesson.
The fact these videos are short and snappy also helps a bunch. People like to feel like their time is not being wasted. Some verbatim pieces of feedback we’ve had are:“I enjoyed the humour”
“I like how it felt like I was watching the type of YouTube videos I enjoy in my own time”
“I appreciated the fact I didn’t have to sit through a full training for this – I got exactly what I needed in the space of a couple minutes. Perfect.”
- How can L&D professionals leverage social learning to create emotional connections among learners?
- How can L&D professionals create emotionally engaging learning experiences for their learners?
- What role does empathy play in creating emotionally engaging learning experiences?
Data-centric learning journey and progression
A skills tree is a common staple in video games. It’s a visual representation of the skills you have and the skills you can acquire.
You always know how many experience points you need to rack up to get to the next level and acquire new skills.
This is a skills tree from God of War: Ragnarok (2022). Image credit
Seeing the full skill trees allows for strategic progression to happen. For many games, you often don’t have enough experience points to gain all the skills, so you make decisions on what type of character you want to be.
Do you want to power through obstacles with sheer brute strength, or do you want to stealthily lockpick, hack and sneak your way past enemies? Do you want to use the gift of the gab to resolve conflicts?
How can L&D apply the concept of a skills tree in their workflow?
Ross Stevenson says that the power of skill trees is the ability to guide and visualise progression for users. This is something that a lot of modern organisations don’t do well. Better skills are the road to a better life, so it’s important for employees to be aware of what they need to succeed.
People love visuals and skill trees provide a clear progressive route to "if you do x then this will lead to y”
It’s worth remembering that one of the top 5 reasons employees leave is lack of career progression. By providing a visual path that shows employees how to move strategically, there will be momentum forward and not out the door.
- How can the concept of a skills tree be applied to learning and development in a way that is engaging and effective?
- How can L&D use data to create a personalized learning journey for each employee, similar to a skills tree in a video game?
- What are some potential benefits of implementing a skills tree approach to employee learning and development?
4. Community-driven learning culture
Josh Cardoz argues that the primary role of L&D is not that of a teacher, but a facilitator, which ultimately means letting go. This is even more pertinent if you are a lean L&D team. And there’s a lot to learn from how community drives so much in how people learn in the gaming world:
“It’s pretty impressive how quickly a gaming community self-organises and supports each other to achieve their goals. Whether it’s about overcoming a difficult level, or general strategy on how to succeed when playing online, just go look up YouTubers on big industry games and you’ll find some of the best teachers out there. In L&D we’re often guilty of holding on to all the information, but the model is so different around gaming communities. It’s decentralised and driven by the community.”
Some basic math = If you are a team of five, then you can only do the work of five people.
However, if your team’s goals are about enabling your organisation’s champions to be advocates for learning, you can exponentially increase your efforts.
The gaming industry has long understood that its advocates can preach the good word better than their team can.
VaatiVidya is a YouTube creator who makes lore videos, videos that deep dive into the worlds and stories, for notoriously difficult games like Dark Souls and Elden Ring. His channel is one of the biggest within this particular space, touting 2.95m subscribers as of March 2023 which each video hitting an average of 1 million views or more. The best part? He’s not even employed by the makers of the games he creates content about.
In the L&D context, supporting passionate SMEs with the tools and the platform to create user-generated content (UGC) could be an excellent way to support a culture of learning.
- How can gaming communities serve as a model for decentralised and community-driven learning?
- How can L&D teams empower SMEs to create user-generated content (UGC) and promote a culture of learning?
- What can traditional L&D teams learn from the success of YouTube creators like VaatiVidya in driving engagement and knowledge sharing?
5. Skills checks and using failure to learn
Imagine you are an intrepid adventurer making your way out of the woods you’ve been unceremoniously plopped into. There’s been a few scuffles on your way to finding the path, but nothing that’s seriously injured you. You’re getting to grips with the rules and how to get to your objective.
There’s a rustling in the trees. Out lumbers a large, menacing figure, pinpricks of light in its eyes, sword and shield in its hands. This doesn’t bode well. You ready your weapons.
The question is, are you ready to take this enemy on?
This is a staple in role-playing games and is called a skills check - a marker in the game that helps you understand whether you are ready to take on the challenges after this point.
If you are successful in a skills check, great - carry on. You know you’re well-equipped to take on whatever’s next.
If you are unsuccessful, you retreat, a little bruised and battered. You make an assessment of what you’re lacking, whether it’s the right tools or skills, and you go about levelling up before taking the enemy on again.
While the setting is fantastical, the situation might feel a tad familiar. Our lives are often peppered with skills checks.
The lesson that L&D can learn from gaming is how to facilitate situations, skills checks, where employees can view failure as an opportunity to reassess their capabilities rather than a black mark on their record.
“…people who are taught that learning is a struggle that often involves making errors will go on to exhibit a greater propensity to tackle tough challenges and will tend to see mistakes not as failures but as lessons and turning points along the path to mastery. To see the truth of this, look no further than the kid down the hall who is deeply absorbed in working his avatar up through the levels of an action game on his Xbox video console.”
- ‘Make it stick’, Brown, Roediger & McDaniel
- How can L&D professionals help employees to view mistakes as opportunities for learning and improvement, rather than a cause for shame or embarrassment?
- What are the benefits of using skills checks to help employees understand their readiness to take on new challenges?
- What role can role-playing games and other gaming techniques play in L&D strategies to promote a learning culture in the workplace?
6. Encouraging problem-solving in different ways
A common situation in gaming can look like this:
You are tasked with fetching an object with magical properties. You can only find it in an impossibly high tower that is guarded around the clock, and protected by an assortment of lethal traps. You could try and sneak past all of the obstacles - but clever clogs like yourself know that there are myriad ways to approach this problem.
You could make a grappling hook and climb up the tower in relative safety. You could even sweet talk a guard into simply giving you the object.
Solving the puzzle of L&D can be approached the same way.
The learning ecosystem is now vast, especially with the emergence of commercially viable AI technologies now in the mix. A glance at the Fosway 9-Grid™ shows the variety of learning systems available to L&D practitioners.
And then there is the tech already available within your organisation’s stack. Companies have a whopping average of 254 applications with 40-60 tools available to each department.
So why rely only on a few systems for learning to happen? Your users are talented, complex, people.
Jason Thai-Kennedy, Senior Learning & Communications Manager at Electronic Arts (EA) and his team understand this deeply and incorporate this view into their strategy.
“Our LMS is just one tool in a suite of tools that we use to engage with employees.
Learning in today’s fast-changing world doesn't only happen in an LMS, and an LMS is one of many tools that must be employed to ensure success. Our learning engagements are loaded into our LMS, and we can measure completion and register employees in training; we have eLearning assets, videos, courses and tests in our LMS, but there is so much more that we do with learning around an LMS ecosystem.
Another example is, there is data in our LMS, sure, but based on the above statements there is so much more data out there – much is the same with our learning engagements, there is so much beyond the LMS.
An LMS is a tool to leverage in the overall learning strategy that one chooses to employ. You cannot merely set up a plethora of content in the LMS and hope for business results.
A deeper connection to the employee is critical. There is a team at EA that is responsible for ensuring we have an LMS, but then there are professionals like me that partner closely with the business.
I would be bold in saying if you are a learning professional reading this article and all your company really has is a team that instructionally designs content and loads it to the LMS, either look to seriously challenge the success of your learning roadmap, or join a company that thinks of learning differently and look at being more proactive in your learning strategy vs. reactive.
A world of disruptive change is a certainty, and ever-increasing realities of change demand it.”
In a nutshell, if the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem will look like a nail.
Explore the possibilities of all of the tools you have at your disposal to ensure your L&D strategy is impactful.
- How can the concept of problem-solving in gaming be applied to L&D?
- How can companies utilise the variety of learning systems available to them for more effective L&D?
- What is the danger of relying too heavily on a single L&D tool, such as an LMS?
7. Putting the experience in Learning Experience
As stated above, gaming is experiential and immersive, part of the reason why the industry is so successful in holding its place at the top of the attention economy.
Learning experience design isn’t a new field. In fact, a quick search on LinkedIn for professionals with ‘learning experience’ in their title brings up about 7.9k results. So why is learner engagement still a big challenge?
Recognising that learning is fluid, ongoing and happening with or without L&D’s intervention is key.
Most importantly, it’s about acknowledging that learning is definitely not just happening within learning systems.
How humans learn is complex and requires a diversity of experiences and content. So shouldn’t the way learning is delivered be as varied? As Marc Zao-Sanders’ and Georgina Peake’s piece on curating learning pathways identifies, mixed modalities is vital.
Interestingly, there are exciting examples of L&D actively using games to facilitate learning. In a case study on Chief Learning Officer, PepsiCo leveraged Minecraft for Six Sigma training after struggling to use the normal methods of training i.e. death by PowerPoint.
It’s worth considering how much of your resources are going towards the same types of duplicated content, and how you can introduce more variety to encourage learning that will truly stick.
Example: How Ubisoft uses experiential learning
For digital learning, one of the big challenges is compensating for the lack in the experience dynamic.
Fortunately, in a gaming company, there’s a lot of inspiration to borrow from in that respect!
Storytelling is a good tool for making digital learning come to life. It doesn’t need to be a single narrative woven throughout a piece of training, but being able to communicate concepts and technical components using recognisable gaming references, characters, sounds, music – all these elements used correctly can really help.
My example of one such training had branching paths, explained by visualising it as a ‘world map’.
Learners would navigate the map by clicking on the different locations (steps in the process). The visuals had a classic 16-bit aesthetic, retrofitted from one of our titles, and included music and sound effects to sell the overall experience.”- Anthony Knott, Senior Instructional Designer at Ubisoft
- How can L&D professionals be more proactive in their learning strategies rather than reactive, and how can this mindset lead to more impactful L&D strategies?
- How can learning be delivered in a more varied and diverse manner to encourage learning that will truly stick?
- How can L&D professionals ensure that their resources are not going towards the same types of duplicated content, but rather, are being utilised effectively to introduce more variety to encourage learning?
To recap, there are so many rich examples within the gaming industry and its culture that L&D can use to optimise its efforts and serve its users capably.
The key patterns lie in integrating the acts of learning and doing, and feeling at ease with failing as part of the journey towards proficiency.
Whether it’s using emotive storytelling, or using visible data to calibrate learning journeys - perhaps the answer to your next L&D success is sitting in a console near you. 🎮
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