Getting Gaming Right: Interview with Lynda Donovan, Learnovate Centre

Gaming is everywhere. It’s the new mobile learning – pushing from years of abstract theory and concept into a real corporate reality. And we were thrilled to be right there front and centre with gaming at the Learning Awards 2014, picking up the gold award for best learning game with our client, McDonald’s UK.

Lynda Donovan, Learnovate

We love sharing ideas and talking games with people who know their stuff. So it was great to catch up recently with Lynda Donovan, Head of Pedagogy and Learning Design at the Learnovate Centre based in Trinity College Dublin.

Learnovate is an industry-led centre of excellence for innovation and research in learning technologies, of which we’re a proud member. Lynda has written a lot about gaming: what it is, isn’t, and can be for the corporate sector, and is talking about this at LT15.

Here's what she had to say when interviewed by our former Director, Stephen Walsh...

What are the hallmarks of an effective game for corporates? In terms of game mechanics – we look at challenge, curiosity, control, fantasy. Is there a magic formula?

Afraid not! There’s no one size fits all. Serious game design for corporates should be underpinned by a business challenge or set of challenges. I always start by asking what behaviours are we trying to change, how will we know we’ve changed them and how will we measure the business impact of the game?  The hallmark of an effective serious game is whether it changes the behaviour it sets out change. The mechanics of the game should be in service of that goal.

For example, are you trying to improve a particular process, e.g. accuracy on the till, or trying to develop leadership skills? Depending on what you are trying to achieve and the complexity of the behaviours in question, the blend of game mechanics and degree to which they are used will vary.

In terms of serious game design, it’s also important to consider whether the sole purpose of a game is to change behaviour or whether it is also to capture, assess and analyse behaviours that are elicited during game-play and perhaps use those behaviours to predict a future leader in the organisation.  Defining the scope of the game is critical.

What benefits do they deliver to learners, managers, organisations? What helps to build the business case in an organisation to pilot serious games?

There’s plenty of evidence to show the benefits on all levels:

  • Learners: Games have been shown to improve and enhance learner engagement. They’re also more empowering for learners due to the feelings of control and self-determination that they elicit.
  • Managers: More engaged learners results in less pressure to motivate for the manager, and leads to be better overall team performance
  • Organisations: As with any effective training intervention, a game that delivers results means a better trained workforce that delivers on organisational objectives.

To build a business case for the use of serious games in corporates, I think we need to move beyond considering games purely as L&D tools to improve learner engagement, course completion rates and scores. Organisations need to recognise that when appropriately designed, games can be used to improve the efficiencies of other business processes such as recruitment, onboarding, performance management, talent management and workforce competency management.

And there’s the reusability benefit: if appropriately designed, the same game can be re-used for improving the efficiencies of different business processes thereby justifying the initial development costs. Organisations should consider having a serious game strategy which is implemented by L&D departments.

What’s difference between a serious game, a simulation and a goal-based scenario?  Are people confusing these terms?

Yes, there’s some confusion. Both serious games and simulations provide learners with immersive learning experiences. Both are underpinned (or should be!) with goal-based scenarios involving decisions points. There is a spectrum of immersive learning experiences:

A simulation is a goal-based scenario designed to replicate a real-life situation as closely as possible and provides learners with an opportunity to learn and practice in a safe environment with feedback on specified actions. They’re realistic and often used to teach a discrete point or topic or process. There are constraints in terms of opportunities for open-ended exploratory and experiential learning.

Much of the motivation is extrinsic in nature and comes through the feedback, e.g. you’re right, you’re wrong, you crashed the plane, you lost the sale. The more control we give users in simulations the more motivational they can be. Typically simulations don’t have as strong a narrative flow as a game.

Like a simulation, a serious game is underpinned by a goal-based scenario but it motivates learners by integrating game mechanics (narrative, challenge, goals, control, feedback, reward, curiosity, fantasy) into the scenario design. The game mechanics elicit a powerful state of flow and immersion in the learner that traditional simulations do not. In terms of instructional application, games can be used to change behaviours, for consolidation of points or topics and for assessing multiple skills in one context.

At the other end of the spectrum are virtual worlds such as Second Life which give opportunities for open-ended, exploratory, experiential learning. Think Minecraft, where you are creating your own meaning, constructing and interacting. Undoubtedly such open-ended, immersive learning environments have potential for the development of higher order skills such as critical thinking and problem solving, however, in a corporate environment the development and assessment of such skills in a virtual world need to be contained within the framework of a meaningful task.

At Learnovate we have just completed the iLearn project which evaluated the effectiveness of a virtual learning environment for the development and assessment of problem solving and collaboration, both of which have been identified as key 21st century workforce competencies.

Are there any risks to be aware of when designing a game?

There’s definitely a new skillset for learning designers inside organisations to understand the relationship between business objectives, learning design, and now game theory.  You need to be very selective about the game mechanics that you choose. Too many features can make a game needlessly complex, and there’s a risk that the designers fall in love with that complexity to the detriment of the learning.

For example, there’s lots of research to show how careful you need to be about motivation and rewards in games. If winning, earning medals, completing levels becomes the sole focus, that can undermine the learning value of the game. In a corporate context we do need to keep coming back to the objectives and mapping those back to the practical application.

What are your predictions for future of serious games in the workplace?

Corporate adoption of serious games is steady but slow. Currently they’re being used and viewed as part of the L&D toolkit; L&D are asked to source them and bring them into the organisation to address a specific topic or process.

As evidence for the effectiveness of serious games accumulates from both industry and academic sources, I anticipate a move to widespread organisational deployment to improve efficiencies of many business processes such as recruitment, onboarding, performance management, talent management and for workforce competency management through predictive analytics.

In terms of recruitment for example, we know of organisations who use their Facebook games for passive recruitment. They invite people to play the game to determine what their aptitude might be for working in the organisation. That’s a good way to attract people who might not even be looking for a job and is a good example of using one game for two different business processes – marketing and recruitment.  

Immersive gaming provides huge potential too – just look at Oculus Rift. The more immersed and lost in the game you are, the more complex behaviours you display which is great for the stealth assessment  of complex, multi-dimensional skills.

Business Impact and Games

Lynda Donovan will present along with Mark Reilly of McDonald’s at the Learning Technologies Conference in January. The session will look at the business potential for gaming, and showcase the award-winning game developed by CG Kineo for McDonald’s.

Get in touch to find out more about we can help bring gamification to your learning.


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