Leveling Up: The Sweet Spot of Learning in Games

I watch my kids play video games a lot. Since I’m not the one immersed in the game, I can sit back and observe the patterns and structures of the games overall. As a Learning Professional, it is fascinating to see how much learning happens. Every day in millions of homes, people are learning intensely from an electronic tool but they are learning in a much different way than the way we present information in workplace learning. There is no LMS: with motivation and assessment built into the game, there is no need for one. People who are interested in games for learning are focused on badges and scores but I think the key is in the idea of “leveling up.” Here’s how it works:

A level is a world with it’s own rules and objectives. You are placed in this world without knowing what the rules or objectives are. You use your prior experience to explore the world learning about some rules as you go. When a challenge comes up that your prior experience is insufficient for, you fail (you die and have to start over.) By failing you learn the new skills. When you get through the level you face the biggest challenge (usually a more powerful monster or enemy) and you fail several times. as you go back through the level you find the tools you need (usually a weapon or capability) to defeat the challenge and you level up. Your brain releases endorphins which gives you the high and the impetus to move on the next level. The next level has requires the skills learned in the previous level.

This is powerful learning and yet it is so different than what is done in online learning. Objectives are not stated in the beginning, they are actually witheld. Failure is a necessary part of learning. The final assessment is part of the learning process not a separate quiz. Score is secondary: leveling up is a clear yes or no indicator of learning. The player completes interacting with the content only when they have learned the skill enough to meet the objective.

When people talk about Gamification for learning. I keep thinking that people are already learning through games in numbers that dwarf what we are doing. We need to find a way to get the power of leveling up into our learning content. This will add significantly more value than badges and Jeopardy questions.


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