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Why Pay Attention to Games?

Games are masters at engaging us. The success of “The Legend of Zelda,” “World of Warcraft,” “Second Life” and “Candy Crush” bears witness to this.

Because of that success, gamification — the strategy of bringing elements of a game to real-world experiences — has become a buzzword in the learning world.

There is evidence that games, composed of goals, rules and interactions that involve mental or physical stimulation, have been around since 2600 B.C. They are present in virtually all cultures, precisely for their ability to engage. They engage us to learn, act, fail and repeat this process toward the achievement of a self-accepted goal, out of our own free will or volition. According to Jane McGonigal, author of “Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World,” this free will is manifested in the more than 3 billion hours a week people spend gaming globally.

Researchers say the main reason we engage in games is because of their ability to appeal to our intrinsic desires or motivators. Motivational factors can have a direct effect on learning transfer. Motivation involves self-efficacy, a cognitive force concerned with what an individual can do rather than what skills he or she may actually possess. In other words, self-efficacy is the judgment an individual makes about his or her abilities to perform a given task. In games, self-efficacy manifests when people continuously re-engage, even after failing repeatedly, because they believe they will succeed in the next round, life or level.

Game designers use strategies to leverage intrinsic motivators to attain long-term engagement. McGonigal classifies these motivators into four categories: achieving satisfying work, experiencing success or the opportunity of success, making social connections and having purpose or meaning.

Satisfying work is defined as work that produces desirable and visible results. The opportunity and hope of achieving success is a powerful stimulus that feeds our desire to improve. Social connections allow us to be recognized and appreciated, both powerful motivators. Having purpose or meaning is perhaps the most powerful motivator since, when something bigger than ourselves drives us, we are better able to overcome obstacles.

Corporate learning programs are starting to leverage intrinsic motivators. For example, consider consulting firm IDEO with its Innovator’s Accelerator program, an online education program to teach innovation. IA uses two gaming elements to incentivize learning and appeal to learners’ intrinsic motivators.

A feature called the impact meter indicates in real time participant impact on the program. The impact score changes depending on course discussions and the degree to which a participant’s ideas spark others to comment, debate and mark posts as a favorite — clearly appealing to our desire to make social connections. The skills tracker indicates mastery of five core innovation skills. An arc representing each skill type grows as students demonstrate proficiency in that area, allowing individuals to see the results of their productive effort.

Another example comes from Julie Smith, author of multiple books on change resilience, who recently developed an online self-paced e-learning course on the subject titled “Make Change Work for You.” As participants work through their change, they measure their resilience through a change resilience meter and see the productive result of their effort, a powerful intrinsic motivator. Participants create a change resilience plan which they share with other individuals who support them as they work through the change. In this way, they make social connections to help them achieve their goals, another powerful intrinsic motivator.

There is no doubt that awareness is growing about the benefits of appealing to intrinsic motivators to engage individuals in learning programs and ensure successful learning transfer. Our challenge in the corporate learning and development arena is to seize opportunities in which we can find creative, innovative and cost-effective ways to leverage intrinsic motivators.

To help learning and development practitioners in this endeavor, the first step is to continue to study how game designers creatively make participants learn, act, fail and repeat this process out of their own free will until they reach a predetermined goal.

Michael Aumann is executive director of Facilitador, a performance improvement and training consulting company. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.

Perspectives features the work of current students or alumni of the PennCLO Program, the University of Pennsylvania’s executive doctoral program for senior-level talent and learning executives.