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Game Based Learning – Fad or Future

Game Based Learning (GBL) is increasingly becoming an alternative way of training. But how effective can this medium be – the medium which has been traditionally used for entertainment?

Our chat with Helen Routledge, GBL Instructional Design Manager at Pixelearning, revealed the answer and more. Game based learning caught her interest early on in her career and she is now held as one of the few spear-headers instrumental in building GBL as an industry. Her work with the many leading serious gaming companies coupled with an experience in the field of education, gives her an edge to understand different learning groups and how to effectively reach out to them.

An excerpt of our conversation, all about the world of GBL.

Has the corporate world truly adopted gaming as a way of learning or are serious games still referred as a pastime and the major reason that it is being adopted, is that it is something ‘different’?

It is a bit of both. Many organizations look at GBL as a differentiator between themselves and their competitors. They see it as a way of appealing to new staff members, that they are offering something new and different in the training side of business. But at the same time it has to also be accepted by their current employees.

There is a culture of being risk-averse, especially in large organizations. But then every organization is different. And in recent years, we are seeing a change in outlook and serious games are being adopted as training application. It is not just about being adopted, there is also a willingness to push the boundaries of technology and try different things in terms of serious gaming.

While most of us are aware and accustomed (even addicted) to computer games, does serious gaming cater to all learners? Is there a ‘learner profile’ for the effectiveness of game-based learning?

I would not say there is a particular profile of learner for GBL. I think the learners must have an open mind, because if the learner has negativity towards any training mechanism, it will not succeed. So, the main thing is that the learner should be open to try new things and learning in a slightly different way.

For learners, who might not be too familiar with computer games, it is kept in mind when designing a serious game – to keep it simple. Most training applications are Flash based and simple to use. Most people are familiar with the Internet and can navigate a web page. That is the type of mechanism in design which we try to use. As long you can ‘click’ and use it as an interactive mechanism in a web page, you can navigate through a serious game as well. Once we explain that to the learner, they usually understand what it is all about.

For first time adopters, game based learning might not be very easy to implement across organization. What are the major challenges one faces while implementing GBL? Does the ROI justify the change management?

If we are talking about technical changes, all our games run on a browser and are Flash based. So there is no need for new installations or plug-ins. We always keep in mind from the very beginning, which browser version our client is using or which Flash version do they have. This makes sure that we are not creating a serious game that they would not be able to use in their existing technological structure.

A serious game is a part of the LMS as any other traditional e-learning course; it brings back updates on the learner in the same way. So, in the technology side, serious game do not generally bring along a whole lot of changes.

As far as the cultural changes are required, the up-selling within the organization is the key. The people who champion GBL need to sell the concept and its effectiveness. That is where we come in, providing collateral material supporting GBL, which in turn helps them to convince their peers and superiors.

We might not be able to share actual numbers but from the qualitative response that we get from our clients, GBL definitely shows positive ROI. It allows the learner hands on experience and a chance to make mistakes before going out in the ‘real world’ and that definitely pays.

While gaming provides a highly interactive and engaging environment for the learner does the ‘fun’ part of gaming take away from the seriousness of learning?

We do get that from many quarters but less and less now. ‘Fun’ might be the wrong term, really. Sure, we like to have fun, but we should be able to engage our learner. And we do that through the narrative, the storyline and the interactive aspects of the game.

We may take the example of the ‘Leadership game’ that we have developed. One of the key criterions for it was an incredibly challenging environment, for it was to be used to train upcoming leaders. The client did not want the learners to have fun; they wanted them to be challenged. A part of the environment was such that they would experience some frustration and the aim was that they should be able to overcome that. So, when designing the game, we had to keep the challenging and frustrating qualities in the environment, and at the same time, we had to make sure that it was motivating and engaging as well.

So if you go down the path of making your serious game a 100% fun and learning is not the main focus, then it is definitely the wrong direction to take. There has to be a balance in making the game engaging as well as getting a definite learning message across.

What are the best practices of learner evaluation in serious games?

The way we look at serious games, is that it is a training mechanism to highlight awareness about key behaviors and instill behavior changes in the end user. Use of serious games as a tool for learner evaluation is an area many people are looking into right now, but is still not very evolved. Most of our serious games are mainly used to create awareness and encourage reaction or behavior in a particular situation or environment.

But if there are any key points of evaluation that the client wants, they have to be kept in mind right from the beginning when designing a serious game. They can be then treated in various ways and can vary in form. At the end of the game, the learner may get a verbal feedback or scores gathered in the course of the game.

The evaluation part of GBL, I would say is an area which is still growing and should be taken with a pinch of salt!

Do serious games provide opportunities for re-use or updating, as and when the learning objective or the audience changes? Any design philosophies one should keep in mind to increase re-usability?

It is a key factor when adopting GBL and must be considered when designing a serious game. We rarely design games which are for one-off use. We always try to build in re-usable aspects in design.

For instance, I can cite an application we built for a US company for call-center sales and service training. We built in a role-play engine and the agents were allowed to go through realistic conversations to build in skills before actually going to the front line of selling. Through traditional classroom training, they might have gotten two or maybe, three chances at the maximum as everybody needs to have a go. But what we did in this training application was that we built in conversations that lasted on an average of 10 minutes. Throughout the conversation, there was the possibility of many outcomes, many routes that the conversation could take, leading to several different endings, positive and negative. So you could replay the conversation several times, and experiment with the many ways of dealing with the customer.

Following on from that example, in all of our applications, the text and content is in XML. It makes it very easy for the client to go into the code and make small changes like changes in prices and such figures.

To be able to update or add new scenarios is crucial in GBL. Most games are modular in structure and this makes changes in environment or scenario possible. Old ones can be replaced by new, changes in existing ones can be made or more scenarios can also be added. Challenges or difficulty levels can be adjusted as per learner requirements. And all this at the click of a mouse!

While entertainment games are reaching new levels of sophistication and quality, are serious games following suit? How important is the ‘look and feel’ factor of an educative game?

We have to follow suit, to a certain degree. But we have to look beyond eye candy in serious games and focus on the learning, for that’s why we are building them and what we will be measured against, eventually. But as the sophistication of the games industry increases, serious games also have to have some of it reflecting.

There are of course, budget restrains that are bound to keep us a few years behind! But I always say, it’s always about first impressions. You should look at it and say ‘Wow… that really looks good; I want to go in and have a look’! It should have the quality to grab attention, but along with it, there should be substance. If it’s all visuals and no real message, then we will not have our desired outcome, there will be no behavioral change. It is necessary to have that balance between visuals and content

Most of our applications do not have a lot of animation; most have flat 3D still images but still gives an impression of a realistic environment. However, if you are to implement 3D animation, it has to be done very well. If it’s not attractive, it will just turn learners away. So we should take a good look into our project budgets before making the choice. In any case, there is a lot that one can do with 2D as well.

Social learning is being hailed as the next big thing in the learning industry. How does game based learning provide opportunities for social learning?

Yes, you definitely learn more effectively when in a social environment. In GBL, one of the key trends that we see coming up is multi-player serious gaming. Our first experience with multi-player gaming was with the ‘Leadership Game’ and that went really well. In addition to being able to lead real people, make mistakes and learn from them, it also gave learners an opportunity to share their experiences. The game is linked with wikis and forums so that learner can share and learn from other learners as well. So the learning goes beyond the limits of the game.

We are also looking at linking training with applications like Facebook and Twitter. A lot of these are blocked by firewalls at many corporate organizations. But we can look at the success of social games like ‘Farmville’, its addictive quality and the involvement that it encourages. It surely provides a competitive element and building trainings around them would be an interesting avenue to explore.

Finally, what are the future trends that are predicted in the field of serious gaming?

The GBL industry today is vast, there are so many different styles, different applications and the audience is huge. So there is no ONE particular direction that it is heading, it is actually exploring all possible avenues.

One thing that is surely looking up in recent years is the increase in the types of organizations that are adopting GBL. A few years ago, we were looking at schools or a few forward thinking organizations but now we are seeing growth in different sectors – both public and private. So a definite future trend is ‘Growth’ in the industry.

More and more sectors are showing curiosity and an interest in the area and we are trying to build up evidence to show the success of GBL. And as many big companies are adopting GBL for their training needs, others are encouraged to follow suit. So it’s just a rolling stone now and it shows no signs of stopping right now

Arunima Majumdar

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