You don’t need to be a Fortnite aficionado (trust me, I’m not) to identify with Roald Dahl’s astute observation that ‘life is more fun if you play games.’ Consider how many times a day you already engage with gamified content, whether that be ‘hitting like’ on social media; achieving medals and getting ‘kudos’ from your friends on your running app; feeling compelled to spend your loyalty points at your favourite store; or drilling yourself in Russian every morning with virtual flashcards (true story—I taught myself Russian through such ‘games’ to do my PhD). From fitness to language learning, more adults are aspiring to better themselves by embracing their inner child, proving that there is no age limit on play.
The fact is, we were born to play. It is a preprogrammed human instinct. Observe any toddler and see how their natural curiosity propels them to explore how the world works. While we have known for time immemorial that children learn through play, we are only just starting to acknowledge the benefits for adults. You might think you have outgrown your creativity, or that the child-like playfulness you once had has been squashed out of you by the corporate grind and the harsh realities of ‘adulting,’ but deep down, even if dormant, an intrinsic motivation to play still exists.
It is a fact well acknowledged that playing provides a powerful means of persuasion when it comes to learning. Not only does play bring us to the table as learners, but it enhances the quality of our learning. According to a meta-analysis in a study conducted by the University of Colorado Denver Business School ‘employees trained on video games learned more factual information, attained a higher skill level and retained information longer than workers who learned in less interactive environments.’1
We also know that play turbocharges creativity. Psychologists at North Dakota State University demonstrated in a study of 76 undergraduates that it is well worth us dropping our guard and engaging in child’s play. All the participants in the study instructed them to complete a creative task in the form of the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking; however, one half of the study were required to complete the task as a seven-year-old would. Astoundingly, the group that consciously channelled their inner seven-year-olds produced 30% more creative output than their peers.2
So what does it look like to learn playfully? According to Harvard University’s Project Zero study on the ‘Pedagogy of Play,’ playful learning is characterised by choice, wonder and delight.3 You’ll know it when you see it and experience it. Whether digital or not, playful or gamified learning has the potential to give us an express ticket into that sought after state of ‘flow,’ as coined by the Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, that blissful mental state of complete focus when you are ‘in the zone.’4
The leap from child’s play to corporate training may not be as wide as you think. LEGO’s ‘Serious Play’ movement (LSP) is indicative of how the corporate world has begun to embrace experiential learning. With the aim of turning ‘boardrooms into constructive playgrounds,’ LSP participants work collaboratively together to build structures that metaphorically conceptualise brands, organisations and businesses. This experience of ‘playing’ offers opportunities for shared learning and participatory communication.5
While face-to-face play certainly has its place in corporate learning, microlearning offers the ideal platform to embed such play into pockets of training that learners chose to return to again and again. Gamification becomes the most efficient and engaging method of transplanting playful learning into a digital landscape. According to Karl Kapp, one of the preeminent scholars on gamification, it involves ‘using game-based mechanics, aesthetics and game thinking to engage people, motivate action, promote learning, and solve problems.’6 With EdApp, the transition to embedding such features into learning and development programs is surprisingly smooth. On top of already gamified features such as a point system, leaderboards, badges and more subtle visual elements that track learning progress, a library of customisable gamified templates is on hand when creating micro lessons.
If the best way to learn a theory or concept is to put it into practice and ‘learn by doing,’ to borrow the words of the educational theorist John Dewy, gamification is a perfect fit for corporate education.7 However, gamification comes with the caveat that it is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Microlearning apps such as EdApp provide companies with a toolbox from which to pick and choose game elements that match learning objectives. For example, more complex goals such as entrepreneurial thinking may require simulations. In contrast, revision of pre-learnt facts or procedures would be better suited to rapid-fire questions in the form of games such as Jeopardy or The Elevator Game.
Incorporating such ‘play’ into corporate training is no joke. Neuroscience has long indicated that emotion helps learners better remember content. Emotionally arousing events become more imprinted within our memories, and we know that best-practice game-based learning, whether that be in the form of simulations or customised templates, sparks emotional engagement.8 According to Kapp, well-designed gamification triggers our episodic memory, providing ‘the learner with the ability [to] recall elements of the game…or the game environment, and what was done to solve the problem.’9 Additionally, when used alongside spaced repetition algorithms, games further encode memories just as they are starting to decay, assisting in consolidating memories from the short to long term.
As well as boosting retention rates, game mechanics tap into both our intrinsic (personal gratification) extrinsic (receiving something from the environment) motivation as learners. Rewards not only persuade learners to return to training, but they serve as an important feedback mechanism. The power and excitement generated from social recognition on leaderboards should not be underestimated. EdApp has an inbuilt extrinsic reward structure, where learners earn stars with real prizes. It is important to note that point systems contingent on both usage and performance, as is the case with EdApp’s Star Bar, have been shown to actually heighten an even deeper intrinsic motivation to learn.10
It seems the prescription for being a more creative, productive, motivated and efficient learner is to bring play back into our lives. Who knows, we may even come out happier and more fulfilled. ‘It’s much better by far,’ as Sinatra said, ‘to be young at heart.’
- Traci Sitzmann (2011). ‘A meta-analytic examination of the instructional effectiveness of
- Darya L. Zabelina and Michael D. Robinson (2010). ‘Child’s play: Facilitating the originality of creative output by a priming manipulation.’ Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 4(1), 57–65.
- Ben Mardell et al. (2016). Towards a Pedagogy of Play: A Project Zero Working Paper. Harvard University Project Zero, available online, http://pz.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/Towards%20a%20Pedagogy%20of%20Play.pdf, retrieved 27 May, 2020.
- Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (1990). Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.
- Jenn Choi (2015). ‘How companies are using LEGOs to unlock talent employees didn’t know they had.’ Quartz 17 September 17 2015; available online https://qz.com/503512/how-companies-are-using-legos-to-unlock-talent-employees-didnt-know-they-had/, retrieved 27 May, 2020.
- Karl M. Kapp (2012). The gamification of learning and instruction: Case-based methods and strategies for training and education. New York, NY: Pfeiffer, p.10.
- John Dewey (1916). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education, New York: Free Press.
- See Florin Dolcos et al. (2006).’The memory enhancing effect of emotion: Functional neuroimaging evidence.’ In B. Uttl, N. Ohta, & A. L. Siegenthaler (Eds.), Memory and emotion: Interdisciplinary perspectives (p. 107–133). Blackwell Publishing.
- Kapp, The gamification of learning, p.68.
- 10. Karl M. Kapp (2011). ‘In Defense of the Term “Gamification” as used by Learning Professionals,’ available online http://karlkapp.com/in-defense-of-the-term-gamification-as-used-by-learning-professionals/ , retrieved 27 May, 2020.