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by • 11 Apr, 2015 • InspirationComments (1)9177

Games, gamification and the optimal conditions for learning

I’ve become a curator. Recently, I’ve inherited an immense collection of knowledge that I need to transfer to a receptive, but fickly audience. The museum I work for is the institute of parenthood and my audience just one, but a very loyal (and forgiving) one: my son. We’re the ideal museum – free access and wifi, flexible opening hours, great coffee – but also an extraordinary one: Instead of designing exhibitions, we play games.

The rational behind games and play as an educational tool can be found in any David Attenborough documentary, “To the young cubs, play is serious business. Through their innocent games they learn invaluable lessons about survival in the wild.” (Can you hear his voice?) The 21st century and its call for life-long learning has made us all cubs, even if our wild is a modern office environment.

Good games and play are fun. It’s what sets them apart from work. A brilliantly sticky quote by Sebastian Deterding, paraphrasing Raph Koster says that “fun is learning under optimal conditions”. In other words, we learn from everything that is fun and when we’re having fun, we’re learning. This is a convincing call for all facilitators (parents, teachers, museums) to use games and play as much as we can.

And we do, or have been trying to do recently. Codeword: Gamification. By adding common game elements to traditional systems, we make them more fun and enhance learning. Unfortunately, as people like Adrian Hon from Zombies, Run! fame point out, it doesn’t work that way. Gamification – leaderboards, badges, achievements – doesn’t necessarily create games; it doesn’t necessarily stimulate play.

The reason is ‘optimal conditions’. Fun is only learning under optimal conditions. I can give my son any numbers of points and stickers for building a better tower with his wooden bricks: he doesn’t care. He cares about the tower and playing with his dad. Gamification gimmicks don’t create optimal conditions.

What does, depends on who you listen to. I like the four simple conditions by Murphy et al. for good, engaging games:

  1. Use clear tasks
  2. Provide feedback
  3. Balance challenges with skill and time
  4. Minimize distractions

I can directly relate these to my son’s building exercises, but also to most museum projects. Surprisingly few museum projects create the conditions above (and therefore, surprisingly few are fun and learning experiences). Consider, for instance, the average exhibition. We have most fun, and therefore learn most, when the challenges we face are in line with our skills. If the challenges are not, they create either anxiety or boredom (Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow). Here’s how that works for most exhibitions’ #1 challenge, reading text:

Flow and challenges in exhibitions

Of course, there are exceptions (I like the traveling Tutankhamun exhibition, which carefully unfolds the story increasing the level of detail and challenge as you go along). What’s not an exception, is that any of the other four conditions is broken to fix the lack of flow. A common solution: adding distractions by gamifying the experience. Just don’t!

All learning is a game and as learning can happen always and everywhere people are exposed to new ideas and insights (a workshop, a museum), almost everything is a game. At the same time, typical gamification is not the best way to create games. Badges, leaderboards and achievements are not automatically fun; they’re just as likely distractions. In my museums, we don’t use them. We play and have fun and much like Attenborough’s cubs, although it’s not always apparent, I’m sure there’s a lot of learning going on.

Header photo is from the Consumer Journey Boardgame, a game I developed to introduce people working with this framework to its methodology and the idea of continuous audience engagement. I’ll be bringing it to several of the conferences I’ll attend in the near future to play and have fun. If you’re interested in learning more or owning a copy, contact me.

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