The Six Essential Elements of Game-Based Training Design


Designing game-based training programs can be difficult. 

Most people make one of two errors when designing their programs:

  1. They fixate on their training objectives and forget to make the program fun, OR

  2. They spend too much time making the program enjoyable, and end up with a game that doesn’t really teach.

It’s understandable. Afterall, striking that balance between entertaining and educational is a real challenge. One that even senior instructional designers struggle with.

But there are some elements that effective game-based training programs all have in common. Elements that will help you turn your training programs from ho-hum time wasters into educational masterpieces.

1) Focus on Engagement

Engagement is usually the main reason training managers and instructional designers add gamification elements to their training content.

The idea is that the longer employees spend engaged with the training program, the more likely they are to retain what they’re learning.

But to drive repeat plays and extend engagement you first need to understand what motivates your employees. Then you can design training games that appeal to those motivations and keep your employees engaged repetitively.

Related Reading: 5 Gamification Tactics to Excite Your Employees and Boost Engagement

We all have similar basic motivations. But as Maslow argued way back in 1943, some motivations are more compelling than others.

Source:     Simply Psychology

While Maslow’s theory should by no means be taken as the be-all and end-all of human behaviour theory, it is useful for understanding how different tactics can appeal to different human needs -- and thus motivate people differently.

For example, ratings and scores appeal to both our self-actualization needs and our esteem needs by giving us a sense of accomplishment (when we earn a perfect rating) and motivating us to achieve our full potential (when we earn a less than perfect rating).

To implement game elements effectively, you need to understand what motivations they appeal to.

For example, badges are motivational because they are a source of prestige and they appeal to our completionist instinct -- both of which fulfill our esteem needs.

So awarding badges for things that carry no prestige (ex. everyone gets the same ones) or for things that take no effort to achieve won’t fulfill that esteem need, and the badge won’t be effective as a motivational tool.

2. Let the Content Dictate the Game Style

Depending on the type of content you need to teach, certain game elements, and game structures will be more effective.

For example, if you’re teaching basic product knowledge, you’ll want to go with modules that are quick and focus on repetition. Product features and benefits are easy to grasp quickly, so employees don’t need to spend a lot of time understanding those concepts.

Instead, they need to focus on memorizing and recalling that information. So game elements that inspire repetitive action and a game style that moves quickly and focuses on repetition would be a good fit.

But if you’re teaching more complicated concepts, like the effects of a new company policy, the game design needs to reflect that.

Employees need to have the option to make decisions, change the story, and see results in order to buy into big ideas.

You’ll need to focus on elements like narrative and storytelling that inspire extended engagement and a game design that hooks employees into the story and get them to care about the outcomes.

For example, if your company recently introduced a new policy that changed your management structure, you could let employees operate a virtual version of your company.

They could then see the effects the previous management structure had on the company's bottom line, productivity, and employee happiness. And they could make decisions to improve those ratings (similar to the decisions your company would have made in coming up with the new policy).

That way they see the reasoning behind the new policy and are led to the conclusion that it was the best decision.

3. Make it Challenging

Not all of your employees will be starting training with the same level of previous knowledge. So it’s important that you start them off with the right level of challenge -- otherwise they likely won’t stay engaged for long.

When things are too easy, people get bored. And when things are too hard, people get overwhelmed. To keep engagement rates high, you have to start them at a level that is just right.

But it can be challenging to know what level is the right level without some sort of baseline test. So it makes sense to begin your training program with an aptitude test, like a quiz or a quick scenario game. Then you can start players at different levels based on their prior knowledge.

No one’s left behind if they don’t understand.

No one’s too nervous to admit they don’t understand.

And no one’s bored in the corner because “this is so easy, why are we still talking about it.”

4. Get Them to Care

If people don’t understand why they should care, they tune out.

It’s why no one paid attention in calculus.

To get employees to buy into training, they need to understand what’s in it for them. How does this training apply to their day to day routines? Why should they care?

And to be honest, just explaining those things isn’t going to help.

To increase buy in you have to follow the old “show don’t tell” mantra. Don’t lecture your employees about why they should care. Let them figure it out themselves.

This is especially important for more complicated concepts like security policies, information security, compliance training, and new policy changes.

Essentially, if you think your employees might not care about the information, your training game has to show them why they should.

Narratives and storytelling are effective ways to combat apathy in training. By forcing the user to see themselves in the story, they become more invested in the outcomes. And by letting them come to conclusions on their own, they’ll believe in those conclusions more.

5. Avoid Hokeyness

We’ve all seen the hokey training videos with overly excited employees speaking directly into the camera. They’re beyond cheesy. And most of the time, they cause employees to tune out.

If you want employees to engage with your training and take it seriously, you have to invest in a good design. That means clever copy, great graphics, and a solid user experience.

Consider the kind of expectations people have when it comes to games and video. There are certain “tropes” that have been developed over the years, and your employees (whether you like it or not) bring those expectations with them to your training program.

I’m not saying your training has to look like a brand new video game -- but it shouldn’t look like one your programmers designed.

For example, it’s become a common trope in video games and even casual social games for users to be able to customize their avatars. You can satisfy this expectation and add a little extra motivation by letting users choose from a few avatars, or even just upload their picture onto their dashboard profiles.

Being able to customize a character or personalize your training dashboard helps training resonate with employees. They see themselves in the training -- literally in some cases. And you can use their avatars as motivational elements, unlocking upgrades as rewards for completing game levels.

It’s not just a fancy gimmick; design is crucial for engagement.

So spend some time thinking about what design elements would be appealing to your employees. Aim for clever copy, great design, and game elements that resonate.

The less hokey your training is, the more likely employees are to buy in.

6. Reward Them for Learning

When you design game-based training programs, you build in motivators to keep people playing. Levels, badges, scores -- they all keep users motivated to complete more training.

They work because they appeal to employees sense of achievement -- they want to reach the next level, earn the next badge, improve their score.

But if nothing happens when they achieve those milestones, there’s nothing to push them to reach the next milestone and keep engaging.

You have to reward employees if you want them to keep playing.

Rewards could be simple like getting to play a quick non-educational game when they complete a training module.

Or they could be tied to the main training game, much like a videogame where you get better equipment/resources as you progress. 

They could be an extrinsic reward, like a chance to win an extra day off.  

Or even be a simple animation, like the fireworks that went off when you won in old computer versions of solitaire.

Think about the some of the last video games you played, or if you don’t play games, the ones your kids play. What happens when they level up, or unlock a badge?

Something flashes on the screen. There’s an epic noise. Maybe the avatar changes.

All of these things add to the sense of accomplishment you get when you win. You feel rewarded for achieving your goal. 

And it’s that winning feeling that keeps you motivated to keep playing.

The Bottom Line: Focus On Your Employees

Far too often game-based training is developed without thinking through the user experience.

But if you use game elements strategically -- with an understanding of how they motivate employees -- you can create training programs that are wildly effective.


What about you? What do you think are the most important elements of effective game-based training design?

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