Game-based training is just like any other instructional design trend: a strategy to improve results.
And like other training strategies, it needs to be implemented thoughtfully, with purpose and (hopefully) a little creativity.
In this guide, we’re going to cover the basics: what game-based training is (and is not), how it works, the results you can expect, and how you can get started with game-based training at your organization.
Ready? Let’s get started.
Table of Contents:
The Difference Between Game-Based Training & Gamification
Gamification and game-based training as terms are often used interchangeably, but there are some important distinctions.
Gamification typically refers to the application of game elements (commonly points, badges, and leaderboards) to non-game contexts.
The problem with this approach is that game elements by themselves aren’t valuable. Game elements need context to be valuable — points that help you level up in a game are infinitely more valuable than collecting points you can’t use for anything.
Too often people assume you can throw a leaderboard onto your training and engagement will skyrocket. But studies have shown that isn’t true; in fact, poorly executed gamification can actually hurt engagement rates. 
Even if you do successfully implement gamification, there’s still another issue with this approach: your content isn’t engaging. Employees may be excited by your gamification elements, but are they engaged with what they’re learning? Or are they still skimming through training content to get to the fun rewards?
The solution is a game-based training approach, where you turn training content into a game. This way employees stay actively engaged with your training content — not just the platform that content is hosted in.
How Does Game-Based Training Work?
So at this point you might be thinking, “ok game-based training just makes my training more fun.” But that’s not exactly true either.
While game-based training does have the added benefit of making training programs more enjoyable, the real benefit lies in the improvements to learning outcomes.
Game-based training uses four main cognitive psychology techniques to improve learning outcomes: active learning, distributed practice, practice testing, and interleaved practice.
Encouraging active participation instead of just passive engagement with training materials helps employees learn more, faster. Studies have shown that our ability to remember things we hear is significantly less compared to our ability to remember things we see and touch. 
Game-based training almost exclusively uses active learning; employees have to actively participate in the game in order to progress in training. They don’t sit and read a pdf; they complete game rounds, participate in role-play scenarios, and play through simulations. The active nature of game-based training helps employees learn and remember more of what’s covered in training.
Distributed practice essentially means spreading your learning sessions out over time. So instead of holding a full day training session, you break your training content up into shorter chucks and have employees take them over a couple days, or even weeks. That’s it.
Here’s why it works: For starters, our brains can’t handle a lot of new information at once. That’s why after a full day of learning, you often can’t remember everything you talked about. It’s just too much to process.
So when you decrease the amount you learn in one session, and increase the time between learning sessions our brains absorb more information, then have to work harder to remember it for the next learning session. That recall actually helps encode information in our brains, leading to higher retention rates.
You see distributed practice used a lot in microlearning platforms but we use it alot in game-based training as well, by splitting content up into levels. By making users master smaller chunks before they can move on, game-based learning naturally spreads learning out over time, helping to increase retention.
Most of us grew up hating tests — but they can actually be incredibly useful learning tactics. As long as you’re not being graded on them.
Practice testing is essentially a test with low-to no-stakes on the outcome. Think more flashcards, than pop-quiz. Practice testing works because it forces our brains to practice recalling information — keeping information at our fingertips — and helping encode it in our long term memory.
At its core, most game-based training is a practice test — it just doesn’t feel like it because it’s also fun. Regardless of the game type, learners always need to recall information, and select the correct answer in order to progress. The game elements just hide the quiz structure and reduce pressure on learners — which is important for practice testing to be effective.
This last technique is essentially the practice of mixing topics together. So instead of taking a deep dive about topic A, you’d learn about Topic A and Topic B at the same time.
Psychologists have found that mixing topics together helps us comprehend and apply information better — even though it can increase the amount of time it takes to initially learn the information. That’s because when you learn about multiple topics, your brain has to decide which information applies to which situation — improving your organizational processing and making it easier to apply the right information to the right situation in the future.
We use this technique in game-based training in two ways. First by letting users have free access to different topics within a level. Learners can jump between courses, which helps them organize information and apply it correctly.
Second, we use multiple game types within courses. A game-based course might have a spot-the-error round, and a scenario round, then a trivia round. Using different styles of games forces learners to apply the information in different ways, which also helps improve application of learning after training.
Benefits of Game-Based Training
There are three main benefits that game-based training offers to corporate training professionals: increased engagement, improved learning outcomes, and reduction of net training hours.
1. Increased Engagement with Training Programs
To improve learning outcomes, first you have to get employees to actually take your training. Often times, employees think of training as boring or useless, so getting them to participate (especially when training isn’t mandatory) is challenging.
42% of employees describe training as boring and useless 
Game-based training can help increase usage in two ways. First, it increases voluntary participation by changing the perception of training from boring to enjoyable.
Secondly, it increases regular usage of your training content. Tactics like narrative, challenge, levels, and scores help intrinsically motivate users to keep taking training. That’s because when employees are challenged but have sufficient opportunity to overcome that challenge, they feel accomplished (intrinsically motivated). And they’ll continue to engage with the program to feel that accomplishment again.
2. Improve Learning Outcomes
Beyond increasing usage, game-based training also improves the efficacy of your training programs.
As mentioned earlier, game-based training is designed using four key principles from cognitive psychology: active learning, practice testing, distributed practice, and interleaved practice.
These principles help increase knowledge comprehension, retention, and application — so your employees learn, remember and apply more of what is covered in training.
3. Reduction of Net Training Hours
Because game-based training uses more effective learning techniques and is designed to fit into employee workflows, game-based training allows you to improve training outcomes while also reducing overall time spent in training.
On average, employees spend an average of 47 hours in training each year, resulting in $654 in lost productive time per employee. 
That gets expensive fast.
Game-based training on the other hand is designed for short, daily training sessions of about 5 minutes a day. That brings total annual training down to just 22 hours — a net reduction of 25hrs per employee. That translates to an average savings of $301 per employee in lost productive hours.
Not bad right? Especially when you consider that doesn’t include the return on improved learning outcomes, or the cost reductions of changing classroom training out for game-based training.
Getting Started with Game-Based Training
You may be thinking, “this all sounds great, but how do I actually implement game-based training?”
Step 1: Know Your Objectives
To start, you need to understand your objectives. Why do you want to use game-based training? What are you trying to achieve?
In a successful game-based training course, every action a user takes brings them closer to achieving the learning objectives.So you need to know what the objective is, before you start designing (and it can’t be, make training more fun!)
Think about what you want employees to get out of the program. Is it memorization of product knowledge? Awareness of policy changes? Reduction of time to proficiency for new hires?
Those objectives will dictate not only your content, but how you present it.
Step 2: Asses Your Resources
Do you have the capacity to build game-based learning modules from scratch? If you have a large instructional design team, you might be able to create some basic game rounds in-house.
But a more expedient route to implementing game-based training is to partner with a 3rd party company who specializes in game-based training, or purchase a game-based training platform that lets you author game-based rounds yourself.
A game-based training company or platform brings years of experience in game design and user experience. That expertise helps you design programs that effectively motivate users. You don’t need to worry about the game design, you can focus on the content and your objectives.
The Bottom Line
Remember, game-based training is a strategy, not a miracle fix.
Implemented correctly, game-based training can offer a host of benefits to corporate training professionals: from increased engagement with programs, to faster onboarding, to reduction of overall training hours without compromising learning.
Consider your learning objectives and strategically choose a game-based training partner that can help you achieve them.
Game-based training may seem intimidating, but the right partner can make it easy (and fun) to take your current training programs and turn them into engaging, effective games your employees will love.
- Alsawaier, Raed. “The Effect of Gamification on Motivation and Engagement.” International Journal of Information and Learning Technology, vol 35, 2017, pp 19. ↩
- Cole, Diane. "A Message from Your Brain: I am Not Good At Remembering What I hear." National Geographic, 2014. ↩
- The Digital Talent Gap, Capgemini & LinkedIN. 2017. ↩
- 2018 Training Industry Report, Training Magazine, 2018. ↩
- Dunlosky, John, et al. “Improving Students’ Learning with Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions from Cognitive and Educational Psychology.” Psychological Science in the Public Interest, vol 14, no. 1, January 2013. ↩
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