Inner gamification techniques for elearning. Part 1: onboarding the learner

‘Inner’ and ‘outer’ gamification? Just terms I came up with to describe my thoughts. Other people have probably invented better terminology, but it works for me. Let me clarify.

Inner and outer gamification

My definition of outer gamification is the visible use of techniques and mechanics from games to enhance your course. The amazing Amy Jo Kim talks about the ‘outer trappings’ of a game: badges, points, earning levels and rewards. I would add to this the look and feel of your learning module – make it look like a board game, a virtual world, cards, or even use a TV gameshow template. I haven’t used outer gamification very much. In one instance I designed badges to bind bite-sized pieces of learning together as 5 tasks to accomplish expert level. So – not really intended as drivers for motivation. More like a gamified progress bar.

Inner gamification however is something that I try to incorporate a lot. I call ‘inner gamification’ the application of more invisible design techniques used to help and engage the player in games: information design, giving instructions and storytelling techniques. In this three-part blog I will elaborate on some of these invisible design techniques I borrow from games. This first part handles the onboarding of the learner into your elearning module.

Surprise! The learner is actually … learning

“Provide clear instructions for the learner” is a recurring warning in all lists for good instructional design. Too often this results in a very boring ‘upfront’ tour of all the navigation elements. A course with extensive instruction as the first slide  is like a thick Russian novel that starts with a three-page list of the characters. There is no context for the learner (yet). A common alternative is the endless repeat of the same instructions on every screen: ‘Click next to continue’, ‘Choose your answer and click submit’ , ‘ Click each … to learn more’.

photo 1In games, you learn the navigation while you play. This is the most visible in social games like the infamous Farmville. Introducing navigation is an ‘onboarding’ activity while you are already in the middle of the fun. Tell the player ‘just-in-time’ what to do to handle the interaction at hand but it counts towards the end result, the score, the actions.

One of my favourite examples is the ‘onboarding’ of a new player in Plants vs. Zombies. The player is guided through the first level with maximum instruction, led by the hand through the first planting, catching sunshine, destroying of Zombies. While this is a tutorial, you also earn the points for that level. You are already playing so the navigation instructions have immediate rewards! The creator of this game dedicated a full talk to the thinking process behind this in his talk at GDC2014. Lots to be learned from that talk for us instructional designers.

infection_control_text_buubleTransferring this ‘onboarding’ technique to an elearning course makes total sense. Guide the learner through navigation items only when they encounter something new, and trust their capability to learn. Indicate with a text bubble what a navigation element does when they need to use it. As it has context and the action happens when they use the element, they will remember. No need to repeat the instruction over and over, and no need for extensive navigation guides up front. Just-in-time learning, in your elearning!

Scaffold interactions

This technique also teaches you to scaffold your different interactions well. Do not overwhelm the learner with lots of different things to do in a short space of time: space them well.  Explain each new type of interaction when they encounter it. Create clear patterns and repetitions in the interactions with small variations to avoid monotony. Slowly guide your learner on the path of mastery!

And that is the icing on the cake for using this technique – it makes for a consistent and clear elearning course where you do not have to be afraid to introduce a more complicated interaction out of fear for the poor digitally challenged learner. You can trust the learner to be learning… because you are teaching them just-in-time.

Guiding the eye

The guide is shown, and then transitions off to the side, changing into the icon that is used throughout the course.

Another tutorial technique I recently applied is also commonly found in social games like Farmville. When you earn coins, or gems, these are in the immediate action field first and then fly off to the corner where you total money is displayed – thus guiding the eye of the player to the place where their fortune can be checked at all times.

When I use a ‘guide on the side’ for scenariobased elearning (aka Cathy Moore’s essential info to complete the activities), I present the guide to the learner first and then make it fly off (animate in Storyline e.g.) to a corner of the screen where it will sit for constant use. The learner sees the guide in its full form, then watches it change into the icon they can use throughout the course. An easy but very effective technique to introduce an important element of the course.

Coming up: Inner gamification techniques (part 2). Ways to tell a story.