Episode 4: Why are games so good for learning?

By Kate Pasterfield

If you found yourself at work in Russia in the 1930’s, you might have experienced one the earliest known corporate games. According to Karl Kapp, our guest in this podcast episode, games were used to teach people how to operate and manage a typewriter factory.  

Playing games has a long history, but why do learning games work so well? In this fascinating episode, we explore this topic by considering the science behind games, and why ‘fun’ may not be the silver bullet of game design.  


Why are learning games effective? 

It’s all about desire. It’s been shown that the brain’s plasticity changes in response to playing deeply engaging action video games, meaning that neural connections are changing, supporting memorisation of new information.  

Playing video games may also aid visual motor response and the ability to judge the statistical likelihood that something will happen; skills that are useful in physical or strategic situations.  

Learning games aren’t new. In the 15th Century, there are reports that card games were used for learning, and in the 1600’s the Prussians began using wargaming to enhance their army’s performance in battle. Fast forward to WW2 and all sides were engaged in wargaming to anticipate what the other side might do.   

Games help people to learn about their context, to gain new information, grow skills, and inform how we predict possible outcomes in a given situation.   

What is a game? 

In his book, Play to Learn, Karl Kapp offers a definition of what makes a game:  

“A game is an activity that has a goal, a challenge (or challenges), and rules that guide the achievement of the goal; interactivity with either other players or the game environment (or both); and feedback mechanisms that give clear cues as to how well or poorly you are performing. It results in a quantifiable outcome (you win or lose, you hit the target, and so on) that usually generates an emotional reaction in players.'  

Karl distinguishes a difference between ‘play’ and ‘games’. Unlike play, games have an end goal and rules that provide parameters that create the conditions for challenge. For example, in golf, it might be easier to pick up the ball and put it in the hole (the end goal), but the rules state that the ball must be hit with the club (the rules), creating the challenge. 

In learning games, it can often seem like the goal to ‘make it fun’. But games can be frustrating! They can make people sad, mad, or angry (the emotional reaction). Perhaps surprisingly, research about learning from games indicates that they don’t need to be fun for people to learn. Instead, learning games need to be engaging, cause decision making, provide a challenge, and contain chance and uncertainty.  

How can learning games be engaging?

Specific ways engagement may be achieved within learning games include characteristics defined by Kevin Werbach, such as: winning, achieving goals, triumphing, collaborating, exploring, collecting, building, problem solving, strategizing, being surprised, role playing, and imagining.  

This is supported by the neuroscience, with studies showing activation in the brain’s reward system in response to these types of engaging tasks.  

Neuroscience also highlights that the processes of ‘wanting’ in the reward system are different from the processes of ‘liking’. It’s the wanting that really needs to be tapped into in the design of a game.  

Learning games vs learning gamification

One way to consider the difference between learning games and learning gamification is on a continuum; gamification is simply adding game elements to typically non-game situations. A game is a self-contained experience with a defined beginning, middle and end. However, there is no definitive definition, and it can get blurry.  

Karl outlines three types of gamification used in learning:  

  1. Structural gamification – where learning content has a game structure wrapped around it, such as adding points for answering questions or watching videos.  
  2. Content gamification - adding game elements that fundamentally change the learning content, where objectives become a story, and rather than giving people feedback, the situational outcomes or direction of the story may change.  
  3. Performance gamification – where tasks that employees engage in on the job are rewarded with points or credit for correct performance. A good example might be a contact centre that rewards staff with stars for optimum customer support. Check out our award-winning project with Axa for a practical example of active, multi-modal learning and use of rewards. 

Embed learning games with a debrief

One thing that the research is clear about is that just because someone plays a learning game, it doesn’t mean they will necessarily learn from it; people have to have a debrief.   

For games to be effective for learning they should offer time for reflection to consolidate knowledge. If people only play the game, it will be down to luck if they remember anything. Having the reflexive debrief helps solidify knowledge. This project with GSK shows how a complex business simulation game consolidated learning with a cross-team debrief.

What content or games are good for learning at work? 

If a game closely replicates what someone is doing in their work, it can be very helpful. This is called fidelity - the degree of exactness with which a game reproduces workplace tasks.  

Games will be more effective when the game elements and the learning elements are closely intertwined. To achieve this, it’s important to have a learning goal and game goal. For example, a learning goal might be to strengthen cyber security, whilst the game goal might be to analyse clues to uncover potential threats, as in our off-the-shelf cyber security game ‘Cyber Security Sorted’

It is easy to find games that teach declarative knowledge – facts and events – and most people learn this fairly rapidly. What can be missing in corporate environments is leadership skills, negotiation skills, communication skills, and predicting skills. If there is a limited budget for a game, then it’s probably better to create one that achieves higher order thinking.  

It’s worth bearing in mind that in a corporate setting, employees are a lot less attracted to highly challenging game situations. Their time is valuable, and they may have mixed levels of knowledge of game conventions. Explaining complicated rules can overload working memory and hamper the ability to learn.    

So, it’s important to simplify game play and to be purposeful about how it will achieve engagement, knowledge building and consolidation to impact real-world performance. It may also help to use paradigms that people know, such as card games. 

Do learning games aid the transfer of knowledge?

There is historical precedent showing that Prussian wargaming was so effective at improving its army that it became widely copied by other armies seeking to gain advantage. Additionally, motor skills have been shown to improve in the field of key-hole surgery through action video games. And, as for higher order thinking skills, studies have shown that concepts and ideas that were discussed in the post-game debrief have been transferred into the working environment.  

Boost your game strategy: key takeaways for learning leaders

  • Learning games aren’t new. They have effectively improved managerial skills and enhanced competitive advantage since the 16th century. 
  • Games increase brain plasticity, making it easier to learn and remember new concepts. 
  • Successful learning games need both a learning goal and a game goal.  
  • Don’t ignore the debrief. The debrief consolidates knowledge and makes all the difference to transfer.  
  • In a corporate setting, games for leadership, negotiation, communication, and predicting skills are as important as creating games for declarative (facts and events) knowledge. 
  • Consider ‘performance gamification’, rewarding on-the-job behaviours in the moment, as a method to improve accuracy or customer service. 
  • Time is valuable; don’t waste employees’ time explaining complex rules that overload working memory. Offer games that align neatly to their work tasks and use simple, familiar paradigms to fast-track learning.  

Talk to us today about games, play, and learning.  


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