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Game Design Best Practices: Games for Adult Learning

This month on the blog, we’re featuring a variety of topics related to educational video games and adult learners. Earlier, we talked to Quality Assurance Manager Brian Czech about his QA best practices for games for adult learners. For today’s blog, we interviewed our Chief Creative Officer, Dan Norton, about design best practices for adult learning games. Read on and discover what considerations we take when designing impactful learning experiences for adults!

Alyssa Froehling: What kind of game experiences work best for adult learners?

Dan Norton: “Adults” is a pretty wide demographic. Many younger adults are farther along the spectrum of contemporary media literacy. With older adults, you may start having more barriers with the technology component of game-based mediums in general. That’s something to keep in mind. The biggest thing is the relationship of individuals to games as a medium and technology as a tool to deliver a medium. 

Brandon Pittser: What kind of considerations do you make in terms of contexts? For example, for younger learners, you’re looking at a context of the home or a school, whereas there are a greater variety of contexts where adult learning may take place.

Dan Norton: Oh, that’s interesting! Yeah, younger users have more formal learning environments because that’s where they’re at in their life. But past K-12, I think there are still the same options, right? You still have people who are picking up apps for their own use in their own homes or they might be encountering game-based training in their workplace. That’s another spectrum that’s pretty wide for the group. There’s also adult learners in schools, so they may encounter game-based learning there, too. I don’t think there’s a giant division of who gets access to what and where. 

Brandon Pittser: Is there a difference in terms of how we think about making games for a workplace training environment versus a K-12 classroom?

Dan Norton: Yes, absolutely. There’s a relationship between older users and the concept of play. I hate to generalize because I’m an old man now and I grew up with a Nintendo, Atari, Commodore, and the PC Junior. So I’m up for what would be seen as outright entertaining learning games. There’s definitely a general trope that games, as a medium, are just a form of entertainment. And part of what makes entertainment fun for people is that it has zero stakes and it’s “frivolous.” It’s a waste of time. This is part of why some people enjoy gaming –  it has to have no purpose in order for you to feel like you’re allowed to enjoy it. It’s time you’re taking for yourself. I think that that connection between game and frivolity maybe has a gradient that slides along with age, too. Folks who are in their 50s, 60s, or 70s might think of games as a waste of time, or they have never really encountered many games that had a personal connection to them or were a piece of media that really mattered to them. 


Alyssa Froehling: Which kinds of content or subjects are most effectively taught through an interactive experience for adults?

Dan Norton: Serious games are kind of an interesting double gambit where we try and make games to have an impact on people, and have people value that impact. We design our games so the learning content is authentically embedded in the experience. So most adults (like any other demographic) will value a game if they feel like it’s relevant to the skills or the practice or the perspective that they’re trying to glean from the experience.

Something specific about our games for adults – that is pretty common, we’ve done it in our games like Contents Under Pressure or the Demonstrating Respect Game – is that in a lot of these games we don’t spend a lot of time invested in elaborate fictional identities. We collapse the space for identity so you are playing as yourself. In our games for adults, we don’t port you over into some wild heroic abstraction. Instead, you’re you, engaging with a problem space relevant to you. And most of the time when characters interact with you, you can more or less interact with them as yourself. 

I haven’t really thought about that as being a conscious choice, but it makes sense for an audience where we’re not quite sure how much they’re up for a game with a fantastical narrative or identity tropes. For games catered to adult learners, it’s really nice to simplify that and be like, look, this is a game-based environment for learning or training, you’re going to learn a practice, but you’re you. So when you get good at things in this game, it’ll be you getting good at these things. 

For example in Contents Under Pressure, our game about chemical safety and risk management at a chemical plant, you’re a manager making managerial decisions. We don’t really go too far into a deeply fictionalized character – which works well for adult learners. 

Brandon Pittser: That makes sense because many kids don’t have an informed and empowered identity yet, necessarily, to approach this way of learning.  Whereas an adult generally has some sort of identity and sense of self.

Dan Norton: That’s really true. I think kids are more drawn to the idea of hopping into new identities that are empowered in different ways. 

Brandon Pittser: Exactly. And kids may be interested in being exposed to the adult world from an authentic adult perspective, whatever perspective that might be, or just being exposed to a world that they haven’t been in yet because kids have such limited experience. 


Alyssa Froehling: Are there any common design pitfalls that you avoid when designing an experience for adult learners?

Dan Norton: I like to spend extra time on gentler scaffolding for games for adults. That’s because I’m worried about some adults feeling like this game thing might not be for them, or that they aren’t necessarily good at games or computers or computer games. There’s definitely a school of thought for games that they should be like a delightful failure. You go through a cycle of challenges where you eventually triumph over adversity. But I don’t assume that for adult learners – I actually try not to assume that too much about younger learners either, because a lot of that ingrained tenacity comes from someone who really feels like they were empowered to sign up and play the game for themselves. If a game is put forth in a training or classroom context, a lot of your users might not necessarily be self-identifying as gamers or people who wanted to play games like that game. But definitely, for adults, it’s a priority that a game has a pretty healthy, smooth, victory-driven experience upfront. This allows people to get really comfortable with how the game works and demonstrate to them that it’s going to be a safe space that isn’t going to embarrass them or make them feel dumb. That’s pretty important when designing games for adult learners. 

Brandon Pittser: That’s a really good point. I was just thinking about how during a workplace training experience, the stakes are so high for the person-in-training. You want their training experience to be positive because they could lose their livelihood if it doesn’t go well for them. That’s different from a student where a test isn’t going to be the end of their life. 

Dan Norton: Exactly. Oh, you know a fun anecdote related to this is that the design team does some game-based training ourselves. We have a set of role-play scenarios. We have someone call in and pretend to be a client that’s prepared with a particular type of scenario and challenge. The different designers are briefed on what’s going on and they have to take the call and manage the challenge while the rest of the designers observe, and then we discuss. 

It’s interesting because it’s very low stakes, right? Because it’s not a real client. Nothing can really go wrong. But it’s still very stressful because you have all the other designers there, observing how it goes and it’s hard not to think about what they’re thinking about what you’re saying. It actually gets around to an authentic level of stress in a different, low-stakes way.


Alyssa Froehling: When we think about your three-pronged approach to game design, are there any differences in how you apply it when designing games for adults?

Dan Norton: As I mentioned before, I think when developing identity in games for adult learners, we have a little bit less elaboration on deep identity metaphors. We try and make scenarios that are more like you are you interacting, maybe through a new career perspective or a new professional perspective, but it’s not often that we’re like “you’re a time-traveling wizard able to impact food safety.” We usually put you right into a more immediate realistic role and engage with you more directly. When it comes to the prongs of verbs and systems though, it’s basically entirely the same. 

Brandon Pittser: Are there games for adult learners where the verbs and systems become more granular? In certain types of workplace training, for instance, Contents Under Pressure, how abstract was that game compared to the specific job that it’s being modeled after? How do we balance abstraction versus fundamental skills that need to transfer directly into the real world?

Dan Norton: If the game is trying to produce specific skills, we’re looking for a verb-based transfer. We want the game to make clear what the skill is and how to do it. As designers, we ask ourselves “Is there a digital model of that skill that we could create inside the game?” 

The systemic approach refers to a problem space that we want someone to think about and interact with that’s authentic to the content. That can be pretty simple! We can make an environment that has two or three variables that have unexpected outcomes based on decisions. That’s enough to make someone think carefully about how they make their next strategic move. Which is often really what we’re trying to encourage through our games. We’re introducing a professional environment where you have to make specific types of decisions, and providing players room to think about how they might weigh those decisions. We don’t need a world-bending simulation engine that’s running intense physics modeling. Instead, we present the dimensions of a problem – here’s how they might go up and down based on your interactions with it, and that’s enough. 


Alyssa Froehling: When it comes to gamification versus game-based learning, what do you recommend when it comes to clients looking to reach adult learners? 

Dan Norton: Let me start by quickly identifying how I treat those two buckets because it’s different for lots of people. I usually think of gamification as the use of content agnostic gameplay, and tools – like scores, badges, achievements, and avatar customizations, those kinds of things. Positive feedback loops for participating that you can apply to almost anything. And those things are awesome, right? We all play games that have those tools and we love those tools. It’s not like those things are bad, but none of those tools usually have anything to do with the content you’re engaging with. For example, you can unlock a hat when a player fixes their car correctly. It’s a reward structure that can be applied in any situation. 

The game-based learning approach asks the question “How do you design game mechanics that authentically embed the learning content into the gameplay itself?” So how you make gameplay verbs or the game identity or the game systems correlate with what you’re trying to teach. For adults, there is maybe a higher level of expected literacy and comfort with the gamification strategy. I think a lot of folks are more immediately familiar with the idea of, for example, logging in to their fitness app every day and seeing their points go up. That kind of thing has been around for decades. 

But that certainly doesn’t mean I would not use the game-based learning strategy on a project geared toward adults. I think I would expect this particular audience to expect having the gamification tools there, though. If they’re not there, they might be wondering where the points, hats, or badges are. 

Brandon Pittser: It’s like what I wrote in “Yes, You are a Gamer” – I think those kinds of mechanics are interspersed throughout our lives in lots of different ways, which makes it almost like a default literacy of existing in society. 

Dan Norton: Yeah, I think if you had an adult learner and you gave them a game for learning a skill and they opened it and it didn’t seem like there were any points or achievements or badges, or a friendly owl, they’d be like “what happened?”

Brandon Pittser: “Where’re my points? Where’s my owl?” 

Dan Norton: “What is this?” 


Brandon Pittser: Is there anything you wish we would have asked during this interview?

Dan Norton: Honestly, it’s just interesting to think about defining an audience for a learning game as adults, because there are lots of adults. They’re all over the place. Some of them love games, and some of them hate games. Some of them have never played a game, and some of them have played all the games.

Definitely a decade or so ago, back when Filament was started, there was a much larger, general population of adults who were like, “what is it with kids and their games these days?” And that has changed! Time keeps marching on, and now we’re in a space where most adults have video games that they’ve tried to convince their kids to play. That’s a pretty standard experience in America for adults, currently.

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