The Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi stated: “We feel most engaged with what we’re doing when we are involved in mastering a challenge.” He described "flow" as the mental state of being fully immersed in an activity. If challenge and skills don't match, you will become either frustrated or bored. If they are in balance, you become focused; you get immersed in what you’re doing and time just flies.
Games can be perfect flow experiences. They meet all the pre-requisites: a challenging activity that requires skills, clear goals, clear feedback and sense of control. Because games are adaptive, they manage to constantly challenge the players just above their skill levels.
A sportsman cannot copy his muscles from his coach - he has to construct them in an active way with the coach merely facilitating the process. This is the base of the educational theory of constructivism, which describes how we construct new knowledge from our experiences. In games, players are exploring actively, instead of receiving passively. They make decisions and experience the consequences. They explore new principles by working on realistic problems. They construct new ideas and strategies based on experience.
Game principles can motivate people to invest time and effort in reaching certain goals. Partially because players are continually rewarded for their progress. However, an extrinsic reward system is rather flat. More important is the intrinsic motivation - the internal urge to go further, to develop new skills and voluntarily solve increaingly difficult problems.
The appeal of games is not that they're easy; it's that they're hard as Jane McGonigal explains well in her book Reality is broken: The goal of golf is to place a ball into a little hole. The most efficient way to do that would be to pick up the ball, walk to the hole and put it in. Although, what makes golf fun is that you have to respect rules that restrict you in the ways you can reach the goal of the game. These rules make golf into an challenging game that motivates you to improve yourself and outperform your friends.
Gamers like to be challenged, overcome obstacles and get better. Game designers are good at creating these processes.
Immersion occurs when players invest themselves in a story or a game. It is a state in which "you lose your critical distance to the experience and become emotionally involved. You feel as if it is very real but know it is not". This emotional involvement is the differentiation factor between (narrative) serious games and e-learning or simulation. The sacred 4th Wall is not only broken down, it moves behind the players and includes them.
"The power of games is that they put you inside a world where you see that world from an inside-out perspective and you have to solve problems from that perspective." (Henry Kelly, president, Federation of American Scientists). The learning effect will be so much stronger when the player is emotionally connected. As a consequence of losing their "critical distance to the experience", players will behave more naturally and authentically. This opens up great opportunities for assessment.
Games and simulations can help us gain understanding in complex systems. Within a short space of time, you can try various strategies and discover their effects, shedding light on the relations of cause and effect. Because you change roles in some games, you can observe situations from different perspectives. You experience the consequences of actions that you've taken in another role. This helps to develop a holistic vision on the issue.
High retention, high efficiency
This Confucius quote is all too familiar now, but still quite apt: "Tell me and I'll forget. Show me and I'll remember. Involve me and I'll understand." In 1933 Edward Dale described how people retain information better when more senses (reading, hearing, seeing) are involved and they are more actively involved in the learning experience.
Large amounts of research shows that simulations and games don't just help to retain information longer (25-50%), but also to understand it faster (40-70%), compared to traditional classroom training. Games can be played at any moment, at any place and in one's own pace. They offer the possibility of involving large amounts of people in an intensive, individual learning experience.
People want to interact and playing is a perfect way to do that. In a game, players want to collaborate and compete, learn from each other, swap roles and exchange strategies and solutions. In the Gaining Leadership Game that Ranj made for Capgemini, the game works as a catalyst for social dynamics. It confronts the players with dilemmas around trust, collaboration, delegation and leadership.Read more
In a game, players can freely experiment with alternative strategies and without risk. The game constantly gives the players all kinds of feedback. This may consist of explicit information about the game world, but also of scores, reports and graphs that chart player behaviour. Additionally, players can continuously reduce game events to their actions, making them understand what they're doing right or wrong. This enables them to change their strategy and improve their results in a focused and effective way. This short, on-going feedback loop accellerates the learning curve.