Archive for May, 2013


Like most of Londoners, I rely on tube transportation to travel around the city. When on the tube, I usually spend my commuting time playing video games on my smartphone. When I look around I realise that many others, like me, are immersed in trying to solve puzzles, escape from zombies, shoot pigs, and so on.

Games have been around for hundreds of years and video games are today becoming the preferred form of entertainment. If we look at the most recent statistics about online gaming, we learn that:

  • The average age of a gamer is 30 and he/she has been playing for an average of 14 years
  • 47% of gamers are women
  • 42% of game players believe that computer and video games give the most value for their money, compared with DVD’s music or going out to the movies
  • 59% of parents spend time with their children playing videogames at least monthly

In addition to that, according to recent research carried out by SDT, time spent playing online games is increasing and mobiles and tablets are catching up to PC gaming.

There’s no doubt that game mechanics have a fundamental role to making an experience ‘fun’. But that said, what is it that makes the experience meaningful to the player? What is it that makes the player play and want to play more? Is it the points we accumulate? Is it the fact we can see our name at the top of a leaderboard, or is it badges we crave for?

An interesting answer to this question comes from the field of psychology. Video games are so powerful because they have the potential to satisfy three basic psychological needs, namely autonomy, relatedness and competence. So, an activity that meets these criteria is likely to be received by players as engaging and fun.

In the past two or three years, the word ‘gamification’ has emerged in the field of business. As the word suggests you would think that it must have something to do with games. Right? In fact, ‘gamification is the use of game thinking and game mechanics in a non-game context in order to engage users and solve problems’.

In other words, gamification is not about designing games – it’s about applying the mechanics of games to solve a specific objective.

Gamification is rapidly spreading and it’s estimated that by 2015, 40% of the top 1000 global organizations will use gamification as the primary mechanism to transform business operations. Points, badges, and a leaderboard are the preferred games mechanics used in gamification.

But do they work to solve a specific problem? Are they enough to determine a desired behaviour change? Maybe not and interestingly enough, Gartner estimates that by 2014 an astonishing 80% of gamified systems will fail their business objectives due to bad design.

It’s not as simple as imitating a video game or app. For a successful gamified system a great deal of thinking is required: that entails combining rewards that can foster people’s external motivation and meet their basic, intrinsic psychological and emotional needs. I’ll continue looking at game mechanics and learner motivation in more detail in Part 2, so stay tuned.

To find out more about game mechanics, emotional investment and see some of the latest methodologies in action, visit Saffron Interactive at Stand 20 at the upcoming Learning Technologies Forum and attend our seminar.


This article is an edited extract from the upcoming June issue of Inside Learning Technologies and Skills magazine.

Last month, Nicholas Baum explained some of the principles of something called ‘me-learning’. He outlined the mechanics of how an e-learning course can become a space in which learners can visualise new behaviours in action: ‘Here’s where I am; here’s where I could be; this is what I need to do to get there’. Personalised input and personalised output via emotionally charged content is another way to put it.

The approach has been proven to work in courses such as that developed by Transport for London on mental resilience, where qualitative and quantitative evaluations drew a direct line from meaningful emotional engagement to massive return on investment. So how does it work? Where does the why really come from? What ‘buy-in buttons’ should those who design learning (and learning platforms) be pushing?

A revolution which has been gathering pace in the field of behavioural economics is highly relevant here. It’s changing the way that we are shaping the online world more generally, and e-learning needs to sit up and listen.

Traditional economics has treated the human as homo economicus, who is ‘Sovereign in tastes, steely-eyed and point-on in perception of risk’. The problem with this model is that ‘homo economicus is a rare breed.’ I would go further and say that the self-interested, calculating human doesn’t really exist at all. In fact, our brain chemistry motivates us to make decisions that aren’t necessarily rational or even self-interested.

Our memories are structured around emotional peaks and troughs, not averages or a steady accumulation of benefits. The ‘endowment effect’ means, for example, that we’ll place a much higher price on a teacup that is ours, than on an identical cup which isn’t – and we even hold on to shares long after the point where it made sense to sell them. A sense of belonging is the trump card.

This complicates our thinking about motivations for learning, and explains why the addictive learning environment can’t be as easily manufactured as we perhaps thought. It might make perfect sense to you why a learner would naturally engage with a learning intervention because it has social and game-based characteristics – that’s what creates a sense of reward, right?

But your course or platform is an imposter: it doesn’t carry with it the same emotional highs or the sense of belonging as the experience you based it on. It is a feature, emptied of emotional benefits.

To make e-learning better at changing behaviours, it’s time to start seriously asking where the e-learning course or platform that you have planned fits into the emotional narrative of your learners’ lives. What mood state are you going to capture and utilise? Most importantly, how are you going to make a learner feel like it belongs to her? In this sense, perhaps it’s time to start including emotional outcomes, as well as learning outcomes, in your next project specification.

Find out more by attending Saffron’s seminar on emotional investment in learning at the upcoming Learning Technologies Summer Forum. You can register here for free.




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