The Emotional Toll of Instructional Games

Games are emotional, in a game there are typically winners and losers.

The winners feel great!

The losers, don’t feel great:(

As someone creating or commissioning an instructional game, are you prepared to deal with the losers of that instructional game? That’s right, if you create an instructional game or gamification that is based on competition, some of the learners will feel great that they’ve won and some will feel lousy that their name isn’t on the leaderboard or that they scored few points or gathered few resources.

The problem with this is that people tend to “shut down” both emotionally and cognitively when they are in a stressful or a losing situation. Once a learner shuts down in the classroom or online, its virtually impossible for them to learn. The stress of losing can cause them to make irrational decisions, jump to conclusions and even walk out of the room frustrated or turn off the computer–literally shut down the computer. At this point, learning stops.

A person not winning an educational game may get angry at the instructor, other players or the computer system, they may get frustrated at their lack of progress or ability to win, they may look to cheat or game the system to get back an advantage. They may even become temporarily saddened by the entire learning experience or visibly upset. They might feel incompetent and wonder why they can’t win. They might even feel isolated because everyone else seems to be winning and having a good time and they are losing.

If you decide to add game-elements (gamification) or if you decide to create a learning game with winners and losers, you need to find a way to deal with those who do not win. You need to help them avoid some of the negative feelings. You may even decide that a cooperative game is better than placing someone in a losing situation.

Here are 12 ways to help mitigate losing in an instructional game or gamification situation.

1) Forewarn the learners that they might become upset or frustrated if they find themselves losing and that is part of the learning process.

2) Inform learners that they might lose the game and that is OK, learning will still occur.

3) Carefully brief all the learners on the instructional objectives of the game and de-emphasize winning.

4) Acknowledge the frustration or anger at losing.

5) Ask learners to find lessons and reason within the lose. Have them dissect why they lost. Ask “can those insights lead to learning?”

6) Don’t spend a great deal of time extolling the winners. Acknowledge winning and move right to the instructional lesson.

7) Provide a list of strategies that will help the learner win next time. (After the game.)

8) Within the curriculum, follow the game activity with an activity where everyone can feel positive.

9) If in a classroom, allow people who did not win a chance to discuss why they didn’t win. Online, provide chat opportunities.

10) Consider if creating “winning” or “losing” is really what you want in the learning experience. Sometimes it is appropriate. Often it is appropriate but be prepared for unintended consequences and negative feedback if you don’t handle the situation properly.

11) Create different levels of winning, can a learner win a round, or one task, can small victories occur throughout the game. This is helpful because if a learner falls behind early, they may mentally drop out early in the learning process. Find ways to keep them engaged.

12) Finally, you may want to consider building a cooperative rather than a competitive game. Working together is far more inclusive than competition.

How else can you mitigate the issue of losing an instructional game, any ideas? Leave them in the comments.

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