Written by: Brandon McCowan
Games are uniquely positioned to keep users engaged for long periods of time. Users can spend tens of hours in one sitting playing a game without eating or taking a break. What is it about games that make them so powerfully compelling and addicting? And how can education leverage these inherent game components to enhance the learning experience? Here are 5 ways games keep users engaged.
One of the major differences between games and most other forms of media is its instant feedback. Books and videos don’t let users interact with the medium like games do. When players press a button or move their pawn, there are consequences. User actions immediately have weight and meaning, and it forces players to think about their actions if they want to achieve the game’s goal. This control adds engagement to the experience and allows experimentation with each action creating a feedback loop of information that leads them further or closer to the goal. Their mistakes impact their status in the game, and it forces them to learn the rules well in order to achieve success.
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Games usually provide users with a scenario or context they must play in. Whether it’s a location, a time period, or a whole fictional world, games set the stage for users to act within the bounds of that context. There are certain implications based on the context that they’ve been given, and users can leverage that context to make predictions and test the bounds of the scenario. When users test the context’s boundaries, the game can respond with new information that validates the user’s test and creates connections in their mind. Without context, users have trouble using logic to ground their predictions which makes experimentation less interesting.
Randomization is ubiquitous in games, from the antagonists that users face in games to the rewards they receive. There’s something inherently exciting about not knowing exactly what’s coming next, and games utilize this heavily to keep users engaged. If there’s a small chance that the user will get an incredibly useful or valuable item, they could repeat the same actions over and over until they get it. The simplest example is a slot machine where users are willing to repeat a single action for long periods of time for the chance to win a big reward. It’s a psychological trick that our brains fall for so easily that laws have been enacted to protect users, especially children, from being psychologically and financially manipulated by game companies using tactics such as loot boxes and microtransactions. Uncertainty can be an incredibly powerful motivator.
Replayability builds on top of uncertainty because it encourages users to try again as the experience will be different each time. Beyond uncertainty, users also want to know how the results will change if they employ a different strategy. Well-made games provide a good balance between uncertainty and control, so users can change their strategy and become more efficient at achieving the game’s end goal. Replayability is valuable, because it keeps the user motivated to the keep playing the game even after they’ve already completed it once.
Some of the most popular games are played in virtual worlds that contains thousands or more users playing simultaneously. Interacting with real people in a game enhances user engagement in all the previous ways, and it is one of the easiest ways to boost engagement. Players receive more feedback when their actions impact other players in the game and those players respond to them. Because the presence of other players adds another layer of context to the game, everything feels more real and dynamic, and there are more opportunities for players to experiment. People can also be unpredictable which automatically adds uncertainty to the game and increases the chances of a unique experience if the game is replayed.
Educators and trainers can improve user interest and engagement by incorporating some of these components into their lessons or learning modules. It doesn’t need to be an actual game, but adding more immediate feedback, context, uncertainty, fresh experiences, and multiple interactions will reduce the odds that users will lose interest in the lesson and disengage.