If elearning courses had the same addictive qualities and fan fervor, it’s unlikely any student would walk away from a course without learning something. Here are five strategies elearning could borrow from casual gaming, complete with simple tips to improve elearning courses.

1. Reward the Learner

One reason Candy Crush and other casual games are so addictive is the constant reward cycle the games present. Levels only take a few minutes, so users are able to feel rewarded frequently throughout their play experience. Moreover, every time a player completes a move, visual and auditory cues play (such as words like “sweet!” or “delicious!” or loud bells and whistles) to let the player know they’ve accomplished something. These accomplishments trigger a rush of dopamine (a neurotransmitter that sends pleasure to the brain) letting us know we should continue the action. Dopamine reinforces behavior  and subconsciously encourages the player to continue seeking the accomplishments and rewards.

Here are some ways to use this tactic to create rewarding elearning:

  • Make sure the learner is rewarded early and often for demonstrating correct knowledge.
  • Highlight correct answers and actions with bright, obvious indicators (large green check marks, bells, positive words, etc).
  • Give the learner plenty of opportunities to demonstrate knowledge in small quick sections
  • Include an easy way for the learner to view their achievements to increase their sense of accomplishment.

2. Keep It Simple

Engrossing simplicity occurs when an activity is simple and repetitive but attractive to the user. Just as most gamers look for consistent gratification, they are also looking for simplicity. Simple tasks, such as matching three candies or flicking a bird, are easy and accessible to anyone. The games have to be attractive enough, however, to still be engrossing. In addition to rewards, quick levels, and attractive game design (simple, with bright colors and identifiable patterns) make the players want to continue to play. Here are some tips to help you keep it simple:

  • Make sure your course is attractive. Do away with greys and dull colors, and replace them with bright, positive colors.
  • However, keep it simple. Don’t overdo it on the design. Choose a palate and stick to it.
  • The tests of knowledge and activities should be simple enough to pick up with little-to-no instruction, but fun enough to make the learner actively want to participate.

3. Structure the Goals and Objectives

Most elearning courses offer overarching goals and learning objectives, but casual game design has mastered the art of goal setting. In Candy Crush, immediate goals (such as matching three candies) support larger goals (beat the level) which in turn lead to ultimate goals (move to the next area). This not only makes the large goals seem more achievable, but also increases the number of achievements and rewards for the player. It also makes the game more addictive and fast-paced, as the player is more likely to tell him-or-herself “one more life” or “five more moves.” Here are some ways to structure your course in a similar way:

  • Break up each learning objective into smaller goals.
  • Make sure each one of these goals has a test, activity, or achievement associated.
  • The goals should be varied enough to keep the course challenging and interesting, but not so different that they don’t feel cohesive.

4. Increase the Difficulty

A significant reason Candy Crush is so addictive is the early levels are easy to beat, giving the player satisfaction and desire to continue playing, with increasingly difficult levels throughout the game to create a challenge. To be entertained, humans need an activity to be challenging enough to stave off boredom, but not so challenging they give up. One way to achieve this balance is to stagger the course difficulty by making later goals build on skills acquired earlier. This also forces the player to practice their knowledge and skills and, in elearning, ensures learning happens consistently throughout the course. Below are some tips concerning difficulty:

  • Don’t restrict concepts to certain modules—each activity/test should include knowledge and skills acquired throughout the course.
  • Structure goals/objectives so they build on each other. For example, move from “Know how to use and maintain a power saw” to “Cut a straight line with a power saw” to “Cut a circle with a power saw.”
  • Make achievements easy at the beginning of the course to hook learners from the start.

5. Implement Competition

Humans are competitive animals. In an interview with The Guardian, cyber psychologist Bernie Good explained part of the reason games like Farmville are so compelling is we want to show off our superiority over other players. This is known as the “peacock effect”—and it shows players are much more driven to play a game if they can show off their achievements and “wealth” to their friends. If you can introduce a competitive aspect to a course, learners will be significantly more incentivized to pay attention and internalize the learning. To create competition, try these tips:

  • Include metrics that can be compared—time to complete an activity, score on a quiz, etc.
  • Have a “high-score table,” or include achievements such as bronze, silver, and gold medals. Even if the learner is not actively competing against his peers, the existence of several benchmarks to “beat” will encourage him or her to excel.
  • As mentioned above, include somewhere where the learner can view his or her achievements, as that will incentivize them to continue to aim for excellence.

By following in the footsteps of Candy Crush, Angry Birds, and more, your elearning courses will have users learning more, enjoying their experience, and spending more time with the course. If you’d like to learn more about effective game design in training, try Gamification Vs. Game-Based Learning.