Digital Australia 2018 research indicates the Australian video gamer is between 1-94 years old, with an average age of 34, and plays 89 minutes of video games per day. Mastery of anything might be expected after 10,000 hours of practice, with video games being no different. Therefore, it is likely that at least some Australian Army trainees or students have been expertly conditioned to react best when immersed in an environment that looks, feels, and responds like a video game, and that this number will probably continue to rise in the future.

Defence acquisitions, where feasible, procure sophisticated simulators, emulators and part-task trainers as part of Integrated Logistic Support (ILS) during capability introduction. However, the delivery of a topic’s fundamental principles and concepts remains rooted in traditional face-to-face, ‘chalk and talk’ instruction. The gap between 'business as usual' sustainment training and new defence capabilities continues to grow; traditional instructional design and classroom management techniques need augmentation to remain effective and reduce this gap.

Old versus New

Chalk-and-talk, while reliable, has merely become digitised to utilise classroom information and communications technology (ICT) and many online modules remain unsophisticated in their approach. More can be done to exploit the expertly conditioned behavioural responses of young Australian Defence Force learners. Improved training behaviours and outcomes can be achieved by making learning more engaging and by incorporating the psychology of video game design.

At the heart of video game design is a solid understanding of motivational psychology. The theories of Maslow, Herzberg and Reiss can be used to explore the suite of 25-47 video game dynamics (depending on which literature is reviewed) that are used to excite or entice game players.

Additionally, a ‘good’ video game should be easy to learn, but hard to master. This philosophy should be simple enough to apply to curriculum design and development. For example, essential knowledge might be delivered with graduated challenge, and require a 100% passing grade. Desirable or extension knowledge might also be delivered with graduated challenge; but, with a lesser passing grade to demonstrate relative mastery of the topic.

In short, game dynamics seek to exploit the human needs of safety, status, social contact, self-esteem, and self-actualisation. Creation and maintenance of courseware can be adapted to incorporate very simple techniques from the gaming world to make a classroom more engaging, and students more invested in their training. The masters of this are primary school teachers.

Primary school teachers' use of shiny stars, stamps, stickers, public (but in-class) rankings, certificates, colours (and a myriad of other tools to reward and entice students and demonstrate progress) engage students in their learning. Leaving aside ICT and multimedia abilities, a typical primary school classroom, in many respects, is more sophisticated and evolved than a traditional Defence classroom with the tools and techniques it uses to generate learner buy-in. Consequently, Defence might choose to look outwards for clues on how to improve its game.

Five Key Game Dynamics for the Traditional Classroom

In a traditional chalk-and-talk classroom, there is typically little dynamism and the successful transfer of knowledge relies upon the efforts of an individual instructor. The following five dynamics are considered some of the more effective and simple to implement, with no requirement for ICT or online content.

The power of seeing your name up in lights, or the desire to have one’s name up in lights, should not be underestimated. A class leaderboard illustrates current-but-temporary status, based on course assessments, and extends the principle of ‘praise in public, counsel in private’. Highlighting who is being challenged – those at the bottom of the leaderboard – is demotivating at best, and humiliating at worst; and should be avoided. Advertise the top 3-5 performers (5-10% of the class) only.

However, the instructor still retains oversight of individual progression within a cohort. This oversight should be exploited to pair-up high performers with those needing additional learning attention. This promotes peer learning, and exploits the needs of social contact, self-esteem and self-actualisation.

Overall improvement in a cohort’s average grade may be seen, or at least a tightening of statistical deviation indicating greater consistency in learning.

‘Pressure makes diamonds’, so goes the saying. Introducing a countdown in the classroom places an artificial stress on students.

A lesson or assessment might be redesigned to cover essential knowledge within a time constraint, with additional learning and time ‘released’ as required. This plays upon ‘easy to learn, hard to master’, and progresses topic mastery and status. It also appeals to the notion of safety for both learner and instructor, so long as essential learning is achieved.

While not discussed here, the countdown game dynamic’s effectiveness can be amplified through use of tangible and/or intangible rewards to mark progress, achievement or milestones.

Levelling Up
Levelling up in a video game announces to other players and observers completion and mastery of the previous level. This can be illustrated by advancing numbers, colours, visibly more challenging game scenarios, less time allocated for similar tasks, or anything else that indicates progression.

Specifically, levelling up in a traditional classroom is recommended to be as simple as a course map that is visible and frequently referred to by instructors and learners. Levelling up can build anticipation in learners, adding to their natural curiosity and may see improvements in grades and/or a reduction in time taken to complete current materials.

In addition to a simple course map, and especially where course modules can be ‘chunked’ into broad themes, levelling up might also introduce a new colour scheme to distinguish more challenging learning materials. Colour differentiation can also assist in distinguishing essential learning from desirable learning in the pursuit of topic mastery.

Levelling up is a specific game dynamic illustrating progression. Fundamentally, learners simply want to know ‘how much more’ they need to do (note ‘do’, and not necessarily ‘achieve’) before they can get the proficiency and return to their parent unit.

To enable the themed game dynamic of progression, curriculum milestone mapping is critical. Learning Management Guides and classroom materials should clearly outline a particular module/activity/assessment’s location in the course. This should then be made available to the learner to assist staving off the ‘mid-course blues’. The more milestones the better, as it affords learners (and indeed, tired and grumpy instructors..) greater opportunity to visibly advance through the curriculum.

Community Discovery
Other than video games seeking to simulate something, such as a first-person shooter or first-person rally driver, virtually every video game has a quest which underpins a player’s motive for progressing through its myriad levels and rewards systems.

Community discovery generates individual and group ownership of shared learning achievement, and may offer instructors the ideal foundation for consolidating knowledge in a Summative Assessment environment. Community discovery (aka ‘group work’ or ‘syndicates’) relies upon quests to consolidate knowledge and skills. Quests need either a fundamental storyline, or well-articulated reason for undertaking it. The blended learning concept of a ‘flipped classroom’ is founded on community discovery.

In its most simple form, community discovery can take the form of a treasure hunt. However, learning can be quickly challenged, and a supporting storyline made potentially more realistic, by planning and executing a complex activity; such as preparing a warship’s communication centre for operations from a resting state alongside a wharf, or establishing a deployed land force CIS node from a ‘greenfield’ start point.

The Bottom Line

Video game dynamics appeal to intrinsic motivation, and can be mapped against the theories of several well-regarded psychologists. The use of video game dynamics in game design is deliberate, and so should be their use when designing classroom materials and the classroom experience. Only a basic understanding is needed to make a course more engaging for the learner.

Best of all, the use of video game dynamics in a traditional classroom requires minimal investment  and does not require ICT to deliver. It empowers instructors to deliver training that might be more appealing to the learner, without losing necessary aspects of military discipline within the classroom. Simple ‘tweaks’ of, or giving greater prominence to, existing practices may be all that is needed to make training more enjoyable while delivering higher quality outcomes to Army and Defence.