How Looking at Game Development Can Help Shape the Learning and Development Space

Dean Cook
July 5, 2024

How do we improve gamification within the learning and development space?

Game development has traditionally been viewed by HR/Learning and Development Teams as purely entertainment. However, its potential to revolutionise the learning and development (L&D) sector within corporate environments is gaining recognition. However, it still falls by the wayside in most conversations, as it is seen as childish or kiddy. 

Well, guess what? Is that generation entering your workplace now? They’ve been sitting on iPads since they were young, learning through many forms of gamification. 

Earlier this year, we stumbled upon an example of this intersection between learning and gameplay mechanics with the game Shashingo.

Developed by Autumn Pioneer (Ryan), Shashingo is a photography game that teaches players Japanese through a gameplay loop (definition) with custom-made flashcards, memory tests, and in-game lessons. You may be thinking, “That sounds like eLearning.” Well, it is. 

I sat down with Ryan to get his insight into how he developed the game and how it might help enhance the world of learning inside our industry.

Dean: What inspired the creation of a game focused on (language) learning, and how did the concept evolve from the initial idea to the final product?

Ryan: I originally wanted to create a language learning game for myself in order to learn Japanese via non-traditional methods as I often found them boring and not immersive. The game's mechanics were developed from a game jam project I once made, where photography was the main part of the gameplay. It seemed like this mechanic could be used in a bigger project so I tried to push it further.

Dean: Did you do any research into how best to ensure the learning experience was a major part of the game? (i.e understanding how adults learn better etc)

Ryan: As part of my university thesis, I actually wrote a paper on how ordinary games can be used as a way of second language acquisition. I believe this helped me think more about how a game could be tailored entirely towards this at its core, but still tie it successfully into an engaging and fun gameplay experience.

Dean: Can you discuss the process of selecting which skills or knowledge areas the game focuses on and why those were considered important for your target audience? 

Ryan: Teaching Japanese through photography proposes a few challenges, as it generally means nouns and visual concepts are the only things that can be taught. I developed ways of including other vocabulary by giving players additional related words on the back of each flash-card to push the amount that can be learned, and in-game lessons to teach grammar. As for romaji, I originally didn't want Shashingo to have it as an option at all, as I, and many others, believe it to hold people back from learning Japanese proficiently. In Japan, romaji is very rarely used and learning the Japanese alphabet is truly a crucial part of the language. But, for example, some people plan on only learning spoken Japanese, so I feel that it is okay to teach with romaji in that scenario.

Dean: How do you think technology like Unreal Engine (and Blueprints) is going to empower non-game developers to create learning material in the future as it becomes more accessible?

Ryan: Blueprints were a huge part of developing Shashingo in Unreal Engine. I honestly believe that without it, it would not have been possible to even begin creating the game. They really open up the possibility of game development and quick iteration on projects in a more approachable way that traditional coding just doesn't have. From what I understand, we are even seeing non-game developers like arch-vis teams and such using blueprints to enhance their experiences to clients and customers.

Dean: How did you approach the balance the game mechanics and fun with the learning experience?

Ryan: Balancing game mechanics and learning in Shashingo was rather difficult because the true reward for a player's success in the game is the meta ability to speak Japanese better in real life. That said, I still had to find a way to reward the player in the game to keep them hooked in the loop of learning. I figured a fun way would be to give players coins for successful answers in the memory tests. They could then spend them at gachapon machines for more camera filters which gives them more creative control when taking photographs, hence leading to more flash-cards being made and more Japanese learned!

Dean: What were some of the biggest challenges when creating the game?

Ryan: I think the biggest challenge was handling player expectations and delivering them when the game was made mostly just by myself. At some points development became incredibly overwhelming, and even after reading so many positive comments and messages, it was difficult to stay positive and motivated. That said, I'm really happy with where Shashingo sits right now and the overall response has been astounding!

So, what can we take from that? 

  1. Engagement through interactivity: Just as interactivity keeps gamers engaged, interactive elements in training modules like simulations or real-time decision-making scenarios can significantly enhance learner engagement in L&D programs. This is more than a “drag and drop”.

  2. Utilise technology: Learning Designers can adopt these game-engine technologies to create vivid and immersive educational experiences that simulate real-life scenarios. As Ryan mentions, there are ways to jump in without learning code specifically!

  3. Narrative learning: Using storytelling or scenario-based learning in learning and development can make the learning process more engaging and relevant, helping learners see practical applications of theoretical knowledge. For example, in Shashingo, you take on the role of a photographer.

  4. Understanding how to reward the user: If the learning outcome is one that the learner won’t gain straight away or within the experience, you should find ways to reward people through gamification to keep them engaged in the experience.

  5. It can be overwhelming: A lot of people reading this will see developing something like this as a years-long, scary experience, with learning every single time you open the program. While that is definitely the case with something like Shashingo, you can create smaller experiences that tackle a single topic in a much smaller time frame and with fewer game mechanics.

Game development holds immense potential to transform the landscape of learning by creating engaging, tailored, and advanced training programs that leave the authoring tools in the dust. 

Shashingo's example demonstrates how innovative game mechanics can enhance learning experiences and overcome traditional training limitations. By leveraging these principles, we move closer to a culture of a more skilled and motivated workforce… that doesn’t hate learning! 

Where can I start if I’m looking to develop games for the learning and development industry? For designers, the best place to start is looking into game engines and seeing what best suits their desired outcomes. For those without a design team or the capability, well - you’ve already started by reading this far! Feel free to reach out, and we can discuss this more.