Learning Games for Adults

Game play and game dynamics have great potential to enliven and enrich the learning experience. But too often, they’re included as an afterthought: Tacked on as fancy graphics, cheesy animations, or the inevitable Merit Badge / Points system.


The intentions may be noble, but the actual execution turns learners off – whether they be youngsters (who’ve grown up gaming, and can spot a ringer a mile away), or more canny adults (who simply don’t buy in to the approach).


In this article, we’ll be looking at learning strategies which incorporate games from the outset – and are designed to break through the learning barriers of even the most cynical grown-ups.


The Drivers Of Adult Learning


The compulsory requirements of society and the law, coupled with the grade point averages and exam success needed to move on to the next level largely govern the patterns of learning for children and adolescents. For adults, professional and regulatory compliance demands may provide some of the impetus to learn, but there are other more personal factors, such as:


  • The scope for personal gain: If the training that’s proposed results in personal or professional growth, leads to opportunities for advancement, or provides a means of solving or avoiding a particular problem, then learners will be motivated to participate.
  • Resonance with background or experience: Adult learners may have as much to teach as they have to learn, in a given environment, due to their unique educational and personal backgrounds, skill sets, and levels of experience. Drawing on this fact, adult learning experiences may be crafted to build on existing knowledge, and to encourage participants to share what they already know.
  • The need for self-direction: Adult learners appreciate the ability to take at least some measure of control over the content and pace of their training. They may also be eager to contribute to the learning of their peers, if the learning experience also serves to validate each learner’s independence.
  • The need to apply and act on new knowledge: Immediate and practical applications of what’s been learned are appreciated by adult learners, who should be given opportunities to test out their new learning through action – preferably before a new session begins.
  • Allowing for a variety of learning styles: Adult learners will typically originate from a diversity of backgrounds and experience levels, so the training should present opportunities for learning to occur via numerous means. And material should be presented in a number of different styles, to suit different preferred methods of learning.


Course designers and facilitators need to develop learning games in line with these principles, if they’re to be readily consumed by adults.


Professional Development


The gaming process can start with the educators themselves. Professional development or PD for learning professionals needs to move beyond the passive lecturing and note-taking style that’s been prevalent in the formal education sector for some time.


Giving educators direct experience of how effective and engaging a game-based training approach can be is the first step in inspiring these professionals to extend that philosophy on to those they teach and train.


Technology Training


The introduction of new teaching technologies provides one avenue of opportunity. Such an approach was adopted at the iPadpalooza Learning Festival in 2014, where attendees were invited to form small teams who participated in a three-day challenge to acquaint themselves with the apps and technologies being exhibited, through various exercises. These combined creativity, collaboration, problem-solving, interaction, and movement.


“Interactive Learning Challenges”


Self-described “Speaker / Blogger / Consultant / Instigator” Carl Hooker endorses the establishment of “Interactive Learning Challenges” (ILCs) to delver professional training. Each ILC involves populations ranging in size from around a dozen to several hundred learners, split into small teams and set a series of tasks requiring the same combination of qualities used at iPadpalooza.


The technique is designed with technology in mind, but may be adapted for other applications such as skills acquisition or group orientation.


Breaking The Ice


It’s been stressed that the personal histories and skill sets of adult learners are key to the learning experience. But adult learners are people first and foremost – and it’s human nature to be a little reticent about putting oneself forward in a new or awkward social situation such as might be created at a training session or workshop.


Finding some way to “break the ice” is key to breaking the tension, and beginning the process of personal and group interaction. Games are a great way to do this, and examples include:


  • Marooned: As in, “Who would you want with you, on a deserted island? And why?”
  • If You Had A Magic…: Crystal, wand, or whatever. What would you do with it – and what changes would you make?
  • The Two-Minute Mixer: Similar to the concept of “Two-Minute Dating” – an opportunity for participants to get to know each other in a condensed time-frame.


The Pokémon Go Approach


Despite its lack of impact on their bottom line, Nintendo’s Pokémon Go app has had immense global success as a game which simultaneously combines physical and virtual interactions from its participants with environmental awareness and the development of observation and documentation skills – and which has appeal to both the young and not so young.


The phenomenon may be held up as an example of how a gaming environment may effectively conceal a learning platform which gives participants the opportunity to explore and develop a number of skills and interactions.




Working together in teams with other people is central to the group learning and social intelligence aspect of effective games. Learners should be encouraged not only to contribute their own ideas and strategies for solving problems or performing tasks, but also to listen to, acknowledge and respect the suggestions of others – and to actively help the members of their team.


Process And Environmental Issues


The tools provided by the game itself and the setting in which it takes place will afford participants the opportunity to explore the most effective ways to use the resources available to them, and to appreciate the effect that the environment has on their activities – and how their own activities may impact that environment.




Whether it’s a journal of personal activities, ideas, and emotions experienced during an exercise, or the meticulous documentation of collected Pokémon, the game can provide opportunities for learners to develop their analytical and documentation skills. Material recorded during the exercise may also provide the game designers and course facilitators with valuable feedback and ideas on how the game may be improved for future training.


Oldies But Goodies


It’s not just Pokémon Go, hi-tech, and mobile. There’s room for traditional games to be used in an adult learning context.


Board games can easily be adapted to suit a specific industry or discipline (think “[Place your industry here] Monopoly”). Sets of cards for industry and application-specific purposes are easy to design and print. And don’t forget the variants on old favorites like Charades, “Jeopardy”, “What’s My Line?”, or “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?”.


Shopping Around


The possibilities are endless. But if you can’t think up a suitable game yourself, there are resources and portals online, which may be of assistance.


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