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What Angry Birds Can Teach Us About Instructional Design

— by mindflash

Employee trainingLearning and developmentLearning developmentTrainingWorkforce training

You’re probably familiar with Angry Birds, the massively popular iPhone game. What is it about this game that’s so addictive? And how can learning and development pros tap into that stickiness to get people this excited about training programs?

If you’re not familiar with the game, here’s a quick rundown on the basic storyline: The pigs have stolen the birds’ eggs (so they’re “angry”), so the birds are on a quest to get them back. They accomplish this by launching themselves (or rather, having you launch them) from slingshots and catapults into the pigs’ fortresses, knocking them down. Sound silly? It is. But don’t underestimate the magnitude of this game’s popularity. Consider:

  • Angry Birds has been downloaded over 500 million times.
  • Eighty percent of people who download Angry Birds keep the app installed.
  • The latest game in the series, Angry Birds: Space was downloaded more than 20 million times in the first week of its release.
  • Globally, people play Angry Birds for 200 million minutes each day.

Here are five major elements of the game that translate well into training and learning programs:

Angry Birds is easy to pick up and explore

From the point you load Angry Birds on your phone and hit “play,” it’s about 10 seconds before you’re up and playing. There’s no tutorial or instructional manual, just a quick graphic that sets up the “story” and then the game begins. There’s a very simple help menu if you need it, but most players don’t. You just start playing, and learn how to play in the process. It’s simple and intuitive. It’s so simple that my three-year-old will often sit with me, launching birds at will, loving every minute of it.

Contrast that with many learning programs. I remember when we launched an LMS years ago at my work. The first course we made available was “How to Use and Navigate the Learning Portal”. Yep, the first course was how to use the course software. Learning programs shouldn’t need to include instructions on how to use the learning programs.

There’s no single right answer

There’s no right or wrong way to play Angry Birds. Players get to explore the game on their own and try different techniques. Most learning professionals agree that trial and error is a great way to learn. That’s the whole structure of the Angry Birds gameplay: experimentation. You try a strategy to clear the level, learn what worked well and what failed, and then try again with your newly expanded knowledge.

There’s opportunity and incentive to practice

Practice is critical to proficiency. However engaging learners in voluntary practice can be a challenge. In a video game, it would stand to reason that there’s even less incentive to go back and replay a level — to practice it — once it’s been cleared. Not so.

Angry Birds gives plenty of opportunity to practice, and moreover, there’s even an incentive to do it. See, in Angry Birds, you can clear a level with a one-, two-, or three-star rating. So just passing the level is one thing, but the real goal is to pass it with a three-star rating — giving players an incentive to go back and do it again until they’ve really mastered the thing. Our leaning programs should provide a similar incentive to practice.

Its accessibility is in its mobility

Angry Birds wasn’t built for a console video game system, but rather designed to be used on mobile phones. In addition, the level structure of the game is perfect for mobile phone users, as it’s presented in small, bite-sized chunks. You can usually complete a level in about 30 seconds. If I’m standing in line at the grocery store or taking a short ride on the subway, I don’t have many options to pass the time. However, seven minutes is plenty of time to take out my phone and play a few levels of Angry Birds. Learning is already going mobile, but we would do well to chunk our mobile content to match the quick-hit flow of mobile media consumption.

The learning is paced, and builds upon itself

With any advanced skill, it’s always best to start with foundational skills and develop proficiency in those skills before introducing new skills. That’s the exact structure of Angry Birds.

You start with a single type of bird and a fairly basic structure to clear. As you clear levels, the structures become more complicated, requiring you to use the single bird in a more effective manner. After a number of levels have been cleared the player has likely developed a certain amount of skill using the first kind of bird.

At that point, the game introduces a new bird with different abilities. This process continues with multiple scenarios and new variables applied to each subsequent level, so that the player is consistently being challenged and engaged. How many of our learning and performance programs provide such an engaging and developmental pathway toward mastery?

It incentivizes better performance

Employee learning and performance programs are only one component of performance improvement. Knowing how to do something is one thing, but often that’s not enough. There still needs to be some sort of incentive and motivation to perform better.

Angry Birds provides a great example of this. In addition to the well-structured “star” scoring system mentioned earlier, there are also achievement badges that can be unlocked for performing specific tasks such as clearing a some number of levels. These give players another compelling reason to replay and try to improve their score.

The game also features a leaderboard that compares a player’s performance with others worldwide. These leaderboards foster competition and provide another incentive to try to improve your performance.

As you can see, there are a number of parallels between Angry Birds and employee learning and performance. I’m not writing this to promote gaming for learning – though it definitely has its merits – and I’m certainly not suggesting Angry Birds: Compliance Training Edition (although who knows?). What these points show is that there are parallels and connections to learning just about everywhere if you look hard enough.

More: Life’s a Big Video Game for Gen Y — So Let Them Play.

David Kelly is the director of training at Carver Federal Savings Bank and ember of the ASTD National Advisors for Chapters. He is also the author of the blog Misadventures in Learning, where he discusses the future of the learning field and curates the backchannel of learning conferences.

Image used via Rovio.

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