What Idle Games Can Teach Us About Microlearning

How Simple Gaming Techniques Can Enhance Quick Learning Methods

As a learning and development professional in the world of gaming, I’m faced with a recurring puzzle when it comes to designing learning content: how can I create online learning experiences that are engaging, personalized, and practical, when my audience is learning at different times, from different places, and at their own pace?

The answer, as it turns out, was closer than I realized. There are clear parallels between how we design idle games and how we design quick-learning experiences to meet the fast-paced needs of the modern, digital learning environment.

One such approach is microlearning, a strategy used by learning designers to facilitate workplace learning through short, personalized, and just-in-time learning[1]. Much like idle games, microlearning thrives on short, engaging bursts of content, tailored to diverse preferences and learning styles. Beyond this, both idle games and microlearning emphasize adaptive design to meet varied user preferences and thrive on a balance of simplicity and depth.

In this article, I take a closer look at the intersection of microlearning and idle game design, by exploring parallel design elements like engagement, rewards and progression, and user experience. The goal? To reveal how idle game principles can inform and enhance the strategies of L&D professionals, in the creative industries and beyond.

What is Microlearning?

Microlearning has gained momentum as a trend in workplace learning over the past few years. A digital learning strategy for breaking down complex concepts, microlearning is information delivered in short, bite-sized segments, as brief video tutorials, interactive quizzes, infographics, flashcards, mini-games, concise reading materials, podcast clips, or e-learning modules.

From an organizational perspective, microlearning provides a cost-effective, efficient, and flexible method for learning at work, while being easily incorporated into existing workflows. Moreover, it facilitates fast and efficient skill acquisition–an essential function in the creative industries where trends and technologies are constantly evolving. As a learner, microlearning content is practical and focused with a low barrier to entry, as it is designed with the learner’s existing digital habits in mind.

Core Mechanics

Idle games are built on easy-to-understand mechanics that can be engaged with at the player’s pace. Engagement is achieved through quick wins and rewards, with straightforward gameplay interactions (e.g. clicking or tapping) and gradually increasing difficulty levels, making them convenient for short sessions. These straightforward mechanics are typically woven through a simple yet engaging narrative that provides context and motivation for the repetitive gameplay, making the experience more immersive for the player.

Similarly, microlearning is designed for ease of access and engagement. It breaks down complex information into digestible pieces, allowing learners to quickly grasp concepts without feeling overwhelmed. It focuses on variety and practical relevance to keep learners coming back. While stories might be employed as situational examples to complement learning, they are typically limited in scope.

Storytelling as Mechanic

Yet, the use of storytelling in idle games has proven to be an extremely effective backdrop for engagement, providing players with a sense of progression and purpose that keeps them coming back. For example, in “Merge Mansion”, each area of the mansion that players unlock and renovate is tied back to the overarching story through pop-up dialogues. As players progress through the game, the narrative unfolds gradually, maintaining a sense of mystery and anticipation as they discover the mansion’s (and the family’s) secrets.

This raises the question: if we borrow the narrative strategy from idle games, can we create a new form of microlearning content where storytelling is the backbone of the learning experience? Imagine microlearning where each module is not just a standalone lesson but a chapter in a larger, continuously unfolding story. In this model, each microlearning module could represent a segment of a broader narrative. As learners progress through modules, they unravel and contribute to a larger story, while accumulating new knowledge.

In practice, we might imagine it like this: a microlearning course on leadership skills could be structured around a narrative of leading a team through various challenges in a fictional company in a relevant industry. Each module would be designed to present a new challenge or development in the company’s story, with the learning content integrated into the narrative. As learners advance and develop their skills, they see the impact of their decisions on the story’s progression.

For instructional designers, taking a narrative approach could make modules more immersive and emotionally engaging, while maintaining the practical relevance of the content.

Rewards and Progression

Rewards and progression mechanics are another critical aspect of engagement in idle games and microlearning. In idle games, the reward systems–like the storylines–are straightforward yet engaging. Players are incentivized with rewards that scale with their progression over time. For example, in “Adventure Capitalist”, earnings exponentially increase as players invest more time and effort, creating a compelling loop of investment and reward. Incremental progression, combined with frequent rewards, keeps the game feeling satisfying and manageable.

Microlearning similarly leverages reward systems to motivate learners and mark their progress–think digital badges or certificates. However, these rewards come at larger intervals and tend to mark significant milestones rather than frequent, smaller achievements. As in idle games, small and steady progress is key to helping learners accumulate knowledge without feeling overwhelmed.

So when it comes to progression, what lessons can instructional designers take away from idle game design principles? One option could be to explore including scaled rewards that learners can earn through even the simplest interaction with the content. For example, awarding digital tokens or points for each microlearning interaction, which could be redeemed for other forms of recognition–think, digital badges or organizational support to pursue further learning. The farther learners progress in the learning content, the bigger the reward.

Or, instructional designers might look to borrow the visual cues from idle games by incorporating progress bars or level-up animations in the learning platform. In addition to giving learners a visual sense of their progress, these cues could provide a shareable way to celebrate the progress of individuals or teams through company channels, such as an internal social media channel or all-staff meeting.

User Experience

In idle games, the user experience (UX) is designed to be intuitive and engaging, featuring visual interfaces that are straightforward yet captivating. A central concept of UX is First Time User Experience (FTUE), which focuses on capturing the player’s attention from their very first interaction. FTUE, for game designers, is a way to onboard players into the world of the game, while ensuring they understand the game mechanics and are motivated to return.

Creating a user-friendly experience is similarly crucial in microlearning design. The format and navigation of the content is equally as important as the content itself, as confusing or overly complex modules can lead to frustration and disengagement, reducing the likelihood that the learner will return to the course.

This begs the question: what best practices can microlearning designers take away from idle games when it comes to UX?

Let’s begin (as most games do) with FTUE. When it comes to onboarding new players, a game designer will consider factors like how to introduce the core mechanics and demonstrate the core gameplay loop, as well as how to make the initial experience exciting for the player, balancing guidance and instruction with exploration of the game world.

Similarly, a learning designer might ask themselves the following questions when designing an introduction to a microlearning course:

  • What are the key learning objectives, and how can I introduce them effectively?
  • What is the best way to demonstrate the fundamental principles or skills that the learner will acquire?
  • What is the appropriate learning curve for a new learner? How quickly should I introduce new concepts or more complex material?
  • Where should I provide explicit instructions, and where should I encourage self-guided learning?
  • How will the content communicate learning progress, success, or areas needing improvement to the learner?
  • How do I set expectations for the overall learning journey? What should the learner expect in terms of content progression and long-term learning goals?

While most of these principles are already fundamental to learning design, adopting the lens of a game designer could help learning designers discover new ideas and mechanics to try out that enhance the onboarding experience, balancing interactivity and instructor guidance with self-directed exploration to keep learners coming back.

Beyond FTUE, other strategies that learning designers might look to from the world of game design include feedback loops (incorporating frequent opportunities for immediate and continuous feedback); adaptive difficulty (design multiple versions of content to accommodate varying difficulty levels); social interaction (like discussion forums, or peer feedback); and personalization (providing opportunities to choose one of several learning pathways).

Conclusion

What it comes down to is this: by borrowing elements like storytelling, rewarding progress, and intuitive design from idle game design, learning and development professionals can enhance microlearning experiences to keep learners motivated, engaged, and moving forward. Moreover, looking to game design can help inspire new approaches to balancing educational quality and an immersive, enjoyable experience.

Think about it: if a game like “Merge Mansion” can keep players coming back to finish the story, why can’t we do the same with learning content? And if more frequent rewards keep investors investing in “Adventure Capitalist”, why wouldn’t we design microlearning experiences in a way that similarly rewards learners for returning?

For my peers in learning and development, what gaming-inspired strategies would you try in your next microlearning project? Join the conversation on LinkedIn and let me know your strategies for making learning as engaging as it is educational!

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