Nobody likes being forced to do anything, especially learn. It's not the learning itself that's such a pain, but the things that go along with it—not being in control of the experience, having to stick to somebody else's curriculum and schedule, and the implication that you aren't good enough until you add this knowledge or skill set to your brain. Kids have good reason to dislike school, even if they enjoy all the subjects, because there is almost no room for self-direction but plenty of pressure to master something the teacher says is important.
Professional trainers know this, and suffer with it; any time a business unit has to learn a new process or piece of software, groans are heard as the training cycle begins. Workers strive to achieve minimum competency, resenting it all the way. The new system suffers from poor adoption, because users begin with a sour taste in their mouths from forced training.
I have seen the future of education on the shelf at GameStop.
First, let's remember that a game called Guitar Hero came out several years ago, followed by a rival called Rock Band. Both games use plastic replica guitar controllers with buttons in place of strings. Later versions added drum pads and a microphone. These games are fun and extremely challenging, but they have been criticized for their lack of applicability to real music: You can't learn to play guitar by playing Guitar Hero, nor will you learn any kind of decent vocal technique as the singer. (The drums are closer to playing an instrument, but they're still not the real thing.) For all the time and effort spent on the games, you could be learning an actual skill.
The disconnect was so great that the latest iterations of these games include an "expert" mode that allows a real guitar to be used instead of the controller. There is a catch: To play on expert mode, you need to know how to play guitar. It allows real guitarists to play the game without feeling silly, and provides incentive to gamers to learn the instrument for real, but there is no connection between the two.
The other day, I was browsing at the aforementioned video games store with my girlfriend. She saw something big behind the service desk called Rocksmith. It was large because it was a box containing an actual guitar, along with game software. Rocksmith isn't just another guitar game—it's a game that teaches you how to play guitar, gradually cranking up the difficulty until you're playing like an Eddie Van Halen wannabe.
My girlfriend is a guitarist, or at least she knows how to play. Despite the lessons she took years ago, the tab books on our shelves, and ready access to instruments, she said that it was this game that would likely get her to play, practice, and improve.
Such self-directed, fun learning of an actual skill that can have personal and/or financial benefits is something we all need. Our first experiences with education aren't in school; they're at home playing learning games. These games give us skill, and also instill a sense of enjoyment—of the subject matter and learning in general. And if you don't like the game, chances are you don't have the aptitude for the skills needed, which is valuable knowledge in itself.
I'm not saying teachers and schools aren't valuable. Good teachers know how to take the boredom out of learning and replace it with fun and curiosity; they also keep students focused on moving forward. I was a good learner, both in school and at home, but even I would only have gotten so far without guidance. My classmates, left to their own devices, would have mastered the arts of eating paste and drawing ponies, but little else.
Businesses can benefit from adding game elements as well. A training schema built around how a new process will put more money in your paycheck, or how an app will make your job easier and more pleasant, is going to win every time over a nuts-and-bolts curriculum that just tells you what to do. Adoption rates and employee morale would skyrocket.
Of course, my favorite office game is Buzzword Bingo. But that's another story.
Marshall Lager is the end boss of Third Idea Consulting, a single-player game about social CRM, brand identity, and gamification. Challenge him at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.twitter.com/Lager.