I’ve recently been spending more time than is probably advisable playing Cities:Skylines, one of a long line of  ‘build a city’ genre of PC games. Getting to the bottom of why this game works so well has taught me a few things applicable to elearning (with a little help from a Hungarian psychologist). Or perhaps I’m just trying to justify my simulation game addition. You can decide.

In the game you can gradually build a digital city which becomes increasingly intricate as your funds and skills grow. You must manage your money, maintain your infrastructure and beware of natural disasters. There’s something satisfying about designing a swanky quayside gated community or an idyllic neighbourhood, then kicking back for a while to watch my city’s denizens as they hop off on their morning commute.

Full disclosure: my cities never look this good.

Why Cities:Skylines works where other sim games fail is that it’s great at getting me ‘in the zone.’ It hits a sweet spot where it is both challenging and relaxing. A few hours playing zips by, I feel like I’ve had a good time, but also like I’ve accomplished something. I’ve learned more about the strategy of the game (and perhaps some real-life urban planning principles), but it wasn’t arduous or stressful.  It’s got me wondering how a similar hyper-focused state can be generated to create learning experiences and make them just as enjoyable.

A State of Flow

Fortunately, cognitive psychology is way ahead of me on this one. Hungarian psychologist Csikszentmihalyi called the phenomenon flow in an impactful paper in 1975. He classes flow as a state of full immersion, involvement and enjoyment in the process of an activity. The concept has stood the test of time, with neuroscientists in recent years beginning to track down the changes to the brain on a neuro-physiological level when people get into the flow.

Here are four neuroscience tips based the four criteria Csikszentmihalyi outlines which make Flow states possible:

1) Ensure there is complete concentration on the task

Here’s the obvious one: grab your learner’s attention then make sure that there is nothing pulling that attention away. This means getting the basics right. Ensure that your user interface and navigation are easy to understand and use. Don’t bombard them with information from too many channels.

Studies into cognitive flow show that one of the most subtle but significant things which can interrupt concentration is becoming self-conscious or ruminating too much on your own thoughts. In an elearning context, this could happen if the learner is overly worried about passing the elearning, scoring well in relation to others or giving away information that they would prefer remain private. This suggests that careful thought should be given to when results should be monitored and when they shouldn’t. If material is sensitive, it may be best to let people access it without being tracked. It should also be clear which parts of elearning are part of an assessment, and which “safe” to make mistakes in.

2) Make sure there are clear rewards with immediate feedback

Choices must have consequences. This could be as simple as a tick appearing on the screen, seeing a progress bar fill up or having an icon move into a new area. In more complex scenario situations, this can be a twist or turn in the story. A character becomes frustrated, or a disgruntled customer begins to warm up. Note that immediate feedback doesn’t mean that learners should find out the full consequences of their choices straight away. In a complex branching scenario, it might be that the “reward” is seeing their actions begin to impact on the situation, even if the full extent of that impact will not be clear until the end.

3) Make sure the experience is intrinsically rewarding

There are some things that human beings intrinsicly love to do. We love to collect things. We love to make numbers go up. We’re social beings, who like to do better than other people, or help other people to do better. The concept of gamification has led to elearning borrowing elements from the world of gaming that use these facts to generate flow in users, like leader boards and collectable badges.

Be careful, though. The world of gaming can also teach us that you need a lot more than shiny collectable trinkets to make a first-class absorbing experience. The most popular games use these elements to add additional incentive to situations that are already intrinsically rewarding. This means creating elearning that learners want to complete because it is interesting, challenging and satisfying.

4) Make sure there is a balance between challenge and skills

The issue with creating challenging activities is that if they are too difficult, learners become anxious or despondent. If they are too easy, then boredom creeps in. To achieve flow, learners need a lot of challenge, balanced out with the skills to rise to that challenge.

One of my favourite examples of this in action is given by maths teacher Dan Meyer, who uses real world puzzles to grab his students attention. They’re challenging, but he supplies his students with the tools they need to rise to that challenge. The end result is students who are learning advanced maths and deeply invested in the experience.

Time to create that flow!

Ensuring that your learners are in a state of cognitive flow doesn’t just make the experience more enjoyable for them, it also gives them the ability to take their knowledge further and faster than before. So, it’s time to get into a state of flow yourself get in touch so we can devise excellent, challenging training that will keep you and your learners on your toes.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to improving the healthcare situation in my entirely fictional digital city…