What can Angry Birds teach us about Employee Learning and Performance?

One of the ways I enjoy learning is by trying to find connections between two seemingly unconnected and unrelated things.  I find that the process of building these connections very often opens my mind to possibilities I had not considered before.  

I often do this with learning, asking myself the same question: What can ‘XYZ’ teach me about learning?  The fun of it is that ‘XYZ’ can be anything, and the more difficult it is to build the connections, the more enjoyable and valuable the experience can be.  This first edition of Learning Mash-Up?

Ah yes… Angry Birds.  Most people are familiar with this phenomenon of a game, but here’s a very quick synopsis for the uninitiated. The storyline of Angry Birds is fairly simple, telling the story of a seemingly endless battle between birds and pigs.  The pigs have stolen the birds eggs (hence the ‘angry’ part), and the game follows the birds quest to recover the eggs from the pigs.  To do so, the birds must defeat the pigs who are hiding in many different well-protected structures, which the birds must penetrate and destroy to be victorious.

Those who have not yet fell under the spell of this game may read that and think “what’s the big deal?”.  In truth, many people who know and love the game probably read that thinking “that makes it sound lame; it’s not about the storyline” – which is very true.

Angry Birds is often described as a ‘Launch Puzzle’ game, in that you control the birds by launching them at the pigs, and need to figure out the right strategy in which to do so to clear each level.

To understand the magnitude of the success of this game, let’s examine some quick statistics:
  • Angry Birds has been downloaded over 50 million times.
  • 80% of people who download Angry Birds keep the app installed.
  • Over the holidays, Angry Birds was being downloaded more than a million times a day.
  • There are 200 million minutes played each day on a global scale.
But this blog is not about gaming, it’s about learning.  The connective mash-up challenge I described earlier wasn’t completely random in this case.  When I read the statistics mentioned above, one of the first thoughts I had was “Wow, imagine if we could get that sort of engagement in put learning programs”. 

Well, why can’t we?  Let’s compare Angry Birds with employee learning and performance to see what similarities we can find.  Listed below are some of the aspects of Angry Birds that translate very well into leaening Programs.

Point #1: Angry Birds is easy to pick up and explore.

From the point you load up Angry Birds and hit the play button, it is about 10 seconds before you are playing.  There’s no tutorial of instructional manual; just a quick graphic that sets up the ‘story’ and you start playing.  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 two year old will often sit with me, launching birds at will, loving every minute of it. 

Contrast that with many learning programs.  Log in, go to your learning page, find the assigned course, activate it, then launch it.  Sound somewhat familiar? I remember when we launched an LMS years ago.  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 should not need to include instructions on how to use the learning programs.

Point #2: There’s not set path or single right answer

There’s no right and wrong way to play Angry Birds.  Players get to explore the game on their own, and try different techniques in order to pave their own way to the goal.  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 try again with the expanded knowledge.

Point #3: There is opportunity and incentive to practice and build proficiency

Practice is critical for proficiency.  however engaging learners in voluntary practice can be a challenge.  In a video game, you might think there is even less incentive to replay a level once it has been cleared – not so.

Angry Birds gives plenty of opportunity to practice, and moreover, there is plenty of incentive to do so.  Cleared levels are always available for replay, and a level is assigned a ranking, in the form of a three star system, when a level is cleared.  Passing the level is one thing, but the ultimate goal is to pass it with a three star rating, which requires clearing the level as efficiently possible. 
In short, the scoring system of the levels is the incentive to go back and practice and strengthen skills on the levels that have already been completed.  Do our Learning programs provide similar incentive to practice?

Point #4: It’s accessibility is in its mobility

One of the reasons Angry Birds is as successful as it is is its accessibility.  Unlike console video games, Angry Birds was designed for mobile devices. It has no tether restricting where it can be played and was in fact designed for mobile phones, a device many people have with them throughout the day. 

In addition, the level structure of Angry Birds is packaged in small chunks.  An attempt at a level can be completed in less than 30 seconds.  It’s the perfect design for mobility.  If I’m standing on line at the grocery store or taking a short ride on the subway, I don’t have many options to pass the time away.  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.

Point 5: 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 type of bird. 

At that point the game introduces a new type of bird with diffent abilities.  It’s a new tool the player needs to learn to use and become skilled with, and the game gives the player a chance to do so.  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 Programs provide such and engaging and developmental pathway towards mastery?

Point #6: It includes incentives towards better performance

Employee learning and performance progams 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 great examples of this.  In addition to the well structured star scoring system mentioned earlier that provides a compelling reason to replay cleared levels to get a better score, there are also achievement badges that can be unlocked for performing specific tasks such as clearing a certain number levels.  These achievements provide many players another compelling reason to replay and try to improve performance. 

In addition, the game also features a leader board that compares a player’s performance with other players worldwide.  These leader boards foster competition and provide another incentive to try to improve your performance.

As you can see, there are a great 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.  What these points show is that there are parallels and connections to learning just about everywhere if you look hard enough. 

Do you see other connections between Angry Birds and employee learning and perfromamcd not mentioned in the points above?  If so, please add them to the comments section below.