Is learning a finite or infinite game?

Is learning a finite or infinite game? Well, the answer depends on the reasons for learning. Most of us are learning new things all the time, often subconsciously and without realising as well as purposefully for a reason. It is the latter I want to focus on, to keep it relevant to our question.

Why do you learn?

When we work on learning related gamification projects for companies, in our initial user research we will always ask employees why they learn. The reasons will determine what kind of gameplay we design for them. Typically you will have career development and personal development in the mix. We also ask what is the trigger for the individual to take a course, which again gives us options for gamification design.

Finite or infinite game

A finite game has a clear and definitive ending. Often that means a winner has been found and everyone else loses or you played all the levels possible to earn a coveted award and your award is achieved. Think of a finite game as a tournament for example. In an infinite game, there is no real ending it continues on forever, you may find finite steps within the infinite game but each finite step unlocks further steps. Think of an infinite game as Lego for example, where you build one of the sets only to find more sets or to start afresh with a new vision.

When you apply this thinking to learning, then a finite game can be a degree course for example, where the end-game is clearly obtaining the degree certificate with a specific score. I would class courses and certification tracks in the finite game classification. Infinite learning needs a larger context such as career development or skills development and may contain lots of individual courses or even just reading or attending conferences that make up the infinite game of learning for that purpose.

Gamification design considerations

The traditional education system is the first ever example of gamification in practice: you start in year 1, you obtain scores in tests and exams, which unlock the passage to year 2 and eventually you earn your diploma or degree certificate. After this achievement and upon entry to the world of work, the game tends to change for most adults and it becomes largely our own responsibility to design learning tracks.

Some people will naturally take to picking up courses, books, etc and others are happy to just work with their day-to-day knowledge. There is no right or wrong way, we are in either case still learning and improving. Gamification has a place to encourage and nurture progression when no real structure is given as we experienced in the educational example. It can give mini-boosters in motivation, through recognition of achievement of a skill, completion rewards, etc. and gives feedback to the individual on their learning track record.

In an infinite game, feedback loops are more subjective and should be tailored to the individual and their preferences with an optional link to benchmarking data to give an objective perspective.

When a specific career objective requires a specific qualification, you will find people seeking out the certification courses. So the infinite game of learning in a lifetime may be littered with finite games to create the individuals’ career path.

When curiosity is your main driver for learning, you may or may not need any finite endorsement, you may just want to explore if a subject is of interest or not. I personally believe there should be exploration points in gamification, where the individual just dips in and confirms they got what they wanted but don’t want to pursue it further or vice versa they want to deep dive. I think this is the point recommendation engines and search engines are missing. If I research something one day, that doesn’t mean I want it every day going forward.

Finite or infinite?

For me, learning is definitely an ongoing activity and I will learn regardless of gamification being present or not. I would, however, say that it often enhances my experience. I may take a course to find out something specific and then drop it, once I found the answers I was after, not needing to continue on to completion.

What is learning for you, a finite or infinite game?


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