How to Make Learning Addictive

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I’m about the ten-millionth person to make this point, but wouldn’t it be great if we could learn everything as fast and efficiently as we learn video games? If we could learn to play violin or write computer code as quickly as we learn Madden or Halo?

With that in mind, here’s a video-game term that might apply: replay value. It refers to how much a user wants to play a game over and over. You know the feeling — the irresistible itch to repeat a game just one more time, and just one more time after that (Angry Birds, anybody?).

Though the motivation feels internal, in fact replay value doesn’t come from the user; it comes from the design of the game itself. Games that provide lots of roles, lots of paths, lots of possible outcomes have high replay value — people love to play them, and get addicted. Games with few roles, few paths, few outcomes have low replay value; people play them once and then quit.

If you look at the practice routines of high performers, you’ll find they have high replay value. They are designed in such a way that you naturally want to do them again, and again, and again. For example:

  • Bubba Watson, who won Sunday’s Masters golf tournament with an “impossible” curving shot from the woods, learned to control the ball by hitting a small plastic ball in his yard when he was a small boy. The game young Bubba invented was to see if he could go around his house clockwise, then turn around and do it counterclockwise.
  • Earl Scruggs, the greatest banjo player who ever lived, practiced his sense of timing by playing with his brothers. The game went like this: the brothers would all start a song, then walk off in different directions, still playing. At the end of the song they’d come together to see if they’d stayed on time. Then do it again. And again.
  • Pretty much any skateboarding or snowboarding practice has a high replay value: think of how the sides of a half-pipe or ramp literally funnel the athlete into the next move. No wonder they learn so fast: the replay value in most gravity sports is off the charts.

The larger pattern here is that practices with high replay value tend to be practices the learners design themselves. One of the reason the learners can’t help but repeat them over and over is that they have a sense of ownership and investment — they’re not robots executing someone else’s drill; they’re players immersed in their own fun, addictive game.

Which leads to an interesting question: how else can we raise the replay value of our practice? Here are a few ideas.

  • 1. Keep score — and I’m not talking about on the scoreboard. Pick exactly what you want to learn, and count it, or time it. Musicians could count the number of times they play a passage perfectly; soccer players could count number of perfect passes; math students could count the time it takes to do the multiplication table — just as they do in addictive math-learning apps like Math Racer and Kid Calc.
  • 2. Provide multiple roles. Basically, switch places a lot. Everybody should periodically trade positions, to experience it from a new angle and come to a deeper (and more addictive) understanding. Batter becomes pitcher; salesperson becomes client; musician becomes listener.
  • 3. Set near/far goals. The most effective goals have two levels, one near and one far. The near goal is today’s immediate goal; the far goal is an ideal performance far in the future which serves as a north star. Putting both goals out there (as video games do so well) add a dose of sugar to the practice process, and keeps people coming back for more.

How else can you make your practice more addictive?


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12 Responses to “How to Make Learning Addictive”

  1. Brian says:

    As a HUGE fan of your work, I think if you were to compile all of your old blog posts (dating back to 2009), it would be an amazing tool for all your readers (and new readers as well). Maybe sell it via traditional publisher like Malcolm Gladwell did his old New Yorker articles (What the Dog Saw), or perhaps as an e-book download with additional exclusive content for a pay-as-you please fee or 5 bucks off this very website like comedian Louis CK. In the three plus years of insight you’ve given, it’s sure worth 5 bucks to me!

  2. It’s amazing how much I’m learning about the coaching process from your blogs which you aren’t taught at coaching clinics.

  3. mark says:

    As an educator, I have considered this. But the problem with it is that it does not apply to all students — some of them just don’t like to play games, and others wilt at competition.

  4. Dale says:

    This article brought back such a flood of memories of when I was a kid and would create games out of almost anything and even infuse them with a storyline. For instance I would be the pitcher in a big game throwing a tennis ball against steps with rules for what were hits etc. Doing my own announcing and color while I played. I even played war with scrabble pieces building armies and using a sort of tiddlywinks move to determine winners of individual battles. Where did that kid go??? :-) This reminds me to recapture that. Thanks, Dan.

  5. djcoyle says:

    Hi Mark – thanks for sharing that — and I agree. It’s incredibly tough to design a game for everyone. And yes, some do wilt. But doesn’t everybody — and I mean *everybody* — like games? Maybe it’s a solitary game, or some other specialized action that we wouldn’t normally consider a game per se — but it seems to me the real challenge is a design challenge, to find the right engaging, immersive task that creates attentive reps. What do you think?

  6. Gjält says:

    Brian McCormick has some great articles about this. See http://learntocoachbasketball.com/creating-engagement-through-seven-principles-of-video-games and http://learntocoachbasketball.com/gamification-where-did-youth-sports-go-wrong

    I think the most important thing as a coach is that the group is strongly involved in deciding what to learn and what excercises to do. You can try to influence them by challenging them to achieve something (kids love challenges if there are mainly positives to take away from the challenge), but in the end you have to choose the game they prefer to get the highest possible involvement from them. The trick is making them believe they want to practice the things you want them to practice. Then you incorporate these things in an excercise the way the groups likes it and before you know it the kids want to train more than you want them to. ;-)

  7. Dom R says:

    First off, I’m a huge fan. I’ve obviously read your book and I can honestly say that it has changed my life, my entire family’s life for that matter.

    Like many parents who are involved with youth sports I do my best to help coach my 7 year old son into becoming a better soccer player (he has been playing competitive soccer since he was 5). I’m constantly looking to increase my knowledge in the area as well as improve upon the training techniques that I utilize to help better my son’s overall mindset. We have been using the “deep practice” method for quite some time now and I can tell you first hand that is has certainly helped raise his level. So much so that he has been offered the opportunity to go train with a professional youth academy in England, which doesn’t happen very often for an American kid from what I’m told. While this is only an opportunity I don’t think it would have been possible without some of the ideas in your book.

    Back to this post, we are always coming up with unique twists on games in the back yard. Typically this has to do with a certain way that I want him to work on his technique. We usually work on a points system where he receives points for completing an activity correctly (by correctly I mean with the proper technique). He can gain more points by using his weak foot as well. At the end of the training session we add up all of the points. He accumulates points in each training session and when he reaches a certain number he is allowed to cash in… which in most cases actually ends up being a video game. :)

  8. djcoyle says:

    Hi Dom, Thanks for sharing that, and for the kind words — sounds like you and your son have got a great thing going.
    Did you come up with the games on your own? I wonder if there might be a place to create some kind of online storehouse of games (for soccer, for other sports, for music) where teachers and parents could go to get ideas and share strategies. Hmmmm.

  9. djcoyle says:

    Hey Gjalt — those videos look completely terrific — thanks so much for turning us onto them!

  10. Dom R says:

    I wish I could take all the credit for coming up with the games on my own, but that simply isn’t the case. I’ve taken ideas from my son’s club training sessions and videos that I’ve seen online and put my own spin on them. I do have a low-level coaching license, but I don’t currently coach any teams myself (my regular job doesn’t afford the time for this). At this point I’ve accumulated enough knowledge to put together my own mini-sessions in the backyard or at the park.

    I really like the idea of someone creating a place online for parents and teachers to share ideas and strategies. I certainly would visit daily!

  11. Hi Dan, another great article.

    I think it’s fascinating that so many video games that are highly addictive are also immensely frustrating. You mention Angry Birds in the post and this is one of the best examples of a game that pulls you back in again and again – often despite your own best interest – because the later levels are difficult to complete.

    However, whilst kids will often be happy to fail again and again in private, they are not prepared to do so in a social environment like a soccer training session. Therefore, when I think about how such gamification mechanisms might be utilised to develop better soccer practices I run into problems, because occasionally the contrast between success and failure is too sharp.

    In a confrontational sport a task is either completed or it isn’t. Gradation, i.e. performance is at best difficult to quantify and at worst ignored altogether. As a particularly ruthless coach told me when I was younger, “there are no points for style in this game”.

    The key to maintaining motivation is, I’ve found, to take another aspect of gamification; difficulty levels.

    Just as Angry Birds has three stars to earn and Mario Kart three Grand Prix classes (50cc, 100cc, 150cc), practices that contain multiple optional challenges seem to engage the vast majority of participants for the vast majority of the time.

    This might mean having small unguarded goals on one side of the pitch and large but defended goals on the other, it might mean awarding 3 points for a goal scored with the head, 2 for a first-time shot and 1 for any other goal.

    As long as players can choose which challenge to compete in they will often grow bored of the easy option quickly and stretch themselves to score the more difficult chances. In this scenario even when they fail, the group recognises and appreciates them trying the harder task and the social embarrassment of failure is removed.

    Dom R, if you use Twitter there is an entire community of soccer coaches who share practices and ideas. Search for @coachingmanual and @coachingfamily to see examples of the amazing information routinely shared on there.

  12. liz garnett says:

    I think you’re possibly conflating two things here: the structure of addiction, and the value of self-generated games. Both are great concepts, but they’re not the same – the point about video games is not that they are invented by the players, after all, it’s how they are structured to engage attention.

    I’ve also been writing about addiction recently, in terms of the psychology of operant conditioning, which I think relates closely to your point about replay value: http://www.helpingyouharmonise.com/perf_addiction

    I’m not disagreeing that self-generated games often have that characteristic, by the way, just suggesting that these are two logically separable ideas. It makes sense, though, that the things people invent to occupy themselves should be things they find engaging – or they’ll keep changing the rules until it becomes something they want to repeat!

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