What the Demise of Draw Something Should Teach Trainers

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A couple of months ago, the smartphone app/game Draw Something had been downloaded by 35 million people and was being played daily by 15 million users, making it the hottest smartphone game in the country. The company that made it, OMGPOP, was bought for $200 million by Zynga, and it seemed Draw Something was poised to overtake Angry Birds as the biggest game in the world.

But then, suddenly, it seemed, something happened: Its popularity totally dropped off.

A few weeks ago I wrote a post that explored what instructional designers could learn from Angry Birds, one of the most popular video games of all time. So what, if anything, can learning and development pros learn from the rapid ascension — and even more rapid demise — of Draw Something?

What is Draw Something?

First, some background on the game: Draw Something is a lot like the board game Pictionary. Users are assigned a word (or phrase) and are expected to draw a picture to that best represents it. The drawing is then sent to another player who sees the drawing come to life and tries to guess what’s being drawn. If the guess is correct, the players gain “coins” that can be used to purchase things like additional colors to use in drawings.

Problem No. 1: The Game is Too Easy

Gamers need a challenge. One of the reasons Angry Birds is so successful is that it continuously ups the challenge as players progress. Draw Something does not have any gradually increasing difficulty levels, the difficulty is linked to how well the person drawing can convey meaning is visual form. One interesting design decision for the game was to provide players with a set of 12 letters to select from when guessing, instead of using the full 26-letter alphabet. This makes it MUCH easier to guess, to a fault. Drawing a cocoon is challenging, but guessing “cocoon” is much easier if your 12-letter choice options include 2 Cs and 3 Os.

How this relates to training
: Challenge is just as important in learning as it is in gaming. Too often we force people into training situations in which they are already well-versed and skilled. Is it any wonder that they are bored and disconnected?

Problem No. 2: The Game Has Too Much Repetition

If you’ve played Draw Something for more than an hour, chances are you’ve already seen the same word appear as a drawing challenge. In truth, this is likely the main reason I don’t play the game very often. Once the words and phrases you’re being asked to draw start repeating, the game begins to lose its appeal.

How this relates to training: Repetitious content or exercises are sometimes used to build proficiency, but we should do so with caution. Too much repetition can disconnect a learner quickly. I see this often with compliance-related training. Instead of focusing on the most important points or things that may have changed year-over-year, many orgs do a complete training of the same content each year. It is one of the primary reasons workers hate compliance training and that it has little benefit beyond being able to report it as being “completed.”

Problem No. 3: It Lacks a Critical Social Component

When you play Pictionary with friends, a large part of the appeal is in the interactions: The live guessing as the person is drawing, the laughs at the strange guesses that come out, the pressure of being the team that completes more words in less time. The real appeal of the game are these interactions that take place during the actual drawing/guessing mechanics of the game. Draw Something launched lacking any social interactions. There were plenty of times I wanted to apologize for a horrible drawing or ask the drawer exactly what they were thinking in a sketch I received.

In fact, many players found themselves writing messages to each other on the drawing screen to try and fill the gap. Draw Something is a social game that was missing the ability to interact. The developers tried to fill the gap with an update that allows players to send comments to each other after a guessing round is over. This is better, but still isn’t a match for the type of social interactions a game like this needs for lasting appeal.

How this relates to training: Social is a critical component to learning, and I think the Draw Something story provides a great example as to what can happen when people are prevented from connecting with each other. More so, I think the update the developers made echoes a common error in training: When the developers added the ability to comment to one another after each round, they did address the user complaint that they needed a social component to the game. And yet, usage of the game continues to fall.

Why? I think part of it is that “adding a social component” isn’t as simple as it sounds. It also needs to be the right social component. I want to interact with other players in real-time, while they’re drawing. I understand the logistical and technical challenges of doing that in a smart-phone game. I also think that not being able to overcome those challenges is one of the drawbacks of the game that limit its long-term appeal. This same issue presents itself in training, especially as the phrase “social learning” continues to increase in popularity and organizations continue to try to ‘implement social learning strategies’ without really understanding what the social component is.

Social learning is about much more than simply inserting a tool where people can interact. It’s about creating an appropriate environment wherein the needed social interactions can take place. Draw Something created a place for social interactions, but it really wasn’t the right type of interaction nor did it take place at the right time to really tap into the game’s social need.

Are there any other lessons, positive or negative, that you have learned from playing Draw Something? Please feel free to add yours in the comments section below.

Related: What the Draw Something App Can Teach Training Designers.

David Kelly is the director of training at Carver Federal Savings Bank and member of the ASTD National Advisors for Chapters. He is also the author of the blog Misadventures in Learning, where he discusses the future of the learning field and curates the backchannel of learning conferences.

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Image used under Creative Commons by Flickr user Perfecto Insecto.