Articulate’s Tom Kuhlmann on games and gamification

Posted on Apr 16, 2015

Games & gamification

“I think gamification is really valuable. Ultimately, it’s not about the buzz word, it’s about how to build effective and engaging courses that people want to take.”

Tom Kuhlmann likes helping people. His Rapid E-Learning Blog is a lifeline for elearning designers, offering tips and tricks for those new to elearning as well as those looking for fresh inspiration.

He started out in video production but soon realised he was more interested in training people than being behind the camera. He has more than 20 years’ experience in elearning and a particular passion for community-led support and development. As Chief Learning Architect at Articulate - maker of the popular Storyline authoring tool - Tom is a seasoned elearning practitioner with hundreds of hours of courses under his belt. 

He’s agreed to share his thoughts on elearning games as part of #GameWeek.

How do you think elearning is changing as a result of gamification and games?

As an industry, we latch on to terms that are popular and gamification is one of those things. From a marketing perspective, vendors create a lot of hype around gamification; the key is to separate the marketing stuff from the promise of gamification. 

Years ago, we spent a lot of time talking about technology and the constraints, and a lot of our course design decisions were based on that. Today, the tools are making it easier so we don’t have nearly the number of conversations about technology instead we’re focused much more how to build better courses. So from that perspective, I think gamification is really valuable. Ultimately, it’s not about the buzz word, it’s about how to build effective and engaging courses that people want to take.  

How are authoring tools changing to accommodate this appetite for elearning games?

I think there is an appetite to get past what was typical for elearning, which has been a lot of linear, information-type courses. If we really want to impact performance, and get the most value out of a learning experience, we’ve got to do more, and gamification contributes to this.

Vendors are good at recognizing trends and creating hype about things like gamification and how their tools have “gamified features,” but the reality is that any tool can be used to create gamified courses. Of course, the tool’s feature-set will determine how sophisticated the gamification can be. But any authoring tool that offers variables can be used to create gamified courses. You don’t really need specific features or widgets, and not having specific widgets means you can incorporate the gamified elements in the same way you would program anything else. You’re not inserting something that works differently than the way the rest of the course does.

Video: Tom explains his fears around having specific gamified features in authoring tools

How do you think game design differs from ‘traditional’ instructional design?

Generally, if you look at an instructional design course catalogue for different colleges, the programmes will usually be very theory-based with, hopefully, some application. I talk to a lot of people, and they tell me that while they learn a lot about learning they don’t really learn a lot about building online courses.

When you think about gamification in a broader sense then you start thinking about the mechanics of the learning experience; what makes a great gamified learning experience? I think games also have something that often isn’t covered at all in traditional instructional design, which is the whole element of the look and feel of what you’re doing; the aesthetics, the user interface and how to you craft that whole immersive learning experience.  

There is a lot of overlap though because ultimately what makes games work well is a progressive learning experience and that stuff works really well in instructional design too. But I think we tend not to think about the gaming mechanics and some of those other things that make gamification unique compared to instructional design.


Video: Tom explains motivation in game design works differently

What are the biggest challenges for elearning developers who want to gamify their courses?

I think one of the challenges for elearning developers today is that the tools are easy to use. I like to think of it as democratised elearning; pretty much everybody who wants to build an elearning course can do it.  Unfortunately, just because it is easy to create something doesn’t mean it will be good so I think some people in the industry lack the technical skills and the experience.

Video: Tom outlines another key challenge

Probably the biggest issue I see from the workshops I get involved with is visual design which is key to building an effective gamified experience. Some organisations don’t have the visual or graphic design resources they need to take their ideas and make them work. I think the way to overcome this challenge (if you are working in that reality) is to create reusable objects. One of the things I like best about Storyline is that it enables designers to create a repository of reusable objects that can be saved as templates. This helps to speed up production and incorporate existing objects in other courses.

I think you also have to play around with new ideas to overcome some of the challenges. One of the things we do in the Articulate community is to set weekly challenges to try to push the boundaries – something that typically you don’t get to do in a corporate environment because of time constraints. I would recommend looking at other people’s work, seeking out award-winning courses and trying to figure out how they were built. Over time you’ll start to become more proficient and start to think about how to integrate some of the things you’ve seen into your own course design.  

Visit Tom Kuhlmann’s blog to find out more about his approach to elearning and gamification.

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