Elearning games and gamification: A conversation with Professor Karl M. Kapp

Posted on Apr 14, 2015

Games & gamification

"Saying that games don’t teach is ridiculous. It’s like saying lectures don’t teach, discussions don’t teach or homework doesn’t teach.”

After struggling to get his kids to stop playing video games and come to dinner one evening, the penny suddenly dropped for Karl Kapp.  Following years working in instructional technology, where engagement was a constant battle, he wondered what it was about games that kept people hooked?

It started him on a journey to explore the potential of games in learning, and he found himself pioneering gamification - even before the term had been coined.

As Professor of Instructional Technology at Bloomsburg University and Assistant Director of the Institute for Interactive Technologies, Karl Kapp is one of the world’s leading thinkers on gamification and games in learning. He’s the perfect candidate for our keynote interview for #GameWeek:

What’s the difference between gamification and elearning games?

I think the primary difference is that games are a self-contained unit; they have a definite beginning, middle and end in terms of what happens in that learning experience. In a game, there are lots of elements such as rules, turns and a certain context that you get involved with during that particular time period, and when that time period is over, you’re all done. 

Gamification on the other hand just takes one or two elements from games and adds them to an instructional context. For example, characters or avatars are used in some games but you can add an avatar to an elearning course. Research shows that having an avatar give feedback (as oppose to text feedback) increases the performance of some learners. So gamification is taking the elements of games and adding them to a non-game context, whereas a learning game is typically one event that takes a defined period of time.

Video: Karl talks about the balance between gamification and games 

Do games really teach?

Saying that games don’t teach is ridiculous. It’s like saying lectures don’t teach, discussions don’t teach or homework doesn’t teach. What happens a lot of the time is that people take poorly designed learning games and compare them to a really good instructional setting and then say, ‘see I told you, games don’t teach’. But in fact, the research is pretty clear that in fact games do teach, and they teach lots of things like problem solving, content, processes and procedures. So, the question should really be what do well-designed games teach?

There is a huge category when we talk about games; tic-tac-toe is a game and so is Halo 5 but they are two vastly different experiences. What we really need to think about is what elements of games are effective for teaching. For example, we know challenge in a game is really effective from an instructional perspective, we know that games give continual corrective feedback and that’s great from an instructional perspective. Now, of course, there are poorly designed types of instructional situations that don’t teach but if you look at a well-designed lecture and a well-designed game they will both have instructional outcomes. The beauty of a game is that its impact is often longer lasting and can help people work through deeper learning, like strategic thinking, problem solving or critical thinking, and those are all elements of games that are really valuable. 

So what we really need to think about is not do games teach but what specific elements of games lead to our desired learning outcomes. When we can put that together, we’ll have a pretty powerful toolkit of techniques for ensuring that our learners achieve the goals that we want them to achieve.

Why do games work well within workplace training?

One of the things that people always say about the value of games within the workplace is that it’s stealth learning; the learners will have no idea that they are learning really good content. But the research is pretty clear about this being a horrible way to use a game in an instructional setting. What we really want to do is tell people what they are going to be learning in a game, let them experience the game, and then debrief them about that experience. Research shows this is the most effective way to use games in a training situation. So, first of all we have to use games correctly in a corporate training setting to make sure they have the desired impact.

Second, we need to think about what games can add that ‘typical’ training can’t. For example, a game can put the learner in a fantasy setting and that can do a couple of things. Fantasy allows people to have an experience without the preconceived baggage that they might bring with them. So, maybe you are playing a game about leadership with some managers, and maybe a manager says, ‘I know everything about leadership because I do it every day.’ They are going to sit back and cross their arms. But if you say, we’re going to have an experience where you are going to lead people off a deserted island, now it’s not something they’re used to, it becomes a challenge and they are more likely to go through the process. Fantasy also helps with generalisation. Now you have led people off this deserted island, how can you translate that into what you are doing on a daily basis? Are there any insights or ideas? So, those processes of fantasy and game can really help to decouple people from the baggage and defence mechanisms that they have in a corporate setting.

The other thing that games can do really well is that they can get people thinking about how to deal with trade-offs in a very real and tangible way. Every day at work we are dealing with trade-offs; should you answer the customer call, respond to emails, deal with somebody down the hallway? You might not see the impact of your decisions for some time but games can help accelerate time, allow you to think about resources and see the real world implications of those trade-offs.

Video: Karl explains why games are about more than just competition

What is the difference between game design and ‘traditional’ instructional design?

I definitely think there is a difference. One of the things about traditional instructional design is the focus on content. An instructional designer tends to think about content first and what needs to be done second. Is it conceptual knowledge, is it problem based knowledge, what kind of knowledge is it that I have to teach? But a game designer, on the other hand, doesn’t think of content first but thinks of action and activity first; what do I want this game player to do?

Video: Karl expands on the difference between content versus action first

The other thing that games do really well is they pull together aesthetics. If you take a game such as Candy Crush all the aesthetics of the candy, the candy canes, the characters, the shapes and colours, they all work together to give a cohesive experience that draws the player in. Sometimes, when we design instruction, we tend not to do that; we only think about the content and not how it looks. We don’t ask what’s the experience for the learner, what will the learner think about when they are in this screen; we just put the content in there and ask some multiple choice questions.

Instructional design also tends to have closed loops. This means that we start almost all our instructional design with objectives. As humans, we’re ok with closed loops but what we don’t like is an open loop – we don’t like unanswered questions. But we start training with the questions already answered, pretty much. But what if we changed the objective to be more of a question? So instead of offering three ways to close a sale, we might ask: ‘Do you know the number of methods used to close a sale in our organisation?’ So I think in learning and training, instructional designers need to think about creating open loops; what is unanswered that the learner is going to want answered. We know from adult learning theory that adults learn best when they have a need to know. So we need to create questions in the learner’s mind as to whether or not they know what to do or what is the right answer or the right action. 

The other thing we need to think about as game designers rather than instructional designers is continuation. For example, at the end of most learning modules we tend to say, ‘that’s the instruction, good luck, we hope you do well.’ But what if we ended the instruction with something like, ‘now that you know the three ways to open a sale, wouldn’t you like to know the number one way to close a sale, stay tuned for the next training class.’ We’ve got a hook and this is just like at the end of a game level where you get a taste of the next level. It pulls you along. Instructionally, we tend to just present it and hope you get pulled along but what if we thought of the whole experience?

So the primary difference between game developers and instructional designers is that game developers think about action, open loops, alternate outcomes and that they think about content a little less. 

What needs to happen next within the learning technologies sector to drive forward learning games and game-based learning?

I think there are two forces that need to be considered. Firstly, I think gamification has falsely been melded to the concept of points, badges and leader boards. They are parts of games but they are not why people play games. People play games because of challenge, the chance of mastery, the unfolding of a story and the continual feedback. So I think that we need think about what game elements really make learning exciting and focus on those game elements. 

In terms of having games more adopted in the industry, I think the tools have to become a little bit easier to use. Trying to programme a game in some of the well known authoring tools can be hard and some of the templates are really basic. When the tools become easier to use for instructional game designers, they will design more games. Now having said that just because you have an easier tool doesn’t mean you can automatically create something wonderful; just the ease of the tool isn’t enough. 

We need to undertake courses, education and information for instructional designers so they can think more like game designers. We need to give them the skillset, the competencies and the knowledge, and then they need to practice to become a really good instructional game designer. If it was really easy to be a great instructional game designer everyone would be doing it and we’d have the world’s most awesome educational games all over the place. But the truth is that designing a really effective learning game is hard work, it takes some knowledge, it takes some trial and error, it takes some practice. So if we educate the industry in parallel with the maturing of the authoring tools hopefully both will converge at exactly the right time and allow the industry to be able to develop awesome instructional games. 

Video: Karl shares his further hopes and fears for the future of game based learning

Professor Karl M. Kapp has written several books about games and learning including The Gamification of Learning and Instruction. For more visit www.karlkapp.com

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