Interview with Karl Kapp on Games, Gamification, and LEARNING!

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Dr. Karl Kapp is one of the learning field’s best research-to-practice gurus! Legendary for his generosity and indefatigable energy, it is my pleasure to interview him for his wisdom on games, gamification, and their intersection.

His books on games and gamification are wonderful. You can click on the images below to view them on Amazon.com.

 

 

The following is a master class on games and learning:

 

Will (Question 1):

Karl, you’ve written a definitive exploration of Gamification in your book, The Gamification of Learning and Instruction: Game-Based Methods and Strategies for Training and Education. As I read your book I was struck by your insistence that Gamification “is not the superficial addition of points, rewards, and badges to learning experiences.” What the heck are you talking about? Everybody knows that gamification is all about leaderboards, or so the marketplace would make us believe… [WINK, WINK] What are you getting at in your repeated warning that gamification is more complex than we might think?

Karl:

If you examine why people play games, the reasons are many, but often players talk about the sense of mastery, the enjoyment of overcoming a challenge, the thrill of winning and the joy of exploring the environment. They talk about how they moved from one level to another or how they encountered a “boss level” and defeated the boss after several attempts or how they strategized a certain way to accomplish the goal of winning the game. Or they describe how they allocated resources so they could defeat a difficult opponent. Rarely, if ever, do people who play games talk about the thrill of earning a point or the joy of being number seven on the leaderboard or the excitement of earning a badge just for showing up.

The elements of points, badges and leaderboards (PBLs) are the least exciting and enticing elements of playing games. So there is no way we should lead with those items when gamifying instruction. Sure PBLs play a role in making a game more understandable or in determining how far away a player is from the “best” but they do little to internally motivate players by themselves. Reliance solely on the PBL elements of games to drive learner engagement is not sustainable and not even what makes games motivational or engaging. It’s the wrong approach to learning and motivation. It’s superficial; it’s not deep enough to have lasting meaning.

Instead, we need to look at the more intrinsically motivating and deeper elements of games such as: challenge, mystery, story, constructive feedback (meaningful consequences) strategy, socialization and other elements that make games inherently engaging. We miss a large opportunity when we limit our “game thinking” to points, badges and leaderboards. We need to expand our thinking to include elements that truly engage a player and draw them into a game. These are the things that make games fun and frustrating and worth our investment in time.

 

Will (Question 2):

You wrote that “too many elements of reality and the game ceases to be engaging,”—and I’m probably taking this out of context—but I wonder if that is true in all cases? For example, I can imagine a realistic flight simulator for fighter pilots that creates an almost perfect replica of the cockpit, g-forces, and more, that would be highly engaging… On the other hand, my 13-year-daughter got me hooked on Tanki, an online tank shot-em-up game, and there are very few elements of reality in the game—and I, unfortunately, find it very engaging. Is it different for novices and experts? Are the recommendations for perceptual fidelity different for different topic areas, different learning goals, et cetera?

Karl:

A while ago, I read a fake advertisement for a military game. It was a parody. The fake game description described how the “ultra-realistic” military game would be hours of fun because it was just like actually being in the military. The description told the player that he or she would have hours of fun walking to the mess hall, maintaining equipment, getting gasoline for the jeep, washing boots, patrolling and zigging and cleaning latrines. Now none of these things are really fun, in fact, they are boring but they are part of the life of being in the military. Military games don’t include these mundane activities. Instead, you are always battling an enemy or strategizing what to do next. The actions that a military force performs 95% of the time are not included in the game because they are too boring.

 If games where 100% realistic, they would not be fun. So, instead, games are an abstraction of reality because they focus on things within reality that can be made engaging or interesting. If a game reflected reality 100%, there would be boring game play. Now certainly, games can be designed to “improve” reality and make it more fun. In the game, The Sims, you wake up, get dressed and go to work which all seems pretty mundane. However, these realistic activities in The Sims are an abstraction of the tasks you actually perform. The layer of abstraction makes the game more exciting, engaging and fun. But in either the military game case or The Sims, too much reality is not fun.

The flight simulator needs to be 100% realistic because it’s not really a game (although people do play it as a game) but the real purpose of a simulation is training and perfection of skills. A flight simulator can be fun for some people to “play” but in a 100% realistic simulator, if you don’t know what you are doing, it’s boring because you keep crashing. For someone who doesn’t know how to fly, like me. If you made a World War II air battle game which had 100% realistic controls for my airplane, it wouldn’t be fun. In game design, we need to balance elements of reality with the learning goal and the element of engagement.

For some people, a simulator can be highly engaging because the learner is performing the task she would do on the job. So there needs to be a balance in games and simulations to have the right amount of reality for the goals you are trying to achieve.

 

Will (Question 3):

In developing a learning game, what should come first, the game or the goals (of learning)?

Karl:

Learning goals must come first and must remain at the forefront of the game design process. Too often I see the mistake of a design team becoming too focused on games elements and losing site of the learning goals. In our field, we are paid to help people learn, not to entertain them. Learning first.

Having said that, you can’t ignore or treat the game elements as second class citizens, you can’t bolt-on a points system and think you have now developed a fun game—you haven’t. The best process involves simultaneously integrating game mechanics and learning elements. It’s tricky and not a lot of instructional designers have experience or training in this area but it’s critical to have integration of game and learning elements, the two need to be designed together. Neither can be an afterthought.

 

Will (Question 4):

Later we’ll talk about the research you’ve uncovered about the effectiveness of games. As I peruse the literature on games, the focus is mostly on the potential benefits of games. But what about drawbacks? I, for one, “waste” a ton of time playing games. Opportunity costs are certainly one issue, but maybe there are other drawbacks as well, including addiction to the endorphins and adrenaline; a heightened state of engagement during gaming that may make other aspects of living – or learning – seem less interesting, engaging. What about learning bad ideas, being desensitized to violence, sexual predation, or other anti-social behaviors? Are there downsides to games? And, in your opinion, has the research to date done enough to examine negative consequences of games?

Karl:

Yes, games can have horrible, anti-social content. They can also have wonderful, pro-social content. In fact, a growing area of game research focuses on possible pro-social aspects of games. The answer really is the content. A “game” per-say is neither pro- or anti-social like any other instructional medium. Look at speeches. Stalin gave speeches filled with horrible content and Martin Luther King, Jr. gave speeches filled with inspiring content. Yet we never seem to ask the question “Are speeches inherently good or bad?”

Games, like other instructional media, have caveats that good instructional designers need to factor when deciding if a game is the right instructional intervention. Certainly time is a big factor. It takes time to both develop a game and to play a game. So this is a huge downside. You need to weigh the impact you think the game will have on learner retention or knowledge versus another instructional intervention. Although, I can tell you there are at least two meta-analysis studies that indicate that games are more effective for learning than traditional, lecture-based instruction. But the point is not to blindly choose game over lecture or discussion. The decision regarding the right instructional design needs to be thoughtful. Knowing the caveats should factor into the final design decision.

Another caveat is that games should not be “stand-alone.” It’s far better for a learning game to be included as part of a larger curriculum rather than developed without any sense of how it fits into the larger pictures. Designers need to make sure they don’t lose site of the learning objective. If you are considering deploying a game within your organization, you have to make sure it’s appropriate for your culture. Another big factor to consider is how the losers are handled in the game. If a person is not successful at a game, what are the repercussions? What if she gets mad and shuts down? What if he walks away halfway through the experience because he is so frustrated? These types of contingencies need to be considered when developing a game. So, yes, there are downsides to games as there are downsides to other types of instruction. Our job, as instructional designers, is to understand as many downsides and upsides as possible for many different design possibilities and make an informed, evidence-based decision.

 

Will (Question 5):

As you found in your research review, feedback is a critical element in gaming. I’ve anointed “feedback” as one of the most important learning factors in my Decisive Dozen – as feedback is critical in all learning. The feedback research doesn’t seem definitive in recommending immediate versus delayed feedback, but the wisdom I take from the research suggests that delayed feedback is beneficial in supporting long-term remembering, whereas immediate feedback is beneficial in helping people “get” or comprehend key learning points or contingencies. In some sense, learners have to build correct mental models before they can (or should) reinforce those understandings through repetitions, reinforcement, and retrieval practice.

Am I right that most games provide immediate feedback? If not, when is immediate feedback common in games, when is delayed feedback common? What missed opportunities are there in feedback design?

Karl:

You are right; most games provide immediate, corrective feedback. You know right-away if you are performing the right action and, if not, the consequences of performing the wrong action. A number of games also provide delayed feedback in the form of after-action reviews. These are often seen in games using branching. At the end of the game, the player is given a description of choices she made versus the correct choices. So, delayed feedback is common in some types of games. In terms of what is missing in terms of feedback, I think that most learning games do a poor job of layering feedback. In well-designed video games, at the first level of help, a player can receive a vague clue. If this doesn’t work or too much time passes, the game provides a more explicit clue and finally, if that doesn’t work, the player receives step-by-step instructions. Most learning games are too blunt. They tend to give the player the answer right away rather than layers choices or escalating the help. I think that is a huge missed opportunity.

 

Will (Question 6):

By the way, your book does a really nice job in describing the complexity and subtlety of feedback, including Robin Hunicke’s formulation for what makes feedback “juicy.” What subtleties around feedback do most of us instructional designers or instructors tend to miss?

Karl:

Our feedback in learning games and even elearning modules is just too blunt. We need more subtlety. Hunicke describes the need for feedback to have many different attributes including the need for the feedback to be tactile and coherent. She refers to tactile feedback as creating an experience where the player can feel the feedback as it is occurring on screen so that it’s not forced or unnatural within the game play. Instructional designers typically don’t create feedback the player or learner feels, typically, they create feedback that is “in your face” such as “Nice job!” or “Sorry, try again.” She describes coherent feedback as feedback that stays within the context of the game. It is congruent with on screen actions and activities as well as with the storyline unfolding as the interactions occur. Our learning games seem to fail at including both of these elements in our feedback. In general, our field needs to focus on feedback that is more naturally occurring and within the flow of the learning.

 

Will (Question 7):

Do learners have to enjoy the game to learn from it? What are the benefits of game pleasure? Are there drawbacks at all?

Karl:

Actually, research by Tracy Sitzmann indicates (2011) that a learner doesn’t have to indicate that he or she was “entertained” to learn from a serious game. So fun should not be the standard by which we measure the success of game. Instead, she found that what makes a game effective for learning is the level of engagement. Engagement should be the goal when designing a learning game. However, there are a number of studies that indicate that games are motivational. Although, one meta-analysis on games indicated that motivation was not a factor. So, I am not sure if pleasure is a necessary factor for learning. Instead, I tend to focus more on building engagement and having learners make meaningful decisions and less on learner enjoyment and fun. This tends to run counter to why most people want a learning game but the reason we should want learning games is to encourage engagement and higher order thinking and not to simply make boring learning fun. Engagement, mastery and tough decision making might not always be fun but, as you indicated in your questions about simulations, it can be engaging and learning results from engagement and then understanding the consequences of actions taken during that engagement.

 

Will (Question 8):

As I was perusing research on games, one of my surprises was that games seemed to be used for health-behavior change at least as much as learning. What they heck’s going on?

Karl:

Games are great tools for promoting health. We all know that we should focus on health and wellness but we often let other life elements get in the way. Making staying healthy a game provides, in many cases that little bit of extra motivation to make you stay on course. I think games for health work so well because they capitalize on our already existing knowledge that we need to stay healthy and then provide tracking of progress, earning of points and other incentives to help us give that extra boost that makes us take the extra 100 steps needed to get our 10,000 for the day. Ironically, I find games used in many life and death situations.

 

Will (Question 9):

In your book you have a whole chapter devoted to research on games. I really like your review. Of course, with all the recent research, maybe we’ve learned even more. Indeed, I just did a search of PsycINFO (a database of scientific research in the social sciences). When I searched for “games” in the title, I found 110 articles in peer-reviewed journals in this year (2016) alone. That’s a ton of research on games!!

Let’s start with the finding in your book that the research methodology of much of the research is not very rigorous. You found that concern from more than one reviewer. Is that still true today (in 2016)? If the research base is not yet solid, what does that mean for us as practitioners? Should we trust the research results or should we be highly skeptical — OR, where in-between these extremes should we be?

Karl:

The short answer, as with any body of research, is to be skeptical but not paralyzed. Waiting for the definitive decision on games is a continually evolving process. Research results are rarely a definitive answer; they only give us guidance. I am sure you remember when “research” indicated that eggs were horrible for you and then “research” revealed that eggs were the ultimate health food. We need to know that research evolves and is not static. And, we need to keep in mind that some research indicated that smoking had health benefits so I am always somewhat skeptical. Having said that, I don’t let skepticism stop me from doing something. If the research seems to be pointing in a direction but I don’t have all the answers, I’ll still “try it out” to see for myself.

That said the research on games, even research done today, could be much more rigorous. There are many flaws which include small sample sizes, no universal definition of games and too much focus on comparing the outcomes of games with the outcomes of traditional instruction. One would think that argument would be pretty much over but decade after decade we continue to compare “traditional instruction” with radio, television, games and now mobile devices. After decades of research the findings are almost always the same. Good design, regardless of the delivery medium, is the most crucial aspect for learning. Where the research really needs to go, and it’s starting to go in that direction, is toward comparing elements of games to see which elements lead to the most effective and deep learning outcomes. So, for example, is the use of a narrative more effective in a learning game than the use of a leaderboard or is the use of characters more critical for learning than the use of a strategy-based design? I think the blanket comparisons are bad and, in many cases, misleading. For example, Tic-Tac-Toe is a game but so is Assassin’s Creed IV. So to say that all games teach pattern recognition because Tic-Tac-Toe teaches pattern recognition is not good. As Clark Aldrich stated years ago, the research community needs some sort of taxonomy to help identify different genres of games and then research into the learning impact of those genres.

So, I am always skeptical of game research and try to carefully describe limitations of the research I conduct and to carefully review research that has been conducted by others. I tend to like meta-analysis studies which are one method of looking at the body of research in the field and then drawing conclusions but even those aren’t perfect as you have arguments about what studies were included and what studies were not included.

At this point I think we have some general guidelines about the use of games in learning. We know that games are most effective in a curriculum when they are introduced and described to the learners, then the learners play the game and then there is a debrief. I would like to focus more on what we know from the research on games and how to implement games effectively rather than the continuous, and in my opinion, pointless comparison of games to traditional instruction. Let’s just focus on what works when games do provide positive learning outcomes.

 

Will (Question 10):

A recent review of serious games (Tsekleves, Cosmas, & Aggoun, 2014, 2016) concluded that their benefits were still not fully supported. “Despite the increased use of computer games and serious games in education, there are still very few empirical studies with conclusive results on the effectiveness of serious games in education.” This seems a bit strong given other findings from recent meta-analyses, for example the moderate effect sizes found in a meta-analysis from Wouters, van Nimwegen, van Oostendorp, & van der Spek (2013).

Can you give us a sense of the research? Are serious games generally better, sometimes better, or rarely better than conventional instruction? Or, are they better in some circumstance, for some learners, for some topics – rather than others? How should us practitioners think about the research findings?

Karl:

Wouters et al. (2013) found that games are more effective than traditional instruction as did Stizmann (2011). But, as you indicated, other meta-analysis studies have not come to that conclusion. So, again, I think the real issue is that the term “games” is way too broad for easy comparisons and we need to focus more on the elements of games and how the individual elements intermingle and combine to cause learning to occur. One major problem with research in the field of games is that to conduct effective and definitive research we often want to isolate one variable and then keep all other variables that same. That processes is extremely difficult to do with games. New research methods might need to be invented to effectively discover how game variables interact with one another. I even saw an article that declared that all games are situational learning and should be studied in that context rather than in an experimental context. I don’t know the answer but there are few simple solutions to game-based research and definitive declarations of the effectiveness of games.

However, having said all that, here are some things we do know from the research related to using games for learning:

  • Games should be embedded in instructional programs. The best learning outcomes from using a game in the classroom occur when a three-step embedding process is followed. The teacher should first introduce the game and explain its learning objectives to the students. Then the students play the game. Finally, after the game is played, the teacher and students should debrief one another on what was learned and how the events of the game support the instructional objectives. This process helps ensure that learning occurs from playing the game (Hays, 2005; Sitzmann, 2011).
  • Ensure game objectives align with curriculum objectives. Ke (2009) found that the learning outcomes achieved through computer games depend largely on how educators align learning (i.e., learning subject areas and learning purposes), learner characteristics, and game-based pedagogy with the design of an instructional game. In other words, if the game objectives match the curriculum objectives, disjunctions are avoided between the game design and curricular goals (Schifter, 2013). The more closely aligned curriculum goals and game goals, the more likely the learning outcomes of the game will match the desired learning outcomes of the student.
  • Games need to include instructional support. In games without instructional support such as elaborative feedback, pedagogical agents, and multimodal information presentations (Hays, 2005; Ke, 2009; Wouters et al., 2013)., students tend to learn how to play the game rather than learn domain-specific knowledge embedded in the game. Instructional support that helps learners understand how to use the game increases the effectiveness of the game by enabling learners to focus on its content rather than its operational rules.
  • Games do not need to be perceived as being “entertaining” to be educationally effective. Although we may hope that Maria finds the game entertaining, research indicates that a student does not need to perceive a game as entertaining to still receive learning benefits. In a meta-analysis of 65 game studies, Sitzmann (2011) found that although “most simulation game models and review articles propose that the entertainment value of the instruction is a key feature that influences instructional effectiveness, entertainment is not a prerequisite for learning,” that entertainment value did not impact learning (see also Garris et al., 2002; Tennyson & Jorczak, 2008; Wilson et al., 2009). Furthermore, what is entertaining to one student may not be entertaining to another. The fundamental criterion in selecting or creating a game should be the learner’s actively engagement with the content rather than simply being entertained (Dondling, 2007; Sitzmann, 2011).

 

Will (Question 11):

If the research results are still tentative, or are only strong in certain areas, how should we as learning designers think about serious games? Is there overall advice you would recommend?

Karl:

First of all, I’d like to point to the research that exists indicating that lectures are not as effective for learning as some believe. So practitioners, faculty members and others have defaulted to lectures and held them up as the “holy grail” of learning experiences when the literature clearly doesn’t back up the use of lectures as the best method for teaching higher level thinking skills. If one wants to be skeptical of learning designs, start with the lecture.

Second, I think the guidelines outlined above are a good start. We are literally learning more all the time so keep checking to see the latest. I try to publish research on my blog (karlkapp.com) and at the ATD Science of Learning blog and, of course, the Will at Work blog for all things learning research are good places to look.

Third, we need to take more chances. Don’t be paralyzed waiting for research to tell you what to do. Try something, if you fail, try something else. Sure you can spend your career creating safe PowerPoint-based slide shows where you hit next to continue but that doesn’t really move your career or the field forward. Take what is known from reading books and from vetted and trusted internet sources and make professionally informed decisions.

 

Will (Question 12):

Finally, if we decide to go ahead and develop or purchase a serious game, what are the five most important things people should know?

Karl:

  1. First clearly define your goals. Why are you designing or purchasing a serious game and what do you expect as the outcome? After the learners play the game what should they be able to do? How should they think? What result do you desire? Without a clearly defined outcome, you will run into problems.
  2. Determine how the game fits into your overall learning curriculum. Games should not be stand-alone; they really should be an integral part of a larger instructional plan. Determine where the serious game fits into the bigger picture.
  3. Consider your corporate culture. So cultures will allow a fanciful game with zombies or strange characters and some will not. Know what your culture will tolerate in terms of game look and feel and then work within those parameters.
  4. If the game is electronic, get your information technology (IT) folks involved early. You’ll need to look at things like download speed, access, browser compatibility and a host of other technical issues that you need to consider.
  5. Think carefully and deeply before you decide to develop a game internally. Developing good, effective serious games is tough. It’s not a two-week project. Partner with a vendor to obtain the desired result.
  6. (A bonus) Don’t neglect the power of card games or board games for teaching. If you have the opportunity to bring learners together, consider low-tech game solutions. Sometimes those are the most impactful.

 

Will (Question 13):

One of your key pieces of advice is for folks to play games to learn about their power and potential. What kind of games should we choose to play? How should we prioritize our game playing? What kind of games should we avoid because they’ll just be a waste of time or might give us bad ideas about games for learning?

Karl:

I think you should play all types of games. First, pick different types of games from a delivery perspective so pick some card games, board games, causal games on your smartphone and video games on a game console. Mix it up. Then play different types of games such as role-play games, cooperative games, matching games, racing games, games where you collect items (like Pokémon Go). The trick is to not just play games that you like but to play a variety of games. You want to build a “vocabulary” of game knowledge. Once you’ve built a vocabulary, you will have a formidable knowledge base on which to draw when you want to create a new learning game.

Also, you can’t just play the games. You need to play and critically evaluate the games. Pay attention to what is engaging about the game, what is confusing, how the rules are crafted, what game mechanics are being employed, etc.? Play games with a critical eye. Of course, you will run the danger of ruining the fun of games because you will dissect any game you are playing to determine what about the game is good and what is bad but, that’s ok, you need that skill to help you design games. You want to think like a game designer because when you create a serious game, you are a game designer. Therefore, the greater the variety of game you the play and dissect, the better game designer you will become.

 

Will (Question 14):

If folks are interested, where can they get your book?

Karl:

Amazon.com is a great place to purchase my book or at the ATD web site. Also, if people have access to Lynda.com, I have several courses on Lynda including “The Gamification of Learning”. And I have a new book coming out in January co-authored by my friend Sharon Boller called “Play to Learn” where we walk readers through the entire serious game design process from conceptualization to implementation. We are really excited about that book because we think it will be very helpful for people who want to create learning games.

 

You can click on the images below to view Karl’s Gamification books on Amazon.com.

 

 

 

 

Research

Sitzmann, T. (2011). A meta-analytic examination of the instructional effectiveness of computer-based simulation games. Personnel Psychology, 64(2), 489–528.

Tsekleves, E., Cosmas, J., & Aggoun, A. (2016). Benefits, barriers and guideline recommendations for the implementation of serious games in education for stakeholders and policymakers. British Journal of Educational Technology, 47(1), 164-183. Available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/bjet.12223/pdf

Wouters, P., van Nimwegen, C., van Oostendorp, H., & van der Spek, E. D. (2013). A meta-analysis of the cognitive and motivational effects of serious games. Journal of Educational Psychology, 105(2), 249-265. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0031311

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