Tell us a little about yourself and your background.
I am currently a professor of Instructional Technology at Bloomsburg University in North Eastern Pennsylvania. My academic department focuses on teaching graduate students how to design, develop and deliver online instruction. I am also author or co-author of six books including two books on gamification and one book called “Gadgets, Games and Gizmos for Learning” which was a really fun book to write. My background includes earning my Ed.D. in Instructional Technology from the University of Pittsburgh and working for several years in industry and then entering into academia. In my spare time I run, swim and occasionally bike. I got interested in games for learning from watching my kids become so immersed and engaged in games.
Your latest book "The Gamification of Learning and Instruction" is excellent. Could you explain the title for those who may be unfamiliar with the terminology?
At first I had trouble getting the title approved by the publisher but as the word started to catch on, I was able to lobby for “Gamification” in the title. I joke and say that 6 years ago, one could not say “Game” in an educational institution because it was a four letter word but because we added ‘ification” to it, now it’s safe to use the word….even though game is still four letters.
I define Gamification in the following way. “Gamification is using game-based mechanics, aesthetics and game thinking to engage people, motivate action, promote learning, and solve problems.” I think gamification is about using the best elements of games, challenge, interactivity, story, the freedom to fail and continual feedback to help people to learn. It should not simply be about using badges, points or rewards to motivate people. It is about so much more.
Many people view gamification as badges, points and rewards with little or no educational value. Can you elaborate a little bit about how gamification can lead to an enhanced educational experience? What components are necessary?
First of all, in educational settings, I find it ironic that they don’t like gamification. Our entire education system is gamified. We have different grade levels (those are levels). You receive points on a test (points). You earn a badge in the form of a letter grade. You compete against others to be ranked top in your class. I mean the game elements in a typical educational setting go on and on. And while the current educational system seems a bit in disarray, our current system did land a man on the moon, a rover on Mars and some of the most sophisticated software and hardware the world has ever seen. Some elements are working.
The uninteresting elements of games are points, badges and leaderboards (PBLs). Virtually no one plays a game because they are going to earn points. You play Monopoly because you enjoy the challenge of beating a friend or of collecting all the properties of the same color. You play Angry Birds because of the challenging of knocking down the pig’s ice and wooden house and to figure out the best place to hurl the bird at the structure. So in order to think intelligently about gamification, we must really dig down into why people play games and I would assert that people play games because of they can become engaged with the game through stories, challenge and mystery. They play because they have control of their actions and the consequences; they have autonomy within a clearly understood set of rules. They play games because they can master the game. They can work to do really well at a portion or an entire game. Finally, people play games because they can experience a progression of moving through the game. Whether it’s collecting pie pieces in a game like Trivial Pursuit or moving up a level in a video game. The levels or pie pieces are visible examples of accomplishments of progress toward an end goal—toward winning.
The elements of engagement, autonomy, mastery and progress are the elements that need to be in every gamification of learning design. If you have these items, you’ll create an environment that is fun for the learner and instructional.
In what ways can a game be more effective than traditional classroom methods?
Games provide for immediate feedback. A player almost always knows how she is doing in a game. The placement of the piece on the board tells her how far away from “Go” and collecting money in Monopoly. The feedback of a player getting lost in a game tells him that he’s gone in the wrong direction. You constantly receive feedback in a game. Not so much in the classroom. You don’t get feedback until you take a test or quiz or answer a question asked by the teacher. So games provide great feedback.
Games also provide for emotion. In most learning, we’ve tried to take the emotion out of the learning. We’ve removed the passion. There is little passion in learning how to keyboard for example. You just sit in front of a computer and type in words. But a game like “Typing of the Dead” where you have to type in words before zombies attack you is fun for some people, it gets the blood rushing, it has some tension, emotion. Learning a list of spelling words can be dreadful. Playing a game of hangman—a little more engaging. Games put the emotion back in learning.
Games provide context. Learning to do something in the context of a game is powerful. Memorizing concepts because they are going to be on a test doesn’t lead to long term retention. Learning comes when people understand a context for what they are learning. Games can provide the context.
It is also important to understand there are different types of games for teaching different types of content and that not all games are good for teaching all topics. For example a Jeopardy-type game is good for recall but not so good for teaching problem-solving or trade-offs or history. An educator must make an informed decision about what game is best to teach what topic or sub-topic.
Your book makes a wonderful argument for the use of games in the classroom, what advice do you have for teachers who wish to begin creating their own game?
Engage the students and ask them to create games. One of the absolute best ways to learn something is to try to make a game out of a subject. Students have fun with it, the teacher can use the best versions for future classes and students can become fully engaged with the subject matter and the problem-solving effort of creating a game.
Also, many people talk about “stealth” learning with games. Don’t. When using a game for learning, brief the students ahead of time on what they will be learning or should be learning while they play the game. Then let them play the game. After they play the game, debrief the students. Ask them what they learned? How can they generalize the game play experience to other contexts? What they liked and didn’t like about learning with a game? Ask them what insights they gained in the subject matter? There is no learning without reflection. In fact, an experience without reflection is just an experience. Draw the learning out of the students. They play a lot of games but never stop to reflect on the experience and think about what they’ve learned and how it can be generalized, teachers have this great opportunity when they introduce games into their classrooms.
Do you think a game has to be explicitly designed for learning to have educational value?
No, it is the pre-brief and the de-brief that can have a large impact on using a game not designed for education to be educational. I know of writing teachers who use Myst as a catalyst for writing assignments and the students create wonderful stories based on the game which was not designed for educational purposes. My son learned about the Axis Powers from playing Age of Empires. Again, not designed to be educational. We can leverage non-educational games to create educational value in many ways. We once used Roller Coaster Tycoon to teach business concepts. Games are a tool that, in the hands of a teacher, can be turned into great educational assets.
How important do you feel the use of mobile technology is to the modern educator?
Critical. Kids have mobile devices at younger and younger ages. They will carry a mobile device throughout their lifetime. They will spend more time with mobile devices when they leave school than with books or newspapers. It’s just a fact of life. So where are they going to learn about leveraging these devices for learning if they don’t learn it as school? I always smile to myself when someone complains that kids don’t know the proper way to use a cell phone or tablet but then when they go into a school building the administrators force them to shut them off. They kids don’t shut them off, they sneak behind the backs of the enforcers and then the adults wonder why the kids are so rude with phones and don’t know how to find valuable information on the tablets. It is because adults, rather than teaching the kids the proper use of such devices, are banning the devices and kids just learn to use them on their own. Adults, educators, we need to be more proactive.
We need to model how to use these devices to find valuable information, to compare options and how to be safe and a good citizen with these devices.
Are there any iPad apps in particular that you might recommend to our readers?
Here is a quick list
The Silent Age—Great storybased interactions on the iPad, wonderful movement from location to location. Not designed as a learning tool but would be a wonderful jumping off story for an English class or even physics because of the time traveling.
Grading Game—Fun game designed to teach good grammar and spelling where a quirky professor rewards you for failing students with bad grammar.
Dragon Box-Algebra—Just a clever game to teach algebraic concepts without the specter of variables and fractions to get in the way….until it’s too late you are already into the game.
Machinarium—Great problem-solving game.
What's next for you? Do you have any new books in the pipeline?
Well, I just completed a companion book to “The Gamification of Learning and Instruction.” The companion book is a fieldbook which takes the ideas from my first book on gamification and provides detailed steps and ideas for implementing the ideas. The goal of the fieldbook was to take the ideas of the first book and make them tangible and accessible to those who want to implement gamification, games and simulations within a learning environment. The book is called “The Gamification of Learning and Instruction Fieldbook: Theory into Practice.” It contains worksheets, case studies of games and gamification from board games to mobile games and provides a foundation and guidelines for designing your own interactive immersive games and gamification events.
And finally –in your opinion, what's the best game ever made?
Wow, tough question. First, since I haven’t played every game ever made, I’ll have to narrow the universe of selection to games I’ve played. There are a bunch I really like. I think Sid Meier’s Civilization V is a great strategy game. I love moving my soldiers, spies and other elements around the game space and trying to win with different approach such as economic or domination or culture. Clever concepts to use as a jumping off space for teaching or just having fun. And the game has a great mobile version called Sid Meier’s Civilization Revolution I am constantly playing that while waiting in line or at the doctor.
The first game I absolutely fell in love with was Riven. It was the sequel to Myst. Riven was so clever and engaging from a visual and auditory perspective. I felt like I was on that island walking around. To this day when I hear certain bird sounds, it takes me back to Riven. A first-person shooter I really like is James Bond 007 Nightfire for the PlayStation2. I have lost weeks playing as James Bond in that environment. Really, all kinds of fun.
Many games, just wish I had time to play more.
Thank you so much for taking time out to speak with us Karl, we look forward to hearing more from you in the future.
Pick up your own copy of Karl's book "The Gamification of Learning and Instruction" from Amazon here.