Combative Canoodling between Education & Games

Video gameIt’s no secret that Educators and trainers have been flirting with virtually any solution that will alleviate the doldrum of yet another mind numbing info-dump. Learners hate cycling through countless pages of online reading – only to be challenged with a ‘quiz’ to demonstrate that they’ve either read or already knew everything that was contained in the early pages of an online lesson.

One often considered method is ‘Gamification.’ Gamification is one of those terms that incites debate from members of both the Game Development and Education & Training Communities. Traditional Game Creators often find the term absurd because it’s been used so often to tragically oversimplify the core principles of great games. Trainers & Educators often find the concept intriguing – but have you seen ‘tons of great examples of Gamification in eLearning?’ (Seriously? Have you? If you have please, please leave them in the comments section below.)

Love gamesI love games. I love teaching. I love learning. So certainly I love the idea that we can take a learning challenge (a course module or lesson that we’d like to offer) and apply principles from game design to create a wonderful, addictive, passionate game experience that learners will enjoy and that I will find painless and fun to make for them.

Of course we already know that there could be some substantial problems to accomplishing that goal. Here are just a few I’ve heard both eLearning developers and game developers recite.

1. It isn’t easy to design a game experience that people will find exciting and engaging. (If game developers struggle with this, how are educators supposed to master it?)
2. I barely have time to teach, how could I possibly create great training materials with Interactive Games too?
3. It costs a lot more (both time and resources) to create deep engagement.
4. Some content just doesn’t make sense as a game.
5. Games and fun are just distractions that slow down genuine learning.

Precarious Rocks as dense as the puns

Precarious Rocks as dense as the puns

So I decided to have a deeper look, but from a precariously practical perspective. This month I’m going to take some impossibly dense informational content, and convert it into something fun to explore, and rewarding to learn. Some people might say that I’m going to ‘Gamify it.’ I’d argue that I’m going to attempt to tell a story, that hopefully will encourage the audience for my story to learn some new ideas, some new information, and some new ways to do things. Because this will take a while, I’m posting this initial article to document the big concepts, and to record my initial process. After I’ve done some of the application (in a week or so, I’ll post another article with all of the examples and source code.) This should arrive just in time for my eSeminar on Gamification in eLearning – a free session available for registration now. Gamification 101; Building Fun and Play into your eLearning Courses.


First, I’ll need to identify something to teach (or more importantly – something to learn about.) I want to make sure it’s appropriately dull content. I’ve decided that a lesson on rocks should suffice. (I know I’m risking alienating Geologists & Petrologists here, but I’m hoping that they’ll forgive me in the end.)

I’m taking my definitions of rocks from here: “Rock.” World of Earth Science. 2003. Retrieved September 03, 2013 from and from here; “rock.” The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. 2013. Retrieved September 03, 2013 from

Info Dump

Info Dump

I’m also starting with a basic info-dump scenario. For the educator this assumes that you’ve been prompted to teach from a textbook or similar print source, and for the trainer this assumes you’ve had some manual or similarly dense bit of regulatory data dumped on you with a basic command to ‘turn it into eLearning.’

Now typically students are taught that rocks come in three types, and forced to learn the names of each classification. This organizational approach can force students to learn the names of rock classifications, but does very little to help them learn anything that is typically identified by experts as a ‘reason’ to learn about rocks. More and more modern curriculum are cutting through the info-centric view in order to introduce learners to ideas that fit into a complete picture of the world around us. For example, the New York State Standards for Physical Science do a pretty good job of tying the core information to key concepts and ideas that relate more directly to the objectives that help students understand both the critical information and the reasons why that information is important to know and understand.

So where do I begin – planning to Gamify some content?
1. Why oh Why Am I Doing This?
What’s the point of this training, this course? Why is it needed? Is there a better way to meet the need? What would success look like? If you don’t identify the problem, the thing that motivated someone to want this material in the first place, then you couldn’t possibly figure out how to create successful learning materials – gamified or not.

Example: On the surface, the study of geology might seem largely irrelevant. But it doesn’t take deep contemplation to realize that the rocks and minerals beneath our feet play an important – even vital role in our daily lives. In fact it could easily be argued that without a significant understanding of geology we would be without virtually every modern convenience and still struggling for simple food and shelter. A world without some understanding of coal, metals, and even without the evidence of fossil findings would leave us considerably less capable. So some ways to explain why learning about rocks is needed, include; to encourage young people to study Geology; To encourage people to be aware of the ecological impact of choices in their community; to improve cultural awareness of the role rocks & minerals play in a modern post-industrial society and; to help people understand the role of rocks in documenting history on a much longer scale. (See how success metrics are already starting to appear?)

2. Working with the stakeholders, paint a picture of success that is measurable.
Gather together the people who care about the topic, and ask them what would a successful outcome look like – if we were able to meet the need identified in step 1. Be a bit of a stickler. This should be a specific, measurable outcome. And it should be clear why that outcome would matter.

Example: As I looked at the thoughts of Geologists most seemed to echo the idea that understanding rocks was important for a.) understanding the role of rocks to the health of the environment, and b.) appreciating the role of rocks as chronicles of a very long history. Now to convert those abstract ideas into measurable outcomes. Appreciation is a tough one, because it points to an affective objective. How will we measure whether student’s long term behaviors will be impacted by instruction about rocks and their role in an ecosystem and as tools to predict the future and comprehend the past? But appreciation that leads to a change in behavior, or a better process for making choices, is exactly the sort of creative problem solving skill that is so often called for by modern employers.

I recall a personal experience from my own childhood. I was in fifth grade when Mr. Sitter (a very good teacher) surprised us one day with a strange sort of game. I realize now of course that it was a simulation. It was designed to help us understand environmental impact and the difficult decisions that communities face finding a balance between the economic opportunities presented by companies and the potentially detrimental impact on the environment when those choices interfere with a regions ecosystem.

So let me play with some ideas for measurable outcomes, but let me also encourage you to add ideas for outcomes to the comment section below. (Because it’s always more fun to play with friends.)

– Given a simulation that depicts proposed industrial development, you will (without prompting) evaluate the potential impact of industrialization on the natural resources, ecology, and geologic history of the region considered for development AND create evidence supported arguments for or against additional industrial development.
– Identify the factors that influence environmental health and explain the role of rocks in that system.

3. What’s the story that matters?
People like making choices that matter. People like getting clear, immediate feedback and rewards for doing things that they agree are useful things. Identify the things within the information and the ‘goals’ you identified in steps 1 and 2, that are meaningful. Identify the things within the info and goals that can lead to rewards in the real world.

Back to work

Back to work

Now I would generally start working on creating a course module, or several course modules. Of course that will take me a while, so I’ll leave the account of that for the next posting on this topic. In the interim I hope that you’ll take a moment to add your own thoughts. How does your process differ. Do you see missing elements? Do you prefer some other approach? Your comments and questions are encouraged and appreciated.

8 Responses

    • Absolutely Agree – I’ve seen his work and would also suggest that everyone take a look at James Gee, and Karl Kapp – both of whom have tackled the subject from different perspectives. Michael Allen also has developed interesting software tools to support creating engaging interactions of this sort. Thanks for the feedback Chris.

        • Lol – no need to apologize. I think Zebra Zapps is well suited for Game Development tasks. Studies of the eLearning space have shown that most eLearning developers use many (not just one) tool for all of their projects. That’s why i think it’s so important that we do as much as possible to ensure that these tools interoperate. I’m hoping that with HTML5 becoming more popular we’ll be able to see better and better integration. I think it will be necessary, as for example, some developers might find building the game parts too complex – while others might find the same thing trivial.

          I like any approach that makes it as easy as possible, but also allows for substantial customization – and looks forward in terms of ways to make interaction / engagement accessible to all, both learners and authors.

          It will be fun for me (and challenging) to test the limits of Captivate and Advanced / Shared Actions over the next couple of weeks in preparation for the eSeminar – but I think we must be open to not just all tools, but also all approaches. For example – if a job aid on the refrigerator is the best delivery mechanism to teach a concept – then I don’t think it makes sense to put the course online. 😉

          • One limitation (Captivate 7) that I just discovered (AFTER completing my project) is with scoring drag and drop activities. You can only score DnD as all or nothing; therefore you need to set up an advanced action to score the individual answers. Not a big deal until you find out that the value of the variable cannot be added to the total quiz score variable and therefore cannot be reported to the LMS. The other issue is that if a learner drags the correct answer back off of the target, I have no way of removing that point from the total value of the variable. If you can request a very quick fix for this issue from the Captivate developers that would be awesome! 🙂

          • Hi Chris,
            The way I get around this is not use the DnD as the scorable item, but use a button as the scorable item. Use the variables of the drag and drop to decide which button gets displayed. ie if they answer a and b then the advanced action will return button 1 but if they answer b and c then the advanced action will return button 2 and so on. Hope that makes sense.

          • HI Jo, thanks for the work-around; I’ll give it a try. What do you do with the value of the variable if the learner drags the object back off of the target? (Or do you not allow them to do that?)

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