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Gaming: real value vs the “shiny penny”

January 9, 2007

This past week I was reading through the list of sessions for Training Spring. Partly I was trying to find when my session was scheduled, and partly, I wanted to get a vibe for the show. Who would be presenting what? What was the general theme? What were some of the hot topics? Not surprisingly, the term “gaming” appeared in more than a few session descriptions.

Thus far, to be honest, I’ve found gaming discussions to be kind of disappointing. Most people talking about games have tended to focus on the mechanics of gaming instead of the concepts of gaming. What do I mean by that? Well, take for example, another major revolution that happened in the last century – the automobile. What was the dominant driver there? Mechanics or concept? I would argue that it’s clearly “mechanics.” For starters, the idea of moving around based on someone or something else’s motive power was nothing new. From horses to camels to elephants, people have moved under the power of something else for thousands of years. The automobile was a simply a shift in the mechanics of the operation. A sizable one to be sure, but not a conceptual one. Software simulation might be another example that hits closer to home. Software simulation is also a change in mechanics. In the best software simulations, learners see demonstrations and practice and possibly assess in something that is a very close approximation of the real application. But conceptually, learners are doing the same things they used to do in a well-designed classroom environment minus the training databases, training instances, IT overhead, and logistical headaches. Same concept, different mechanics.

Using gaming for learning purposes, however, at least in a corporate setting, is something more novel, particularly, the use of electronically mediated and delivered games. Good leadership programs and the like have often used small or even large games in live training. Rarely however, have games been done electronically. This is, in fact, something new under the sun and represents a conceptual shift in the way we think about training. It is not however much of a mechanical shift.

Elearning, simulation, LMS’s etc… are all reasonably sophisticated electronic mediums through which training is delivered. And of course, in the world of entertainment, electronic games are a highly evolved market force. Today, Reuters delivers real news about both virtual and real life to citizens of SecondLife, and more people actively play Everquest on a daily basis than live in the city of New York. John Madden football clips are now used to illustrate actual game play in real football games. I could go on, but you get the idea: gaming is a huge, multi-billion dollar a year in industry. Using games, for elearning, therefore does not represent a mechanical evolution; if anything, elearning games will be less mechanically sophisticated than entertainment games. It is instead a major conceptual evolution in using existing mechanics in new and interesting ways. And this poses a real challenge for elearning professional.

Why? Well, it’s not because the elearning industry is going to be subsumed into the gaming industry. So if you hear an analyst suggest that, just slap him or her in the head. Corporate elearning is way too diverse and too specific and too fragmented to be a target for the gaming industry to care. The bigger danger is that elearning professionals seem to be ignoring gaming concepts in favor of mechanics. And given that this is primarily a conceptual shift, not a mechanical one, this is a bad thing.

People at conferences are talking about “mods” – how do I take an existing game engine and “mod” (modify) it so it can be used for elearning? Other people are talking about SecondLife and avatars and MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) and the virtual university that we should all want to build. At Training Fall, I overheard a discussion about the virtues of a 2D isometric perspective over a true first person, anthropomorphic perspective. In other words, there is a lot of talk that is focused on mechanics with, from what I have heard to date, little discussion about concepts (with the normal exceptions of Thiagi and Chris Saeger who have historically focused on the right stuff).

This raises two major and fundamental challenges:

1) Practically speaking, there is no way that a corporate training team is going to be able to design elearning games that will be as graphically rich or intricate or sophisticated as for-profit gaming companies. Not going to happen. Here are some reasons: Timelines. Bandwidth. Plug-in and installation issues. Cost to value. Size of team. Experience of team. Focus of team. Update and maintenance. Did I mention timelines? At best, we can outsource for truly high-end stuff assuming we can overcome enough of these issues. The danger here is that if we design for mechanics instead of concept, we will alienate our target audience. In an industry where most people think Captivate produces simulations, I’m a little skeptical that we can pull off the mechanics of gaming. Instead what we will likely see are learning products that clearly intended to look like a gaming title, but are, in fact, pale imitations. And then instead of “wowing” those Gen Y learners we’re trying so hard to impress, we’ll show them how terribly uncool we really are. Sort of like when I tell my kids that “I’m down with that” and they look at me like I’m sort of Yo MTV! rapper wanna-be. That was a little shout out to my shorties, yo.

2) In gaming and game theory, mechanics are an expression of concept, just as course design should be an expression of the interplay between audience needs, task analysis, and overall learning objectives, among about 40 other factors. Ask yourself: what’s more important in Monopoly, the design of the board or the concept of scarcity? Which drove the other? What’s more important, the idea of randomness and unpredictability in the dice and the Chance cards or the physical characteristics of the dice and cards? If the dice were base 10 instead of base 12, would the game fundamentally change? What if the Chance cards were purple? What’s more important, the denominations of money or the fact that it’s a finite resource used to measure relative success in the game?

Gaming is almost never about mechanics – gaming is almost always the expression of conceptual tension through mechanics (there are exceptions, particularly as it relates to ancillary or serrendipitous game experiences, but that’s an entirely different subject). Typically, what defines the success of a game is not the level of graphics processor on your machine, but more interesting ideas like randomness, replay-ability, competition, cooperation, reward, punishment, advancement / progression. The larger question for the learning community is whether we are willing to put aside our desire for the “shiny penny” in favor of delivering real value. If we spend our time trying to design isometric 2d perspectives and avatars instead of focusing on game concepts like randomness and reward, we’re going to completely miss the boat.

Here are some of the questions we should be asking ourselves:

  • How do I create some level of randomness and replay-ability in the learning experience? Can I design an effective learning experience that doesn’t necessarily have a single start or end point?
  • How much control can I cede to the learner without sacrificing instructional objectives? Can I tune this in real time to control the experience?
  • What can I do introduce rewards and punishments that are communicated to the student during the experience to encourage and discourage certain behaviors? How can I use these elements as a way for individuals or teams to compete?
  • Can I introduce a real world reward structure outside of my game / learning environment as an incentive for learners to fully participate?
  • Are there existing game models that I can adapt or use to minimize the time learners spend figuring out the game as well as the time I spend developing it? For example, an application of conceptual knowledge through discreet challenges might lead to a Myst or Riven-like narrative where progression in enabled by solving intellectual challenges that otherwise block forward movement. In a skill-based scenario, maybe something like Diablo II might apply where you earn points for utilizing skills, but those points are randomized and dependent on the difficulty of the challenge so that bigger challenges equal bigger rewards and failure results in loss of rewards. Perhaps a game like Clue could be used as a baseline for a triage or diagnosing-type of learning event. You get the idea.

And of course, the other absolutely critical homework assignment for elearning professionals is to play games. Not just a few, but a lot. And not just electronic games either – board games, dice games, games of chance and games of skill. We should look at historic games that have changed the industry by virtue of their success or innovation. And while we are doing all this, we should deconstruct the experience:

  • What is the underlying concept of the game?
  • What metaphors are used?
  • What is the core objective of the game?
  • What are the constraints and limitations? How do they fuel the experience?
  • In what ways does the game handle reward? What is the competitive element?
  • Why is the game fun?
  • Who would enjoy the game – not by age or gender, but by personality type or job role?
  • Is the gamer creating a narrative as they progress or acting in someone else’s predefined role? In other words, am I defining a character as I go or am I “playing” a pre-existing character with skills, attributes, personality etc… Is it somewhere in the middle?

There are of course dozens of these questions that could and should be asked about any gaming experience. Until we understand what makes the game a “game”, we’re not really going to be able to make the conceptual shift of how to use games to drive corporate learning. Understanding points of convergence and divergence in gaming models is a key component in designing something new or adapting an existing model to a new instructional requirement.

One final point: don’t confuse creating a game with creating learning. There are numerous game models out there and not all of them are equally appealing to all gamers. I like first person shooters, but I’m not a raving fan. My buddy buys them all the moment they come out. I can’t stand avatar-based simulation games. On the other hand, I really like strategy-games. I personally believe that the games people enjoy are tied to innate skills and personality traits. It’s unlikely therefore that in a corporate setting with a typical heterogeneous group (particularly one large enough to warrant the development investment in gaming) you will be able to create a single game with universal appeal or equal chances of success for all participants. Unlike Blizzard Entertainment, your goal is not to make gobs of money from a specific gaming model, say, I don’t know, World of Warcraft, but rather to increase the proficiency and skill of all of your learners so you can impact the business.

So rather than investing tons of money into a single, glitzy gaming model, you may be better off taking a page out the book of another successful gaming company – Cranium. In Cranium or Balloon Lagoon (the little kid version), activities are organized around specific personality types: Creative Cat, Data Head, Word Worm, and Star Performer. Translated this would be: Artistic types, Knowledge and Fact types, Linguistic types, and Actors / Actresses. While there is an overall objective to the game, the various mechanisms to get there are varied to better appeal to different personality types and learning styles.

As a learning professional, you may want to consider these issues in determining your overall strategy. Successful use of gaming in a corporate setting ultimately will have very little to do with mechanics and glitz and avatars. Instead, it will be judged by business impact and ROI, just like any other business venture. Designing sexy gaming models that only appeal to 25% of the learner population therefore is not going to be a recipe for success. Effectively leveraging gaming concepts to create more engaging, interesting, and enjoyable learning experiences that appeal to a wide variety of learners, however, will lead to deeper business impact and a continued transformation in the way we all think about learning and performance. And that is something with which we could all “be down.” Yo.

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