CAT | Gamification

Randall Munroe’s XKCD cartoon today illustrates the power of a well-executed simulation.

To be fair, my job at NASA was working on robots and didn't actually involve any orbital mechanics. The small positive slope over that period is because it turns out that if you hang around at NASA, you get in a lot of conversations about space.

Kerbal Space Program is a game in which players create and manage their own space program. It came to our house this Christmas when my son, Jim, the logistics guy, gave it to my husband the wannabe astronaut.  We had a merry night of family fun exploring (and blowing up) our first launches. At one point, we managed to miss the moon, and achieve solar orbit instead!

KSP has spawned an active community with lively forums and a wiki, maintained primarily by players. At first glance, this is sort of a dream scenario for those of us in adult learning — all these people, voluntarily spending their spare time teaching each other things that used to require a Ph.D. in physics to acquire! If only we had the budget to produce an immersive claim-adjusting scenario!  But I think, if we look closer, it becomes clear why that limitation isn’t really the problem…

Our other son, Steve, is a third year medical student who has taken to KSP with a vengeance which leaves his fiancé puzzled.  When I sent the cartoon above to him, he responded, “what I really need is an equally addictive game for primary care medicine…”

There is a ton of technology being applied to medical education these days.  For $34, my daughter was able to download an app to her android tablet which permits her to view human anatomy in cross section, by layer, and to flip the body around to look from any angle she chooses. She’s a first-year med student, still in the classroom the majority of the time. She can re-run the lectures on video, speeded up. There are multiple chemistry simulations out there.  She can play what-if games with molecules to her hearts content.

But there’s a reason that an “equally addictive game for primary care medicine” eludes us. It’s because any field which requires interaction with other human beings has to account for a vast array of individual biological, psychological, and behavioral responses which defy complete cataloging. The rule sets which define orbital mechanics and chemistry are only the beginning of what it takes to describe, let alone simulate, human healing.

Fortunately, humans are able to absorb subtle tacit knowledge through hands-on experience.  So we continue to address this challenge in the time-honored way.   Beginning in the third year, U.S. medical students spend most of their time as apprentices, rotating through the various medical services, learning from those senior to them, and from the patients who are being treated, the nuances of how one applies what is known about best treatment practices.  Internship and residency continue this process.

Medicine is not alone in facing this kind of challenge.  So many jobs in our organizations require much more than the knowledge we’ve been able to codify about “how we do this.” Skillfulness and later, proficiency, require experience, including exposure to the war stories of veterans, and coaching by veterans through how one makes the various judgment calls which new and unusual situations invariably require.

Fortunately, here in the 21st century, we can give our learners these kinds of experiences during their training phases even when they are not co-located.  At Q2, our learning paths allow organizations to structure programs which blend codified content with interactions with peers and senior staff, and even permit the joint construction of new learning resources.  It’s a bit of “back to the future” – bringing portions of the apprenticeship experience on line.   We’d love to talk to you about how we can help you build proficiency among your people.  Call us at 877-751-2200. Or drop a line to Bill Bruck –


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Game Design as Work Design

My friends the game designers are at it again, posting stuff about their work which makes me think HARD about my work in the training field.

Mike Sellers at Rumble Entertainment recently pointed me to Warren Spector’s fascinating post on  the commandments of game design.

Written for an audience of developers of high-end games, the principles he puts forth are all about how you create the kind of immersive experience which will bring players back, in their free time, with their discretionary income, again and again.  That mission sounds really close to our ongoing quest for improved engagement, to me!

Now, game designers have the huge advantage of being able to design their environment from the ground up.

But we who toil in the mines of employee effectiveness optimization have a big advantage over these guys – our audience is PAID to do what they do, and they come to us with an expectation of devoting 10-40 hours of their week doing it!

Peruse this list from the point of view of somebody who just wants to facilitate the process of players (employees)  experiencing growth and mastery in that game we call their career. What could your org be doing to design jobs and workplaces so that what happens at work is as rewarding as what happens on game screens after hours?

Spector writes:

Here’s the list of rules, the mission statement for the game:

  1. Always Show the Goal – Players should see their next goal (or encounter an intriguing mystery) before they can achieve (or explain) it.
  2. Problems not Puzzles – It’s an obstacle course, not a jigsaw puzzle. Game situations should make logical sense and solutions should never depend on reading the designer’s mind.
  3. Multiple solutions – There should always be more than one way to get past a game obstacle. Always. Whether preplanned (weak!), or natural, growing out of the interaction of player abilities and simulation (better!) never say the words, “This is where the player does X” about a mission or situation within a mission.
  4. No Forced Failure – Failure isn’t fun. Getting knocked unconscious and waking up in a strange place or finding yourself standing over dead bodies while holding a smoking gun can be cool story elements, but situations the player has no chance to react to are bad. Use forced failure sparingly, to drive the story forward but don’t overuse this technique!
  5. It’s the Characters, Stupid – Roleplaying is about interacting with other characters in a variety of ways (not just combat… not just conversation…). The choice of interaction style should always be the player’s, not the designer’s.
  6. Players Do; NPCs Watch – It’s no fun to watch an NPC do something cool. If it’s a cool thing, let the player do it. If it’s a boring or mundane thing, don’t even let the player think about it – let an NPC do it.
  7. Games Get Harder, Players Get Smarter – Make sure game difficulty escalates as players become more accustomed to the interface and more familiar with the game world. Make sure player rewards make players more powerful as the game goes on and becomes more difficult. Never throw players into a situation their skills and smarts make frustratingly difficult to overcome.
  8. Pat Your Player on the Back – Random rewards drive players onward. Make sure you reward players regularly and frequently, but unpredictably. And make sure the rewards get more impressive as the game goes on and challenges become more difficult.
  9. Think 3D – An effective 3D level cannot be laid out on graph paper. Paper maps may be a good starting point (though even that’s under limited circumstances). A 3D game map must take into account things over the player’s head and under the player’s feet. If there’s no need to look up and down – constantly – make a 2D game!
  10. Think Interconnected – Maps in a 3D game world feature massive interconnectivity. Tunnels that go direct from Point A to Point B are bad; loops (horizontal and vertical) and areas with multiple entrance and exit points are good.

He then shares designer Harvey Smith’s addenda to the list

  • All missions, locations and problems will be specifically keyed to: Skills (and skill levels), Augmentations (and augmentation levels), Objects, Weapons
  • Gameplay will rely on a VARIETY of tools rather than just one – Character Capabilities (Skills/Augmentations), Resource Management, Combat, Character Interaction
  • Combat will require more thought than “What’s the biggest gun in my inventory?” – A more relevant question might be “How do I deal with this situation involving a few intelligent, dangerous enemies?”
  • Geometry should contribute to gameplay – Whenever possible, show players a goal or destination before they can get there. This encourages players to find the route. The route should include cool stuff the player wants or should force the player through an area he wants to avoid. (The latter is something we don’t want to do too often.) Make sure there’s more than one way to get to all destinations. Dead ends should be avoided unless tactically significant.
  • The overall mood and tone will be clear and consistent – Fear, Paranoia, Tension, Release (through combat and/or reaching a predetermined goal or NPC conversation)

Well, ok. I think I’d rather not attempt to design in fear, paranoia and tension – we get enough of that emergently.  But otherwise, I see a lot of parallels between good game design and good job design, good recruiting, and good development planning.

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Game On? or Off?

We don't need no badges!

We’re probably all seeing the heightened push for  “gamification” in the learning space, along with some mumbled caveats about how it might not be a panacea and there are some situations in which it is the inappropriate approach.

I think I’d like to raise the volume on those caveats, but first, a disclaimer. I’ve got nothing against games.  In their highest and best form, games for training are simulations, bringing the learner very close to a real-work situation, but removing the element of risk to life, limb, and customer base posed by putting newbies in the pilot seat of the Real Thing.

In their lowest, most simplistic form, games are also useful. For memorization tasks, they can spice up what is an essential but not overly engaging exercise.  The end-of-unit  review which involved a classroom round of “Concentration”  brings back fond memories even now.  You need me to memorize some definitions, give me a jeopardy game and I’ll likely get those definitions down – though I won’t necessarily be able to connect them to anything other than the jargon they represent, and won’t have done any practice in skillfully applying the concepts they point to.

For anything else, I feel I need to quote Humphrey Bogart’s immortal words from The Treasure of Sierra Madre:

“Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!”

The idea of rewarding adult learners for competent execution of the responsibilities of their position with something as irrelevant as a badge or listing on a high-point scoring board is disrespectful in the extreme.

Yes, I know all the research about how well people in general respond to the immediate feedback available in a game situation.  This knowledge needs to inform our management strategies – all workers should be receiving regular feedback on how well or poorly their performance is being received by  people important in their lives – their boss, their customers,  and other stakeholders.

The point of training is to create behavior change which is rewarded by

  1. A sense of mastery over new skills which promise to improve effectiveness
  2. Improved effectiveness as measured with the normal workplace performance evaluation tools
  3. Recognition for that improved effectiveness in the form of increased responsibilities and/or better pay

I don’t know anybody who would trade these things for some kind of in-game gold star.  Our co-workers are adults who are already playing that very important game which we call “performing in the workplace.”  The ones who are stars on our sales team are already pretty competitive, but they also have a keen eye for which parts of the game really matter.  If they lack the motivation to train to “up their game”  we may be looking at a recruitment issue.  Alternatively, the training experiences we are offering them may not be well-tuned to provide that mastery of new skills.  Either way, the solution to the problem is not in dressing up learning experiences in game clothing!

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We’ve been hearing a steady drumbeat for some time about what games have to teach us about the way learning works. Some people (unsurprisingly, people who sell game development!) assert that this research suggests that learning opportunities should increasingly be presented in the context of games.

I disagree. I think what gaming teaches us about learning is that learning is facilitated by contexts in which:

  1. Learning is primarily experiential – people do stuff and observe the results of their actions
  2. The rules are explicit, or alternatively, introduced through exercises which start with the basics and grow in complexity as the learner demonstrates mastery.
  3. Errors are immediately apparent, and setbacks due to error commission are recoverable.
  4. Increasing mastery is explicitly rewarded with access to more complex “work.”
  5. Extraordinary performance is explicitly rewarded with a listing on a widely visible leader board.
  6. Rewards are issued promptly after demonstrations of mastery.

Interestingly, people who become engaged with a game tend to seek each other out, even if the game itself is only single-player. There are multiple YouTube videos out for each and every level of Angry Birds, demonstrating to those who are stuck how others have met this challenge.

These are lessons we should take to heart as we organize our work cultures. We know that 70% of learning takes place, informally, on the job. We can facilitate that learning by being thoughtful about the progression of assignments for new workers. If we are careful to create a non-punitive culture around mistakes, we can address errors more quickly, which in itself makes them more recoverable, but also encourages the sharing of war stories around similar experiences which are part of the tacit knowledge in every organization.

We can’t generally arrange for assignments to grow in complexity at the precise rate of our employees’ competency growth, but we can make a point of letting them know that we believe they have advanced to a new level and will be on our minds for the next appropriate assignment when it comes along. And we certainly can reward excellent work with wide recognition.

People who work in organizations with this sort of culture don’t need their training presented in the spoon-full-of-sugar format which games present. They’ll seek it out in whatever format is available if their colleagues have recommended it as a useful boost for getting to the next level on the “game” that is their job.

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