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Trends from DevLearn plus game design for learning

Posted by on 19 December 2016

An interview with Warren Mara from Sysdoc begins with a discussion about trends from this year's DevLearn conference and moves into a discussion about game design for learning.

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You've just come back from DevLearn, in the States, and it sounds like that you heard some really interesting trends that were starting to emerge.

Warren Mara:
Yeah, DevLearn being one of the world's biggest learning conferences, held every year in the States. They had close to four thousand learning professionals, and the three major trends were storytelling, everybody spoke to storytelling as a major theme. We saw people from Pixar, one half of the Penn and Teller magic show, a variety of other speakers from all kinds of industries and everybody spoke to that storytelling theme.

The second thing was, of course, virtual reality and augmented reality. You can't go to any conference these days without those being brought up. The third one was the use of games and game design in learning. Some people might refer to gamification and so on, but essentially using play as a method for learning. Those are the three main things that came through.

Yeah, you're right about the VR and AR, you almost can't go anywhere at the moment without that being discussed . It's going to be interesting to see how that emerges in the next year.

Interesting that you just talked about game design for learning, and gamification. I know these are two areas that you're really passionate about, and have got some expertise in. Do you actually see differences between the two terms?

Warren Mara:
Yeah, and it's a really good place to start for getting into the discussion around use of games for learning and how people can access this whole conversation around the topic. If I think about pure games for learning, that really gets close to the heart of what is the motivation for playing something that is—why am I involved in this thing that I love that I’ll spend all of my spare time playing? There's that sort of intrinsic need and desire to play a game and if you can truly capture that and design an experience around that, that's true game design.

The gamification concept is—I think it's fantastic, as far as bringing people into the conversation, into the world of using play as a valid means of learning. We don't have to get all the way down the path of that purist game design, 'spending hours playing this beautiful product' stage. We don't have to get there yet, we can go with gamification, which is a learning experience that involves some of the basic drivers and mechanics of a game experience, to get people interested and excited and use words like engagement or imagination, being captured and that kind of thing. A bit of competition and a bit of social experience that means that you've just transformed your otherwise dull learning experience into something that people really enjoy. That gamification term is really relevant as a starting point before we get into the world of real, pure game design and play.

I heard you talk about, before, that gamification is almost a gateway for learning designers to move towards game based learning and game design for learning.

Warren Mara:
It depends on who you speak to, some people think it's the best thing ever and some people will turn their nose up to it and say "Oh no, is this all about a leaderboard and badges and it's just a fad." But you've got to start somewhere and I think that most learning professionals, or rather there'll be a few that started out as gamers and game designers that got into the learning world, but the vast majority will have started the other way around. So we've got to start somewhere and we've got to start practising those skills.

As far as I'm concerned the validity of using play for learning is so—already well defined. It's already something that's scientifically proven as far as human desires to learn and teach themselves through trial and error and all that kind of thing. It's almost like a—we've got to get more of it. It's the most under-utilised method for learning and it's only a couple of changes and a couple of expectations and mindsets away from being much more pervasive in this adult education world that we're in.

You really started to bring out that 'play' word as you're talking more, I was about to say actually you're talking about it a lot. It's not a word we actually use a lot in workplaces, and especially workplace learning. It's almost a word we're scared of.

Warren Mara:
That's right, and I think if I was to add one thing to that, it's essentially not scary in a child education world, but it is scary in an adult education world. Why? Is the question. I'm picking why that perception exists is everything to this whole conversation.

Because essentially if someone is being playful, they're doing things, learning by trial and error, they're being curious, they're motivated. It's really that utopian self-directed learning, is someone who's playing with things.

In the work you've done, what have you found has been some of the ways you've worked to introduce those notions of play into learning solutions?

Warren Mara:
A lot of it comes from being brave yourself, and finding someone that's willing to be brave, if you're a provider of learning experiences or a designer of learning experiences, then finding someone who is an SME as well. Because it is a leap of faith initially, especially if the standard to date has been classroom training, delivered through PowerPoint; we've got documentation; it feels like there's proof of learning, when of course we know that there isn't necessarily any proof of learning. There's definitely material being created in a time-slot on a calendar that's being filled. Therefore it requires finding someone that's ready to be taking that leap of faith with you, but to get that person is obviously—you may have that person in and around your circles already, but if they don't exist, then there's a couple of steps that matter a lot to being successful and getting that first experience, or getting those first elements of gamification into your learning world.

Fundamentally it's changing the language. You've got to stop using the word game. It's a shame. I want to rehabilitate that word, but we have to stop using the word game initially. This is in a corporate setting, because of the fact that it carries so much of a stigma, and that's just from my experience. I'm not telling people not to use the word game because I don't believe it's a good word, it's just from experience. That does not determine—that does not stand you in the greatest chance of success. If you use the words and use descriptors that make more sense from corporate perspective, like simulation or business challenge, or learning experience, or social learning or something like that—that just means that it doesn't carry all of the connotations like your 40 year old man-child cousin, who's in the dungeon playing Dungeons and Dragons or playing Xbox all night or it's something that's silly and just frivolous, that kind of thing. Changing the language is a very fundamental first step.

Second of all, holding up good examples where, those learning experiences that you had last month or last year, have looked and felt like a game, we didn't call it a game, but that's an example of gamified learning. That was a game as it turns out. So here's your stand up example.

Then thirdly, nothing can truly replace the value of actually going and doing it, and being a part of it, so taking those potential sponsors through a gamified experience, and saying "We just did that business challenge, and guess what, that was a game." Those three steps, they're everything I think, for being successful.

That's interesting because essentially, in some ways, you're saying show people, rather than tell people, which is one of the fairly simple instructional design principles as well. To get people on board is about giving them that experience, removing some of the language that they might be fearful of as well.

A question: so you'd lose the language around games, but do you also lose the language around playfulness and curiosity?

Warren Mara:
No is the answer, but not in the first conversation, is probably the caveat to that. You're looking at just trying to win over the confidence that the money being spent in the learning intervention, is going to be money well spent. I'd argue that, that kind of rigour hasn't been applied to those investment decisions where we've said, "Yep, we'll create 50 hours of e-learning, and everyone's going to learn." Again that sort of jump of, "I feel comfortable spending this learning intervention money into this game idea that you've got," requires first some baby steps to get to words like playfulness and so on. I understand that there will be many exceptions to that rule, but from the vast majority of corporate investment and learning, I think we would then start to get into the words like play and that kind of thing.

I mean, that's the only kind of language I use personally when I talk about it, but when it comes to a proposal to use gamified learning with your clients, then—baby steps.

I think one of the words you used was challenge, is really nice one, because I think everyone can relate to the fact that if you're given a challenge, there's lots of learning possibilities for that.

Warren Mara:
Absolutely, and when the clouds part and the light is seen, it is all about curiosity. It is all about capturing imagination. It is all about allowing adults to play and be free to fail, and to trial and error different ideas, and to get immediate feedback on things. That's the real power of games and that's—especially from a digital game perspective, you know it instantly, whether that was a positive or a negative move. Generally speaking, with other board games and role play games, and anything that's more face-to-face, you get much more rapid feedback on what it is that you're doing, that has it resulted in a positive or negative thing for your ambition, unlike a lot of other learning experiences. That's why games are so powerful, in addition to all the benefits of being social and that kind of thing, which is fairly self-evident. The immediate feedback on my decisions, there's your sweet spot for learning.

That's a really nice description of the way to position games to get more buy-in from stakeholders. You talk about games for learning, I'm also just really interested about how, when you start to apply game design processes to learning, how that changes the instructional design approach, and possibly, do you actually have any frameworks that you use for game design?

Warren Mara:
Great call. At Sysdoc we have always gone with: design the learning experience as closely to whatever the learning audience needs and so therefore design thinking, is a fundamental part of what we do. The stages that are involved with design thinking first off start with the empathise phase. Whatever you're doing, I think it's a really valuable method for people to look into—if you don't use it already—for designing anything. It essentially says that you will be rewarded from a quality of experience that you've made, or product that you've made if you spend more time listening, truly listening to the audience that you're designing it for. Games are no different.

If you're thinking about what it is that these individuals, or the participants, or the audience need to change in terms of their behaviour, or their ability to prioritise, or to problem solve, or work as teams etc. Really getting the heart of that will then inform what game you make. It could be very easy for it to fall to the trap of, "Well, we'd like to gamify the learning, so therefore we're going to do snakes and ladders and that's a great game for this learning need." And who knows, that might be a bit of a jump, it might even be quantum leap for some learning experiences to use that kind of a basic model, and it would work great. But if you are to really get to the heart of what it is that you're trying to achieve, and what you want people to think about and be able to conceptualise and feel in that learning experience, then spend bit more time looking at what are the objectives of that and what do we want people to be doing using that design thinking process.

If you jump on Google, you'll find a million different advocates for design thinking, and some basic models and that kind of thing. That's the first one absolutely. From there I've got a few steps listed here as to the method, or steps you'd go through, but fundamentally whatever you do, if it's a snakes and ladders game, if it's a role play, if it's a digital experience, play-testing the hell out of whatever it is, is the best and only thing that matters really when it comes down to it. You'll find that your great ideas will shift and morph and change a thousand times, and the more times you play-test, the closer you can get to a really valuable learning experience and also a valuable game.

That's interesting, because that sort of prototyping and testing is actually such a core part of design thinking as well as the empathising phase. It's taking the same sorts of chunking up instructional design to the actual process that's really more universally about design.

One of the game design frameworks I've come across, sort of sits there and does a whole—you think about where something happens, and also who's there, but the bit that's really challenging sometimes with learning and development people is to think about what are the rules? What the people need to actually know to sit there and go, "what are the rules, defining the behaviour, and then we'll build the game around those."

Warren Mara:
I think that one thing that would feel a little bit intimidating, or feel like a bit of a barrier for someone new to this, trying to use a bit more game design in learning, would be that you have to think of all of that yourself, and that you have to think of all of that before the game is designed and finished. Both of those things simply aren't the case. There's the good news.

You don't have to think of all of the mechanics and you don't have to think of all of the ways in which this game will play. You just need to come up with the basic concept and the ambition that you're trying to achieve, and then play-test it. People will tell you and you will observe, immediately, as to whether those mechanics and the way in which you want the game to work and what rules exist, and who can play when and what the incentives are, and all that kind of thing, that will come out in the wash, essentially. Just get your hands dirty, and the way to get your hands dirty with that and to get people play-testing this concept of yours, is to create a prototype. With, for example, a board game that we made for a client here in New Zealand was initially a big brown piece of paper with lots of post-it notes chopped up, small little Lego men, some dice, some cards that were scribbled on. That was the basis of a game that we played out and played out and played out.

I think that one thing that's really interesting, from attending some of the game design conferences that exist, and the circles that I loosely float in and around—digital game designers, high end Unity 3D developed games are being first created as board games for those game developers to test out what those rules are and what the mechanics are and that kind of thing. You don't have to spend 20 hours a day for a year developing this beautiful game that involves all of these great ideas that you think you've got. You spend about a day, putting together some materials and say, "Right, let's play this on a table top, and see if it's got any validity and see if what I think the game delivers and offers people, is actually the same as what everyone actually receives and experiences in it."

That's a beautiful example for multiple reasons, both around that prototyping process, but also as you're talking I was think, "Oh wouldn't people sit there think games sound expensive." But  making a board game, isn't particularly expensive thing to build.

Warren Mara:
Not at all. You could take things to small detail, or extreme detail, as much as you want. But, fundamentally we use a printer to roll out—we've now printed several hundred versions of the game that I'm thinking of, which is an education in the use of—the treatment of food and the food safety quality and all that kind of—that world that's required for people that handle food. We print that thing from a standard printer with laminated cards and a board game that you can transport and the little wee dice and pieces from your child's toy store or whatever it is.

It doesn't cost anything really to reprint these things and I could go on forever about the virtues of this, just on a cost basis. It's not an expensive venture. If you wanted baby steps, then you could say, "Right, we're gonna create Trivial Pursuit, and we're gonna swap out the content for—we know, we're not gonna be asking questions about Captain Cook and whatever he did, we're gonna put in some questions about our business, and we're gonna trial this and see how it goes." That would cost you next to nothing. If you were to design a board game or a table-top game or a role play game et-cetera, it requires people's time, but the materials and, you don't necessarily need to spend that much effort into the graphics and that kind of thing, very very very accessible.

And you get really good, different results in terms of engagement as well. That's a really nice example of taking that template that exists already and then testing it and using it in a different way.

Do you think that's the best way to get started? If someone wants to get started?

Warren Mara:
Good question. First off, I'd say, to anyone that's just dipping their toe into this, fantastic, because the enthusiasm is all you need to begin with. No one in the learning industry, bar a couple of exceptions, started into the game design for learning with any real game design experience. Therefore, don't be daunted is the best advice. The second thing is, if you think a little bit about the games you play, that helps inspire a little bit of the confidence as well as some of the direction that you might take with your first attempts at game design.

I ask people at conferences this all the time, I ask them to put their hands up, "Who here considers themselves a gamer?" You might get one or two or three out of a hundred people, and then you expand on that a little bit, you say "Who has ever played Monopoly?" Or "Who's every played Pictionary?" Or "Who has a game on their mobile phone, which involves slicing up some fruit or finding Pokemon," Or whatever it is, and the hands start to go up. Everybody has an element of game-play in their lives, whether they acknowledge it or not. Everybody is playing games at certain times, whether it's with their kids, playing games with the learning that their kids are going through, or whatever it is.

Start with those basic experiences and think about what—at the heart of it all—what is the thing that you're really getting out of that experience? Is there a prioritisation that you're trying to play out in this game? Does it involve co-operation? Does it involve dealing with change? Is there something that involves just a pure social connection that enhances your connection with the people in the room? These things are all very relevant business needs.

I always point back to some slides that I saw in the States. A presentation that I saw in the States at a conference called Games for Change. Very worthwhile to look up on both YouTube and on their website. Games for Change has an amazing collection of speakers that talk about using games as a vehicle for social good. One guy spoke there, a guy called Erik Huey, who represents The Entertainment Software Association of the US, and they represent all game developers in the United States and try to promote their interests and so on. He said that having panned the major organisations in the US, the top five things that organisations wanted in the 21st century—21st century employers want five things.

None of them were 'pass a test'. None of them were being lawyer or a chartered accountant or any of that kind of stuff. It all came down to these five things which were critical analysis. They want people with resilience, the Americans call it grit, but let's go with resilience. They wanted people who could prioritise, that could collaborate and be creative and then the fifth one there was complex systems thinking. All of those things, you can see in games and people play those out in games and some particular experiences and sometimes it helps to stop calling it a game and call it an experience. It asks people to prioritise, it asks people to co-operate, and it asks people to be able to deal with uncertain dynamics or imperfect information and limited resources and that kind of stuff. It's more about problem solving than anything.

If you think about those games that you play with your kids, or with your friends over a glass of wine at a dinner table, or you play on your mobile phone, what is it actually, at the heart of it, asking you to do? Then apply that to what the business is asking. Because I bet one of the benefits that the business is asking from their learning perspective is: have people talked to each other and collaborate, and be partnered and share information and problem solve and all those kind of words and good things to write down from an HR manager's perspective. That's what they want. Not be able to know that this is the top five things that you need to do, or understand the rules of whatever it is. Employers actually want people that can problem solve and deal with uncertainty. That's why games are perfect.

I think that's a really nice spot to finish on. That games are perfect for that 21st century skill set. Just one last question, if anyone wants to get in contact with you, what's a really good way of reaching out to you?

Warren Mara:
Absolutely, warren.mara@sysdoc.co.nz or find us on LinkedIn or on our website sysdocgroup.com We're absolutely willing to talk and share. The more that we can get practitioners into using games, the better, and we can rehabilitate this word called 'game', and really transform what is already happening in the child education space, and bring it into the adult one.

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