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Book Review: 'The Gamification of Learning and Instruction: Game-Based Methods and Strategies For Training And Education' by Karl Kapp

By Connie Malamed / May 2012

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True or false? It takes an animator and 3D graphics to create a learning game. This statement is false, as you'll discover if you read the timely book, The Gamification of Learning and Instruction: Game-based Methods and Strategies for Training and Education. A game enthusiast and professor at Bloomsburg University, author Karl Kapp busts through these and other myths while skillfully exploring the depth and breadth of gamification.

A New Mindset

You have five seconds to answer this question. Does gamification always involve leaderboards and points? If you answered in the negative, you win this round. Gamification is a mindset, a learning strategy and a movement all rolled into one. As Kapp explains it, "Gamification is using game-based mechanics, aesthetics and game thinking to engage people, motivate action, promote learning, and solve problems."

The gamification theme has not only blazed through the learning industry, but large companies, institutions and non-profits are getting hooked on games to motivate employees, fundraise for causes, and market products. When gamification startups and venture capitalists get excited, you know something big is happening. At the most recent SXSW conference, there were at least 20 events, panels, and presentations related to games and gamification. They covered everything from building games in HTML5 to social games to dancing games. Gamification is on fire.

Keep Your Head On Straight

It's easy to get caught up in the gamification craze, but when the purpose is for training and education, you need to stop and take a deep breath. This isn't a strategy for everyone and everything. From the start, The Gamification of Learning and Instruction, gives us due warning. Kapp cautions that games are not a solution for every instructional program. In fact, overuse will cause gamification to be "trivialized and non-impactful." But there are situations where gamification can engage and deliver. Kapp's book will help you get ready to strike when the time is right.

With standard learning practices losing favor, it seems like the gamification concept came along at exactly the right time. But effective gamification is not layering goals and rewards on top of content. Rather, it involves adopting a game-thinking mentality in order to integrate game mechanics into learning in a planned approach. The ultimate goal is to create positive learning outcomes while users are engaged and motivated.

It Starts With The Basics

One of the most appealing aspects of The Gamification of Learning and Instruction is how Kapp and guest authors explore so many dimensions of gamification. They leave barely a stone unturned. The early chapters provide a foundation that learning professionals will need to put gamification strategies to use. There are good insights into the elements that make up games, such as goals, feedback, time, player levels and storytelling. There's also a solid discussion of how game strategies can improve learning.

Chapter Three taps into the many theories that underlie gamification and another into the research that supports it. There are satisfying explanations of how both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation underlie our attraction to games. In addition, Kapp also shows how less obvious theories, such as operant conditioning, self-determination, and cognitive apprenticeship support the instructional use of games.

Now here's one for you. Why do learners benefit when they repeatedly play instructional games? If you answered that they are benefiting from spaced or distributed practice, you can move up to the next level. But wait! There's a bonus question before you go. What type of learning in a game environment occurs through avatars? Did you know that answer is "social learning?"

Games Applied to Learning, Thinking and Problem-Solving

Going a little deeper, subsequent chapters examine player types, game patterns and how to apply gamification to various learning domains. For example, learners often find practice through sorting, organizing, and repetition to be tedious and boring. Yet this is often what is needed to retain declarative or factual knowledge. Why not translate these approaches into game mechanics? Asking learners to match an image with an idea in a game-like environment is more engaging than rote memorization.

In The Gamification of Learning and Instruction you'll also see how games can be applied to improving motor skills, higher order thinking, and complex problem solving. In one unusual game designed by university researchers, non-scientists must try to figure out how proteins are folded into small 3D structures by competing against each other to make the proteins as small as possible. The unique ways of folding proteins that players discover can actually help researchers design new proteins for vaccines and other beneficial uses.

Designing Your Own Games

At this point, most learning professionals will be wondering just what it takes to design a game. Is there a process and are there guidelines? These questions are answered in chapters nine and 10, covering management of the instructional game design process and selecting the right in-game achievements.

Both the ADDIE and Scrum models leave something to be desired for game development, so Kapp provides a hybrid model that is more suited to the task. It involves paper mockups, prototyping and concept art, which are important design strategies often missing in standard instructional design paradigms. He also runs through the team members required for a full-blown game development effort.

One thing I'd also like to see specifically discussed is what it takes to develop a slim game, or "game design lite." Many instructional designers work alone or in very small teams and they too can find ways to integrate a game structure into their designs. How can simple games be developed by a very small team? What ideas work best on a small scale? Maybe a section on this can be added in the next edition.

The Finale

The Gamification of Learning and Instruction wraps up with a chapter written by an individual from the "gamer generation," who describes the thrill that games provide. This leads to a description of several case studies featuring casual games.

You can't help but be inspired by The Gamification of Learning and Instruction. Plentiful examples and practical advice make game implementation seem like a viable approach. It's easy to take away the idea that you can implement a game on a low budget. You can use learning challenges and competitions in the workplace or create games virtually through social media tools.

From helping children with cerebral palsy to encouraging pro-social behaviors, games can infiltrate aspects of life and learning that you may not have thought possible. This important book demands that we rethink the standard and stale approaches to learning.

About the Author

Connie Malamed is an online learning specialist, writer and speaker. She publishes The eLearning Coach site and is the author of Visual Language for Designers and the iPhone app, Instructional Design Guru.

© 2012 ACM 1535-394X/12/05 $10.00

DOI: 10.1145/2207270.2211316


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