We all love playing computer games, but are we wasting our time or learning something valuable?
When we think of a “gamer,” a very specific image often comes to mind—and it’s not always a flattering one. The world of gaming has evolved exponentially in the last decade, and what was once considered an unhealthy subculture is quickly becoming fertile ground for team building and learning leadership skills. So how can you incorporate the immense potential for learning with something as simple as a game?
Karl Kapp is the world's leading expert on using games for learning. He's a professor of Instructional Technology at Bloomsburg University, a TEDx speaker, and founder of the educational game firm The Wisdom Learning Group. He's the author of seven books and his latest is Play to Learn: Everything You Need to Know about Designing Effective Learning Games. I recently interviewed Karl for the LEADx Podcast, where we discussed games, learning, and leadership. (The interview below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)
Kevin Kruse: Why do you think games are effective, and are they better for teaching certain topics than others?
Karl Kapp: That's a really good question. I always say years ago ‘game’ was a four-letter word in corporations, and in some places it still is. So, the one thing I think that people don't realize about games is if they're well designed, they can provide a really great “ah-ha” moment. So an example would b a game called ‘The Beer Distribution Game.’ It was actually created in the 1960s at MIT, and it teaches people about inventory ordering and the danger of too much inventory. And I've seen instances where you could lecture to people for hours about, “You can't over-order inventory and you've got to make sure,” but when they play the game, there's certain rules. You're not allowed to talk to each other, you have to make so much beer to distribute, that kind of stuff. But in the middle of the game, people have this epiphany that goes, “Oh, I can't over-order supplies when I don't need them because it causes this bullwhip effect.”
And what games do is they can compress time and they can expose systems, so when you create a game and it shows you the fault of conventional thinking, it can really be a powerful learning experience. Now, on the other hand, if we take “Jeopardy” or “Wheel of Fortune” and say, “Yeah, that's a great game,” I can see that being poo-poo'd by organizations. But when you get down to it, what really makes a game interesting and fun is the balancing of resources, the trade offs that you have to make, and the ability to see the direct impact of what you're doing. Oftentimes, games in a corporate setting can allow you to have this 30,000-foot view of what's happening.
We did another game with an insurance company one time and the goal was to acquire customers, and we found out through playing the game that really the only way they were acquiring any new customers was through acquisition. There was no organic growth in the game. And it was a huge epiphany for the people playing the game. So, games provide those kind of like “ah-ha” moments that—yeah, somebody can tell you about it—but the learning-by-doing process and the experience really makes a difference in a well-designed, well-crafted game.
Kruse: With these kinds of games and simulations, not only is that experience anchoring, but it's in a risk-free environment, right?
Kapp: Exactly. And the thing that fascinates me the most is if you look at the history of games for learning, it starts in the most life and death situations. So, for example, the military's been doing military games for centuries. The medical industry was one of the first industries to jump into games for health, right? So, why in these areas? Well, because they're life and death situations and you want to minimize risk and you want to maximize action and experience. So, when you think about sales, wouldn't you like to have the best sales situation ever? Well, games really allow you to practice those skill sets, to hone those skill sets, and to think, “Oh, what if this happens and what if that happens?” So, you're absolutely right. Games really provide you this freedom to fail and we know from the research that we learn best after failure, not if we do something really easily. Then we don't learn from it. But if we fail at something, we reflect on it and then we take action and do the right behavior. That's where the most effective learning occurs and games are great for that.
Kruse: My son spends a lot of time playing games, but I feel like he’s getting some leadership skills. Do you think games are frying our kids' brains, or are they okay?
Kapp: I absolutely think they're okay, and I think the really interesting things are that the skills that kids are learning in the games are really applicable in other areas. You get on and they play these multiplayer first-person shooter games and they're talking to each other and they're strategizing and that kind of stuff. The way to maximize that learning is then to ask them later on, “So, what strategies did you use? Why did you decide to do that? You were trying to communicate with your teammate, but it didn't work. What do you think the problems were?” So, games are great experiential theater to play in and to learn about and to experience things, but what will really bring the learning home in playing these commercial games is to have someone ask them to reflect on what they've actually learned playing those particular games. So my two boys are actually like, “Dad, I'm not going to answer any more questions about this game!” Right? But it really is helpful for solidifying the learning.
There's a guy named Ralph Koster who wrote a book called The Theory of Fun, which was about creating games, and he said the fundamental element in game is learning. Right? You're learning how to do something. You're learning how to run from point A to point B. You're learning that failure's okay. You just get back up and do it again, and you learn how to communicate, strategize, negotiate. All those great things happen when kids play games. Now, you've got to be careful about the content, but the process in a lot of those commercial games really have applicability. In fact, there was a Harvard Business Review article years ago that said the next leadership training simulation is going to be ‘World of Warcraft.’
Because you have these people that don't directly report to you, you've got to divide up the loot when you get it, you've got to figure out how to get people from all over the world to work together. So I really think as we go more and more digital, those skills learned in games are really applicable to what's happening in a lot of organizations. I mean, think about having a global webinar or working with a global team or anything like that. Games really teach you how to do that.
Kruse: What are the hot games you're interested in now?
Kapp: So my game right now is “Assassins Creed Syndicate”. I love that game. So that's my console game, although for years I've had Wii consoles and PlayStation consoles and I even tried to get my boys in on it like, “Hey, let's ask mom for an Xbox, right?” And she's like, “No, no.” The boys even turned on me. “No, Dad we already have two consoles.” So, I just had my birthday and opened up an Xbox, so I'm going to be on ‘Halo’ very shortly.
And then on my phone, I play ‘Civilization Lite,’ which is a really interesting strategy game. So they took Sid Meier's ‘Civilization’ and really compacted it. So if you want to see how to put something on like a digital device, play “Civilization”, although you have to commit much of your life to it, but once you do that, try it out on the phone. It really makes a big difference. I've also come back in terms of a board game because I like to play all kinds. It’s a board game called ‘Pandemic.’ And the reason why I like that game is because it's a cooperative game. A lot of times we think of games as being competitive, but that's a cooperative game. So, it would be a really good game to play with people to talk about working together, communication, transparency, all that kind of stuff, would be a great game to play in kind of a corporate retreat type of environment.
Kruse: I'm about to turn 50 and I don't have the reflexes to play against live players. I've seen ‘Assassin’s Creed’ and thought it looks cool, so maybe that's more my pace.
Kapp: Right. It's a fun game. I actually had a student who was a professional gamer and he retired because he was too slow. And the kid's are like less than 20, right? So don't feel bad about that.
Games like ‘Assassin’s Creed,’ Portal,’ or the ‘Uncharted’ series, ‘Uncharted Drake’ is a great game and that's very cinematic. If you want to see like a cinematic approach to a game and puzzle game, that's a really good game as well. So, yeah, there's a lot of really interesting games that are out there and they're not all first-person shooter.
Kruse: Do you have any advice for the managers out there who want to use games for learning?
Kapp: A couple things that I advise the folks: one is, you don't have to go out and create your own game from scratch. You could use something like ‘Pandemic.’ Another good cooperative game is called ‘Forbidden Island’ where the island's sinking and four people have different roles, and so that's kind of a neat idea as well. The other thing I say is don't always think digital, right? We've created a number of really interesting card games based on ‘Apples to Apples,’ or ‘Cards Against Humanity.’ Card games are simple. They get conversation going. But if you're really going to develop a digital game, and I think there's lots of reasons to do that, first of all you have to do is tie it to a very dramatic business need. Sometimes people will come to me and say, “Yeah, we want a game. Somebody said it's fun and we're going to create a game.” I said, “If you want people to have fun, give them the day off. If you want them to learn, let's play learning games, right?”
Make sure it's tied to a business need, and then play test it. I can tell stories about people that think that they knew what the audience liked about games and then, “We've known this audience for 40 years. We know everything that they know.” And then the audience is like, “I hate this game.” So, you really need to play test with the subset of the audience to get the game right. Games are really iterative. So a lot of training. We throw it together, we put it out there, we do it once and we're like, “Yeah, that's great.” We're supposed to change it. All the models say we should change it, but we don't.
In order for a game to really work, it needs to be developed in an iterative process because that's when you find out. So the games actually don't teach, they create the space in which learning can occur. So you've got to carefully craft that space to make sense. The other thing I would say is bringing games in at lunchtime or whatever and play those and then discuss things. So, why were we not able to communicate when we played this game? How come we lost to the pandemic? How come the island sank? Ask those kind of questions to think about, “Oh, because we didn't communicate properly.”
The nice thing about a game is you can talk about issues, you can use it as a proxy, right? So you can talk about bad communication during the game in a much safer environment than you could talk about bad communication with you and the person down the hall or you and another department, and it can really start exposing those conversations.
Another really interesting game, way back in the '70s, BP had a game to teach people how to deal with a well blowing up in the middle of the ocean. Think of that. Things people say, “Well, it's unthinkable. It'll never happen.” But what a game does is it allows you to do the what-if thinking and gives you the permission to think outside of the realm of possibility and, by doing that, you actually become more prepared when things that are off the charts actually happen. So games provide that kind of thing. I would definitely say try it. I would definitely say get some people together and start with commercial games, and then when you get comfortable with using that and debriefing that, then go ahead and think about creating your own games.
Kruse: I always like to challenge our listeners to become just a little bit better every day. So what's something we can try out today?
Kapp: I would say try out a game that you would never, ever think of playing, and then see how you react to it. What do you like about it? What don't you like about it? Long-term, we always say in our nine-step plan that the first step is play games, but games that you wouldn't normally play. Because once you do that, then it opens a world of possibility about dynamics, how things are related, how to balance resources. I mean, they're basically a condensation of elements that happen in life and if we take time to pick them apart, we can learn an awful lot.
Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of LEADx.org, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.