Serious Gaming, The Next Frontier for Learning?

In late October I hosted a set of Webinars titled “Serious Gaming – The Next Frontier for Learning?”.

These were very interactive webinars, or as I called them, Socratic Webinars (hat tip to Humberto Schwab). All participants had to agree to the following rules:

  • This is not a discussion: We are in the process of thinking together, trying to answer a few questions.
  • You can only speak by changing your feedback status in the online meeting to purple and only when you’ve been given the floor by me.
  • You can only speak if you are capable of repeating what the person before you has said and can summarize the previous 10 minutes of discussion.

Together we discussed a few questions. Below a reflection on what was discussed.

1. What is a game?

A game is hard to define. There is no single and unique set of characteristics that defines a game. Jesse Schell has listed the following set of things that we thinks a game should be (from the fabulous book The Art of Game Design):

  • Games are entered willfully
  • Games have goals
  • Games have conflict
  • Games have rules
  • Games can be won and lost
  • Games are interactive
  • Games have challenge
  • Games can create their own internal value
  • Games engage players
  • Games are closed, formal systems

My favourite definition of what a game is comes from Bernard Suits in The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia:

To play a game is to engage in activity directed towards bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by rules, where the rules prohibit more efficient in favor of less efficient means, and where such rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity… playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.

I think he is spot-on when he sees gaming as overcoming unnecessary obstacles.

There are (at least) two problems to overcome when we want to apply serious games in a large organization. The first being that games are usually played voluntarily. This is not always the case when people are required to play a game in the learning context. The second problem is that games, by definition, use inefficient means. Inefficiency is not something that commercial enterprises are usually interested in.

Casper Hartevelt tries to untangle these problems in the book Triadic Game Design – Balancing Reality, Meaning and Play of which a lot can be read online.

Now that we are talking about definitions it makes sense to make clear that “gamification” is not really the same thing as serious games. Gamification applies game-principles to things that aren’t games (e.g. getting a badge for filing your expenses) as a way to make those things more compelling.

2. What types of games for learning (i.e. serious games or games with a purpose) exist?

To make it easier to discuss games, we created four (relatively abitrary) groups:

  1. Games to be played by people who are physically together. This can be board games, but also physical games as icebreakers. Examples are games that can be played with the Foresight Cards or many of the activities in the book Gamestorming – A playbook for innovators, rule-breakers and changemakers. An interesting game that was mentioned during the webinars is The Accounting Game.
  2. 2D Computer Games are very often games that could also have been created as a boardgame. Quite often these games have a model behind them and give people insight into these models by letting them play with it. The 2D game that taught me the most is Hidden Agenda (very old!). An example from the energy industry is OilSim by Simprentis.
  3. 3D Computer Games usually try and give a real depiction of a particular location. The player is an agent in the game (either from a first person or a third person perspective). These games are very good to help people practice with skills in a physical world. A nice example is the Virtual Incident Management Training by CATT Lab.
  4. Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) bring a game component into the real world, occasionally blurring the distinction between reality and the game. Probably the most famous example is World Without Oil.

In computer games it also makes sense to make a distinction between single player games and multiplayer games. The later can be synchronous (where everybody needs to be online at the same time, like X-Team’s Mission Island) and asynchronous.

Simulation aren’t necessarily games. They allow people to play with the model that is behind the simulation. If we add an “unnecessary obstacle” to the simulation (e.g. you need to finish within 2 minutes), then we have turned it into a game.

3. How can games be used for learning and for what type of learning problems?

The best way to learn is “learning by doing” or work-based learning. Games allow people to practice (more than traditional e-learning and more than most classrooms). In the standard competency progression from Awareness -> Knowledge -> Skill -> Mastery, we think that games can get people to skill and on their first steps towards mastery.

Games are especially suitable in the following situations:

  • When practicing in real life is too costly (or when mistakes are not acceptable)
  • When practicing in real life is too dangerous
  • When you want to practice situations that are extremely rare in real life (once-in-a-career events)
  • When other ways of learning can’t provide the level of complexity that is necessary (you need to be closer to reality) (see Ender’s Game for some scary science fiction in this area)

There are also people who see games as a way to motivate a younger generation to learn (they might be disconnected from the current learning practices). Games can make something that might not be very interesting more fun. Although there are some theoretical problems with this approach, it is one that is taken more and for educating children. See for example the Institute of Play or ASU’s Center for Games and Impact.

Jane McGonical, a famous game designer has written a whole book about why games can make us better and help us change the world. You can watch her TED talk here:

Games can truly be creative and transformative experiences and usually require a highly creative and reflective creator to be truly great. Take a look at the work of Kars Alfrink from Hubbub, New Games for Social Change. He has created a set of very interesting games with real social impact:

  • Beestenbende, a game for families in museums
  • Code 4, a game to create a different type of mindset in a bureaucratic organization
  • Pig chase, a game that humans can play with pigs

So what did I learn at Online Educa 2010?

Photo by David Ausserhofer (CC licensed)

Photo by David Ausserhofer (CC licensed)

For the third year in row I attended the Online EDUCA in Berlin. This learning technology event is attended by more than 2000 people from over a hundred countries. The timing and the location of the event are ideal: it is a sweet train journey away from Amsterdam and the end of the year is good time for reflecting on the past year and looking forward to the next. This year’s snow definitely added to its charm!

This post has some of my chronological notes, reflections, vendor descriptions and random thoughts on the conference. My apologies for its length (check out my tweets about the event for a much shorter and more random summary).

STELLAR
My first stop of the conference was the STELLAR stand, among other things creators of the Teleurope website. Caroline Windrum wanted to get some input for her session later in the conference. She was looking for ideas on how to bridge the gap between academic research institutions and commercial businesses. What things could universities do and what could corporations do differently to make these partnerships more successful? I have written before on the gap that I perceive between the academic and the corporate world. One thing that I think universities could do is to “productize” more. Businesses want to buy finished products, they are not comfortable buying something that is still maturing. Many businesses do not want to be early adopter in areas that are not their core competence. If universities could make it easier for their young researchers (i.e. students) to start a business and start shipping products it would be helpful.

Opening plenary
The opening plenary session had three speakers. Talal Abu-Ghazaleh, chairman of the UN Global Alliance, shared some of his thoughts on education (one of the eight Millenium Development Goals). He wanted us all to check out the MDG enabler, a “GPS” for development that will be launched halfway December. The GPS actually turned out to be an oft-used metaphor in the conference. Clark Quinn called the GPS an excellent example of mobile performance support and A New Spring prominently features a GPS in their marketing materials.

Next in line was Adrian Sannier from Pearson (a sponsored keynote). He is one of those speakers that shouts at his audience to try and convey his excitement. Luckily for us he did not cross the Steve Ballmer line. His opening question was whether we are disappointed in the future. Isn’t it shocking that after all these years of talking about it we still have not managed to fundamentally change education? According to Sannier, we now have three technological superpowers that should change the way we learn:

  • We are telepathic as we can instantly transmit our thoughts to other human beings at a distance,
  • we now all have photographic memories with perfect fidelity,
  • and we have total recall with access to all information everywhere.

These technologies will not change anything unless we have a corresponding change in culture. The “one instructor-one class paradigm” has not yet been broken. Sannier implored us to work toward three cultural changes (“the technology piece is over, it is all about the culture now”):

  • Turn education into a team sport. Can you imagine a television show being created by a single person? Why do we accept all these faculty members working completely individually?
  • Let’s start keeping score. Currently it is ok to look at the results of a student, but not of a faculty member.
  • Fix what is broken. We have been sensitive for many years, now it is time to get agressive.

Sannies speech ended with “Step forward and make the culture change, feel the love, thank you very much”. Although the message was quite simplistic in many ways, the emphasis on culture was something that came back again and again during the conference. More on that below (in the paragraph on Bersin).

The final speaker of the session was former Financial Times editor and consultant on innovation and strategy Charles Leadbeater. His talked was titled “Learning from the Extremes”. According to him the route to radical innovation is not starting at the best and then copying that. “Radical innovation usually comes from the margins: social entrepreneurs and the hardest to reach.” As your vantage point determines what you can see he decided to travel the world and go where the need is the greatest and the resources the least. There were three things he learned from his travels:

  • Everywhere he went people told him: education + technology = hope
  • Everywhere he went education was like a religion (there is global belief in education
  • All around the world everyone accepts that education is dysfunctional

So how can this be changed? There are two types of innovation (sustaining and disruptive) and two educational domains (formal and informal). They produce four ways forward:

Four ways to innovate

Four ways to innovate

It is relatively easy and essential to improve education, but it is not enough. We can also reinvent: there are many examples of new types of schools whose teaching philosophies can generally be summarised as “Learning with and by and not to and from”. One of the obstacles of this approach is that it is very important what happens outside of school too. This leads to a supplemental strategy where schools are working with communities and where social and emotional conditions for learning are also looked at. The most promising way to innovate is the transformation to entirely new ways (here Leadbeater mentions Mitra’s infamous hole in the wall experiment). The characteristics of these new ways are:

  • Pull not push
  • Motivation is key: extrinsic and intrinsic
  • Learning through… (not schools, but things like music)
  • Different people, technologies, places for learning

He then focused on the learning habitats of the future using another interesting conceptual model. The future can be high on systems or low on systems and these systems can have high empathy or low empathy. Some examples:

Empathy and systems

Empathy and systems

Highly systematic and higly empathetic are where we want to be, allowing us to finally deliver intimacy at scale.

Presentations 2Go
The lecture capturing outfit Presentations 2Go had a strong presence at the event. They demonstrated their next version of the software and provided a live-stream of the plenary sessions and many of the sessions in the business track. You can view the captured version of these talks here.

Tobbi eye tracking hard- and software
Tobii demo-ed their hard- and software solution for tracking people’s interactions with a screen through watching their eyes. In the past people had to have their face strapped into an immobile position for the hardware to determine where somebody was looking. Now this can be done completely dynamically. I sat in front of a screen which immediately picked up my eyes as two green dots. I closed my left eye and one dot was gone. After a calibration exercise I had to do a little test. Tobii’s software allows you to create tests with certain tasks (like looking at a webpage, or answering a question). The results of multiple test subjects can be aggregated to create heat map like overlays of where people looked at what microsecond.

This type of technology is hugely useful, but not often used in the educational world. Education is opinion-driven, not data-driven and that is a real shame. I would love for big IT projects to not only do “testing” against the business requirements, but also do UX testing with these types of technologies. The technology isn’t cheap: a simple 60Hz setup starts at around €25.000.

Social contextualization of content
Online EDUCA allows people to organize Special Interest Group (SIG) lunches. I was the host of one about the “Social Contextualisation of Content”. Recent developments like Facebook’s opening of the social graphs of their users and Amazon’s aggregated Kindle highlights have shown me very clearly that all our interactions with any type of content (books, magazines, videos and also learning content) will soon be augmented by a social layer. The first time I noticed the power of this idea was when I logged into Facebook while playing the Bejewelled iPhone game: suddenly I wasn’t trying to beat global highscores (how the hell can they score that 50 times as high as me), instead I was trying to beat my family and friends. In a world where Google will be gamed, what is more useful than knowing the thoughts of your friend and colleagues about products, ideas and information?

The lunch unfortunately did not really progress my ideas on this topic, but Olaf Dierker from the TeleLearn-Akademie did have some interesting examples of large US-based publishers who are creating social networks around course books. I’ll update this post with some URLs as soon as I get them from Olaf.

Improving business impact using mobile learning
This was a very full session. Mobile learning apparently is a topic that is on many people’s minds. First up was Erica Wadley from Microsoft. She was in a situation where there were endless amounts of 60-90 minute online courses that could only be accessed by turning on a corporate laptop, logging in, going to the Learning Management System, logging in again and searching for the course you need. Her audience was incredibly mobile and busy. They wanted access anywhere and anytime. She aligned her effort to go to a mobile solution with an internal effort to create a YouTube-like site for Microsoft. The videos from this site can be pushed to any mobile device.

Making this a successful change did require a big culture change (see, there it is again!). She branded her project strongly, did a lot of evangelising and educated people on how to create and use these materials. She created reward programs for usage of the system and found early adopters (“look for the bloggers”) who she equipped with a fourty dollar “podcasting in a box” kit. The results? 70% of the content is now built by the right people and she showed a very impressive graph with the uptake of mobile content consumption versus traditional elearning consumption. Proofing ROI therefore wasn’t a hard question.

One other idea I picked up from Erica was to have a newsletter that consists of nothing but pictures. A nice challenge that I might pick up whenever next I have send something out.

Adam Salkeld from Tinopolis talked about a mobile course his company had made teaching people some soft-skills around communication. They relied heavily on well produced and very funny videos (which ironically for a media production company didn’t play from his slides). He shared some of their lessons around the difficulties of trying to make it the same for every platform (in the end they dropped the Blackberry) and advised us to keep it simple when in doubt.

Clark Quinn, author of the forthcoming Designing mLearning book, gave a much more conceptual talk titled “Harnessing Magic, mLearning for Business Impact”. All mobile devices share the fact that they are a computing device that can have inputs, have output, are connected and have sensors. Mobile devices are accessed way more in a single day then traditional laptop or desktop computers, but have much shorter session times. When you pick up a device you are accessorizing your brain allowing the four C’s of mobile (content, compute, capture and communicate) to help you in your performance.

Battle of the bloggers
IBM’s Bert De Coutere, author of the fabulous Homo Competens book, kindly invited me as one of the three bloggers (Tom Wanbeke and John Traxler were the others) in this year’s “Battle of the Bloggers” session on the graveyard of learning. His goal was to answer the following question: What are the concepts, theories, best practices or trends in the land of the learning that we will declare dead and send to the heaven or hell they belong in? The voting technology of Shakespeak (a possible interesting alternative to PollEverywhere for interactive real-time audience voting and response) allowed the “Just don’t get the microphone near my face” OEB audience to participate in the discussion.

I think the session was more entertaining than insightful (the three bloggers were probably too like-minded), but we still got very positive responses afterwards. In about an hour we talked about Podcasting for Learning (alive), Mobile Learning Content (alive, with some provisos), Learning Styles (dead), Diplomas and Certification (very much alive) and ADDIE (most of the audience had never heard about this: dead).

Business plenary
Josh Bersin talked about what he calls a “High-Impact Learning Culture”, which according to him is the next “big thing” in corporate training.

First let me state that I have love-hate relationship with companies like Bersin. Many large corporations look to analysts like this for guidance in their decision making processes. They presumably to this to beat their competition. I have a common sense approach to this: if you want to do something better than other companies, you will have to do something different than other companies. By virtue of all companies listening to  the same analysts, the analysts have a homogenizing effect. Reading Bersin reports will therefore not drive your innovation. Bersin’s Enterprise Learning and Talent Management 2011: Predictions for the Coming Year – Building the Borderless Workplace is a good example. The ten predictions in there (e.g. “Innovation, Empowerment and Learning Culture Will Become Common Themes for Talent Management and Business Growth”, “Informal and Contineous Learning Will Continue to Transform Corporate L&D, and Will Drive Further Adoption of Internal Social Networking” or “Companies Will Start to Unravel and Replace Their 20-Plus Years of Investment in HRMS Systems – And Evolve to SaaS and More Modern Systems for Core HR Management”) are all very likely to occur in the next year, but the predictions itself should not be underestimated as part of the cause for them becoming the truth. Analysis will show good practice and maybe best practice, but it will not show you next practice (thank you Jay Cross for that last one).

That said, Josh Bersin did deliver a very interesting and engaging talk. He started with the current big focus on innovation as a consequence of the downsizing of the last year or so (my current role is probably a consequence of that) and the real struggle to hire talent while most companies are suffering from the aging of their workforce. He used Chevron as an example: 40% of their workforce have been with the company for more than 25 years and senior production engineers take 5-7 years before they are fully skilled up. How do we bridge that gap?

According to Bersin skill specilization is now driving value. High performing organizations realize they have to have specialists. Accenture for example has a hard time to continue their expansive business model. It is not good enough anymore to train their relatively smart generalists with some business skills and put them to work at a client. Customers now expect to procure world class experts.

He then went on to share an insightful result from his research: development planning is one of the key indicators for good performance (using median revenue per employee as a performance indicator). Real learning and developing is informal. If you ask people how they learned to do their job their answer is always something informal. Bersin sees this as an opportunity for the renaissance of the learning and development profession.

Is it important for organizations to have a true learning culture. Learning culture is the collective set of organizational values, processes and practices that encourages individuals and the organization to contineously increase knowledge, competence and performance. The Bersin team brainstormed and got to 40 practices that are manifestions of culture and correlated these with eight business performance indicators to get some very interesting results. The 40 practices are divided into six “families” of cultural practice:

  • Building trust (it is important for people to be able to share what doesn’t work, “knowledge can be shared without political risk”)
  • Demonstrating value of learning (you will always find people that are passionate about developing themselves, you have to honour and value that)
  • Knowledge sharing (traditional instructional design is too slow for many things)
  • Empowering employees (people need to have control over their jobs, autonomy, Microsoft is suffering from these problems currently: people are really confused as to how decisions are made)
  • Learning as a process
  • Encouraging reflection (giving people time to think about what they have learned)

The five practices with the highest impact are:

  • Leaders are open to “bad news”.
  • Asking questions is encouraged.
  • Decision-making processes are clearly defined throughout the company.
  • Employees are frequently given tasks or projects beyond their current knowledge or skill level in order to stretch them developmentally.
  • Employees have influence over which job tasks are assigned to them.

The bottom line of the research is that innovation and business success depend heavily on a learning culture. This culture can be built taking the following into account:

  • New roles and skills for Learning & Development (content manager, community manager, connection manager, performance consultant)
  • New reward and policy systems (promoting and rewarding knowledge sharing)
  • Leadership is critical to success (of the 40 practices 33 are owned by line management and senior leadership, only 7 are in the hands of the L&D organization).

I would love to get my hands on this research and study the research methodology. If this is indeed solid, then it should be a huge driver for the ambition to change.

Balancing individual and organization learning
This session was a bit disappointing to me. It was very traditional in its form and the chair did his utmost best to turn it into an ELIG commercial. Some choice quotes:

Paul Hunter told us that individuals are members of various communities both in an out of “work”. Your organisation is a collection of communities. Learning happens in communities across boundaries. Learning happens through individuals bringing their outside community in.

Bersin spoke again about the impending retirement of older workers and senior executives and how this is still a really big problem for companies. He sees an opportunity for stronger alumni networks: allowing people to scale down while still being involved.

Martti Raevaara is Vice President of the Aalto University: where science and art meet technology and business. This is an innovation university built in 3 years. They don’t compete with their salaries, but with an inspiring environment. All curricula must be based on future scenarios and competencies with enough flexibility for new studies.

Carin Martell from Exact Learning Solutions was there “to increase the diversity aspect of the panel” (which I thought was an insensitive and unnecessary statement). Her talk was very much focused on the tool that she was there to promote, but she had one brilliant example that caught my eye: the Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok. This hospital has no waiting lists and treats over 500.000 “healthcare tourists” each year. They can only do this by staying at the forefront of medical science. Do yourself a favour and look at their pricelists to realise that we are doing something wrong somewhere.

Working smarter with learning networks
The Internet Time Alliance hosted this session in which they could share their ideas about “working smarter”. For me it is interesting to track the way that their thinking has evolved since last year. Jay Cross does not talk about “learnscapes” anymore, he now calls it “workscapes”. Charles Jennings talks about “real learning” to battle the “conspiracy of convenience”. Harold Jarche links where and how work will be done to the Cynefin framework: anything that is simple is being automated, if the work is complicated the work will be pushed to countries with low labour cost (remember the hospital?). Complex work requires creativity, passion, specialisation and is what we need to start focusing on (this aligns with what Josh Bersin was saying).

Jay Cross then made a very good point: we need to stop judging technology without giving it a try. You cannot have a sensible opinion about something that you haven’t experienced. As an innovation manager that is something that I am convinced of too.

Another interesting concept that I picked up in the session was the “social media cigarette break”. Many organizations don’t allow people access to tools like Facebook and Twitter, cutting people off from their valuable networks. This forces people to take a break from their corporate PC’s and use Twitter on their smartphone in the toilet if they want to find out something quick using their social network. An absurd situation.

At the end of the session I had an interesting chat with Clark Quinn who is a former student of Donald Norman (one of my heroes). We talked about the appaling state of design understanding in the learning function and I shared my feeling that we don’t do enough engineering of the environment of the employee to get the behaviours we want. When we want to change how somebody does their job, we always try to intervene at the level of the individual, rather than in their environment.

Winner of the best learning game
Through Twitter (I wasn’t in the session) I learned that the winner of the best learning game award was Enercities. I have put it on my list of things to look at and might report on it in the near future.

The importance of decent wifi
The Internet connection during the event wasn’t optimal. There were many moments where the wireless connection just wasn’t working for me. I really felt dismembered at those times. How was I to enhance and contexualize the information I was hearing? I cannot be the only one who expects a flawless connection when they come to a conference and I do hope that ICWE will manage to get this sorted next year.

Conclusion
All in all this event has shown that it is worthwile coming back year after year. There is no other way to get connected to as many new ideas and people in such a short time. Where else would one meet the former world champion in Pooh Sticks?

Learning in 3D: Please Join My Reading Group

Learning in 3D

Learning in 3D

My company is piloting serious gaming in the learning domain using an immersive 3D environment based on the Unreal engine. We are on the cusp of developing a game around hazard recognition scenarios that are based on real life experiences. Because of this I am reading up on serious gaming and game design in general. After finishing the brilliant The Art of Game Design by Jesse Schell (more about that book in a later post), I now want to tackle Learning in 3D, Adding a New Dimension to Enterprise Learning and Collaboration by Kapp and O’Driscoll.

I have decided to start a reading group which will read the ten chapters of the book in ten weeks (there is a preview of the chapters here). We will use blogs, Twitter, Delicious and a weekly teleconference to communicate around the book.

So how will this work?

Goal
The book provides principles for architecting 3D learning experiences (including a maturity model for immersive technologies) and has lessons on and examples of implementations in enterprise situations. The goal of the reading group is to actively internalise these lessons and see how they can be applied in our own organisation(s).

Participants
As I want this reading group to impact the learning function in my own organisation I intend for about 50% of the participants to work for Shell and for the rest to come from my network outside of Shell. The minimum number of participants is 5 (doing two chapters each) and the maximum is 40 (four people per chapter and incidentally the limit of our teleconferencing solution). Everybody will have to acquire their own copy of the book. (I used the Book Depository to buy this book, as they have free shipping, note that I will earn a small referral fee if you click this link and then buy the book).

Process
The reading group will have a weekly rhythm with a particular chapter of the book as the focus of attention. The following activities will happen every week:

  • One or more people will be assigned to write a summary of the chapter on their blog (if they don’t have a blog, they email me the summary and I will publish it on this blog). The summary ends with at least one multiple choice poll and a discussion question/proposition, both used as input for the teleconference.
  • All reading group participants will be tweeting questions and comments about the book (using a designated hashtag, see below).
  • Each participant will try to add at least one interesting link to Delicious (again with a hashtag) that relates to the chapter of that week.
  • At the end of the week (actually on a Monday), there is a teleconference where the summarisers for that week lead a discussion about the chapter, using the poll and the discussion question/proposition as input.

Hashtag and aggregation
All Delicious URLs, blogposts and Tweets should be tagged with the #Lin3DRG hash tag (stands for: Learning in 3D Reading Group). This will allow me to try some smart ways of aggregating and displaying the data using things like Yahoo Pipes or Downes’ gRSShopper. I promise to write another post on my aggregation strategies.

When and where?
It is going to be a virtual affair, co-creating on the web. We will start reading on April 19th, will have our first weekly 30 minute teleconference on Monday April 26th at 15:30 Amsterdam time and will close out on June 28th (so we will have 10 telcons on ten consecutive Mondays at the same time, it is not a problem if you miss one, we will record them).

Do  you want to join the reading group? Then please fill out a comment with your name, email address, blog URL (not required) and any comments or questions you might have at the bottom of this post. I will get back to you with your assigned chapter(s), some more information on the process and the call in details for the teleconference. You can put your name down until Monday April 19th.

I am really looking forward to it!