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Talking Games and Gamification (for Learning) with Karl Kapp

Karl Kapp Gamification

On Thursday, I wrote about a way that BINGO could be used as an engagement tool during learning programs (and shared this free, cool BINGO card generator).

As part of that post, I shared a downloadable BINGO card you can use to follow along with today’s podcast (or just skim the transcript below) and play along at home. The first five folks who send me a completed BINGO card, marking off the 5 concepts that Karl and I actually spoke about in the podcast, will earn themselves a $10 Starbucks card (my email address is

“But Brian, there are eight concepts on this BINGO card!”

That’s a very good observation. Karl and I only spoke about five of these. That’s what makes this challenge worthwhile!

BINGO Contest

Without further ado, I present to you this week’s episode of Train Like You Listen featuring games and gamification expert Karl Kapp, who offers some insights on the differences between games and gamification, suggests that a game need not be “fun” in order for learning to take place, and shares his preference on competitive vs. cooperative games.

Transcript of the Conversation with Karl Kapp

Brian Washburn: Welcome, everyone to another episode of Train Like You Listen, a weekly podcast about all things learning and development in bite-sized chunks. I’m Brian Washburn, your host. And Train Like You Listen is brought to you by Soapbox, the world’s first and only rapid authoring tool for instructor-led learning. It’s a little bit like Instant Pot for instructional design.

You put a few ingredients in. How long is your presentation? How many people are going to attend? If it’s virtual, what’s the platform that you’re using? If it’s in-person, what’s the seating arrangement? What are your learning objectives? You hit enter and suddenly you have a lesson plan. So Soapbox is like Instant Pot for learning and development.

Today I am joined by the famous Karl Kapp, gamification guru who is the Professor of Instructional Technology at Bloomsburg University. And Karl, thank you so much for joining us today.

Karl Kapp: Thanks for having me, Brian. Very excited to be here.

6-Word Introduction

Brian Washburn: Well we’re excited to have you. And like we always do with all of our guests, we like to make sure that people keep their introductions short. So six-word biography. So for me as I think about this topic of gamification today, if I had to introduce myself to the world in six words on this topic, I would say “I’ve always loved to play games”. How about you, Karl? How would you introduce yourself and boil everything you’ve ever done down in six words?

Karl Kapp: Yeah. That’s a great challenge. A great game, if you will. But I thought about it and I think “games and gamification, learner and teacher”.

Brian Washburn: I like it. I like it. There’s a parallel to those concepts. And we’re talking about gamification, but a lot of times that term is used interchangeably in the world of training or instructional design with just “games”. “I put a game in there, so I’ve gamified my training.” So before we go any further, would you mind explaining what you feel is a difference between gamification and games?

What Is The Difference Between Gamification and Games?

Karl Kapp: Yeah, exactly. And that’s why both are actually in the six-word introduction. Right? Because they’re not the same thing. 

So a game, specifically a game for learning, is a self-contained unit that has multiple elements that each contribute to the experience. So it’s kind of like what they call a Magic Circle. When you’re in playing that game, you’re in the game, experience the game, the rules for the game only work within the game or typically only work within the game. So a good example of that is golf, right? A really good way to be successful at golf is to pick up the ball and put it in that stupid hole, but that’s breaking the rule. 

Gamification, on the other hand, is taking game elements and bits and pieces and applying them to a non-game situation. So for example, you get points for answering a question or you earn badges for learning knowledge. There’s not much else to it. It’s not an integrated package. It’s these pieces. Now you can integrate several pieces and get it closer to a game. But gamification is really about the motivation, the psychological aspects of propelling someone through content rather than a game where you can actually have this self-contained experience. 

Brian Washburn: And it’s interesting, the more elements you incorporate, the closer to a game it feels.

Karl Kapp: Exactly.

Brian Washburn: So a lot of times the examples that you see whether it’s instructor-led training or e-learning, you have points, you have badges, you have leaderboards, right? Those are the big elements that most people are familiar with. And maybe you get some sort of prize or some sort of competition that’s there too. But beyond points and badges and leaderboards, what else is there when we talk about game elements that people can start to think about putting into games?

What Game Elements Can You Put Into Training Gamification? 

Karl Kapp: Yeah. That’s a great question. Sometimes we call points, badges, and leaderboards the evil trifecta of gamification or the evil axis of gamification. Because everybody tends to those, but nobody plays a game just for points, badges, or leaderboards. 

So why do you play a game? Well, one is for a sense of mastery. So giving somebody a sense of mastery. One is for a sense of progression. Giving people a sense of progression of knowing where they are. Feedback loops for knowing if you’re doing it correctly. Story is an element of games. Also an element of game is challenge. Overcoming challenges is an element of game. And we as humans create our own challenges whether we need it or not. 

So we do a lot of really interesting things for challenges. We do a lot of interesting things. 

Exploration is an element of games that we don’t often think about. Doing things that we’re not sure of or not certain of, taking chances or risks, or doing things that are socially probably frowned upon. A good example of that is Cards Against Humanity, right? We play that game, say things in that game that we would never say in any other context, and that’s kind of an element of a game. The what-if element of game. Say, “I know I’m not supposed to do this, but what if I did that?” That’s an element of games. Solving problems is an element of games. So all those are elements that a lot of people don’t think of but are really critical in my opinion to what I call advanced gamification or rich gamification or some people call “gameful design”. All those elements beyond the points, badges, and leaderboards.

Brian Washburn: Yeah. And you’re talking about all the things that seem fun. One question that I would love to hear your perspective from is, why do people like games? Why do people like to play?

Why Do People Like Playing Games?

Karl Kapp: Yeah. That’s a great question. So there’s not one answer. It’s multiple answers. For example, during the pandemic people like to play games as a form of escapism. But also, they like to play games to make meaning. So for example, there’s a bunch of games, Pandemic, Plague, etc, which are all about deadly diseases that are killing hundreds of thousands of people. And those games have never been more popular.

And you’re like, “well, that’s kind of morbid”. Well actually, it’s people trying to make sense of the world around them. Trying to figure out what’s going on. So “what would it be like if I could fight a pandemic?” Or “what would it be like if I was actually the virus infecting people?” So that gives us a sense of what we’re about.

Games also give us a sense of control. They give us a sense of they allow us to indulge our fantasies. So if you’re playing Call of Duty, for example, and you’re charging Normandy Beach. You would be terrifying in real life, but in a game you can sit back a little bit and say, “oh, these are what these people went through.” And “oh my goodness”. Or “what would it be like to go to another planet?” So you get to do that.

Games are also great because they give us immediate feedback. We know right away if we do something incorrectly or correctly in a game. They teach us right away. Sometimes in a learning setting, we don’t get feedback for– you know, if you’re in a college, you don’t get feedback until your midterm exam, which doesn’t make any sense.

So there’s a lot of reasons why different people play games – to make meaning of what’s going on, to explore different opportunities, to see how it’d feel to be or do something that they normally wouldn’t feel or do, to do something taboo like in Cards Against Humanity. And to have a sense of where I am in relationship to other people. What’s my score? What’s their score? So all those things contribute to why people like to play games.

Brian Washburn: Yeah. And when you think about that in a learning context, this idea of risk-taking doing something that you might not otherwise do, with fun elements, seems like it’s at the core of what we want to get to. It’s like the holy grail of learning experiences. Where you’re able to get people feeling comfortable and wanting to take some risks and do some things.

Who Are The Best Learners And Why?

Karl Kapp: Yes. I mean it really is. I mean, I always like to go back when people talk about learning, I think of who is the best learner that I’ve ever met? Who learns like a sponge? Kids. Kids learn like sponges. Kids are expert learners. We eventually will beat it out of them. But for a number of years when you’re first born to like about five, six, maybe 10, you’re an awesome learner.

And look at what kids do. They go to school and they come home and they play school. Well, why do they play school? A lot of them will tell you, “I don’t even like school”. But somebody is a teacher, somebody is a student. They raise their hands. They’re experimenting with that environment. They’re socialized and they’re becoming comfortable with it. They’re finding out what the boundaries are.

So all of those things are what make games really effective teaching tools because they let us explore, they let us do what if, they let us take those risks that you talked about. And then they show us what the consequences are. So games are wonderful tools in a lot of different ways for teaching and learning.

Brian Washburn: And I want to stick to this point for a second because one of the things that makes games in general fun is their voluntary nature. “I want to play school.” “I want to play Jenga.” “I want to play Mario Kart.” “I want to play something.” But in the world of learning and development, training isn’t always voluntary. In fact, it’s rarely voluntary. So how can we incorporate gamification into training initiatives without it feeling like forced fun or mandatory family game night type of thing?

How Do You Successfully Incorporate Gamification Into Training?

Karl Kapp: Right. So one of the things that’s really interesting about the research on games and gamification is you don’t have to indicate that you had fun in order to have learned. So a lot of times gamification is focused on fun, but actually it should be focused on engagement. It should be focused on active learning because we know active learning is a really powerful tool for learning.

So I sometimes will frame– so rather than forcing people to play a game, I’ll say, “hey, we have this activity that involves this and this and here’s what you do”. And you’re actually explaining a game, but you never use the word game because sometimes there’s a lot of baggage with that word. I always tell people it’s a four-letter word, so you’ve got to be careful with it.

Brian Washburn: Absolutely.

Karl Kapp: So when you do these activities and engaging, if you know as the instructor that this is active learning and going to lead to a positive learning outcome, you kind of have to stick to your guns. So it was so funny, I was telling my wife the other day, I said, “there were two shots in my life I look forward to. When I was younger I hated getting shots. I cried, I hated the needles. One was the shingles shot and one is the COVID shot that hopefully I’m going to get soon.” So who knows when, but hopefully.

So the idea is “I don’t like it, but it’s good for me”. And as an instructor you’ve got to say to people, “look, I’m the professional. You might not like this activity, but you know that it leads to this learning outcome. So we’re going to do it”.

Brian Washburn: Yeah. I like calibrating expectations. And there’s lots of learning activities whether it’s game-like or not that people don’t like. So why not put something in there that hopefully is going to add some engagement. Hopefully it’ll be fun. But otherwise engaging and effective in terms of the outcomes you’re looking to achieve. Now when it comes to games, sometimes the best games, you mentioned Pandemic, can be the most complex. There’s a lot of rules in there. And just a side note, on New Year’s Eve was the first time that my children, their cousins and I ever beat Pandemic. We’ve played many, many times.

Karl Kapp: Wow. Congratulations. That’s a hard game. Yeah. I’ll give you Pandemic: Legacy.

Brian Washburn: Well, this is actually Pandemic: The Cure. 

But when it comes to instructions for how to do something, how to navigate, whether it’s a game or a gamified element, they can sometimes be complex. Do you have any thoughts in terms of how instructional designers can create a gamified learning experience without overwhelming the learners with complicated instructions?

Advice For Keeping It Simple When It Comes to Game Design

Karl Kapp: I do. That’s a great question. And I’ve run into that conundrum. I’ve created many complicated games. One game using Unity and one thing that surprised me was the players didn’t know how to turn the character. So they would run the character around in circles.

So what I’ve done is I’ve actually gravitated toward card games, digital card games. So I’m working with an organization called Enterprise Game Stack which is digital card games. And the thing about that is people know cards. So I don’t have to explain, like “you draw a car” or “you have a hand”. So using games that are simple. But you can get very complex.

So, for example, one of the games has scenarios. You go over the scenario because nobody likes a role-play. 

Brian Washburn: Sure. Yep.

Karl Kapp: So it’s kind of a disguised role play. But then you challenge somebody’s answer to the role play. So now you’re ensuring that the other people listening to the role-play are actually paying attention and not daydreaming. So one of the things that I think you can do in general and designers should do is think about what kind of simple games can get our reaction? Because people have a lot more tolerance for complex games on their own entertainment-wise than they do in a corporate academic setting.

Brian Washburn: Yep.

Karl Kapp: So I think we have to get to games that are very quick. So we can get to a lot of layers of complexity with that scenario game with the different cards of challenges, but everybody’s comfortable with “oh, I know how a card game, I discard cards, I play a card”, all that kind of stuff. They’re really comfortable with it. So I would recommend moving more toward something that — and even if people haven’t played a card game before, somebody else on their team has played and can explain it to them. But if you do like a massive multi player role play game with characters and avatars, it becomes really difficult. And you lose the learning sometimes.

Brian Washburn:  You lose the learners. They’re like, “I don’t get this. Whatever.”

Karl Kapp: “I’m not going to play games.”

Brian Washburn: (CHUCKLING) So the last big question I have for you is, can you share with us one of the most fun gamification projects you’ve ever worked on?

What Is The Most Fun Gamification Project You Ever Worked On?

Karl Kapp: Wow that’s a great question. So a couple. So I think the digital card game is a lot of fun. And I did a game one time, this is great, I went to this large publishing– So I work in academia, so we don’t have a lot of money. So I went to this large publishing house and they were like, “hey, we’re going to create a gamified testing platform to teach kids how to take high stakes tests.” I’m like, “great”. Then he’s like, “we want you to come talk about gamific–”. I’m like, “great”. I said, “wow, it’d really be great if we had an artist who could do comics because we’re going to need that”.

Next week on the phone with them, “hi, I want you to meet the artist. He’s going to do comics for us”. So I’m like, “oh my gosh”. We’re talking like and I’m like, “we really should have students that we can test”. The next week, we’ve got students lined up. Everything I asked for they gave. It was awesome.

We created this really cool thing where you would start in a lower grade as a junior superhero. And as you took these tests, you would get items that you could add to your superhero arsenal. And then you could challenge other people. And it was this whole world that we created of superhero gamification achievements of taking high stakes tests. And that was really one of the most exciting gamification projects that I’ve ever done because literally the resources just kept coming. I’m like, “maybe I should ask for like a Ferrari or something”.

Brian Washburn: (LAUGHING) Like working for a genie.

Karl Kapp: It was. It was amazing. I’m like, “wow”. Because in academia, it’s “maybe we’ll give you PowerPoint, but let’s see what tuition is next year”. 

Brian Washburn: Yeah. “Can you use Google Slides, maybe free?” 

Karl Kapp: (LAUGHING) “Can you do puppets? Shadows or something?

Get To Know Karl Kapp

Brian Washburn: So we’ve come to the end of the big questions. But I still have a few speed round questions if you have a little time. Do you more time for us?

Karl Kapp: Sure, yeah. Absolutely.

Brian Washburn: Perfect. The first question I have for you is, do you prefer competitive or cooperative games?

Karl Kapp: I like cooperative games. I think they are a lot more fun and require a lot more strategy.

Brian Washburn: Yeah. I was just introduced to the world of cooperative games a few years ago. And where have these been all my life? 

Karl Kapp: Right.

Brian Washburn: This is so fun.

Karl Kapp: They’re much bigger in Europe than the United States, which I think is something interesting about our culture as well.

Brian Washburn: That is interesting. But I think I’ve always found that once I introduce people to cooperative games, people are like, “oh, this is really cool”. And they’re so much better to play with my kids when we’re all working together as opposed to playing Monopoly which never ends.

Karl Kapp: Never ends well.

Brian Washburn: What’s a piece of training tech that you can’t live without?

Karl Kapp: Oh, that’s a great question. So well, right now in the pandemic it would be virtual instructor-led classroom stuff. I think that’s really, really critical. And then PowerPoint. And I say that not because a lecture of PowerPoint, but PowerPoint is a really awesome tool when you get under the covers a little bit. You can edit art. You can add fields to it. Another tool I use an audience response tool. And I love that. I do interactive stories with the audience response tool. So I think those are good tools as well.

Brian Washburn: Do you have a specific audience response tool?

Karl Kapp: I use Poll Everywhere.

Brian Washburn: Yeah. That’s the one I use and other people have mentioned here.

Karl Kapp: It’s awesome. And the cool thing I started using it back when you had to type in numbers in your old flip phones. And one of the feedback I got from somebody who said, “why are you using a technology that not everybody can use?” And I just thought, if we don’t learn how to use these technologies by the time they catch on we’ll be behind. So you’ve got to use technology that you may not be certain about it, but it’s something that will have an impact.

Brian Washburn: Do you have anything that people should be listening to or reading these days?

Karl Kapp: I just started on YouTube the Unofficial, Unauthorized History of Learning Games. So that’s a lot of fun. I take a look at the history of learning games and then apply the lessons from those games to what we can do today. So I think that’s kind of interesting.

I always advise people to listen to and read things outside of the field. Because I think creativity is a juxtaposition, the two or more things that don’t seem to go together. So listening to things outside of the field, I think is really helpful. I actually listen to a lot of NPR podcasts because the way they tell stories I think is so informative. And it’s really something that I think we should all take advantage of.

Brian Washburn: Hidden Brain I think is really interesting.

Karl Kapp: Right. Yeah. Oh, it’s wonderful. Yeah.

Brian Washburn: Before we leave I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask if you have any shameless plugs.

Karl Kapp: Well, other than that YouTube channel. But so if anyone’s interested in learning about gamification and you have LinkedIn Learning, I’ve got several courses on LinkedIn Learning in training and education. Most organizations have those and it’s free to most people. So that’s a great thing.

If you’re a little more academic and want to dive into it, I’ve got my book, The Gamification of Learning and Instruction. Just did a book on Microlearning with Robyn Defelice and did a book with Sharon Boller called Play To Learn, which was a lot of fun. And then if you’re interested in digital card games, the Enterprise Game Stack is a really cool project that I’m involved with.

And then, finally, one more I guess is I’m doing a project called the L&D Mentor Academy. And so it’s a series of courses and a live monthly event where I get people together and we basically have created this consortium, and we exchange ideas and concepts and things like that. So if anybody is interested in that, let me know. I can send them a link. Or maybe you have the links.

Brian Washburn: Yeah. So if you could send me the links, and we’ll put it in the show notes. Absolutely.

Karl Kapp: Great.

Brian Washburn: This has been so much fun, Karl, to talk with you. I would love to do this for another 20 minutes, another 20 minutes, another 20 minutes after that. Hopefully we can have you back here. But Karl Kopp, Professor of Instructional Technology at Bloomsburg University. Thank you for joining us and thank you, everyone, for listening to another episode of Train Like You Listen. It can be found on Spotify, on Apple, iHeartRadio, or wherever you get your podcasts. If you like what you hear, go ahead and give us a rating. That’s how other people find out about us. Until next time, happy training everyone.

This week’s podcast is sponsored by Soapbox.  Sign up today for a free demo.

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