Karl Kapp has written 8 books, created 11 LinkedIn Learning courses and has an entire YouTube channel devoted to games and game design. Spending just about 20 minutes or so with him, talking about games, game design and how to bring game elements into learning (even if you’re not going to design an actual game) has made me want to figure out how to bring more than just Jeopardy or Kahoot to my next training session.
Brian Washburn: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Train Like You Listen, a podcast about all things learning and development in bite-sized chunks. I’m Brian Washburn, your host; I’m also the Co-founder of an instructional design company called Endurance Learning. And today I’m very excited to have back a very special guest, the author of eight books, 11 LinkedIn Learning courses; he’s the professor of instructional technology at Commonwealth University and all-around gaming guru, Karl Kapp. How are you, Karl?
Karl Kapp: I’m great, Brian. Thanks for having me. Very excited to be back.
Brian Washburn: Well, I’m excited to have you. Before we get into the hard-hitting questions, I do need to let everyone know that today’s episode is brought to you by Soapbox, an online tool that you can use for 5 or 10 minutes, and you can take care of 50 or 60% of the work when it comes to developing a live, instructor-led training. You tell the computer how long your presentation is, how many people are going to attend, whether it’s in-person or virtual, what your learning objectives are, and then Soapbox will get you about 50 or 60% of the way there with a training lesson plan that has activities all designed to help you accomplish your learning outcomes. For more information, or if you’d like to try it for free for 2 weeks, go ahead and visit www.soapboxify.com.
Brian Washburn: All right. Karl, you are here. I introduced you with a little bit of background and all the amazing things you’ve done, but you have a very special introduction that is exactly six or maybe even five words. How would you introduce yourself to our guests with a very brief memoir?
Karl Kapp: I would say, “Karl Kapp playing, learning, and having fun.”
Brian Washburn: I love it. And I think that that exudes or kind of exemplifies who you are, at least what I know of you from the interactions that we’ve had. And I’m excited to talk about games because there is a debate that always seems to be raging on LinkedIn or in the more learned circles when it comes to instructional design. Should learning be fun? Should it be engaging? Or does it just need to be effective? I’m in the camp that says, you know, it doesn’t have to be either/or. In fact, I think learning should actually be engaging. It should be fun and effective. Can you share a little bit of your thoughts or philosophy around how well-crafted games can play a role in making learning effective and fun and engaging?
How Can Games Make Learning Engaging?
Karl Kapp: Yeah, so it’s so interesting to me that we do get into this debate, and we don’t need to because the elements of games that are interesting to us, like overcoming challenges, seeing if we can be better than ourselves, comparing ourselves to others, comparing our past knowledge to future knowledge – that’s all happens in a game. And, there was a gentleman named Raph Koster who wrote a book called Theory of Fun. And Raph basically says fun equals learning. And if it’s done right, it is fun and we do enjoy it.
And even if we extract elements out– so for example, I’m working on a project and we’re teaching people who are learning to be veterinarians what it’s like to be in an animal hospital if you’ve never been in an animal hospital before. And we’re using a technique from games where you unlock different rooms so that you can see what’s going on. Now, it’s not a game by any stretch of the imagination, but we’re using a game element because somehow the game people got– the game people get everything first, right? They got the metaverse way before ChatGPT and all those other people– well, ChatGPT is actually AI.
But they got AI they had– if you ever played with a non-player character, they’re AI. If you’ve ever gone into Minecraft, that’s a metaverse, right? So the game people are way ahead of everyone else, and they are in learning as well. So they just use these little tiny elements, these little details that make things frictionless, easy, and fun, and it leads to the right learning outcome.
Now, I think one of the– just real quick- one of the things that I think people mistaken is a lot of jobs have things that are not fun, that are tedious, that are mind-numbing and people say, “Well, they just have to know how to do that.” Well, people– we’re not robots, right? People want to have a little enjoyment. They want to have the social interaction. They want to have a little bit of a smile on their face, so adding that really makes life a little bit better. And why punish people in making learning so didactic and so onerous that they don’t want to do it or go through it?
Brian Washburn: Yeah, it’s interesting. There’s a couple of things that struck me as you were talking about that in terms of your last point. You know, I had a boss. I would sometimes– some of my coworkers may have shared feedback with me that perhaps I’m a little too direct sometimes or get grumpy. I had a boss who would say, “Yeah, Brian, you’re right when you tell your colleagues this, but are you effective?” And the same thing with learning, right? So yeah, sure, just tell me what I need to know. Well, you can, but is that effective, right? So, that’s certainly a direct way to do it, but are you going to remember it? You know, are you going to learn anything else as a result of that?
The other thing that struck me with what you said is that you’re working on a project where you’re not necessarily building a game, but you’re using game elements. You’re bringing certain game elements in to make it more engaging, more effective. Now, when I think of games that people use in training, you know, a lot of times I’ll see things like Jeopardy or in the past few years, people play Kahoot. Those are the most common examples of games that I see day in and day out in training sessions. But these just seem to– they test knowledge, they test recall. One of our most popular training activities that we use with Endurance Learning is inspired by the children’s game Guess Who, and it allows for more discussion, more debate, more critical thinking than a quiz show type of game. We will give people a clue, and then they need to start eliminating, you know, different choices. Like if you’re a salesperson that’s selling a variety of products, we’ll give a clue and then you have to start eliminating some of those products and then another clue, and you can eliminate more products, right? Similar to get to where you’re flipping down the different characters.
And we found that to be super effective. We do it in person. We do it virtually. We’ve created eLearning programs that do this. Are there some other games that people would be well-served to pay attention to, like Candyland or whatever it might be, that you think people could draw better inspiration for more effective learning activities or games than Jeopardy?
Which Games Can Help People Learn?
Karl Kapp: Yeah, so you have to match the right game to the right instructional strategy. So Jeopardy, if you’re going to teach a recall, it’s fantastic. If you’re going to teach problem-solving, not the best choice, right? So there’s lots of different game designs. So the one thing I’ll say is if you’ve only ever played Monopoly or Jeopardy or Wheel Fortune, then that’s all the games that you’re going to develop. So the one thing I say to a lot of people, let’s play lots of different games. Like, so for example, Catan and a lot of games like that have actions that you can do each turn. And just like a real life, I have four choices I could do, or I could do a little bit of this and a little bit of that, a little bit of this. And so action makes sense. So, having somebody do several actions on a turn makes sense. So, using those kind of games.
I think another thing that we overlook a lot is mystery or real-life whodunit. So a lot of jobs, “You’re solving a problem like, “Oh, should we really fund this claim?” I talk to people who work in insurance like, “No, we don’t fund any claim, but let’s for a moment pretend that insurance companies do want to fund your claims.”
So you have to figure out, like, is this a legitimate claim? And do they have the right coverage? You know, that’s a real-life mystery. Or how do I get to this client who hasn’t, you know– I’m a salesperson and they don’t want to talk to me. How do I do that? Well, it’s kind of figuring out this mystery of how do you get to that decision maker? So using mystery and those types of games work well.
Using cooperative games like Catan I talked about before or games where everybody has to work together. There’s a game called Forbidden Island where everybody’s trying to work to get off the island. Hey, everybody’s trying to work together to make the sale. Hey, everybody’s trying to make the right product. Like, maybe we should bring those together.
Candyland that you mentioned, I do a series called the Unofficial, Unauthorized, History of Learning Games or Unauthorized, Unofficial, it switches. But I examined Candyland the other day and it’s very fascinating to me the thought– people are like “it’s a child’s game. It’s so simple. It’s boring.” But the thought that went into the design of that game is tremendous. So the reason why is because Candyland was built for the exact opposite of being immobilized in a hospital. In a white, sterile, non-movement environment. And so, Eleanor Abbott, who created that game, wanted to go against it.
It’s just like, you know, you look at Jackson Pollock paintings, and you’re like, “Oh my goodness, I could do that. Like, what’s the– why the big deal?” But what you have to understand is the context in which that occurred, before Jackson the era, the mood, the paintings were hyper realistic, almost to photographic quality. And he said, “Wait a minute, what about the freedom of paint? What about the freedom of movement? Let’s add that.” So when you think of a game or adding game elements, what about the freedom of movement?
So the thing I like about game design and applying it to learning is there’s a lot of thought behind the little details, the little elements, the aesthetics, the feeling that you get when you’re playing the game. So, I would say to people, look, if you’re trying to teach people how to go into, let’s say a situation, maybe you’re working as a social worker and you have to go into some pretty dire situations. The training that they have should be like dull colors, a little muted so that you can convey the feeling that you’ll be walking into.
So that kind of a sense of aesthetics and understanding that art influences feeling and same thing with learning. And we know from, you know, episodic memory that we tie learning to memorable events. So I often say to people, think of the time when you had struggled learning something and really struggled to get it, and then you finally got it. You can probably remember exactly what that content was, exactly what that situation was, because it’s tied to your memory. When we take learning and we strip out all emotion and all elements that make it interesting or fun or even frustrating, then we’ve got nothing left and nobody’s going to remember that, right?
So Code Word works because you remember the frustration of thinking what common elements are there, right? And they’re like, “Oh, I knew it, you know, but I missed it,” or “I got it. I nailed it.” Hey, you know, if you nail something like that, you tell your friends and their friends, and you come home and you tell your wife, “Hey, I was playing Code Word today in a training session.” And I want, you know– so those kind of emotions are not in a lot of “click next to continue,” “read these bullet points,” “answer this multiple choice question.”
So, the series The Unofficial, Unauthorized, I look at historic games – the Oregon Trail. I look at the very first card game, which was in 940 A.D. That was the first time they think they can find cards because cards tend to disappear over time.
Brian Washburn: Sure.
Karl Kapp: So they think that was the first time, but it may not be, it may be even older. And the first card game was a scenario-based game and it was a drinking game, which is just amazing to me. Okay, at 940, they had a drinking game. I mean, that’s just, you know– but the idea is it wasn’t a numerical game. It was a scenario-based game. So I think scenario-based card games are an excellent form of learning because you don’t have to explain to somebody what a card game is, right? Not everybody plays World of Warcraft. They should, but they don’t. And so to explain to them about inventory management and about quest and about different you know, warrior classes and mage and all that, but if you got a card– okay, I want you to shuffle this. And then I want you to deal everybody four cards. Oh, everybody knows what that means to shuffle and to deal four cards. I don’t have to explain that.
So there’s a lot of advantages to using simple tools for games and looking at historical, learning games, and then figuring out what we can divine to add into our instruction. Again, we don’t have to make it a game. Although that’s helpful, but if we use those elements and those sensibilities, we can have a much more effective experience.
Brian Washburn: Let’s talk about some of those elements because– and you mentioned this in my experience, learning games can be really hard to put together. People who design games for a living are, I would say, quite brilliant. You know, it’s not just something that anybody can do and do well on a whim. Good game designers make the game experience flow. Whether or not you like to sit there and read the instructions at the beginning of the game, because there are some games that are like, “Oh my gosh, it’s so complex. Let’s just start playing and let’s figure it out and let’s go back to the directions after we start playing.”
There’s a ton of thought and planning and intention that goes behind games that are out there that we can play like Monopoly, anything from Monopoly to Pandemic to Candyland have all been thought through really well. So that like, once you get the instructions, it is like, “Wow, this is a really fun experience.” And when you don’t put a game– and I’ve designed games that just flop, right? And yeah, it doesn’t work.
Karl Kapp: We all have. I mean, everybody has. If you haven’t, then you’re not designing very many games.
What Game Elements Should Instructional Designers Use When Designing Games for Learning?
Brian Washburn: So, what are some of those elements, like basic game elements, that the creators of these games are using that people who want to design learning games for their training session should be thinking about?
Karl Kapp: Yeah. So, I think that’s a really interesting question. So one thing is consequential choices, so that when you within the course of the game make a choice, it has some kind of rippling effect somewhere else in the game, whether it’s immediate or whether it’s two or three turns later. Another really interesting thing that a lot of people forget is what are the people doing who– it’s not their turn? So if it’s not your turn, are you strategizing? Are you scheming? Or are you waiting like, “Hurry up, get this turnover because I can’t wait to go”? So when you think about–
Brian Washburn: And that’s the thing. So that’s like a game like Pandemic.
Karl Kapp: Mhm.
Brian Washburn: Like you’re sitting there and you’re like, “Oh, don’t do that. Don’t do that because it’s going to screw all of us, right?” If you make that choice or, you know, roll again or whatever it might be. Or use that special power or whatever. It’s really an interesting point, you know, what are the other players doing? Are they just tuning out? Or are they engaged and invested in what choice is going to be for the game?
Karl Kapp: Exactly. Well, it’s really interesting. I use the game a lot called Timeline, which is basically is a bunch of inventions, and you have to put them in order. And almost inevitably, you know, it’s each player’s playing by themselves and but inevitably slowly they say, “Oh, no, no, I think that’s here.” You know, they start helping each other out almost naturally. So if you can get that kind of organic generative cooperation, that’s a really good thing to have for the game. The other thing is that people will– So this is an interesting thing that some people forget is that sometimes– it depends- but sometimes the closer the game is to reality, the less people are inclined to want to play it or to be involved with it.
So you’re like, “Well, why? That doesn’t make any sense.” Because what happens is people will go, “I would never do that. That would never happen. This is totally made up.” Right? But it’s close, but it’s just not quite there. So sometimes the element of fantasy, where you actually take it way further away– so instead of saying, “Hey, we’re going to sell to our number one customer, and we’re going to sell them a new product and we’re going to try to wait and make it–” Well our customer doesn’t think like that…” You’re going to be on Mars and you’ve got to sell to these aliens who have these traits and you got to…”
If you set it up correctly, people will buy into it. So that’s another interesting thing that can make a game flop is if– I had a woman once walk out and she goes– I’m like, “What are you doing?” She goes, “This is way too much like my everyday life and I don’t want to be involved with that.” Right?
Or I’ve seen it in branching scenarios, right? I would never say there’s four choices. I’d never say any of these things is ridiculous, right? But if you say “it’s not you, you’re coaching the person who’s making those decisions” or “it’s a different environment.” So the use of fantasy is actually a good thing. And you have to judge it, right? I mean, if you’re in a bank, maybe being an alien on another planet isn’t like the best thing to do. But being a banker in your bank isn’t the best thing to do either. Maybe you’re a bank in Jamaica or the Caribbean and you’ve got to make those decisions, right? Take somebody a little bit out of their comfort zone.
The other thing is it’s important how you set up the game. So oftentimes I’ll accept, I’ll acknowledge that people don’t like, “Hey, you may not like games or you may think this is a waste of time, but there are three reasons why we’re playing this game.” Lay them out, have them play the game, and then afterwards, I’m going to debrief you on the game. I’m going to ask you questions about cooperation, teamwork, and things that you noticed as you were playing the game. So sometimes just setting it up correctly provides the right framework and the right thought pattern about how to accept the game.
And then also say, you know– some people say, “Well, I don’t like to play games. Just tell me the information.” I’m like, “Well, hey, I don’t like to get vaccines either, but I know that, you know, it’s going to help me prevent me from getting the flu or something like that. So the doctor said, it’s good for me. I’m going to go ahead and get the vaccine.” Now, maybe that’s not the best analogy because not everybody believes in vaccines, but you know, the doctor will set your broken leg. Maybe that’s a better example, right? I don’t want my leg set that’s broken because it’s going to hurt like crazy, but setting it is actually going to be better for me in the long run.
So those are some ways that I like to think about games. So, make sure that people know what they’re doing when it’s not their turn, make sure that the decisions are consequential, make sure that it’s not realistic, make sure that you can tie it back to what they have to do on the job. That’s a really important element as well. So those things kind of help make it.
And then the final thing is, all the games that you mentioned, like Candyland and Monopoly, they’ve been played for decades and they get modified. So the Monopoly that you played today was not the Monopoly that was played 20 years ago. In fact, people complain about Monopoly – it takes too long to play. So playtest your game. And playtest it with people that are not friendly to you because you don’t want sunshine feedback that’s not meaningful. So you want to playtest and playtest and playtest, modify it, change it, and make it work.
And then the final thing I’ll say is you might want to use a game template or framework. So, I have a game called Zombie Sales Apocalypse, and also I call it Zombie Structural Design Apocalypse, and that kind of stuff. It uses a scenario-based framework with challenges. And that framework, I’ve used it successfully with lots of different situations, but I’ve had to modify it. So, for example, I played the game one time, Zombie Sales Apocalypse, at a conference, and one woman– I’m like, “So how’d you like the game?” One woman’s like “Hated it. Hated every minute of it. It was horrible.” And then I said, “Okay, are there any other opinions?”
Brian Washburn: (CHUCKLES)
Karl Kapp: I’m feeling pretty crappy right now about that. Somebody in the back goes, “Loved it. I’m going to take this. We’re going to use this game in our organization.” I’m like, okay, “Well, what’s going on here?” Well, the one woman– it was a highly competitive game. One woman did sales training and one woman was in HR. I’ll let you guess which liked the game and which didn’t, right? The HR was like, “Oh, this is too harsh. It’s too confrontational. It’s not something that I would do for my trainees.” But sales was like, “Yeah, we’re cutthroat.” So we took some of the phrases like, “You’re wrong, and here’s why” to say, “Here’s a suggestion for doing that differently,” right? So we just changed some of the language. And she’s like, “Yeah, that’s a much better game.”
So sometimes it’s the language, the framework that you use. But if you have tried and true templates, you can change the content and still have a meaningful game experience in that framework. So now you’re not spending as much time getting the framework right, developing the framework, and making sure that framework works.
Keys to Success When Beginning to Design Games for Learning
Brian Washburn: So, for people who are listening who are thinking, “Oh, it sounds like it would be fun to design a game for my first time, but maybe I need to put a little bit more thought into this.” What are some things that people can do to maximize their possibility of success? So I’ve heard you mentioned a couple of things already. One is play games, go play something more than Monopoly or UNO, and then, you also mentioned templates. Where can people find like game templates? Is this something you Google? Do you put into ChatGPT, “Design me a game” or what do people do?
Karl Kapp: (CHUCKLES) So I’m going to go back to the master there – Thiagi—
Brian Washburn: Mhm.
Karl Kapp: Who just goes by the name Thiagi, created what he called frame games.
Brian Washburn: Yep.
Karl Kapp: And frame games are a template that you can just stick lots of different content into, and it works. Some of the games work really well. Some of the games you have to modify, but Thiagi has done so much work in that. So, get his book Framegames – that can be helpful. I have a card game template called Enterprise Game Stack, which is a hundred percent customizable cards that you can kind of use and create all kinds of games that way, so I would do that.
The other thing is play all kinds of games, but even games that you don’t like, so that you can see what other people are doing in terms of those games. And then, I would start– I recommend a book called Play to Learn, which is a step-by-step process for creating a game. But I would start with a card game because card games are very easy, very simple, and very flexible. Buy a deck of index cards and just start. Okay, I need a game where people collect resources, or I need a game where people eliminate cards, or I need a game where people try to match product elements together with sales needs.
Like, start really simple, almost just an activity. Like, how do I match client needs with our product features or functionality, right? Okay. Now, how do I make a game? Well, whoever collects the most. Okay, well, that’s pretty simple. So then what do we need to make that complicated? Well, let’s add cards where you can deny somebody to collect it. You can say, they ran out of credit or the competitor stepped in, right? So you can kind of do that. And then stop and get people together and say let’s play, let’s see if this works. Because then you can take that card game and you can digitize it. You can create a board game out of it. You can keep it as a card game. But you’re much more likely to, you know, start over again if it’s paper-based than if it’s digital.
Brian Washburn: I was just going to say in the idea of being exposed to more games, even if you don’t like them. So you don’t have to go to Target and spend $50 on a board game that you might play once and then never play again just so that they have inspiration. I mean there’s lots of places that you can go to play games, whether it is at a bar or coffee shop sometimes have games for people to play. We have a local game shop, like a specialty game store that has a library of games that you can play. And then if you like it, you can go buy it; if not, then you pick out another game and play it.
So– and then I love what you’re saying here in terms of card games because people typically know that– we have friends that will go over to, and every time we go over there they’re teaching us a new card game. And they’re pretty easy to pick up because people generally know those mechanics of card games. Is there anything else that people can do to try to maximize their possibility–?
Karl Kapp: So the one thing I want to say about card games is one of the complaints about games is it causes a lot of cognitive overload because you got to remember the rules and everything. Card games – very minimal cognitive overload because you already have that framework of how a card game works.
So the last thing I’ll say about thinking about creating a game is “do it.” And that sounds funny, but a lot of people are very hesitant like, “I’ve got to get everything right, and then I’ll create my game.” It doesn’t work like that. As you are creating the game, you fix things that are wrong. But if you think that you’re going to get everything right and have all the rules worked out and it’s going to work perfectly the first time, it’s not the case. And if it does, you are lucky and it will not happen again.
So, take your lumps and get the game out in front of people and get the reactions as soon as possible. Then you can start reacting to the reactions and modifying the game. And that’s really the best way– game design is an iterative process, and you have to keep that in mind as you embark on that process. So yes, you can get a lot of game literacy. I mean, very famous people that have created games have failed on their second chance. Like because “Oh, I forgot about this,” or “I thought this would be a good idea, but nobody likes it” or “People just aren’t interested in this.” So you really need to react.
And the other thing I’ll say is corporate people– you know, you’re playing a learning game– students, corporate- have a lot less tolerance for ambiguity and complicated rules and that kind of stuff. So you want it streamlined as possible, you want it as simple as possible, and you want to get it out there in front of people quickly as possible. And then just modify it as you go along. That modification is what’s going to help you create a better game.
Brian Washburn: Yeah, the other thing when it comes to, especially card games that I’ve seen like a game like Farkle, you have a card that actually has instructions. So if you get this many in a row, then you get this many points and stuff like that. So sometimes instructions are really difficult, but if you have like a reminder in terms of some of the key rules just that people can have in front of them the whole time when they make decisions or if they’re going to make a decision and things like that can be helpful too.
Karl, before we leave, do you have any shameless plugs for us? You know, where can listeners go to learn more about like the history of games and game design or find some of these templates or find you on LinkedIn or LinkedIn Learning and things like that?
Karl Kapp: So, yeah, as you mentioned, I have a number of courses on LinkedIn Learning. So the gamification course, I have a gamification of learning course, I have an interactive learning course, I have a course, on branching simulation. So go to LinkedIn Learning type in K-A-R-L K-A-P-P, and you’ll find my courses there. I have a number of books – Play to Learn is probably the most cookbook step-by-step. I co-wrote it with Sharon Boller, and Sharon really had a lot of great ideas about games and I had some ideas about games. So we put it together and it’s a nine-step process that walks you from the beginning of a game idea all the way to execution of the game idea, whether it’s digital or otherwise.
My fun, funnest, more funnest, most funner project right now is on YouTube. I have a YouTube channel, and on my YouTube channel, I have several playlists. But one of my favorite playlists right now is called the Unofficial, Unauthorized History of Learning Games. And, I just have a lot of fun with it, I think I have nine episodes there. So it’s ProfKapp01. But again, if you Google Karl Kapp and Unofficial, Unauthorized History of Learning Games, you’ll see all kinds of historic games on there, you know, from the Oregon Trail to– it’s amazing to me, like war gaming. And the military uses games all the time to predict and to calculate what might happen. So when people say to me, you know, “we’re a serious company. We don’t use games.” The military has been using games for literally centuries. And there’s nothing more serious than what the military deals with. So, it’s not too serious of a topic.
And so those are some of the things. I have some gamification books. My white book is the theory; my black book is kind of a 30,000-foot overview. But if you’re really interested in it and want to get started quickly, the Unauthorized, Unofficial History of Learning Games is probably the great place to start. You can follow me on LinkedIn. I have a newsletter l&deastereggs.com on LinkedIn – follow me there, so lots of different places to– I’m definitely not hidden on the internet.
Brian Washburn: Awesome. Well, Karl, thank you so much.
Karl Kapp: There’s no game like Find Waldo.
Brian Washburn: That’s right. Find Karl. Where is he? Thank you so much for giving me some time, and thank you for everyone else for listening to today’s podcast on the idea of games – just getting started creating your own learning games. If you know somebody who might find this to be useful, go ahead and pass a link to this along or pass along the place where you get your podcast. So it could be on Spotify, on Apple, or wherever you’re listening. Go ahead and subscribe. If you want to make sure that you get a fresh copy when it’s hot off the press each and every Monday.
Until next time, happy training, everyone.