Interview With Karl Kapp on Games and Learning

I conducted the same interview with Sharon Boller, President of BLP. She is the lead designer of the Knowledge Guru® game engine and designs learning games for many of our clients. Read the interview here.


Play to Learn: Designing Effective Learning Games

After a sold-out pre-conference workshop at ASTD ICE in Dallas, Karl Kapp and Sharon Boller have decided to host their learning game design workshop again. This time, the all-day event will be held in Indianapolis on August 28th in Indianapolis, IN.

Attendees will have the opportunity to design their own learning game at the workshop with the assistance of Kapp and Boller… two of the leaders in the learning game space.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Karl and Sharon about their backgrounds in learning game design, the reasons behind their passion for games and the research and evidence they find most essential to proving why games link to learning.

Karl’s answers are below, and I will share Sharon’s responses in part two.


Karl KappKarl M. Kapp, Ed.D., is a scholar, writer and expert on the convergence of learning, technology and business operations. Karl is a professor of instructional technology at Bloomsburg University in Bloomsburg, PA. He teaches graduate level courses including Learning in 3D and Instructional Game Design. Karl also serves as Assistant Director of Bloomsburg University’s acclaimed Institute for Interactive Technologies (IIT). In that role, Karl helps government, corporate and non-profit organizations leverage learning technologies to positively impact employee productivity and organizational profitability through the effective use of learning. Karl has written five books including Learning in 3D and Gadgets, Games and Gizmos for Learning and The Gamification of Learning and Instruction. His work has been featured in Jeannie Novak’s popular Game Development Essentials series. Karl blogs at the popular Kapp Notes website. Visit him at www.karlkapp.com.


How did you get started in instructional design?

Karl: Well, it started with a sixth grade crush. A girl I liked had taken acting lessons at a local theatre so I decided to take acting lessons as well. Then one day a company came to the theatre because they were looking for kids to act in a safety video about crossing the street, the girl whom I fancied volunteered to act in a safety video and, of course, so did I.

After I graduated from college with a teaching certificate, an English degree and several courses in psychology, I was looking for a job before heading to graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh for a program in educational counseling. Someone mentioned that a local company did something with writing, psychology and teaching and that I should check it out. It turns out the company was the same one that created the safety video. When I applied for the job I said, “Hey, I’ve worked here before?” and they were a bit confused until I told them I was one of the “child actors” in the safety video. They hired me and after working there for a few weeks, I discovered what Instructional Design was all about. I was immediately hooked. So I spent the summer changing my graduate program form educational counseling to instructional technology. It was the best move. I discovered a field that used all my talents from standing up in front of people and speaking to teaching to writing to psychology. It was and is a great field and I really love it.

I thought it was the most fascinating thing to systematically design instruction to impact learners and behavior, and to actually help people learn things in a variety of environments. There was a systematic way to do that. That really attracted me to the field. Once I had my masters, I got a job at a software company as the one-person training department, and I realized, “Oh, I need to know more.” Then I went on and got my doctor of education from the University of Pittsburgh. So my short acting stint in sixth grade literally changed my life and led me to this field.

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When did you start playing games… and when did you make the connection that games were powerful learning tools?

Karl: I have been playing games all my life. From card games and board games in my earliest days to playing on the Atari 2600 to handheld Coleco Games (football was my favorite) to the Super Nintendo Entertainment system to the console and online games of today like the Uncharted series for the Playstation III and games on my iPhone like Temple Run.

I first noticed that games could play a role in corporate learning on my first internship out of college. It was the summer of 1989. I was working for the instructional design company I mentioned earlier and one of the employees was working on a radical idea of a paper-based game to teach people negotiation skills. He needed some people to test the game and I volunteered. As we were playing the game, I realized how impactful it was in terms of helping me to understand the negotiation skills he was trying to teach, in terms of my being comfortable applying those skills and in terms of gaining a perspective about negotiation skills that I did not have before. From that moment forward, I was convinced that instructional games could be invaluable within a corporate setting.

At that company, I was involved in some small scale efforts after that time. Then I began to study them more in-depth in the late 1990s and early 2000’s and wrote about using games for instruction within corporate environments in my 2007 book, Gadgets, Games and Gizmos for Learning. After that book was published, I was also able to help design some corporate games and see the impact they had within organizations and see how to apply game-elements as a new method of designing instruction within the corporate environment but up until just a few years ago, games were not seen as something appropriate for corporate settings. There is still some stigma remaining but it seems to be subsiding now that people are beginning to understand the interactive nature of games and how game elements such as challenge, story, interactivity and feedback encourage learning.

Then, I was fortunate enough to become a member of a team developing a game to teach middle school children science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills. In that project I helped design a full scale educational game which provided me with a wealth of insights into the design of games for learning. I continued my research and work into games and gamification and I needed a place to capture all my thoughts so I wrote them down and captured them in a file that eventually became my latest book, The Gamification of Learning and Instruction.

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What specific studies or anecdotal stories, to you, make the strongest case for game-based learning efficacy?

Karl: Well, the one thing that really excites me about the field for game-based learning is that there are a number of meta-analysis studies (study of studies) that points to the fact that games are effective for helping people to learn. We now have peer-reviewed empirical research that shows positive learning impacts and behavioral impacts from games. To me, it is exciting that we now have evidence showing games do, in fact, teach.

Another area of research that is fascinating to me is that the research is now looking into what individual attributes of games make them effective for learning. So, we are moving away from studies that compare game-based learning to classroom instruction and are now looking at what attributes (i.e. story, freedom to fail, fantasy, etc.) make a game compelling from a learning standpoint. I think that is a great line of research.

In terms of examples, I have personally seen people playing games in a corporate setting and discovering concepts, ideas and approaches that they had never before grasped. I’ve seen this with board games, I’ve seen it with online games as well. Now, it requires debriefing and setting expectations by the instructor but when it happens, it can be highly impactful.

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What are some of the biggest mistakes you see newbie learning game designers make, and how can they avoid them?

Karl: I consistently see three big mistakes. The first is that the newer designers tend to want to create a game that teaches “everything.” They want a game to teach the entire sales cycle or the entire product life cycle. When designing a game for the first time, keep it to one or two main objectives that you want to teach. A game can be simple but effective and the less complicated the learning goals are for the game, the easier it is to design and develop. This doesn’t mean the game is simplistic, getting across a couple of really compelling ideas can be difficulty to design but not as difficult as trying to convey a dozen compelling ideas so keep it to one or two learning objectives to start.

Second, don’t think game design is easy. Just because it is fun and easy to play most games doesn’t mean it’s easy to design a game that is instructional. It is hard. There is no “cook book” for designing games, it is more craft than science. Be prepared, especially for the first time, to work and rework your game. Make a paper prototype, then use a slide deck to mimic the game and then decide to program it for online play. Take your time. If it was easy, everyone would have a game to teach everything but… it’s not easy.

Losing site of the learning objectives is the third issue I see. The most important element in a learning game is that learning has occurred. If learning doesn’t occur, re-think the game. Sometimes organizations become so caught up in the game creation and even implementation that they lose site of the learning goals. Always keep learning goals in mind.

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What tips do you have for individuals just getting started with learning game design?

Karl: My biggest tip is to play games! Well, play them with purpose. The idea is to become a critical consumer of games. Look for what works, what are the game dynamics and think about why a game designer chose to do X instead of Y. One cannot develop a game unless they are experienced with games. You cannot be a good elearning developer without having ever taken an elearning course. One cannot be an instructional game designer without ever having played games and especially instructional games. Additionally, read up on the topic and learn as much as you can from the examples and experiences that others have had. Designing an instructional game might be new to you but plenty of people have been doing it for a long time so learn from others.

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What’s your favorite part of playing, designing, studying, and speaking on games for a living?

Karl: Hmm, my favorite part… I enjoy so many elements of games and helping others understand the value of games. I always jokingly say the favorite part is to be able to purchase video games and write them off as a business expense. But really, it is when people realize learning doesn’t have to be boring, it doesn’t have to be a chore, learning can, indeed, be fun and engaging.

Space is limited for Play to Learn. Read the event description or click the link below to register.Eventbrite - Play to Learn: Designing Effective Learning Games