Game or Mini-Game: Which Should You Choose for Your Training Solution?

You are all in. You want to incorporate games into your learning experience. Do you go with one large game as THE learning solution or do you incorporate several smaller games… what we call “mini-games?”

A large-scale game can provide learners with a powerful, immersive learning experience. However, such games can be complex to design and develop, and they typically require lots of personnel hours to produce.  If you are new to the learning game design arena, they can be an intimidating task.

Sometimes, a small “mini-game” can provide you with the level of engagement you want while not requiring as much time and effort to produce.  Consider using a mini-game if these things are true:

  • You want to teach or reinforce a single learning objective (e.g. Compare 5 products, Distinguish between 3 things, Classify 4 personality types, Recommend the right settings, etc.). If you have more than a single objective in mind, a mini-game is not a realistic choice.
  • You want total playing time to range between 5 and 15 minutes of time and no more. It’s not a “mini-game” if it takes an hour for people to play.
  • You are not seeking a game that people will play over and over again. Most mini-games are structured as matching activities, puzzles, or quick scenarios. Once the problem is solved, people typically don’t want or need to replay the game, particularly if you design it so they cannot complete the game without getting things right.
  • The game functions with other components in your curriculum and is not the only way you are teaching something. Mini-games tend to be a one-and-done activity so they function best when combined with other things. A mini-game might be a great pre-work activity or a good activity to include in an online learning event or eLearning course.

Let’s compare a situation where a mini-game was the right learning solution with a situation where a more comprehensive serious game was needed.

1. Incident Investigation

These thumbnail images link to different mini-games. They are meant to be used in one of two ways: as part of a larger endeavor to teach incident investigation and/or as a quick reinforcement of basic concepts related to incident investigation. Each mini-game has a single learning objective. (A full-blown game might have several.)


In The Elevator Game the game goal is for learners to get 11 people to the right location in a building by 3 p.m. The learning goal is for them to accurately identify the activities associated with the five steps of the incident investigation process. Play the mini-game.


In Late for Lunch the game goal is for learners to get to lunch before starvation sets in. The learning goal is for them to accurately identify the information they need to gather regarding a recent accident that occurred at their job site. Play the mini-game.


In Making Gold, the game goal is to escape from the evil alchemist’s laboratory. The learning goal is to accurately distinguish between an incident, an accident, and a near-miss. Play the mini-game.

2. Product Launch

We recently completed a major curriculum design and development project associated with the launch of a product. The curriculum included pre-work components, and a two-day live event. One of the pre-work activities was a mini-challenge called Making Fuel. Learners had to correctly compare 7 competitors. The second game was a full-scale learning game. It used Knowledge Guru’s game engine to create a four-topic game that helped learners master product basics before attending the live launch workshop.


The screen grab above shows a mini-game that has the same functionality as the Making Gold game. The game goal is to get fuel into the car. The learning goal is to match competitor weaknesses to a product.


This screen grab shows a full-blown game that uses Knowledge Guru game engine. In this game, the players gain product knowledge through game play. The game goal is to win the Racing series by completing four different races. The learning goals included: 1) Match the features of the product with related competitive advantages, 2)  Match the competitive advantage with related benefits or savings, 3) Select the differentiating features and benefits of the product versus selected competitor products, and 4) Select differentiating features and benefits of the product versus selected competitor products.

Karl Kapp’s New Gamification Fieldbook for Learning Professionals

fieldbook cover

I was a regular on the L&D conference circuit in 2013, starting at DevLearn in October 2012 (when I first met Karl Kapp) and continuing onwards to DevLearn 2013. Besides professional development for our team, we attended these conferences to bring Knowledge Guru, the first learning game engine tied to research-based learning principles, to market.

Let me tell you that there is marked difference in the talk surrounding game-based learning and gamification now compared to a year ago. Late 2012 and early 2013 were about research and theory. Where do we start? Will games work in my organization? Why should we use them?

Now, the conversation has changed. Most organizations know games work. The research is there, a great deal of it referenced in Karl’s popular book, The Gamification of Learning and Instruction. Games and gamification are starting to become an accepted part of the L&D toolkit, and more and more real case studies are emerging of how real organizations are using games today.

So while the talk at the beginning of the year was more high level, we are now seeing a shift from theory to practice. That’s where Dr. Kapp’s newest book comes in.

The Gamification of Learning Instruction Fieldbook is the perfect follow-up to Kapp’s recent bestseller. The book moves beyond the research and offers trainers the practical guidelines they really need to implement games in their organization. It includes plenty of case studies for how games are used today, including a chapter written by BLP president Sharon Boller.

And while we’re happy to have Knowledge Guru included in the book as an example of game-based learning done right, we’re even more excited to see so many other great case studies of game-based learning success. It’s a positive sign for our industry as a whole.

Buy the Book Here

New Learning Game Design White Paper by Sharon Boller (Free Download)

Many of our readers are instructional designers looking to pick up some game design tips for their next project. Others are already avid game designers just looking for extra tips and advice. Wherever you are as a learning game designer, we are excited to release another free resource to help you hone your skills.

BLP president Sharon Boller has written a new white paper titled Using Game Mechanics and Game Elements in Learning Games. It explains, in clear terms, how to design games that will support your desired learning outcomes. Best of all, it uses real-life examples to show how game mechanics and game elements can be used in a practical setting.

Learning Game Design White Paper

You’ll Learn About:

  • Game mechanics, which are rules players follow in a game, and rules the game itself follows.
  • How to closely tie game mechanics to mirror the cognitive tasks learners will need to perform on the job.
  • Twelve common game elements, which are found in most commercial games and learning games.
  • How to choose the right game elements to include in a game based on players’ job type and characteristics.
  • Questions you can ask as a learning game designer to get the most out of your game.
  • Why it’s important to test the balance of game mechanics and game elements with play-testing.
  • Case studies from our work designing games for corporate clients

Download the White Paper

The white paper is available as a free download on the Knowledge Guru website. Click here to download… or just click the image above.

Learning Game Design: a Blog Series by Sharon Boller

In early May we launched our Learning Game Design Blog on the Knowledge Guru website. The blog has become a great source of information for anyone interested in game based learning and gamification—thanks in large part to an incredibly in-depth blog series by Sharon Boller.

learning game design blog

The Learning Game Design Series

The Learning Game Design Series is designed to take you through the 5-step process we use for designing games. The 5-step process is:

  1. Play games; evaluate what works and what doesn’t work in terms of “fun.”
  2. Get familiar with game elements and how to use them.
  3. Think about the learning first—and then the game.
  4. Dump ADDIE. Go agile instead.
  5. Play test. Play test. Did I say play test?

The series will take a deep dive into each step, sometimes taking several posts to cover one step, and offer real world examples from our own game development.

It’s safe to say Sharon knows a thing or two about games. On top of creating the Knowledge Guru game engine, she has worked extensively with Dr. Karl Kapp, author and Assistant Director of Bloomsburg University’s Institute for Interactive Technologies. Together they run a game design workshop called Play to Learn—which you can attend at the Devlearn conference in October—that has already helped many people build their first game prototype.

An example of a prototype being built and playtested at the Play to Learn workshop.

An example of a prototype being built and playtested at the Play to Learn workshop.

Where We Are So Far

So if you’re interested in games, you should take some time to check out this blog series. I’ll give you a quick recap of where we are now…

Learning Game Design Series, Part 1: Play and Evaluate Games

If you’re going to design a game, then you need to play a lot of games—and play a lot of different types of games. You can’t design a game if you don’t play them. You won’t have the play experiences you need to draw off of throughout the design process. You want to make a FUN game. Why? Because the fun in a game helps the learning happen—it is not frivolous; it is an integral piece.

You’re not only playing games for fun, though. You’re also playing games to evaluate them. Playing games for enjoyment is different than playing games to evaluate the quality and efficacy of the game design. This post will go over some best practices and questions to ask when evaluating games.

Learning Game Design Series, Part 2: Game Goals and Game Dynamics

Before you can design a good game you need to be able to craft game goals, select game dynamics, create strong game mechanics, and choose appropriate game elements.  This post focuses on two of those things: game goals and game dynamics—as well as how they link together.

Learning Game Design Series, Part 3: Game Mechanics

A game’s mechanics are the rules and procedures that guide the player and the game response to the player’s moves or actions. Through the mechanics you create, you define how the game is going to work for the people who play it. This post breaks down examples of rules for players and rules for the game itself. It also analyzes the direct link between the game mechanics you choose and how the learning occurs.

Learning Game Design Series, Part 4, Part5, and Part 6: Game Elements

The next three posts all deal with one huge topic: Game Elements. Elements are the different features of a game that keep people engaged. The 12 core game elements are: Conflict, Collaboration, Competition, Strategy, Chance, Aesthetics, Theme, Story, Resources, Time, Rewards/Scoring, and Levels. You’ll need to make calculated decisions on which elements to include and to what degree.

Learning Game Design Series, Part 7: Thinking About the Learning and Then the Game

If your intention is to create a learning game that achieves specific learning outcomes for the players, then you have to think about the learning before you begin crafting the game design. It’s critical to have a strong understanding of the previous steps—but that understanding doesn’t guarantee you a learning game if you don’t also have solid instructional design skills. Why? Because an effective learning game requires a solid instructional goal and learning objectives.

Learning Game Design Series, Part 8: Dump ADDIE; Iterate Instead

Designing a game is a VERY iterative process. If you’ve been using the ADDIE model your entire career, then you’re going to need to get familiar with Agile. ADDIE and Agile each have their benefits, but for game design you need to go with the latter; there is too much evolving in the game design process. This post goes through an actual example of iterating while prototyping a new game.

To Game or Not to Game? The Best Ways to Use Games for Learning

So, you think you want to use a game to help people learn. You’ve got the “what,” but do you know the “why” and the “how?”

There are many reasons to use games for learning… and also times when you’d be better off picking a different interactive learning experience. The best way to figure out whether or not to create a learning game, and to get the project started, is to ask the right questions. Karl Kapp has two short but sweet blog posts with questions you should ask before creating a learning game. Read part 1 here and part 2 here.


When mapping out a learning game design project, you need to determine the instructional objectives… and how the gameplay will serve those objectives. You’ll identify demonstrable tasks that can be completed through the game, and you’ll also decide whether or not a game can mimic the context where learners really need to apply the skills. I could go on, but Karl covers all of these in his posts.

Once you’ve decided that yes, you want to use a learning game, you have to decide whether it will be the primary learning activity or a reinforcement tool. This decision will influence the game’s content, design, and your internal promotion strategy. Yes… you should promote your game internally to get people to play.

Using a game as the Primary Learning Method

Games are most useful as the primary learning method when the content is highly immersive. Context is vital to learning, and a game that mimics the situation where learners will have to recall information or complete a task will aid in retention and performance.

We took this approach when creating A Paycheck Away, a board game that simulates the problem of systemic homelessness. Players play as a profile of a real homeless family and must make realistic decisions to try and get out of homelessness. While the game is a tabletop board game, the situations are realistic and spark real emotions. An issue like homelessness simply must be taught in an immersive experience like this that gives context to the problem. A quiz-style game teaching facts about homelessness simply wouldn’t cut it.

A Paycheck Away - Game as Primary Learning Method

A Paycheck Away game board

Conversely, a gameplay experience that is closely linked to how people learn best can also be useful as the primary learning method. Our Knowledge Guru® game engine is designed to utilized the principles of spaced learning, immediate feedback, and repetition to maximize retention of new information. When players play the quiz-style game as a primary learning method, they learn the information by getting questions wrong, reading the feedback explaining their misstep, and trying again.

Knowledge Guru game as primary learning method

Players learn from the immediate feedback in Knowledge Guru

Using a Game for Reinforcement

Games are also great for reinforcing the learning that happens through an eLearning course or instructor-led session. After people complete the regular training, you can simply send them the link to play a game or invite them to a face-to-face session. The key with using a game for reinforcement is to promote it well and remind players consistently that they should come back and play.

ExactTarget, a digital marketing company, used Knowledge Guru to help employees prepare for a product launch. Since they are a marketing company, they did exceptionally well at promoting the game internally, and saw a high rate of participation as a result.

Take a look at some of the emails and advertisements ExactTarget used to position their game as a reinforcement activitiy:

Internal Advertisement of Learning Games for Reinforcement

Example of a banner ad displayed to employees

Email messages that include a link to play the game are also very effective.Send internal emails to encourage game play for reinforcement

Games are Fun… Which Makes Participation Easier

“Fun” can be pretty intangible, so business types sometimes shy away from citing it as a goal for training. We’ve seen that the “fun” factor of games is a big motivator for getting players to come back and reinforce skills and knowledge. Even giving a basic game eye-catching graphics, a narrative, and a sense of purpose goes a long way.

We use a pre-game narrative to set the stage for Knowledge Guru games. The first page is pictured below with our soon-to-be released Business Theme Package.

Fun, story-driven nature of games can make people want to complete reinforcement

Whether you decide to use games as the primary learning method or as reinforcement, asking the right questions up-front and designing it with “fun” in mind will help set you up for success.

Using Spaced Learning and Distributed Practice in Corporate Learning

Interested in spaced learning and distributed practice? Then download our free Primer on Spaced Repetition and Feedback Loops. This guide will teach you everything you need to know about these concepts so you can incorporate them in your own training.

Students are often told to study for a few minutes a day, every day, instead of cramming for a test. Musicians know that consistent, daily practice is the only way to learn a challenging piece. Research on the benefits of distributing our learning into small chunks has been around for a long time.

Formal Training a Small Amount of Overall Time

…So why do corporate trainers forget this fact when delivering eLearning and Instructor-led training? When did we start thinking of learning as a one-time event? If formal training is the only form of learning in your plan, and training is only happening a few times a year, L&D is not doing it’s job in supporting workplace performance. You must include opportunities for practice, reinforcement and reflection in your L&D mix.

Use Gamification to Space the Learning

In a recent article for Learning Solutions Magazine, Karl Kapp shared a case study on Pep Boys‘ approach to Retail Safety and Loss Prevention training. They used a gamification platform to deliver daily reinforcement of the monthly safety and loss prevention training through a fun, quiz-style game. Kapp describes the project in greater detail:

Associates answered quick, targeted questions related to risk, loss prevention, safety, and operational policies and procedures—standard questions in these areas. If they answered correctly, they played a slot-machine game titled “Quiz to Win” for a chance to win cash prizes. If they answered incorrectly, the system immediately presented a short training piece designed to specifically address the topic covered in the initial question. Questions repeated at various intervals until the associate demonstrated mastery of the topic. The entire process takes 30-90 seconds each day and associates do it either at the beginning of a shift or during downtime throughout the day.

Game-based learning and gamification have many different applications, but using a short game-like experience as a daily reinforcement activity is, frankly, an excellent idea. Pep Boys reported a voluntary participation rate of 95% and a 45% reduction in costly claim counts. I’m sure many trainers can’t claim a 95% participation rate for some mandatory training! By giving employees a fun and motivating experience they could complete in just a few minutes’ time every day, Pep Boys was able to ensure the training it delivers every month was properly reinforced. By making the reinforcement a fun, gamified experience, players were self-motivated to keep participating and reviewing the content.

Market Your Learning Internally

One of the best ways encourage distributed practice is to make employees want to come back and review. Offering some sort of external reward, being consistent and engaging in your reminders, and making the reminders memorable will all help.

Example: ExactTarget. Now a part of Salesforce, ExactTarget is a leader in the digital marketing space. It should come as no surprise that ExactTarget’s L&D function is best-in-class at marketing their training internally. We built a Knowledge Guru® game for ExactTarget to support the ramp-up for a new product launch, but it was ExactTarget’s reinforcement tactics and internal marketing efforts that really made the project a success.

Marketing Spaced Learning in an Organization

Example of an internal advertisement ExactTarget used to market their Knowledge Guru game.

ExactTarget furnished prizes for the top players and displayed advertisements on the LCD monitors all over their offices. They also sent consistent emails updating players on game progress and encouraged players to log back in and compete for prizes. This creates a culture of “fun” for the employees, but more importantly it encourages lots of distributed practice and reinforcement over a longer period of time than traditional methods.

Build spaced learning into your training design

Creating a separate reinforcement activity can be effective, and so can consistently marketing an activity and giving people an opportunity to return and review. But what about building opportunities for spaced learning and distributed practice right into the learning solution? That was our approach when designing Knowledge Guru. As this tutorial post explains, each training topic in the game requires players to climb three paths and deliver scrolls to the guru. The topic only has 5 – 10 total unique questions, but each of the three paths has a different iteration of the same question. By the time learners complete the paths, they have been exposed to the same information three different times.

Spaced learning and distributed practice in Knowledge Guru

Different iterations of the same question are placed on each path.

Guru Grab Bag Mode: The Guru Grab Bag mode in Knowledge Guru encourages players to return to the game and practice even after completing the game. Grab Bag is only unlocked when players complete all of the normal game mode topics. It’s easy for the L&D professional administering the game to encourage players to return to the game later to compete in the “Grab Bag Round,” where all questions in the game are mixed together and players try and see how big they can get their streak of correct responses. If a player plays Guru Grab Bag long enough, they will be exposed to all of the game questions again, which helps them log more distributed practice time.

Distributed Practice Helps the Bottom Line

When you’re trying to solve a performance challenge, you need to give learners the tools and opportunities to learn as quickly as possible. Failing to create a plan for sufficient reinforcement and distributed practice will only lead to increasing costs further down the line. Take some time up-front to plan the reinforcement and internal marketing of your training. If you can, build the distributed practice right into your learning design.


Learning Game Design and Gamification Professional Development Opportunities

Did you know the best way to design a digital game is to start with a paper prototype?

Or that the ADDIE model for designing learning solutions doesn’t work so well with games? You should use an agile approach instead.

Here’s one for the Directors and Managers reading this: did you know that your Learning Designers may not have the skill set to start designing effective instructional games, even if they are great at creating eLearning and ILT? corporate learning games - playtesting

Getting Started in Learning Game Design

We’ve said it before and I’m sure we’ll say it again: game design is a unique skill set. Creating instructional games, where the game mechanics actively encourage and support learning, is not a skill that comes overnight. If you want your instructional games to do more than award points and badges, you’re going to have to study game design… and invest some time (and maybe money) in professional development. If you try to design a learning game without proper study and practice, you’re vulnerable to a few common mistakes:

  • Game mechanics that fail to support, or even detract, from the learning: Sharon Boller referenced an early mechanic of timed responses we tested with Knowledge Guru in a recent blog post; since the goal of Knowledge Guru is not to answer questions quickly but to answer them correctly, adding a timed element into the game took away from the learning and stressed players out.
  • Games that are too simple: Players will get bored quickly if a game is too linear. The design of a “Click Next” course is not going to translate well to an instructional game.
  • Games that rely on blind luck: In a learning game, the decisions a player makes should directly affect their success in a game. The players should not feel their success hinges on a random drawing or roll of the dice.
It takes practice to avoid making mistakes like these… but your investment of time and focus will pay off. Experienced designers eventually learn how to link game mechanics to the desired learning experience. That’s when games really show their value for learning.

Professional Development Opportunities for Learning Designers

Let us help. Whether you just want some free information to guide your own learning, a day-long workshop experience that gives you a repeatable process you can use to practice designing games, or a tool you can use to create games easily without worrying so much about the design, we have something for you.

We’ve been growing our game design skill set over the past couple of years through peer groups, conferences, designing our Knowledge Guru game engine and custom game development for clients. Now, we have two great opportunities to share some of that knowledge with you. One of them is even free.

Play to Learn: Designing Effective Learning Games

Play to Learn - Designing Effective Learning GamesSharon Boller, creator of Knowledge Guru® and President of BLP, partners with Karl Kapp, Ed.D, to lead this all-day workshop. We walk through the research and case studies that support the efficacy of games, evaluate digital games and board games to generate ideas, then break into groups and go through the process of creating paper prototypes and play testing. You’ll leave with a 5-step roadmap you can use again and again on game design projects.

Sharon and Karl have gave this workshop at ASTD ICE in May 2013… and it quickly sold out. This session, held in downtown Indianapolis, will be the most cost-effective ways to attend the workshop. The best part about this workshop? You get to prototype your own game… and test the prototypes of others. Have a look at some of the prototypes past participants created:

[camera slideshow=”play-to-learn-game-examples”]

Karl Kapp and Sharon Boller

The Details:

  • August 28th, 2013
  • 8:15 am – 4:15 pm
  • Held at ExactTarget in downtown Indianapolis
  • 20 N. Meridian St, Indianapolis IN46204
  • Cost of $459 includes a copy of Karl’s book, “The Gamification of Learning and Instruction”

Eventbrite - Play to Learn: Designing Effective Learning Games

A Primer On Play: How to Use Games for Learning

Not ready to commit to an all-day workshop? We’ve been offering our free webinar on game-based learning basics for 6 months now. Several hundred people have attended… and the webinar shows you the basics of getting started in game design. You’ll learn how the power of feedback loops and linking game mechanics and learning elements can help you combat the forgetting curve.

May 11 am webinar - Register Now

You can also register here.

Just a Starting Point

Designing an effective learning game is not a tasks you can complete in a single afternoon. You’re not going to learn pick up all of the skills you need in a one hour webinar, or even in an all-day session. We like to think our offerings are great for kick-starting your game-based learning knowledge, but they are definitely just the starting point of your learning. The hard work is the practice.

What we can do is teach you how to practice and give you the tools to continue your own learning. In our sessions, we share the research and case studies we have found valuable in the field of instructional game design, and give you the tools you’ll need to teach others in your organization that games are a good idea.

Keep in mind that neither Karl Kapp or Sharon Boller started out as game designers. In a recent interview, they both shared how they began their careers in instructional design, saw the power and value of games early in their careers, and started incorporating games and immersive experiences into the solutions they developed.

Even if you and your team of instructional designers are new to game design, you should not be discouraged. Many people have added real game design skills to their toolkit, and you can too.


How to Pilot Game Based Learning for Free

Convincing a bunch of people in suits that it’s a good idea to spend their company’s training budget on a game can sometimes be tricky. We’ve even dedicated a whole blog post to it. But the corporate environment is constantly evolving and every day more companies are embracing games as a way to not only train their employees, but to engage them. So now that games are becoming a more accepted part of the culture, there’s only one hurdle left: would our employees actually like the game we want them to play?

That’s an important question to ask, and it’s pretty hard to answer without actually trying it out. So that’s what we recommend you do, try it out—with the employees who are going to use it. The learners are the ultimate judge when it comes down to it. They are the ones who need to retain the information and use the game to help them in their day to day work. It only makes sense, then, that they should try the game out before you commit to the initiative.

A Live Trial

We created The Knowledge Guru Game Creation Wizard to let training and development professionals take full control over their content creation process, on top of keeping costs down and making it more affordable to blend games into their training. Since this is a brand new concept, we want to let people demo the product to show them how easy it is to use and how versatile it can be. But like I mentioned earlier, we aren’t only trying to convince the buyers, we’re also trying to convince the learners. That’s why you can make your trial live.

If you’re demoing the Knowledge Guru and building a game, you can set the game to live and have learners sign up to play. It’s really important to take advantage of this option. Make a demo game and sign up a few employees who will have to use the game if you end up purchasing. Have them play through it and give you feedback. That’s the best way to see if it’s a right fit for your organization.

Beyond Knowledge Guru

Piloting game based learning isn’t just about Knowledge Guru; it’s about educating an industry. We understand that games don’t work for every company or every situation. And we realize that despite the buzzwords, we’re still in the early phases of adopting games in the corporate training environment. But hopefully we’ve removed enough of the barriers to entry with this trial for industry professionals to see for themselves how game based learning works.

The studies are trickling in (check out this infographic of some of the research) but what we really need are more people actually trying out games for themselves. Use this opportunity to see if games really can engage your employees more. It’s one thing to read about it, it’s another to actually see it in action. If you do decide to try it out, don’t forget to check out our tutorial on using The Knowledge Guru and writing iterative questions. Game based learning only works if you build it right.

Click here if you want to test it out for yourself—happy gaming!

Interview With Sharon Boller on Games and Learning

I conducted the same interview with Dr. Karl Kapp, Ed.D, author of The Gamification of Learning and Instruction. Karl is one of the foremost thought leader in the game based learning space. Read his interview here.

Play to Learn: Designing Effective Learning Games

We recently shared an interview with Dr. Karl Kapp, Ed.D, on games and learning. The same questions were posed to Sharon Boller, President of BLP. I look up to both of these individuals for the work they have done in the learning games space, and their responses should serve as inspiration for anyone looking to design learning games of their own.

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.

Sharon’s answers are below, and Karl’s are available in Part One.

Sharon BollerSharon Boller is president of Bottom-Line Performance, Inc. (BLP), a learning solutions firm she founded in 1995. Sharon has grown BLP from a single-woman sole proprietorship that employed 1 to a $2M company employing 20 team members. Sharon is also the creator of the Knowledge Guru™ brand affiliated with BLP that focuses on game-based learning. She is the lead game designer for its inaugural product, known as Guru Classic, and she is leading the development of a second, more robust offering known as Guru Game Builder that will allow users to create multi-level learning games. Sharon frequently speaks on game-based learning and learning design topics at the local and international level. She authored one of the chapters in Karl Kapp’s forthcoming book, The Gamification of Learning and Instruction Field Book. In addition, she’s authored numerous white papers on the topics of learning game design and learning trends. She also has a book, published by ASTD Press, Teamwork Training, which reflects her love of experiential approaches to developing teamwork skills as well as her own experience growing and developing the virtual team that is BLP.

Divider for Game Interview How did you get started in instructional design?

My undergrad degree is radio/TV. I got hired by an Indiana agency to produce a new employee orientation video. They hired me in as a “Training Associate IV” position. I never did another video while there but I did get started designing training programs – without knowing anything about it formally. I started reading up on this concept called “instructional design” and got hooked. I enrolled at Indiana University in the Instructional Systems Technology program and got my master’s degree. While pursuing my degree, I got a job working as an instructional designer for a consulting firm, eventually ending up as VP of Instructional Design. I left that job to start Bottom-Line Performance in 1995… and I’ve been designing learning solutions since then.

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

I’ve loved games since I was a kid. I’m old enough to precede LOTS of technologies so my early game memories are all board games, physical games, and card games– Aggravation, Clue, Monopoly, Canasta, Euchre, Sardines, Freeze Tag, Marco Polo, etc. My siblings and I played games all the time because we didn’t have other things competing for our free time. It could all be spent playing games. When I got into high school, I worked in the toys/sporting goods department of Sears, which happily coincided with the introduction of Atari, the first gaming system I can recall. I loved PacMan, DonkeyKong, Asteroids, etc. Now – with an iPad and a SmartPhone, the games are literally right in my hands.

As for using them as learning tools, as soon as I started doing instructional design, I started using games. Obviously, my skills here ALSO preceded technology so I was creating table-top games and simulations first. Once eLearing gained popularity, digital games became possible. My first-ever original learning game was a review game where the original concept came from an internet search and I then exploded it out. I could quickly see that whenever a game got introduced into a workshop, the interest and engagement level went WAY up. People do not want to be talked to, they don’t want to read… they want to DO. Games let people do. I created my first simulation in the late 1990s. Again, I saw that 1) People’s interest levels were high throughout the simulation 2) They got far more “ah-ha” moments and true learning moments when they could experience something instead of someone simply telling them, “This is what happens when you do X.”

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

On an anecdotal level, I like showing pictures of people’s faces and body language when they are immersed in a learning game. I then ask, “Do your employees ever look like this when they are taking an eLearing course or attending a PPT-based “training” session?” For specific, hard-core studies, I like Rick Blunt’s study because it features a control group.

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

Uhm….I”m still making mistakes, which is what ample play testing is for… seeing unintended consequences. The two biggest mistakes I see? Underestimating (by a lot) the thought and time that coming up with good scoring requires. People simply don’t think about the ramifications of scoring – which is a huge source of feedback. The second mistake I see is lack of clarity on the game goal – being unable to distill the game down to a single statement of what it takes to win the game – which may be different than your learning goal.

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

I bet Karl and I say the same thing on this one: 1) Don’t try to design a learning game if you don’t like playing games yourself. 2) Play lots of games first and evaluate what makes them “fun.” More on that in my recent blog post.

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

Everything. I just really like games and I like thinking about how to design them. I also really enjoy helping OTHER people design a game for themselves and realizing they can do it.

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

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

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