From Gamification to Simulation: Enhancing the Transfer of Learning

Each year brings to the business world a new swarm of buzzwords. Many are last year’s buzzwords, humming the same tune at a different pitch, fighting to find new life in the buzzword-eat-buzzword business world. Others are new arrivals from beyond the information horizon. I caught one of the new ones in my net earlier this year: “Gamification,”

The most succinct definition of gamification comes from research lead by Deterding et. al.1

“Gamification” is the use of game design elements in non-game contexts.

Sounds pretty straightforward, simple even. So why is gamification buzzing in everyone’s business ear?

To begin with, it’s the result of the millenials growing up with games and extending their early experiences into the adult world. According to a 2008 Pew Research Center survey, “Fully 97% of teens ages 12-17 play computer, web, portable, or console games.”2 With this level of participation achieved by 2008, it isn’t a stretch to consider the participation in games by the same age group for the prior 5 or more years to be a similarly high occurrence. The “gamification” experience, then, would include many, if not most, the rising young professionals in a wide variety of industries. Indeed, as Deloitte reports, “The average game player today is 37 years old, and 42% of game players are women.”3

That this would be the case isn’t unusual. It happens with every generation. I remember commenting to a friend in the early ’00 about how all the ugly, boxy, chunky car styles prevalent on the car dealer lots were the consequence of a generation raised on Transformer cartoons ascending to automotive engineering positions.

Secondly, the technology has evolved such that designing and introducing game elements into business environments is a much more straightforward process. Toolkits, development libraries, API’s, and design practices have become more robust and standardized. Gamification design principles are being applied to a variety of contexts in part because it is much easier to do so now than it was 10 or even 5 years ago.

However, the ascendent application of gamification in business should not presuppose an intrinsic value. There is plenty of room to question its value. In fact, several professional game designers, such as Amy Jo Kim, CEO of Shufflebrain, foresee the word “gamification” eventually disappearing from the lexicon of business. Rather, gamification “will become part of the toolkit of many different types of design. In a similar way ‘AI’ went away. We don’t think of Amazon as an AI system, though it does have what used to be called artificial intelligence in it with its collaborative filtering mechanism.”4 In other words, the word will pass, the buzz will die. What will be left is a trail of design techniques that will have folded into a larger set of existing techniques for enhancing user experiences.

Perhaps most importantly, in the context of business and professional development, there is little evidence to support the idea that gamification achieves anything deeper than entertainment and basic operant conditioning of simple behavioral changes. While the strategic application of gamification design principles can engage a learner and engender motivation, thereby enhancing an individual’s learning experience, their ability to drive deep learning by themselves is probably not possible. It’s a case of short-term factors producing short-term benefits. When the task is to acquire a deeper and broader understanding of a particular subject, a more immersive approach, such as it possible with simulations, is more effective.

Therein lies the challenge for those of us interested in preparing the rising generation of professionals with the skills needed to become the next generation of business leaders. To this end, even the most robust application of gamification principles will fail. The thinking skills needed to create competent leaders can’t be learned on the level of gaming. Amassing the greatest number of leadership points, the largest collection of “leadership” badges, and the longest run on a leader board have about as much in common with quality leadership as collecting cookbooks has with becoming a master chef.

It is highly probable the skillful application of game elements can enhance the effects of a simulation. If they are over or misapplied, however, they risk becoming the latest manifestation of the “dancing bologna” so prevalent in the early days of the world wide web. To this end, the insights from Werbach and Hunter offer guidance:

To figure out where gamification might fit your needs, consider the following four core questions: Motivation: Where would you derive value from encouraging behavior? Meaningful Choices: Are your target activities sufficiently interesting? Structure: Can the desired behaviors be modeled through a set of algorithms? Potential Conflicts: Can the game avoid conflicts with existing motivational structures?5



1 Deterding, S., Dixon, D., Khaled, R., Nacke, L. (2011). From game design elements to gamefulness: Defining ‘Gamification’, MindTrek’11, September 28-30, 2011, Tampere, Finland.

2“Teens, Video Games and Civics”, Pew Internet & American Life Project, Pew Research Center Publication, September 16, 2008, Retrieved from

3“Tech Trends 2012”, Deloitte, Retrieved from

4Lecture 8.5 – Amy Joe Kim interview with Kevin Werbach, Gamification course offered by The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania through

5Werbach, K; Hunter, D. (2012). For the win: How game thinking can revolutionize your business (Kindle Locations 556-563). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

A Modest Proposal: 2.1

From the genius of David Burge comes an enhancement to my modest proposal for gently deflating the higher education bubble:

In the name of Consumer Protection, recent college graduates should have the ability to return the diploma and not make any reference to receiving education from the college in exchange for a 100% refund of college tuition. This may be extended with a graduated (ha, get it?) reduction for the last four years, with a red line at January 20, 2008.


Blog Haiku #35

See the badges shine!
Points! The leaderboard I climb!
Empty achievement.

Essential Graphics #1

The Lack of Insight Edition

In 1949, John Gurden received the following biology report card from his professor at Eton College:

Sir John Gurdon, Nobel Prize winner, was 'too stupid' for science at school

“His other work has been equally bad, and several times he has been in trouble, because he will not listen, but will insist on doing his work in his own way.”

He was 15, and ranked last in his class of 250. What ever happened to John Gurdon?

He was this year’s co-recipient of the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine. In the end, Dr. Gurdon’s 1949 report card reflects the inadequacies of the teacher, not the student. In this case, the student succeeded in spite of, not as a result of, the teachers efforts. One is left to wonder, how often this happens and how many students remain lost, never finding their way.

Exit question: How will you teach today?

Why We Do What We Do

A colleague of mine is of the opinion that “we won’t have truly evolved as a species until we stop doing things simply because we can. Perhaps it is more like we won’t know we have truly evolved as a species until we stop doing things because we can.” I counter with the opinion that we evolve precisely because we do things with no apparent reason other than we can. Discovery is the result of curiosity mixing with exploration and action. This is at the heart of what drives science. As Steve Holmes observes:

Usefulness comes not from pursuing it, but from patiently gathering enough of a reservoir of material so that one has the quirky bit of knowledge…that turns out to be the key to unlocking the problem which someone offers.

The history of scientific advance is filled with examples of individuals exploring the unknown not with the goal of utility, but to quench a driving curiosity and desire to know. The mere satisfaction of this desire is the only justification they need. Yes, bad people do bad things with good knowledge. But as Abraham Flexner observes,

The real enemy is the man who tries to mold the human spirit so that it will not dare to spread its wings.

Good Intentions, Bad Results

In The Logic of Failure, Dietrich Dörner makes the following observation:

In our political environment, it would seem, we are surrounded on all sides with good intentions. But the nurturing of good intentions is an utterly undemanding mental exercise, while drafting plans to realize those worthy goals is another matter. Moreover, it is far from clear whether “good intentions plus stupidity” or “evil intentions plus intelligence” have wrought more harm in the world. People with good intentions usually have few qualms about pursuing their goals. As a result, incompetence that would otherwise have remained harmless often becomes dangerous, especially as incompetent people with good intentions rarely suffer the qualms of conscience that sometimes inhibit the doings of competent people with bad intentions. The conviction that our intentions are unquestionably good may sanctify the most questionable means. (emphasis added, Kindle location 133)

That sounds about right. To this I would add that incompetent people with good intentions rarely suffer the consequences of imposing their good intentions on others.

The distinguishing feature of a competent good intentioned individual and an incompetent good intentioned individual is the ability to predict and understand the consequences of their actions. Not just the immediate consequences, but the long term consequences as well. The really competent good intentioned individuals will also have a grasp of the systemic effects of acting on their intentions. The result is such individuals are deliberate in their actions and less likely to act or react emotionally to circumstances.

What Language Do You Speak?

The Logitech webcam software installer doesn’t seem to know what to offer.

Logitech Webcam Software Installation

(Click for larger image.)

QA and testing. Still important.

Uncertainty About Uncertainty

We’re definitely living in interesting times. And increasingly uncertain times.

Scientists Cast Doubt On Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle

The World Needs More Booths

Amen, brother.

Remember face-to-face conversation? You know, sharing thoughts, talking through concerns, sketching out ideas, and having intelligent discussions without the overblown internet persona outrage? You have instant feedback through facial expressions, tone of voice, and spoken word. You have instant ability to clarify a particular point, on the spot. You get a better “read” of where the other person is coming from. And, you get better engagement in the conversation.

Conference rooms, court rooms, hospital rooms, elevators – these are some examples where the space presupposes a particular way of behaving and communicating (or, in the case of elevators, not communicating.) The informal setting of a booth, however, allows for a comfortable space to let some of the usual barriers to conversation fall away.

Coffee Couple

Many of the most memorable conversations and exchanges of ideas in my life happened in restaurant booths. They weren’t all good, but most of them were and all of them were important. Add in a good cup of coffee and they can be incredibly creative spaces. Perhaps it’s just a lucky spacial anchor thing. However it happened, the result is that booths, particularly coffee shop booths, are my go-to spaces for near-instant solace and creativity. So much so that just this past week we kicked off a major renovation here at the Dojo that includes, among many other things, a breakfast booth off the kitchen. The design of the booth is being completed by the same designer/builder of the booths at Racine’s Restaurant – perhaps my second all-time favorite Third Place behind The Market.

Alas, that booth is perhaps five months away. But when it’s done, it will be excellent.


(H/T Michael Wade, Image credit: johnny_automatic)

Failure to Think Through to the Unintended Consequences II

I posted previously about the unintended consequences of switching from disposable plastic grocery bags to reusable cloth bags provided by shoppers. I’m seeing this issue get a little bit of traction lately. The Property and Environment Research Center has an interesting PSA video on the subject.

Many jurisdictions have implemented bans or taxes on plastic grocery bags on environmental grounds. PERC Lone Mountain Fellow Jonathan Klick argues, however, that reusable grocery bags contain potentially harmful bacteria, especially coliform bacteria such as E. coli.

The explosive growth of EPA regulations has resulted in an environment of contradictory mandates and rules that are poised to do much greater harm than good. The poorly thought out grocery bag crusade is but one example.