Karl M. Kapp: Part 2 of an interview by Bob Morris


Karl M. Kapp, Ed.D., CFPIM, CIRM, is a scholar, writer and expert on the convergence of learning, technology and business operations. He is a graduate professor of instructional technology at Bloomsburg University in Bloomsburg, PA. where he teaches courses in instructional game design and gamification and is the Director of the acclaimed Institute for Interactive Technologies. He is author of six books on the convergence of learning and technology and has authored courses for Lynda.com.

Karl works internationally to help government, corporate and non-profit organizations leverage learning technologies to positively impact productivity and profitability. He provides advice on e-learning design, games and gamification and learning technology to companies and organizations in diverse industries ranging from pharmaceutical, to manufacturing to high-tech. Karl He is a Participant in the National Security Agency Advisory Board (NSAAB) (Emerging Technologies Panel) and sits on several National Science Foundation (NSF) visiting committees. He works frequently with startup companies. He has been called a “Rock Star” of eLearning and is listed among the top gamification experts in the world as it relates to learning and instruction. In 2007, Karl was named one of the Top 20 Most Influential Training Professionals as voted by TrainingIndustry, Inc.

Morris: To what extent is the Fieldbook a sequel to Gamification, a volume in which you, Lucas, and Rich develop in much greater depth core concepts introduced in the previous book? To what extent does the Fieldbook break new ground?

Kapp: In comparing the two books, the fieldbook is a sequel in the sense that it provides foundational knowledge that is helpful in developing a game, gamification or a simulation. Certainly someone can pick up the second book and find lots of value but the two together provide the how and why of creating engaging instruction. I think this is the best combination for understanding the most from the topic. The new content and ideas in the second book revolve around the worksheets and steps needed to creation gamified instruction but also provide more in depth and exhaustive case studies. I wanted to provide clear examples of what others had done and show how gamification is already being implemented that it is not something that is unheard of or crazy. The second book provides information on what others have done and provides guidelines for someone to do it themselves and that is my desire. I want people to be able to create engaging instruction using the ideas concepts and worksheets in the book.

Morris: To what extent (if any) are there any unique challenges when creating a fieldbook rather than, let’s say, a straight narrative such as Gamification?

Kapp: Our biggest challenge was deciding how to chunk the information we wanted to present. So we spent a lot of time determining the sequence and order of the table of contents. We all had a great deal of knowledge of our content but thinking of the best way to arrange it among the three co-authors and then thinking how to leverage contributors was a tricky process. We were also challenged to arrange the content in a certain was because we knew that people would be accessing the content in a non-linear fashion (unlike the first book) meanwhile, certain foundational topics needed to be addressed before someone could just jump into “designing a game” for example.

In the end, we created sections and felt that a person could turn to the section which was most appropriate for them—no matter what type of learning they were developing or where they were in the process. This approach seemed like a good way to provide the content in a way that could be accessed differently based on the individual needs of the reader.

Morris: In your opinion, how important is it to read Gamification before reading the Fieldbook?

Kapp: If you have no knowledge of games or game elements and little understanding of how games can be crafted for learning then it’s really, really important to read the Gamification book first. You cannot develop or design a game, gamification or a simulation without a good, solid understanding of the key elements of games. But, unfortunately, many people try to do that. So, I think it is highly important to read Gamification before the fieldbook.

Morris: With regard to the writing of Gamification and the Fieldbook, did either pose greater challenges than did the other? Please explain.

Kapp: Not really, although they were different. Gamification was linear and a contained a great deal more academic based content that I worked hard to translate to non-academic readers. The fieldbook did not have much of the theoretical information but had practical tips and techniques that needed to be presented to the reader so they could develop their own interactive learning event. Each book posed it’s own challenge. Although one specific challenge of the second book was to try to be careful not to just re-state what was in the first book. We wanted some overlap but very little. We cut a good deal from the second book as we wrote it to avoid as much overlap as possible. There is still some overlap but where it overlaps, we feel is important information that is worth repeating or needs to be repeated to make sure someone designing the instruction gets it right.

Morris: To what extent did game-based methods and strategies prove beneficial to your collaboration with Lucas and Rich?

Kapp: Ha! Good question. Not sure we really thought of it that way. Of course we had the constraint of time so that’s a game element. We also knew the second book was the next level from foundation to application but as far as consciously approaching the writing of the fieldbook as a gamified event, that was not the case. As we say in the book…you can’t and shouldn’t gamify everything and I guess writing this book was one of the non-examples.

Morris: By what process did you select the contributors (in Sections IV and V) and then decide what the nature and extent of each contribution would be? Or did they make that determination? Please explain. They produced some great stuff.

Kapp: We specifically selected the contributors for their knowledge and experience in a certain area. Again we wanted many voices for the reader to gain a perspective larger than the three of us could provide. We each could have written the contributor chapters but, instead, felt that it was really important to have those voices. For each chapter we provided the contributor with an outline and general instruction but gave them a good bit of latitude in terms of exactly what they decided to write. In some cases, we inserted some materials into the chapters for consistence and to add any additional information we felt was necessary but that was rare due to the knowledge and experience of the contributors. For each contributor, Lucas, Rich or I knew the contributor’s work so we didn’t have any doubt about what the quality would be and we knew they all had rich experience and knowledge of the industry so we were excited to have them share and help expand the thinking in the area of engaging learning through games, gamification and simulations.

Morris: For those who have not read either book, what is an “interactive learning event” (ILE) insofar as games, gamification, and simulations are concerned?

Kapp: An interactive learning event (ILE) is when a student or participant experiences interactivity and engagement while they are learning. An ILE is purposefully built to engage the learner and to make the learner active. Active learners learn more, retain knowledge longer and enjoy instruction and learning more than disengaged learners so we are all serious and enthusiastic about creating interactive learning events and having others do the same. It is not written in stone that learning needs to be disengaging and boring, it’s time to put the passion back in learning and one way to do that is through ILEs.

Morris: When creating engaging, interactive instruction, what are the most important do’s and don’ts to keep in mind?

Kapp: There are lots of elements but two that come to top of mind are challenge and action. Make the learner do something at the beginning of an ILE, they need to become actively involved in the beginning. Force the learner to make a decision, to commit to one view or another, to get up and move across the room. Anything you can do to make them an active participant in the process, the less they do the less they learn. So make learners do something. Second, give them a challenge. The challenge needs to be achievable but it also needs to be a bit of a stretch. When people are challenged, they rise to the occasion often doing their best work. Too often learning experiences are too easy and no one cares about the outcome but when you challenge learners to do their best or to do better than others, they really come alive. Challenging learners is a great way of engaging learners.

Morris: When participating in an ILE [begin italics] for the first time [end italics], what are the most important do’s and don’ts to keep in mind?

Kapp: As a learner you need to be open to the experience. Because we have sat facing forward in desks and raising our hands to answer questions and “knowing” that there is only one right answer, we fall into “zombie mode” when learning. We sit back, occasionally nod at the instructor and pretend to care what happens. So when someone challenges us with action or making a decision or doing something differently we sometimes get frustrated or aggravated but, I have found, that once a learner is engaged they like ILEs so much better than traditional lectures. My advice to a learner about to be involved in an ILE is to engage and enjoy—the result will be tremendous learning.

Morris: To what extent would the core principles of gamification be of value to the design of MOOCs? Pleae explain.

Kapp: I think MOOCs are overrated, we have taken the traditional broadcast model of learning—everyone learns that same thing no matter how much they know—and just automated it. No one liked large lecture classes in college so why would they like them online. MOOCs missed a big opportunity in the area of personalization. If a MOOC could adapt itself through different levels or different delivery of content based on my previous knowledge or my demonstrated ability then we’d have a revolutionary learning vehicle but until that time we just have a large online course which is like a larger face-to-face lecture. So the gamification elements of customization, adaptation and diversity of experiences is what should be added to MOOCs to make them better vehicles for learning than their current configurations.

Morris: Other than sleeping, children probably spend more time playing games than doing anything else until they are enrolled in schools. Usually by the third or fourth grade, games have disappeared from the classroom but in many schools, athletic competition becomes more important than academics. How do you explain that?

Kapp: Well on the one hand, many adults look down on “free play” and games as not being serious and not having value. So only “kids” play games in school. This notion is a complete falsehood but prevails in many environments. The opposite of work is not play. In fact much creative work looks a lot like play. Play and games are a great way to innovate and “think outside” of normal parameters but schools aren’t really about thinking outside of normal parameters, its about conforming so games and play tend to disappear quickly from “formal” educational structures.

Morris: In the most successful companies, what are often referred to as “The Three Cs” thrive: Communication, Cooperation, and — of greater importance — Collaboration. How can the strategies and methods of gamification help to strengthen all three, especially in smaller organizations with limited resources?

Kapp: One issue to keep in mind is that gamification is really about engagement. People engage with games for many reasons and they engage at work for many reasons. The strategies and methods of gamification should really be thought of as the strategies and methods of engagement. In that sense, engagement with others is about communication so, using a gamification technique, like rewarding those who provide high quality comments and insightful thoughts can be an element of gamification. And people working together can be thought of as gamification but really, successful organizations engage customers and employees and lots of techniques like recognition and timely constructive feedback can foster engagement within organizations the same way they do in games. With one caveat, the engagement strategy within the organization needs to be genuine. You can’t add artificial elements like points, badges and leaderboards with no real substance behind them and expect to achieve success. If one predicates his or her business on a “gamified” approach with employees, fear for that company and don’t walk away from it…run.

Morris: Here’ a somewhat related question: What are the most troublesome, if not disruptive misconceptions about gamification? What in fact is true?

Kapp: Most troublesome is the random and thoughtless addition of superficial game elements to business processes or learning events in the desperate hope of engagement for engagement’s sake. Not good. These types of efforts will fail miserably. To gamify effectively, you need to be thoughtful and mindful of the employees, the content, your desired goals, intended and possible unintended outcomes. One needs to be careful about gamifying without thinking. The truth about gamification is that when it is implemented properly and carefully, it can be a powerful motivational force for people.

Morris: Here’s a two-part question. In your opinion, which areas of gamification have yet to be explored? What resources are needed to do that?

Kapp: One interesting area of exploration is the discovery of what elements of games lead to the most effective learning. There are a number of researchers who are looking into the anatomy of games to discover what makes them so engaging. Is it the challenge? Is it the unknown and variable outcome? Is it the competition? It would be wonderful if researchers could pinpoint what game elements lead to what learning outcomes.

Morris: Please explain how interactive technologies – properly utilized in collaboration — can help to achieve interactive achievements that would probably not be possible otherwise.

Kapp: What interactive, online technologies do is reduce the geographical boundaries of creativity and break the time constraints. Online interactive technologies like virtual worlds or other similar technologies simply allow people to collaborate and work from anywhere. This opens up more time to explore possibilities.

Morris: In your opinion, what needs to be done to enable local public libraries to have much greater impact as centers for ILEs (interactive learning events)?

Kapp: For libraries, I think it is twofold. First, I still think the public views libraries as a storage facility for books. The libraries I have seen are so far from that stereotype but it is a hard stereotype to overcome. So they need to first destroy that stereotype. Second, I think the cost of creating and interacting in ILEs needs to come down a little more before the use of ILEs can be ubiquitous. A certain degree of price sensitivity exists with publicly funded institutions and so the resources are not always there. Having said that, there are many low cost technology solutions that can be strung together to be immersive even if they are not perfect.

Morris: What about community colleges?

Kapp: Community colleges are filled with all types of creative and hands-on people. I think they can serve as a hub for creative students if they have access to the right technology and the right leaders/faculty who know how to use the equipment and software and, finally, partnerships with companies that can benefit from the technology of the community college. So community colleges need to be funded to have the right software and hardware and they need relationships with companies that can benefit from the creation of hands-on applications that can be built at the community college level. Certainly the funding does not have to be from a government, it can be from the company that the community colleges are partnering with.

Morris: Of all the great innovators throughout history, with which one would you most want to share an evening of conversation if it were possible? Why?

Kapp: Wow, there are so many to consider. I think the one would be Rosalind Franklin who as one of the people who help with the discovery of DNA but was largely ignored because she was a women. I think she would be great to have a conversation with because, while she was a brilliant scientist, she was not always treated as such. Because in those times most of the scientists were not women, they were men. I think the discussion would be fascinating in terms of what she had to overcome, the bias she faced regarding her work and how she felt being slighted in terms of the Nobel Prize. The stories she could tell would not only frame science but also the mentality of the scientific community and of how women were viewed in that environment. The conversation would not just be about science and innovation but about power, privilege and gender. I think we’d need more than an evening.

Morris: If you were asked to speak at an elementary school graduation ceremony and explain why innovative thinking is important to personal growth as well as one’s career (no matter what it turns out to be), that would be your key points?

Kapp: My first piece of advice to the students would be to continue to “play” and never lose the enthusiasm to just play and explore. Kids are naturally pre-disposed to play and play leads to innovation so I would tell them to never, ever stop playing. Second, I would tell them that play is the way to approach a career— play with ideas, concepts and play with others “collaborate”. The concept of “play” allows for safe failure, too often as adults we are afraid of failure but to innovate, you need to fail. Finally, I would tell them to not worry so much about whatever is going to happen to them in high school and don’t worry about getting into college. Innovation is not bound by your schooling or path in life, it’s bound by your imagination. Finally, I’d tell them to ask questions all the time.

Morris: In your opinion, what specifically can new parents do to encourage and nourish a child’s imagination during the pre-K years?

Kapp: Play with your kids, read to your kids and give them cardboard boxes, crayons and action figures. Don’t give them toys with specific, pre-defined play paths. Give them things that require thought to be fun. This will lead to increased imagination.

Morris: Long ago, Thomas Edison observed, “Vision without execution is hallucination.” Your response?

Kapp: Agree. A dream without objectives for reaching it is just a dream. Objectives without a larger vision are just tasks.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read one of both books and is now determined to establish or strengthen a workplace culture within which interactive learning events (ILEs) can help personal growth and professional development to thrive. Where to begin?

Kapp: The first step is to identify the business needs that can be supported by ILEs. When ILEs are linked to business needs, it makes the entire process easier. Second, keep your eye on learning goals and not on creating “fun.” The fun or sense of mastery will come from completing meaningful learning goals so make sure the learning goals are meaningful and that means that they are linked to business goals. Third, get a team involved in creating the ILE. Companies have gamers working within their midst. Companies need to find those people and apply that knowledge to the building of the ILE. Using internal knowledge helps on so many levels. Finally, consider leveraging the skills and knowledge of someone outside of the organization to complement the internal team and help to design an ILE that works.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in the two books, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Kapp: The greatest value which is interwoven within both books is the assertion that gamification does not need to be tied to technology. Some gamification technology platforms are expensive but gamification is not about the technology, it is a design sensibility. If small companies think about gamification and, by extension, engagement as a way of designing experiences for employees and customers, they will be ahead. The hard work is not in buying an off-the-shelf gamification platform, the hard work is the thinking behind the right design and right elements to make the experience work. So, gamification is reachable for any size company willing to think hard about how it can work without technology.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Kapp: I am pretty sure there are no more questions.

* * *

Karl cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Karl’s Website link

Karl’s TEDx Talk link

YouTube Gamification link

Facebook link

Pinterest link


“Gamification Myths Debunked: How To Sidestep Failure And Boost Employee Learning” link

“Improve Training: Thinking Like a Game Developer”link

“Gamification of Retail Safety and Loss Prevention Training” link

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