Playing, Studying and Designing Games

20121209-124333.jpgI’ve been searching for a book like this one for a while. A comprehensive overview of game play, academic research, application of games in all sorts of learning situations, lots of ideas and examples written in a fast-paced format filled with examples, illustrations and recommendations for further investigation. Give Bloomsburg University professor Karl M. Kapp the full one- thousand points for a terrific, accessible, smart book, but deduct a few points from the publisher’s total because the appealing title, The Gamification of Learning and Instruction isn’t really what this book is about…mostly, Kapp is writing about game design and not gamification.

What’s the difference? Well, that’s precisely the kind of issue that the professor addresses. Turns out, the distinction matters.

I like this definition of a game, provided by Raph Koster in a Theory of Fun and quoted by Kapp;


a game is a system in which players engage in an abstract challenge, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome often soliciting an emotional reaction.

Kapp attempts to define gamification as:

…using game-based mechanics, aesthetics, and game thinking to engage people, motivate action, promote learning, and solve problems.

In short, gamification seems to be game design with a pro-social purpose.

Certainly, the book is filled with examples of purpose-built games for use in elementary school classrooms, training for firefighters, process improvement instruction, road safety, medical operations, and so on.

Most of the book is about game design, and associated psychology. Some examples:

When designing to teach high-level skills and high-order thinking, as applied to teaching leadership talent, it’s important to focus on ultra-quick decision making, the split-second shifts that a leader must make when considering and sometimes over-riding consensus, the encouragement of risk-taking for greater success, and thinking about leadership not as a role but as a task that can be passed among team members as the situation requires. The overarching idea here is “game thinking” – shorthand for an immersive environment in which real-life is reshaped to emphasize specific issues and de-emphasize others.


I appreciated Kapp’s recap of Man, Play, and Games by the French philosopher, Roger Caillois. It was Caillois who identified for types of games: Agôn (competition), Alea (chance), Mimicary (simulation, role play) and Ilinx (state of dizziness and disorder). The last of these, Ilinx, is “the pursuit of vertigo, and trying to destroy the stability of perception”–children spinning around, and mountain climbing are examples.

There is a rundown on studies by serious researchers that suggest a string connection between games and learning, most with small sample sizes and narrow perspectives. To a greater extent than we may wish to admit, the connections between games, intent and measurement are young. We’re all learning what all of this means, and, in a world where digital engagement can be so closely aligned with learning, what it’s all going to mean as schools, K-12 education, and adult learning take their rightful place in the 21st century.

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