Using Gamification and “Rat Chow” for Learning New Skills

By SUSAN LAHEY
Reporter with Silicon Hills News

Jeff Johannigman, former game designer who now works at General Motors

Jeff Johannigman, former game designer who now works at General Motors

If you want to teach leadership and decision making skills, games are the way to do it, explained Jeff Johannigman, former game designer who now works as Learning Performance Specialist at General Motors. Johannigman spoke at the Elearning Symposium at the Omni Southgate Wednesday.
The symposium, hosted by the E-Learning Council and the Department of Information Resources (DIR), is an interactive conference for professionals involved in web-based education services in various industries. Johannigman has developed more than 25 published games and co-founded the Game Developer’s Conference. He left the gaming world when he concluded his work was inspiring a lot of people to spend a lot of time alone, in the dark, glued to their game systems. But then he turned his skills to the question of learning.
Traditional learning models, he pointed out, are linear and good for knowledge transfer, feeding someone information that they then memorize and regurgitate. They’re passive. And in traditional learning, failure is bad. But games are active. Instead of a test at the end, there’s a challenge at the beginning that engages the player in a series of decisions, acquiring knowledge at every step. And failure, with feedback is good.
“Yes I died, but I learned something in the process,” he said.
Games are immersive, addictive, simulate real world situations, and effective for learning. But while some organizations, like the military, fully embrace gaming as a learning tool, the private sector—in particular the C-Suite rejected anything that could be called “play,” despite evidence that the brain is most creative during play.
So Johannigman renamed what he was doing Immersive Learning Simulations—a moniker the corporate world could embrace.
An effective game, Johannigman said, needs to include:
• Cause and effect logic
• Algebra, geometry, mathematical concepts
• Probability and statistics, even game theory
• Psychology
• Storytelling, literature and mythology, especially the works of Joseph Campbell
An effective game needs to immerse you in another world and give you the opportunity to connect with your playing character, even design your character, in order to increase engagement. And it’s much more powerful when it has a social interaction component.
An effective game continually ups the player’s challenges. That might mean pitting the player against someone slightly more skilled than he or she is, with the skill levels of opponents rising as the skill level of players increase. Or it might mean challenging the player to build a business starting with $1,000 and making the business incrementally more complex, rather than starting with $10 million which presents little challenge. The challenge has to meet “optimum flow” meaning it’s not so easy it’s boring but not so hard it’s discouraging.
The more compelling games have fluid branching stories, a decision isn’t just right or left but effects change all over the game. That, and having to balance time, resources and other limitations, make them ideal for learning to manage organizations where a manager or executive may need to increase revenue, improve customer satisfaction and decrease operating costs, all at the same time.
A great game doesn’t need a complex story line or characters, Johannigman said. People are comfortable with “the goofy sidekick.” But it does need mechanics, which includes objects that have behaviors. For example, if you buy one house, you can charge X amount for rent but if you buy three, the price goes up…or down.
And, of course, a game—like life—needs rewards. Devotees of behaviorist B.F. Skinner, game designers, Johanningman said, refer to the rewards they build into games as “rat chow.”
A simple game without a lot of options, he said, can be developed for under $50,000. But the more complex ones cost from $100,000 up. And the key is to align the game with the company’s goals, for example:
• What are the performance issues? What should learn learners be doing differently?
• What are the common mistakes and bad decisions learners make?
• What external, variable factors can affect whether a decision is a good one or a bad one?

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