5 Tips for Game Design and Learning, from Julie Dirksen

During the Wednesday morning ASTD2013 session with Karl Kapp, we were “sold” on Gamification for learning. Session W306 with Julie Dirksen filled in some of the design gaps.

If, like me, you believe gamification for learning is worth exploring, you might be getting started on your first attempts at game design. When you have your basic idea for a game or how to bring game-mechanics into a learning initiative, what do you need to keep in mind to be successful? What specific game design principles must be followed? Julie Dirksen suggests the following….


Feedback mechanisms have to be used well

Dirksen says that to create good learning you need to give extremely frequent feedback, in diverse ways.

EA sports games are designed so you have to make a decision every 1-2 seconds and you get feedback on this every 7-10 seconds. Knowing where you are and how your behaviour has impact on results is important to keep players in flow. Flow is one major reason why gamified learning is more motivating than non-gamified learning.

As your game starts, build in feedback mechanisms that help players to learn how the game works and how they can progress. This approach is also used a lot in video games. The player is taken through simple situations in order to learn the rules of the environment and how to control her actions. When enough feedback has been given to really understand the basic principles, we can throw in something to take them to the next level of the game.

Another important element in giving feedback is to make it seem more “consequential”. This means that the feedback style itself is linked to the context or impact of the behaviour that leads to it. The example given is of a safety/security training: Instead of giving a simple verbal or text-based feedback that says “wrong answer”, players get a big noisy “BOOM!!” sound with a scary message about having just blown up the facility. In this way, the feedback style is linked to the desired learning and the environment in question.

According to Dirksen, these kinds of feedback approaches are far more effective than random badges and points that go no-where.


People only give their attention if they want to

When Dirksen asks “How long can you pay attention to something?” the participants of session W306 are careful not to give big numbers. Thinking of our own school experience and what trainers tell us in “Presentation Skills” training, we know it can’t be too long and we answer “about 10 minutes”.

“But it’s not true”, says Dirksen, adding that “some people watch all 3 extended “Lord of the Rings” movies back-to-back at the cinema.”

The fact is that if you give players/learners/spectators what they want, they will give you their attention. In my opinion, the following 3 ideas will help:


People respond best to relevant rewards they get now

Dirksen spoke to us about the way rewards should be used in gamified learning.

In much training, participants don’t really realise “what is in it for them” until quite late in the process. And the rewards that are given for learning or game performance (feedback or other rewards) are not given until quite late, maybe only after the game. But psychology and everyday life show many examples of how people focus more on immediate rewards and less on rewards that comes later. The obvious example is of smokers who choose to have un-healthly pleasure now over health (or lack of bad-health) later. The major exception to this basic rule is that if the reward appears to be very high, we will be willing to wait for it. (And the further away the reward is, the bigger it needs to be.)

So unless you have a really good pay-off, bring in game rewards early on.

Rewards also have to be meaningful to the learner. Random badges, points and prizes do not improve game performance over time. Dirksen gave the example of how the inherent reward of the learning itself in a maths class could be better tailored to fit participants by using problems and examples that are related to their own reality. For example, for future entrepreneurs who need maths training, rather than creating a random maths game, you could create a maths-game around the ideas of successfully running a business.


This last point reinforces another Dirksen tip: Match game deliverables to desired behaviours and business deliverables

Dirksen showed as a simple game created for call-centre learners who needed to remember not to give away sensitive information to competitors who might call them pretending to be clients. In order to achieve this, they were asked to play a game where different logos floated down the screen and they had to shoot the ones of their competitors. Although the first look might suggest this is fine (it reinforces the idea that competitors are “bad”) Dirksen said it failed on several levels:

  • In reality, call-agents do not see the logos of their competitors when they call. The game did not involve the actual behaviours they should look (or listen!) out for.
  • Most call-agents do not have guns at work 🙂 The winning game behaviour did not match the desired real-life behaviour.
  • The game-behaviour was very aggressive and might encourage call-agents to be aggressive towards any competitors they did encounter in their calls.


Challenges must be incremental and in line with the players current competence

If I place my daughters by the tennis court opposite the Williams sisters, not only will they lose, but they will likely find it very stressful and not learn very much. To be effective with gamified learning, challenges must fall within the “flow-zone”…


According to Dirksen, much traditionally training falls into the boring side of the chart, not because it is inherently boring, but because of the lack of challenge. Using a gamified approach, we can create challenge, but we must be careful not to go too far too quickly as this can bring stress to the learner. And as competence rises, so must the gamified challenge…


Having listened to Dirksen and Kapp at the ASTD2013 ICE, I had the opinion that many elements of my own training could be dramatically improved by the use of game. But even if I don’t want to gamify things, I think it is important to align training with these principles of feedback, attention, reward, deliverables and challenge.



Karl Kapp on Gamification

Session W209 of the ASTD2013 ICE featured Karl Kapp, world leading expert on gamification talking about how gamification can improve learning.


Gamification is the use of game-based mechanics or game thinking to promote learning, motivate action and solve problems.

In the US, the military have used massive open online multiplayer games to define military strategy in Somalia, combatting problems with pirates. Others, like the fun theory folk, have used game mechanics to encourage people to use the stairs or recycle bottles or stop speeding. The applications are numerous. What can we do with this in learning?

According to Kapp, many of the things we do in learning do not inherently tap into the natural motivations of the user. We invite people to partake in static learning environments and hope that they will get involved and change behaviour. Sitting in a training room, experts share models and ideas, we take part in reality-based exercises and try to integrate what we are learning. It can be a struggle to learn or keep the attention and effort of participants, many of whom would sometimes rather be elsewhere. If we used some game-mechanics in the same way companies like EA or the Angry Birds people did, we could do so much better.

The first things Kapp told us is that great games are about interactivity and immersion. They are not about awesome graphics, or franchises linked to movies. In fact, some of the most expensive-to-develop games are vey disappointing for the user and do not result in much flow or satisfaction. In reality, game-based activities can be very simple. Like my experiment with gamification at the dinner table.


So: It’s not about points

Although games like Adobe’s “Level Up” up can work well, the first thing to know is that gamification is not (only) about adding points or leaderboards to show progress or reward people for their efforts. In a comedy conference moment, Kapp noted that if that was true, progress wars would be the most popular game on the planet. On a more serious note, he asked us to think about what happens at home and in schools when gold-stars are used to motivate children to behave well: It works at the start, but before you know it you are negotiating more-and-more rewards to get the same behaviour. If money, sweets, stars or points are the only tools you have to motivate people, you are doomed to fail. Gamification is much more than that. That misunderstanding is the reason why Gartner says many gamification attempts will fail.


What can you do to use gamification in learning?

The possibilities with gamification are enormous, ranging from using one or two simple game mechanics to enhance the learning experience, to creating complete games as the entire learning solution, to simply piggy-backing on a non-relevant game to pass across important messages. Regarding this let option, Kapp told about one company that asks their people to play a simple online game for 2 minutes a day and during the this seemingly random game, a mini-quiz question related to safety and security pops up to remind them of important procedures. Nobody minds this corporate intrusion, because they are still having fun for 99%.


What kinds of game-mechanics are we talking about?

Again, there are SO many options. When I spoke at the Epsilon conference on the topic of gamification, I noted 9 game-mechanics that could be interesting to integrate in learning programs. The Wikipedia entry on game mechanics offers others.

Kapp spoke about a few in detail. These are listed here… Concrete applications for your learning tracks and training are discussed later…

  • Context and story is used a lot in games. Players are immersed in appealing environments that makes sense to them. You can read about my user-experience with “Zombies, Run!” in this short article on the ASTD blog page: “The Gamification Experience – What Does It Feel Like?”
  • Missions and levels are used to “up” the challenge and give players something to strive for
  • Open-ended problems and mystery create learner intrigue
  • Fantasy is used to get learners out of their known environment. A game like “Merchants” can be used to create negotiation skills, whilst playing a venetian trader
  • Immediate feedback is used in games like Pacman to let you know all the time where you are and how you are doing
  • Characters and avatars can be used to improve motivation


Simple game-based ideas for trainers and instructional designers to implement today

  • Don’t start training with learning objectives. It is a closed-loop that tells you what you need to know. It doesn’t intrigue. Try instead to start with an open-loop. Create a challenge that gets people involved and motivated. For example, give them a question or activity that gets them thinking immediately about a problem they have to solve.
  • Give people lives to lose. This gives permission to fail. When we get 3 lives at the start of a game, we immediately understand the assumption that we are going to die and that it’s OK.
  • Give feedback in different ways. This could be points and progress bars. Or it could be sound… Kapp spoke about security compliance training that used a big “boom” sound and the image of an explosion to reinforce incorrect behaviour and “scare” participants into not wanting to do it again!
  • Use characters and story in exercises that take people a little bit out of their natural working context
  • ..but don’t forget that those activities must be linked to the actual learning. Don’t use random challenges or ice-breakers.
  • When you use a game-based exercise in training, be sure to introduce it in the same way you would do any other exercise: Introduction, play, debrief.
  • Be sure to test, dry-run and retest your game efforts to get feedback on how they work and be sure you are using them to reinforce the right behaviours.


If like me, you are wondering how to actually INVENT games, Kapp gives some simple advice in this short interview I conducted for Kluwer at ASTD.


For more resources, check out:


Juana Llorens: ASTD 2013 ICE recommendations

In preparation for the ASTD International Conference and Exposition this May in Dallas, I interviewed ASTD’s Community of Practice Manager for Learning and Development Juana Llorens to get her recommendations for sessions, preparation and follow-up…


What do you expect people from your community are going to be excited to learn about at the ICE this year?

I think that many people in the ASTD Learning and Development Community are excited about taking some practical guidelines back from this year’s ASTD ICE in Dallas. This is a group that loves theory and big ideas, but they also really want to get their hands on those big ideas and put them to work. They are looking for any tools and tips to design learning faster and more collaboratively.

With that in mind, I imagine that Michael Allen’s “Leaving ADDIE for SAM” session and anything on Agile will be quite popular. People also want to figure out how to use evidence and science in practical ways to better engage their learners and get their programs to really “stick.” David Rock’s session (The Neuroscience of Growing Talent), Ruth Clark’s Scenario-based e-learning session, and Karl Kapp’s session on games will be well-attended in that arena. Also look out for the Josh Davis session and Julie Dirksen session. They will be talking about how to do a phenomenal job with brain-based and evidence-based approaches. This is just a sample of what gets the L&D Community going!


How would you advise people to prepare for their visit to the ICE?

There are plenty of tools on the conference website to help you plan your time. Put them to work and research the sessions that will have the most meaning for you. On the other hand, allow for flexibility—stop by a session or two that you might not ordinarily attend. You might be surprised. Also, set at least 3 specific goals for what you want to bring back to the job. That could be 10 new professional contacts, or a new way to perform a major task. And speaking of contacts, bring business cards! So many people travel miles away from home with no way to distribute their contact info. If you want to save trees, generate a QR code that your new connections can scan to keep in touch.


For those that can’t be present in Dallas, what is in place to follow or to get updates at a distance?

If you aren’t able to attend, there are plenty of options to get updates. Follow ASTD on Twitter using the hash tag #ASTD2013, and subscribe to one or more of the ASTD Blogs for news, tips, reminders, and fresh content about what’s going on in Dallas. In addition, the “Conference Daily” will be available online as well at http://www.astd.org/Publications/Conference-Daily (as of May 19th only).


Juana Llorens

Juana Llorens is the ASTD Community of Practice Manager for Learning & Development. She works with L&D practitioners, writers, and experts and thought leaders from around the globe to deliver meaningful content and best practices to instructional designers, students, training facilitators, and all others interested in workplace learning. Follow Juana on Twitter @ASTDLearningDev, find her profile on LinkedIn or visit astd.org/Communities-of-Practice/Learning-And-Development to read blog articles and updates from around the industry.



A few of my favourite posts for today’s new visitors

If you’ve just read Juana Lloren’s “Inside L+D” emailing to the ASTD Learning and Development Community, thank you for clicking on my name.

Wondering why she says I’m a “just a really good writer” (me too!)? Or interested to see a little more about from that wide variety of L+D posts? Have a look around or subscribe via the menu on the right.

In this short post, I’ve collected some of the more popular resources I think might be interesting to new visitors… Some of my favourites too.


L+D general resources


Social Media for Learning




Prezi, presentation and communication skills


(Self) Leadership Resources


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Happiness and Gamification according to Michel Schwarz

Over the last few years, I have occasionally bumped into a very happy looking man during French-speaking learning conferences like the Epsilon Forum+ 2012. I also saw him once at a well-being conference I attended with my wife in Namur. His name: Michel Schwarz. His mission: Help make people happy. His company: Happiness (Inside Me). His tools: Neuro-science, open-mindedness and a little bit of gamification…


Michel. Thanks for taking the time to do this blog-interview with me. You are interested in happiness and you help people in companies to find their own inner happiness. How does that work?

According to many studies and some basic common sense, every human being wants to be happy. But outside of religious instruction and science of brainwaves there hasn’t been any solid training on how to get happy. As a result, for centuries people have been pushing a whole load of different products, services, movies, jobs etc.. as the source of happiness. But that always leads to a circle of deception and frustration: We feel we deserve happiness but don’t have it, then we have it and lose it again…. back to the next frustration!


So my trainings are based on neurosciences and giving each individual a simple understanding of how our brain, spirit and body create this feeling of happiness. Starting from that new awareness, participants start to better manage their own energy and motivation, understanding that the real sources of happiness are internal. They can make the difference between primitive and successful behaviour, discover what makes themselves work most efficiently, collaborate better… And this leads to better mental and physical health, cooperation, creativity, adaptability, leadership…



You mention this frustration people have and I think it is possibly a result of the fact that, living in 2012, we feel almost obliged to be happy. In my mind, it’s not as if life is particularly difficult. Certainly not compared to, for example, my Nan’s life during the second world war. Not being happy is like a “luxury problem”. So what can we do about it?

To get happier is certainly neither compulsory, nor easy. It has never been a priority for human beings to be happy in the past, because for centuries our entire (short) life was dedicated to survival. But in the new world of 2012, for those who have food, drink and warmth it’s important to understand the next step to reach a better life. We have many chances in 2012 that are new to humans: We can look inside heads and see how a brain works! We can see what’s in our blood and which behaviour and lifestyles make people happier. And we can compare this things with others, all around the world.


The main conclusion of all this is that happiness can be reached by all kinds of people: rich or poor, healthy or not, single or married.. We can all learn how to get happier, change our habits and even our brain, to feel more positive emotions and serenity! So I think the first important advice I can give is to encourage people to get involved in the pursuit of happiness themselves. Try to see, feel and understand what “turns you on” and seek out more of it.



You followed my Epsilon 2012 session on the gamification of learning and afterwards told me that you think the approach could be useful for learning how to be happy. How is that?

By its own nature, gaming creates happiness (unless you forget the pleasure of playing by only focusing on winning). Games are fundamentaly fun, even around serious topics. Fun creates open-mindedness. And open-mindedness allows for the creation and integration of new ideas. As you play, you feel secure. You are totally focused, in the present moment, so you stop brooding. Games are natural (ask your kids!). They help create pleasant emotions.


But in addition to these immediate gains, game-playing can help to create to anchor behaviour via positive emotions. If we can learn what makes us happy through game-playing and the play itself creates all these positive feelings, it is more likely that we will anchor that learning, remember and come back to it later.



Graduate in economic sciences and “neuro-comportementalisme” and passionate about psychology, Michel Schwarz is an entrepreneur renowned for his application of new technologies and his ability to share his knowledge. In his career spanning so far over 20 years, he has directed and inspired teams of 4 to 100 people without ever having the impression of working. Since 2010, Michel Schwarz has been sharing his experience via training and consultancy.



Merci d’avoir assistĂ© Ă  mes confĂ©rĂ©nces #Epsilon2012

Si vous venez de cliquer sur le lien ou code QR lots du conférence Forum Plus #Epsilon2012, merci.

Cette page Ă  pour but de vous donner 4 choses:

  • Un lien vers toutes les rĂ©fĂ©rences liĂ©es Ă  mes deux sujets du confĂ©rence
  • Les informations relatives Ă  mes formation “ouvertes” de 2013
  • Un peu plus d’informations Ă  mon sujet
  • Quelques autres liens intĂ©ressants

Je vous remercier d’avance pour toute rĂ©ponses, commentaires et partage de ce site. A bientĂ´t! DAN


Pour toutes les rĂ©fĂ©rences mentionnĂ©es pendants mes deux discours + les prĂ©sentations Prezi, suivez ces liens…


Pour suivre les 2 formations mentionnées, lisez ici ou me contacter directement sur mail @ dansteer.com


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Speak soon!




Epsilon2012 – Gamification for Learning

This page delivers all references from my Epsilon2012 Forum+ session on practical examples of how to use social media for formal learning. Have a look at the Prezi, or scroll down for more references. Thanks for reading! D

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References noted within the Prezi


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Speaking at Epsilon Forum Plus, 13th November

On the 13th November, I will be speaking at the Epsilon Forum + conference in Louvain La Neuve.

This event is open to all Learning + Development professionals who want to network and learn (from each other, as well as some experts). If you want a free entry to the conference, just email me, call me or Twitter DM me and I will arrange it. Otherwise, 150 euros entry fee.

I will be speaking on 2 topics: “Practical Usage of Social Media for Formal Learning” and “Gamification of Learning”.

Here is the short text I wrote to publicise these sessions…
See you there?


Comment intégrer les médias sociaux dans vos projets d’apprentissages et formations?
Les médias sociaux améliorent l’apprentissage. Mais comment? Que faire ? Quand ?Dan Steer propose des conseils 100% pratiques à mettre en place dans vos formations et/ou initiatives d’apprentissage intentionnelles.
Aucun «hype». Uniquement du concret applicable à votre réalité d’entreprise.
Vous partirez prêts à commencer ou vous améliorer.


« Gamification et Learning » : La ludification de l’apprentissage, comment peut-elle aider ?
La «ludification» nous oblige à n’être ni électronique ni coûteux. Elle a des possibilités énormes.
Des mécanismes du jeu apportent des vrais résultats d’apprentissages.
Dan Steer partagera ses expériences et des bons exemples.
Vous comprendrez les enjeux, les pièges et les processus à suivre.
De quoi s’inspirer !


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Experimenting with Gamification at the Dinner Table

If you believe the experts, Gamification is a good way to motivate participants towards new knowledge, skills and attitude, increasing engagement and effectiveness. I wrote about this during ASTD2012. Read here…

In preparation for my Kluwer talk on the topic of Gamification (Meet + Greet, October 4th) I decided to test some simple game mechanics at home. This post provides guidelines for Gamification, explained via this short lunchtime experience…


First, don’t gamify things for no reason. At my dinner table I have trouble getting my girls to eat “everything”. Today, upon presenting the stoemp with broccoli and salmon, the reaction was unanimous: “I don’t like that!” ..so I wanted to motivate them into a different attitude and behaviour.

Secondly: Clarify concrete objectives or expected outcomes. Easy! I wanted them all to eat at least 3/4s of the entire plate, evenly spread between stoemp and salmon.

Third: Consider who is going to play and choose the right motivators. My eldest girl likes to win. She needs “conflict” gaming elements that allow her to do better than other people. My other two daughters respond better to game elements that allow for self-expression. Personally, I wanted to see some collaboration between them all..


Create your game

The objective of the game was clear: Clear your plate before the time runs out (my eldest interpreted this as “beat your sisters as well”).

Design the game structure and how to play. I created a game whereby “rolling a dice” would tell you which part of your “food-man” you could eat. First, each player was allowed to turn their plate of food into a “food-man” consisting of 4 legs, a body and a head. This element of self-expression created much amusement!

Here’s what my 3yr old made…

I also asked them to make 4 pictures that could be screwed up and used as a “dice-mechanism”.

The rules…
On each turn, players lucky-dipped which part of their “food-man” they had to eat next…

If you got a leg picture, but had no legs left on your plate, you couldn’t eat. Otherwise, you had to eat what the lucky-dip said!

Throughout the game there were 2 feedback elements that kept motivation up: Social comparisons and time feedback.

If you finished your plate in the allotted time you won. This meant that everyone could win, making it a “self-competition” game rather than “conflict-based”.

Personally I didn’t design much for the collaboration aspect, but I was surprised: At one point, my 7yr old lucky-dipped a leg, but with no legs left on her own plate, she ate some of her little sister’s salmon for her!


If you have designed your game well, then you will be easily able to measure results. This experiment resulted in all plates 100% clean in a record time with no moaning from any children. Awesome!!


I am experimenting with games for training and learning that implement these simple ideas.

Imagine what you could do to:

  • Motivate employees to
    reduce paper usage
  • Encourage posting on internal social-media based knowledge sharing platforms
  • Cut company costs
  • Create Intercultural connections in a multinational corporate environment

…all your need is some simple game mechanics and a little creativity!


Have fun!
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Increase learning engagement and effectiveness with Gamification

If you are looking for innovative, engaging and effective ways to get your people learning, linked to the current trends and New World of Work, this is the right session for you. ASTD2012 W102: Driving Engagement and Performance with Gamification…


Robert Pearson and Mary Myers kick off their session by underlining the idea that many of our innovations come from new and interesting fields. This particular one comes from the world of consumer entertainment. But why is this interesting for learning? Can we really learn something useful whilst having fun?


Firstly, be clear: This is not another GenY fad. Although GenY will love it, do not ignore this. According to Mary and Robert, we live in a society of gaming. We always have. People love to play games. Online, face-to-face, at dinner with friends or in a gaming-group with strangers. Poker, Monopoly, UNO, Pacman, World of WarCraft… Watch this film and you’ll see that mutatis mutandis, given the choice between game and no-game most people take the game.


What is going on when people play games? Why do I care?
Reason number 1: According to the Neuro-Scientists, when we play games the brain releases dopamine. Dopamine = Pleasure. Pleasure is good for learning.


Reason number 2 is more fundamental. It’s about human nature and the 4 basic drives of human beings: Drive to acquire, to defend, to bond and to create. Robert Pearson says that if I you want to create change (the business of learning) you have to work on ALL four of these drivers..


OK, I believe. Let’s get technical ….
Gamification is the application of game-mechanics to a non-game environment in order to bring about learning and behaviour change.


Game dynamics are the different elements that arise when we play games. Based on the kind of outcomes learners search in their game, different elements must be found in the game: For example, if you are interested in reward, the game must include points and the possibility to move to a higher level. If you are interested in other outcomes, use other dynamics.


Getting started with Gamification
As with all new trends, it is important not to start Gamification just because it’s cool. Start as with any learning need by defining the basic important learning design elements: What are you trying to achieve? What must people learn? Who are the learners?


These elements may already give you an indication of where Gamification could play a value-add role. Mary Myers has found that sales people at Ford taking part in game-based-learning worked faster through their learning programmes and more learners achieved certification than with non-gaming initiatives. The Ford certification process and demands was no different to the non-gaming predecessor. But the results were significantly better with Gamification.


John Chen, author of this book on Gamification and present in the audience asked: But what were the business results? Did Gamification actually make a difference to business results?

  • The immediate answer to this question is to repeat that Gamification is just/firstly a tool to a improve learning process/design. The initial learning design itself should already include the necessary elements to ensure business results.
  • The second answer is that Gamification is actually in itself a learning-results upgrade: People do learn better with games. They do acquire knowledge, skills and attitude more when stimulated in the ways outlined above.
  • Finally, Robert and Mary add that in fact, Gamification can be applied to many arenas (not just learning) to improve results. Have a look at this fantastic application (film) by Volkswagen on the use of gaming to help increasing respect of speed-limits…Speed Camera Lottery


More resources here:


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