We, at Learnnovators, are honored to be a stop on the “PLAY TO LEARN” book tour. In this exclusive interview, Karl Kapp answers our questions on this well-crafted and insightful book.

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“PLAY TO LEARN”, the book Dr. Karl Kapp and Sharon Boller have been crafting, writing and assembling is now out and available at ATD Press and

This book is a compilation of their findings, best practices, aha moments and game design thinking insights. It could prove to be a holy grail for instructional designers in easily developing learning games as it synthesizes all lessons Karl and Sharon have earned through their trials and tribulations over the years.

In a step-by-step sequence, this book leads its audience through practical examples, and worksheets, and even links them to games they can play to reinforce knowledge they would glean through it. And, it demonstrates how game design can effectively tie business needs and learning objectives together.

We, at Learnnovators, are honored to be a stop on the “PLAY TO LEARN” book tour. In this exclusive interview, Karl Kapp answers our questions on this well-crafted and insightful book.1. At the outset, your co-authoring ‘Play to Learn’ along with Sharon Boller seems quite obvious, as she too has been riding on the prodigious experience of helping people benefit from game-based learning. In addition, you have conducted a number of workshops along with her and you both share a passion for games and game-based learning.

But, could you elaborate a bit on the contexts that triggered the ‘coming together of minds’ on penning this book?

Karl: Sharon and I met a number of years ago over our mutual interest in game for learning. She was a vendor who created games and I was a researcher and academic who studied games for learning. We met, I think, after she asked a question at a session I was doing. I talked to her afterward and we immediately had our enjoyment of games in common. We started talking and one thing led to the next and we proposed a workshop to a conference on how to build a learning game. Since that time, we’ve delivered workshops together and independently dozens of times. After the workshop we always got requests for the materials. People wanted to share them with co-workers. We discussed that just giving our slides wasn’t enough to really help people understand the experience we wanted them to have creating a learning game. We thought wouldn’t it be great if we could capture most of what we do in a book so that people could share and try it on their own. We could only reach so many people via the workshops. We agreed, divided the book by chapters and began writing. The exciting thing is for us to hear how the book has helped people create a learning game. It’s so exciting for us to have readers of the book and former attendees at our workshop show us the games they’ve developed. It motivates us to continue because we see great results.

2. In the book, you explain that players of a game need to be involved and vested in the activity, expending energy, thought, and focus. How do you encourage adult learners, especially those who do not like to play games, or have never played one, to participate in an activity, usually considered to be childish?

Karl: Games are still perceived by some as being childish and I am not sure that stigma will ever completely go away. However, I think more and more people are opening up to games especially as more research shows how valuable hands-on learning is in helping people reach the desired learning outcomes. I approach the reluctance of people to play games one of two ways. One way is to not call it a game. I call it an interactive activity or a modified simulation. For some people that’s “serious enough” and they can work with it. For other people, I tell them the research behind the use of games and ask them to just play a little. Most of the time, once they start playing, they understand the value. And finally, I don’t try to convert everyone. Not everyone will like a game just as not everyone likes lectures or discussions. It’s one tool in the toolkit and for a little while the learner can endure the game just as they endure lectures.

3. Also, we understand that a game theme is chosen to fit the learning outcomes and the actual environment of learners. What role do the learners themselves play in the selection of a game theme? For instance, the zombie theme may not strike a chord with a prudish audience. Your thoughts on this please.

Karl: Ideally in a game that involves zombies or some creature the learners is trying to evade, the learner could pick their foe. If a person doesn’t like zombies, they could pick mummies or robots or just plain scary looking warriors. Unfortunately, that’s not usually the case. Until those kinds of options are widespread, the next best option is to conduct careful focus groups and playtests to see what resonates with members of the target audience. A little upfront analysis and input from potential players can help guide a game toward being totally whimsical to leaning more toward a realistic approach.

4. You point out that facts are easier to recall when they are part of a narrative, and that stories can inspire and engage. Is it necessary to tailor the story of the game to match the learning context, even though there can be distinctive game and learning goals?

Karl: When I talk about story, game and learning goals, I often talk of alignment and congruency. The actions in the game have to be aligned with the learning goal and the story. Think of it this way, if a person’s job is all about accuracy, you can’t make winning the game about speed or timing because that’s not what they do on the job. By the same token, the story used to support the game has be congruent with the activities of the game. If the game is about accuracy but the story is about how quickly a person can race up the side of the mountain, the story and the action of the game are not congruent.

In a learning game, everything needs to work together. The story, gameplay, learning goals and desired learner behavior all need to be considered so that the end game supports the end learning goals and behavior change.

5. You talk about learners’ personalized learning experience, wherein they can review content, attempt different strategies and still reach the same learning outcome.

Allowing learners to attempt different strategies, however, indicates that the game development process has to be quite complex. Does it have to be that way or is there a simpler way of personalizing the learner experience?

Karl: It doesn’t need to be complex. At the simplest level, a game with multiple-choice questions with each one having different corrective feedback is personalized. When I respond to a question by choosing answer A and you choose answer B which would both be wrong, we are having different experiences. If the feedback is well designed in the game, we each receive personalized feedback but the trick in this case is to make the wrong answers diagnostic. Meaning that they point to misconceptions rather than just being nonsensical wrong answers. From that simple start a designer can choose to make the experience more complex by building on that foundation.

6. You mention that themes are useful in linking together all the components of a curriculum. What happens when the curriculum is quite large, comprising of several parts? In such cases, is it okay to develop a game with a single theme to tie it all together? Or would it be more prudent to divide the curriculum into sections and then develop different themes for each?

Karl: A series of mini-games all focused around the same theme can be highly effective, compared to one large game (which can be difficult to create). You could create a theme like travelling around the world or collecting treasure or visiting customers and each “stop” along the learner’s travel could be a different mini-game and then together it could add up to the larger experience. One mistake new designers often make when creating a learning game is that they try to teach everything in one large game. Instead, consider creating a series of smaller games. They are easier to build and provide more flexibility in the delivery and distribution.

7. Repetition is a necessary requirement for learning and retention. Having learners go through the same content multiple times, without compromising on engagement, can be tough. What advice would you give to increase replayability in digital learning games, especially when the content is limited?

Karl: The trick with replayability is to create a game where multiple strategies can be used to win the game. Think of a game like Poker. It’s just reusing the same 52 cards over and over again. Eventually you would think it would become boring but it doesn’t. Why? Because of two elements. One is that you can pick how you want to try to win. You could go for a Royal Flush, a Straight Flush or, if your hand is bad, you can even bluff. You can apply a different strategy each time you play. In fact, if you fail once you often vow never to use that strategy again or to try to employ that strategy in a new and better way next time.

Second, is the element of chance. Part of the strategy you employ is dependent on what cards you are dealt. The same concept can be applied to a learning game. Make the game winnable by employing different strategies and make the game different each time by carefully using chance. For example, a board game like Forbidden Island uses a technique where the game board itself is a series of tiles and each time the game is set up, the tiles are arranged differently so the game board is never the same. This variability helps make the game “new” every time it’s played.

8. Games have many elements which motivate players and keep them engaged, like earning points, leveling up, earning achievements, etc. But these are all in-game rewards. Would providing real-life rewards (movie tickets, food coupons, discounts, etc.) in moderation be a motivational incentive or a deterrent?

Karl: In work I have done, I have found that small real-life rewards can be motivating to employees. I think the caution is to not let the rewards overtake the focus which needs to be on learning.

9. In the book, you mention that scoring “provides a guideline for performance and activities within the game”, to the learner. But, which do you think is the better approach – showing the score all the time, or revealing it only at the end of a scenario?

Karl: It depends on your goal. If you want to shape behavior, continual feedback in the form of showing the score all the time is an appropriate strategy. The learner will change behavior to increase their score so you can shape behavior by showing the score. If you want to help the learner to evaluate his or her depth of knowledge of the subject, skill or task, providing a score at the end would be more helpful in providing feedback on how much they actually knew about the subject.

10. You say, “We’ve deliberately chosen not to ask “What makes it fun?” but instead “What makes it engaging?”” And, you add, “While a learning game may be fun in an entertaining way, it doesn’t have to in order to be effective. It does have to be engaging.”

A well-designed online course can be quite engaging sans any gaming elements. If a learning game were to be engaging without being fun, how would it be different from such an online course?

Karl: The secret sauce for learning is engagement. Think of a flight simulator. In the heart of training, it’s not fun. The pilot-to-be is learning some really important stuff and she is focused and even sweating as she tries to deal with wind shear training exercises. She might not be having “fun” but she is engaged. If you create a learning game that’s not fun but is engaging, you can still accomplish your goal of helping the person learn. So in that way a non-fun learning game would be the same as a highly interactive online course. To me, the important thing is not that a learner leave the experience saying “Wow, that was fun.” The important thing is that they are engaged in the learning experience and come away with new or reinforced skills, knowledge or behavior.

11. You say that we shouldn’t design a learning game where a player could win because of luck or chance. You also explain how luck does play a role in awarding a fuller learning experience, because it mirrors real-life contexts that are beyond our control. And, you clarify further that learners have to make the right moves within the contexts to be able to win.

What’s the possibility that learners lose by sheer bad luck (by getting wrong numbers on their dice for instance)? Is there any way the game can be designed to come around this possibility however remote it may be?

Karl: In a learning game, winning and losing need to be based on acquisition or non-acquisition of the learned skills, knowledge or behavior. One of the roles of the game designer is to playtest the developed game to determine if it can be won or lost by chance or luck. If that is the case, the game needs to be redesigned. You should not have a game that a person can lose because of a bad roll of the dice. One way to balance a game like that is to have a “come back question” for example. In that case, you could have any player who, two times in a row, rolls a bad number, answers a question, and then has a chance to move ahead. We talk about balance in the book and playtesting. You need to balance the game so that one person cannot be left so far behind that they can’t possibly win. Then you need to playtest your rules and the game to ensure that wrong numbers don’t sink a player even if the player is learning. You also have to consider if the players of the game are able to learn even if they are losing. You don’t want the loser of a learning game to learn nothing. Learning games are tricky.

12. Adding a leaderboard usually encourages competition among players. Could you please give a few examples of game-based learning (of single-player games, not team-based games), where a leaderboard also helps encourage cooperation?

Karl: A leaderboard is a self-defining goal-setting device. If I show you a leaderboard, you know exactly what the goal is… to get to the top of the leaderboard. So what the leaderboard represents is important. If you create a leaderboard where the individual can be at the top of the leaderboard based on how many people she has helped, that can foster cooperation. If the leaderboard provides points for working together on something, that fosters cooperation. If the tasks on the leaderboards are cooperation-based or are dependent on cooperation the leaderboard will foster cooperation.

13. Your short answer to people asking whether learning games actually facilitate learning is YES. Games, by nature, are extrinsic motivators offering awards, trophies, leadership status, etc. How does intrinsic motivation – contended to be the ideal state for real learning – get addressed by games?

Karl: I disagree with your premise. I think games, by nature, are intrinsically motivating – they have elements of extrinsic motivation like awards. But if you ask people why they play games, it’s rarely because they will earn points or get a reward. Rather, it’s because they achieve a sense of mastery, they overcome obstacles, they “prove themselves”, they test their skills, they experiment with new ideas, they like the challenge. Rarely do people say, “I play a game because of the trophy”. All of the elements I listed are intrinsic feelings—overcoming challenge, mastery, proving oneself. Motivation, according to Self-Determination Theory (SDT), is the result of a person having three things. One is a sense of mastery—they feel that learning the content or being successful is possible. Second is a sense of autonomy—they have some control over what is happening and third is relatedness—which is social recognition or peer pressure. Games have all three of those intrinsic motivators. The problem is that in some instances, people have mistaken the extrinsic elements of games as things that motivate people when, in fact, it’s those intrinsic motivators that are the real reason people play games. So games can be inherently intrinsically motivating if the focus is on the “real” reason people play games and not the trappings of games like points or leaderboards.

14. The idea of physical prototyping sounds awesome. But, the kind of time this process would take to prototype, test and then convert the entire concept to the digital medium could be tremendous. How does this equate to the cost constraints that learning projects are usually subject to?

Karl: Programming immediately based on the first idea that comes to mind in terms of a learning game is a high-risk strategy. If you are wrong about game mechanics or the game dynamic—the underlying core elements of the learning game—and you begin programming, the learners might not enjoy the game. Or worse, they might not learn anything from the game. If you want people to learn from your game, you need to test the assumptions underlying the game. Also we have found less re-programming or software changes when we have ‘finalized’ design in the paper prototyping stage rather than when we started developing immediately. You can do it quick or you can do it right. The time spent in design is time well spent in terms of results. We find that people are much more willing to rip up a piece of paper and start all over again than to throw away 15 hours of coding and start all over again.

15. What, according to you, are some of the difficulties a learning game designer faces while pitching a game-based learning experience?

Karl: I think you hit on some earlier. One is the time it takes. Creating a good learning game is not a “shazam” and it’s done. It does take time. Second is that it needs to be well done. If a person just takes some content, adds some points and a leaderboard and says voila it’s a game, it’s a disservice and poisons the well for future game opportunities. And third there is still a large stigma about games in the workplace. And overcoming that can be a challenge. However, a growing body of research shows that games are effective for learning and when games are well designed, the learning experience can be amazing and well worth the effort.

Learnnovators: Thanks so much for sharing your valuable insights and experiences, Karl. We wish you the very best!

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