How to Gamify Off-the-Cuff

Stephen Baer, Managing Partner of The Game Agency discusses how to gamify content quickly with Alexander Salas of ATD.


Managing Partner Stephen Baer, was interviewed by eLearning expert and Instructional Designer, Alexander Salas as part of his Off the Cuff interview series.  Here’s a summary of what Stephen and Alex discussed. 

Stephen Baer: The Game Agency was started 12 years ago with the premise of taking a really nice medium like games which are a lot more engaging than your typical training and applying them to a number of things. Training is really our sweet spot as it brings your learner into the content on a much deeper level. Whether it is a small twitch game or something very short and simple which we all play on our phones or a much deeper simulation, story-driven, or character-driven game. It’s about using games to tell a story, engage the learner, and give them a “practice playground” while reiterating the material and driving it into their brains on a much deeper level.

Alex Salas: You’re able to not only do gamification but also game design with The Game Agency? So is The Game Agency itself the application?

Stephen Baer: We started the company building out custom work from day one and over the 12 years we’ve launched two products that we have in the marketplace. One product is called Motivate Cloud which is a gamified learning management system and the other product called The Training Arcade® and that is a self-service game builder where you can create your own games in 15-20 minutes. You can get a lot of data on your users, what they know, and how they behave in the analytics dashboard. 

Alex: Stephen, why don’t you show us a little bit of what’s going on with that game builder, The Training Arcade®.

Stephen: I always like to start with the analytics, because my feeling is that games are great and that they’re super fun but if there’s no data behind them they’re kind of useless. I think it’s really important to think about our end-users and understanding what do people know and how are they behaving. So we’re collecting a number of interesting things so we’re looking at first of all just top-line information:

  • how many users actually played the game
  • who’s played recently or the high scores
  • the total number of sessions
  • the average time per session 

Then we’re getting a little deeper and looking at the performance of an individual player so once they play how many sessions that had done and then beyond that can you see some trends and how they’re answering questions.

We did a study recently we looked at a thousand games that have been created the last few months on the platform and we saw a few things. We saw that the average game was played for about 6 minutes in length. The average person came back and played a total of 3 sessions. How often do people usually come back to our training? Not very often but games offer a great way to get them to come back more. More importantly, we also saw a 64% lift in knowledge from the first time someone answer the question to the third time they answered the question. We’re seeing what’s working how the material is being reinforced. The last thing we look at is what do people know across the questions overall. We start to so see trends.

This is a good example where we can look at a question and understand the percentage of the learners who actually answer that question. In this case, only 27% actually understood. I think this is great for pre-assessment it’s great for instructor-led. You can see the results in real-time. Data is king in my mind. You learn how your team is understanding the content and you start to understand how people are engaging with the material, what they know, and how they behave.

Alex: So in essence you’re able to provide all of this info on your own platform?

Stephen: Yes, the way that The Training Arcade works is that all the games are web-based. It’s on Amazon’s Web Server (AWS). You have access to build games and you have access to all this data. You can also export the games and wrap them as SCORM package or xAPI wrappers and push them right into your LMS. With SCORM there are limitations as to what you can track, with xAPI, the possibilities are endless. You can do it any of those ways but the data is available to any user in either our environment or their own. 

Alex: So on the xAPI side, you have a UI that allows me to build statements?

Stephen: Yes, we basically would set it up against your learning environment; you can set up all the queries and customize it to your needs.

Alex: You mentioned something important there which was about whether people come back to the game or don’t come back to the game in a training environment in most cases if we’re talking functional operational training which I’m assuming this is “the meat and potatoes” of the application. Let’s talk about an example: an enterprise company needs their team to learn specific things about their job or a process or something, you can add that content and build a game? Are you are able to provide it in mobile devices, what about single sign-on?

Stephen: There are today 8 games available on the platform. They’re all fully responsive and they’re all web-based. Some are designed for mobile and can scale up to big screens and some of them are small format (like the twitch style games). We have the exclusive license to JEOPARDY!® for corporate and education which is sort of a little longer format. Jeopardy is a reinforcement and knowledge check game. In regards to picking the right game, it depends on your learning objective. You need to align your game mechanic with your learning objective because games for game’s sake is really useless. You need to make sure that you’re using it to reinforce the learning or performance objective.

Alex: What’s the coolest game you have?  

Stephen: I think it depends on what you’re looking to do. For instance, if you’re looking to go a little more “gamey,” our Jump game has you jumping from platform to platform. If you are familiar with Doodle Jump, it’s the same concept. You want to avoid obstacles. You answer questions along the way. This is definitely the one that is most sticky and people play it for longer. There’s a lot of repeat play. Match 3 is almost like Candy Crush if you will but with questions throughout. The last one I’ll show you among goes back to one of the things you were talking about is a behavioral training game, which is Scenarios. This game and brings you through different branching dialogues. They’re actually a lot of really good products out there that do this but it takes to hours build a solid one. You can build our Scenarios game in under an hour on this platform. So, it depends on what you’re looking to do if you’re looking to reinforce some content or you’re looking to actually test behavior or give them scenarios- all different things to do.

Alex: When you say you can build it under an hour, is that because all the graphic assets and styles and formatting stuff is already in there? 

Stephen: You can upload images right into it or video right into and the branch. It is really easy to build out. As far as assets, There a few options you can use imagery or green screen video. We often see people using Vyond or Powtoon and layering that content right into it. It feeds the content really quickly, so as long as you have it mapped out in your mind, building it is is a cinch takes very little time.

Alex: Where is the place where you don’t want to use this tool? 

Stephen: I don’t see this game or any games, whether it’s custom or it’s a platform successfully sitting on their own. I really do believe that games are meant to augment traditional training whether it is eLearning or it’s Instructional Led, I think the games are a great way to reinforce the material and to make sure that it uses a knowledge check or to simulate out certain things. I guess one place not to use it is to you think “I’m just gonna use a game and that’s going to be my strategy” – I don’t think that’s a successful strategy. But I do think that in almost every case you can use a game to reinforce to act as a knowledge check to simulate different things successfully.

Alex: That’s great point especially because you know if there’s something that is necessary to do the job and I’m not gonna go back to play a game to find the resource that I need.

Stephen: Absolutely, another thing worth mentioning is and I’m quoting probably not as elegantly as I should but I’m quoting Dr. Michael Allen. Dr. Allen has talked often about when to use games and I think one of the things he talks about is don’t just use it at the tail end of your training. I think where they’re actually really successful is when the games are woven throughout your training. Just the way our brains think. You can’t just throw a multiple-choice quiz at the tail end of your training. Honestly, if you’re not reinforcing along the way, they are not going to remember the content. If you use games or game based activities throughout your training it’s a great way to stop, reinforce the material, check knowledge and give feedback loops to somebody about what they got right or wrong. It really acts as a really good teaching tool on top of what you’re already doing.

Alex: So what is the look like in the background you know when you’re as an author as you’re making things can you show us a little bit?

Stephen: It’s super simple to make a game. [see 12:32 in the video] I’ll create a new game here, we’ll just use Jump, all of them have very similar formats but there are a few things you can do to begin. The first thing is I’ve chosen my game I’m going to call this webinar 101 and automatically it creates a URL. It also starts a SCORM wrapper. You got this available in 16 languages so you can choose your default language. 

Alex: Are you talking SCORM 2004 or SCORM 1.2? 

Stephen: 1.2 and 2004 SCORM (third edition). You can choose which one you want to do. The next thing you do is you can determine whether you want to set at the time per question. Where they want to set a time for each individual question or for the overall game. You can choose a percentage for completion. We’ll just say each question you get 60 seconds and I’ll put 85 percent to complete the game. I’m going to randomize the questions. I’m going to turn on the tutorial before the game starts. I’m going to direct them to a particular website since it’s about webinars we’ll just call this webinar to get more information on it. I can give an information card so in this game you’ll be focusing on X, Y & Z please look out for A, B, and C but just to give them some context. There are other little utilitarian functions: so you can turn on I’m single sign-on or pre-authorized lists so that it’s available to certain people you’re going to set up a registration for these games with particular fields you can turn on or off the leaderboards and I just turn it off you can turn on or off the leaderboard. Then you start getting into the more fun stuff. You can determine what I want my game to actually look like. I can choose from a variety of themes. I can choose the audio tracks. I can customize my look and feel upfront and then I start adding any questions. So the question types for most of our games come with five different question types: multiple-choice, multi select, image match, text input, and polling. You choose what type of question you want to do you upload the media to go with it- it could be image or audio or video file. You’re then plugging in your questions if you say well this is a really easy question instead of being 60 seconds let’s override that and make it 30 seconds you can do that. You start adding in your answers. Here you add in your feedback loops here and you rinse and repeat until you’re done. 

Once you’ve built out your game, you can either translate it which I’m not gonna do right now or you can publish it out. So you have a few options you can just use your URL. You can also do a private URL if you want to and that basically adds about twelve unique alphanumeric numbers to it just to make it a little more difficult for anyone to find what doesn’t belong to them. You can also launch it at any time to see it play through it. The other thing you can do, which is kind of nice, is if you have a game that you’ve built and you say to yourself, “well this is great but I want to have two versions of this game one for senior level one for a junior level or whatever”-  you can copy the game and make some tweaks to it and really quickly create a second one without having to do it all over again.

We’ve tried to make it really turnkey. It also plugs into almost any LMS out there that’s going to accept SCORM. It also plugs into really most apps out there as well as custom apps.

Alex: So tell me a little bit about the pricing of this. Do you have a free trial?

Stephen: Yes, that’s a great question. We have a free trial; it’s 14 days if you come to a lot of the shows we normally extend it to about to 30 days. But after that you have a few options: you can license one game that’s $1499 and that’s for an annual subscription and you can create as many versions of that game as you want. So let’s say I love the Jump game but I want to create 25 of them, great go for it! Alternately you can license all 8 games that are in the library and that’s $5999 so it’s a 50% discount if you get all 8. It’s for an annual subscription and that gets you up to 2,500 users. If you want more users than that there’s a cost for that just kind of on the volume of users that you want.

Alex: So it’s a good thing that all the analytics are there. So if I wanted to build a game and then embed it into the Storyline module- that’s going to save me a lot of money. I can see your analytics dashboard as being the differentiator.

Stephen: It’s a big differentiator. So the interesting thing is that we we’re a custom shop. So here’s a great example of something we did for a pharmaceutical company. It’s targeting healthcare professionals, teaching them best practices when speaking with a patient who’s been diagnosed with HIV, and getting them into care. It’s a whole bunch of different videos that we created with actors that go through different scenarios of patients and healthcare professionals but the nice thing is, is that in this example there is a narrator who’s talking to you about different techniques and lots of mini-games woven throughout to have you try those techniques.

This one I wanted to show you next so this one’s a great example of you know teaching about risk management and compliance training and going through different scenarios where you can see different parts of the bank and you can try out different techniques and you complete little mini-games throughout the game. So this is a good example of a custom build that weaves in different games throughout and uses that reinforcement tool to see what people understand how they behave and overall how they perform. So this kind of goes back to what you’re talking about with construct you can do the same thing if you’re doing custom developments.

Alex: The risk that you take with getting into gamification is some of the stuff may look a little childish because it’s cartoon based. So can you do any type of design? 

Stephen: Exactly, so there are some templates that we have built out. If you’re using our Training Arcade games, you have a variety of templates. Some look a little professional and some are a bit more fun. There’s definitely a variety and there’s some many I would say about 15 to 20 percent of companies who use the platform say I want it to be fully custom-branded that’s great we can do that too so there’s certainly it’s more about here’s the mechanic and what it does versus making sure that it has the look and feel that you want and that’s really easily adjustable. 

Alex: So the reporting that you have in the analytics, do you have built-in integrations, or is it there’s a pull out a report, or let’s say an excel sheet?

Stephen: It has all the analytics in the platform, you can extend some of that to SCORM or xAPI band export it as a CSV file.

Alex: Exactly, most systems do that. I like the fact that you guys seem to be using what it appears to be sort of like a bootstrapping type of UI you know in terms of web development. It looks like nice html5 and it’s responsive so kudos on that one. You don’t look cheesy like some other ColdFusion base. So The Game Agency seems like a very interesting proposition, in terms of people looking for solutions to quickly gamify their training. It seems like everything is self-contained though. I mean your model seems to be based on the fact that you have these games templates and you can obviously custom build. I couldn’t take anything that I develop outside bring it in and kind of gamify it? 

Stephen: Well so there are a few things you could do so The Training Arcade® itself is self-contained; you can use that and certainly integrate that into any type of training you’re doing. If you’re building something custom you could use those and use other games. The other thing I’ll show you is our platform called Motivate Cloud. It is our learning management system and what’s nice about this LMS is that it allows you to use both games and traditional training. It also allows you to use that layer of gamification that Karl Kapp talks about a lot throughout the learning experience. Whether it’s progression or whether it is leaderboards or whether it is points that you’re collecting along the way. You’re collecting all these points by taking your courses, by participating in the games. You’re ultimately allowed to use all that to access different rewards that are available to you as a consumer. You can apply those with those points and purchase any rewards that you want.

Alex: I really appreciate you sharing this so it once again to review guys what do they call again game builder

Stephen: So the company is The Game Agency. The Training Arcade is our DIY game builder or authoring tool. Motivate Cloud is our game learning management system (LMS).

Alex: Motivate Cloud sounds like it’s an engagement platform right? 

Stephen: Yes, in addition to your training any rewards it also has a social platform to really encourage that people share best practices ask questions and you can get points for participating there as well so in any way as I think that that is it truly is an engagement tool

Alex: Okay well it seems like would cover some of the basics there’s the how one of the ways to do the how of gamification and game design with the game agency and this to cool apps anything else you’d like to share.

Stephen: So, first of all, I am sensitive to the fact that I know that this was not meant to be a pitch so I’m also always happy to answer questions or brainstorm folks if they were looking for that as well. We’ve been around for 12 years and always looking to foster relationships. I’m happy to help even without working for you; let me know I’m always happy to do so.

Alex: Okay that’s cool, good to know. I really want to thank you for joining us “off the cuff” because they’re not many vendors that will put themselves on the spot like you been have willing to do here so that’s a compliment on your end. 

Stephen: Thank you for having me!

Email Stephen at about how we can help gamify your training.


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