Co-Founder Pacific Blue Solutions
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Serious about games and gamification

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10th Feb 2014
Co-Founder Pacific Blue Solutions
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In the first of a three-part series, Pacific Blue's Andrew Jackson suggests we need to think seriously about training needs analysis before we delve into game theory. 

The myth of boomers versus gamers

The dot com bubble and bust of the late 90s seems a very long time ago now. Do you remember all those newly formed dot coms with stratospheric stock market values, investors fighting each other to pile in yet more cash? Yet not a penny of profit anywhere on the horizon. Not a customer in sight. How was it that perfectly rational investors were persuaded to part with their cash when, by all normal measures of success, these companies were a disaster waiting to happen? They were persuaded by four simple words that should send a shiver down the spine of anyone thinking of investing their money: 'this time it’s different'. Those are the four scary words that were repeated over and over in that dot com bubble. The paradigm has shifted, we were told. The world has changed forever. The normal rules no longer apply.

And when it comes to learning and development, those same four words should similarly ring alarm bells and set us on our guard. Why? Because when a new learning technology, theory or approach happens along, we seem to be highly susceptible to the idea that this time it’s different. This one’s the game-changer. This one requires us to completely re-think the way we’ve always done things. You hear people talking like this all the time.

And usually, somewhere, in those conversations will be mention of the generational shift that is taking place. How younger people are so much more savvy with technology. How they are no longer willing to put up with traditional ways of learning. How we have to get on board with Facebook, Twitter, mobile devices and every other technology that comes along. Otherwise, it seems, nobody under the age of 25 will ever be able to learn anything ever again. These views are not new. But the tsunami of technology that has swept over us in the last 10-15 years has just increased people’s tendency to think this way.

And this view has not been helped by Karl Kapp, who popularised the notion of 'Boomers' and 'Gamers' in his 2007 book, Gadgets, Games and Gizmos for Learning. He wrote the book based on two key observations:

The first observation is that baby boomers (usually defined as anyone born between 1946 and 1964) are reaching retirement. They have a huge amount of knowledge and experience in their respective fields of expertise. But this hasn’t necessarily been formally captured by the organisations they work for. The second is Kapp’s own observation of his children. He has watched them grow up in a world full of computer games. This, he argues, has caused his children to think and learn very differently from him and his generation.

"If you are designing training without any real expertise, you’ll almost certainly create a terrible piece of learning. And poorly designed, boring training is ineffective and irritating to everyone"

These two observations lead him to the following conclusion. Baby boomers’ knowledge needs to be captured and transferred to younger generations. But because younger people are 'gamers' (i.e. brought up on computer games), they are completely unable or unwilling to learn through more ‘traditional’ methods familiar to 'boomers'.

And, so it is, in Kapp’s view that two worlds are set to collide:

“Gamers...are not going to sit in a classroom or confront online learning modules that have no interaction…” say Kapp on page 39 of his book. I wouldn’t disagree with that. But here’s the more important point. Nobody wants to sit in a classroom for hours where there is no interaction. Nobody wants to confront an elearning module which is just about clicking to get to the next screen. This is not about boomers versus gamers. This is about poor learning design versus effective learning design. It never seems to occur to Kapp that both of these methods of learning can, in the right instructional design and training delivery hands, be highly interactive, extremely effective and thoroughly enjoyable experiences that anyone - boomer or gamer - can easily benefit from.

The key point here? If you are designing training without any real expertise, you’ll almost certainly create a terrible piece of learning. And poorly designed, boring training is ineffective and irritating to everyone – regardless of whether they grew up on a diet of Grand Theft Auto or that stalwart of board games, Monopoly. What depresses me most about the boomer versus gamer argument, though, is the inherent ageism built into it. If you buy into this way of thinking, then by definition anyone over the age of about 55 is an old has-been, with no hope of ever ‘getting’ all this new-fangled stuff these clever young gamers seem to pick up in seconds.

Clearly, all those people over the age of 50 who you saw using computers, tablets and mobile phones on your journey to work this morning were an aberration. No boomer worth his or her salt would be seen dead with a piece of technology in their hand. They would much rather be sitting in a classroom being lectured at – apparently. Last year, I wrote a series of articles about the obsession we have with learning technology. We distract ourselves with technology, I argued, rather than focus on simply making learning more effective.

It seems to me, the boomers versus gamers thesis is just another distraction from the real problem we have – there are too many people, in too many organisations, who ‘design’ and ‘deliver’ training, without knowing anything much about how to design and deliver training. And, by the way, you don’t have to be a particular age or belong to a particular generation to fall into this category. When people hear me de-bunking the boomers versus gamers myth, they often assume I am being a bit of a Luddite. They assume I’m saying 'avoid technology for learning at all costs. Only stick with more traditional methods'. Nothing could be further from the truth. You won’t find a bigger fan or user of technology than me – as long as it’s technology that’s smart, effective and makes my life easier or more enjoyable.

If it doesn’t meet those criteria, in my opinion, you shouldn’t be creating it and you shouldn’t be foisting it on me or the rest of the world. And if it doesn’t make learning more effective for boomers or gamers then leave it in its box. In part two of this series, I’ll look at the three main challenges most of us face when thinking about applying gamification to our learning. I’ll also explore what makes a 'game' a game.

Andrew Jackson is co-founder of Pacific Blue Solutions. Pacific Blue works with individuals and organisations to create more effective, results-driven learning – with a special focus on the intelligent application of instructional design principles. Create e-learning that will be loved by boomers and gamers alike with their free Effective ELearning Toolkit

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