elearningpost logo

you are here: articles

Exclusive interview with Marc Prensky

First published: March 15, 2001

elearningpost: You have written a very interesting book: 'Digital Game-Based Learning' which you say is a strategic and tactical guide to the newest trend in e-learning - combining content with video games and computer games to more successfully engage the under-40 "Games Generation". Perhaps you can begin by explaining for our readers, sort of as a groundwork for the rest of the conversation, what your book is about.

Prenksy: Digital Game-Based Learning is about finally making learning engaging - particularly for things learners many not want to know, but have to know. It is about the wonderful opportunity we now have, thanks to advances in technology, to finally get away from the ineffective "tell-test" paradigm that has dominated classroom and e-learning to most learners' detriment, and shift to fun, effective learning.
The learning world - a $2 trillion market -- and the entertainment world - also measured in the trillions -- are finally coming together to create a new form of learning that engages learners - especially (but not exclusively) today's "Digital Natives." Digital natives are what I call those people, aged roughly 40 and under, who were brought up with a host of new technologies and experiences from Sesame Street to the Walkman, to video games and GameBoys to MTV, to CD's, to MP3, to pagers, to digi-cams, to the Internet, etc etc.

"Digital Natives, as I demonstrate in the book, have developed new cognitive habits and thinking patterns that are very different from those of the "Digital Immigrants" who came before, and they require very different types of learning. A big part of our current education problems stem directly from the fact that the Digital Immigrants -- who comprise most of our teachers and trainers -- are not very fluent in the language the Digital Natives speak."

Digital Natives, as I demonstrate in the book, have developed new cognitive habits and thinking patterns that are very different from those of the "Digital Immigrants" who came before, and they require very different types of learning. A big part of our current education problems stem directly from the fact that the Digital Immigrants -- who comprise most of our teachers and trainers -- are not very fluent in the language the Digital Natives speak. In fact, they generally have a Digital Immigrant "accent" that is hard for the natives to understand. This "Digital Immigrant Accent" includes going slowly, going step-by-step, using outlines for organization, reading manuals, going to the internet second rather than first, and especially the "tell-test" approach to teaching. The Digital Natives find this accent and approach very hard to deal with. After all, these are the "hypertext" people who taught themselves computers with no formal instruction at all!

The book discusses many ways that the Digital Natives are different from the previous generations, and focuses particularly on one aspect - Digital Natives believe learning can and should be really fun, and don't accept the alternative.

After demonstrating exactly how learners have changed, Digital Game-Based Learning goes on to show why games in general -- and Digital Game-Based Learning in particular -- is a great solution for the Digital Natives (and for older learners as well!) The book discusses over 50 cases and situations where Digital Game-Based learning has been used successfully in a wide variety of companies and in the military. It goes on to show how trainers can make the business case for getting budget for Digital Game-Based Learning projects, and how they can create effective Digital Game-Based Learning at any price, including almost nothing at all.

elearningpost: Digital games are largely perceived as entertainment. It requires a substantial leap in faith, especially on the part of training managers, to see games as a source of training and learning. How will one go about convincing the stakeholders -- the HR people and the top management about the potential of digital games for training?

Prenksy: My sense is that using games to learn no longer requires as much of a "leap of faith" as it once may have. There are two principal reasons for this: training populations have changed, and the evidence is coming in that it works.

The old dichotomy between learning - something serious and glum - and play - something fun and enjoyable -- is disappearing. I find it interesting that your list of "stakeholders" does not include learners. This exclusion -- typical, by the way -- is why the need for learner-centered training is so great.

In general there is no problem convincing users (of all ages) that a fun approach to learning something is better. Even the "my people are so serious" types of users that trainers often talk about come around easily when they see something really good, plus are given an alternative of not using it if they prefer.

"Top and middle managers - the people who pay the bills -- can be convinced in a number of ways. The first is finding the right need. There is no point in going to them in the first place unless the training need is strategic -- i.e. it affects the value of the business -- rather than being just 'nice to do'."

Top and middle managers - the people who pay the bills -- can be convinced in a number of ways. The first is finding the right need. There is no point in going to them in the first place unless the training need is strategic -- i.e. it affects the value of the business -- rather than being just "nice to do." If the training need is really strategic -- such as a need to be competitive or to meet a government mandate -- management will want to get it done the best and most effective way possible. Remember, the effectiveness of training must be measured not by whether it was delivered, but by the effect it had on people's performance. By that criterion, Digital Game-Based Learning is, in many instances, clearly the best and most effective way to go. It gets the job done -- and may be the only thing that does in many situations.

While Digital Game-Based Learning is NOT for everything or everyone, (see last question below) it is IDEAL for learning that people DON'T WANT to do - i.e. situations where learners are not motivated, and resist, learning the material on their own. Of course one of training's dirtiest little secrets is that this is what most of training is about - if people wanted to learn the material, they would, on their own or from their peers.

Once managers actually understand and accept that their people don't want to learn this stuff but have to, convincing them becomes easier. One can point out that while learning games are fun and even, in some instances, "trivial," their content is not -- it remains very serious, but is presented in an engaging manner to increase learning. Managers are also often able to relate to the generational changes through their own children. You can ask them if their kids are very different from them, which they all admit, and then point out to them that most of their trainees are more similar to their kids than to them. The fact that managers are getting younger, especially in some industries, helps as well. Finally, the whole point of my book is to help trainers make this case. You can cite numerous examples from the book and use the entire chapter devoted to "Making the Business Case" for Digital Game-Based Learning. There is also an entire chapter on Evaluating Effectiveness.

Interestingly, the stakeholders most difficult to convince are, typically, the trainers and educators. This is not totally surprising, since the paradigm of Digital Game-Based Learning - fun and learner-centered -- goes against most of what trainers have been doing up till now, which is heavily content and instructor-centered. People often feel threatened by and get defensive about something they don't fully understand. However for those willing to accept the new roles of Motivator, Content Structurer, Debriefer, Tutor, and Producer/Designer discussed in the book, using Digital Game-Based Learning represents a huge opportunity for positive change in trainers' jobs and their entire profession.

elearningpost: The gaming industry understands participants' motivational issues better than others. On the other hand, one of the major stumbling blocks in any education or training initiative is motivating the learners. With learning going online, what can learning designers learn from the game developers and how can they successfully translate game motivational techniques to the learning context?

Prensky: I have been saying for over a decade that games have all the motivation but little useful content, and business has all the content and no motivation, so why not put the two together. As my book shows, this is finally beginning to happen on a wide scale.

The best games have typically have all of the following characteristics:

Many of the elements and approaches games designers use to make their games more engaging are discussed in the book.

One of the greatest and most often made e-learning design mistakes, however, is to think that by sticking "game-like elements" (graphics, goals, etc.) into otherwise dull training materials, you can make them engaging. It is very important to understand that to get the engagement of games you have to design real games. An e-learning designer once described her "sandwich" approach to me -- "we have this really cool space cockpit intro. Then we do our normal CBT. Then the user goes back in the space ship for the exit." This is an INeffective approach -- users see through this stuff in a nanosecond! Don't waste your time and money on "game-like elements." Design real games. If you can't, find partners who can, or ask your learners for their assistance!

elearningpost: Are the use of digital games limited to certain types of learning only? Do some learning applications lend themselves well to a game-based approach and others not? How does one know when to adopt game-based learning?

Prensky: Some educators, like my friend Thiagi, claim that games can be used to teach anything to anyone at any time. While I fully agree that that is possible, I'm not sure it is always worthwhile. Since our time and budgets are limited, I suggest reserving the power of Digital Game-Based Learning for one single situation only: Material that learners don't want to learn, and even resist learning. This can be either because the material is boring (or for those who use PC corporatespeak "dry and technical") such as policies, or for things that are extremely complicated and difficult to learn such as financial derivatives or complex software.

In my view there is no point in using games (or other motivational techniques) when learners are already motivated to learn. In such cases, efficient delivery of information and ability to practice and get feedback is all that is needed. Unfortunately, in the corporate world most of training doesn't fall into this category. If the information in training were something people wanted to learn because they thought it would benefit them, they would learn it on their own, or from their peers. So there are a lot of places where the motivation of games is extremely useful.

Here are some examples. At Bankers Trust, traders were not motivated to learn the three inches of policies they needed to follow. A game, Straight Shooter!, helped them learn these in detail. At PricewaterhouseCoopers the 24 year old auditors were not motivated to lean the highly complex world of financial derivatives that they suddenly had to know. A game, In$ider, helped them do this more easily. When users have needed to know more about topics from "hard skills" to "soft skills," from customer service to product knowledge to complex software and keyboard shortcuts, games have proved a highly effective way to teach them. The book contains over 50 case studies and examples of this.

elearningpost: One of the advantages of e-learning is its cost. E-learning if designed properly, can deliver training at a lower cost over an extended period of time. And we have all heard that games cost a lot to develop. How does one resolve this apparent contradiction?

Prenksy: The tough question is what does "designing it properly" mean? That today's e-learning saves money overall is not at all clear - what is clear is that it often saves budget while covering trainers' behinds. To see whether money has been saved overall, one would need to look at what it costs to achieve similar results - i.e. actual learning. Most e-learning created to date does not do this. In fact, e-learning typically benefits the trainers, more than the learners - "Look," the trainers can say, "we have courses available on everything!" The learners usually don't find much of this worth doing and don't bother completing it -- low completion rates for e-learning are another dirty little training secret! When this happens money is not saved but totally wasted.

"Also, that 'games cost a lot to develop' is a huge overgeneralization, one that shouldn't get bandied about lightly. Some games do cost a lot to develop - particularly consumer games - but some cost surprisingly little."

Also, that "games cost a lot to develop" is a huge overgeneralization, one that shouldn't get bandied about lightly. Some games do cost a lot to develop - particularly consumer games - but some cost surprisingly little. To be effective, learning games DO NOT need all the graphic sophistication of the latest PS2 extravaganza, they just have to engage the players. All gamers know there is an important distinction between "eye-candy" and "gameplay" and know that gameplay is much more important - witness the 100 million low graphic quality GameBoys sold.

There are currently many inexpensive learning games available, which can be used for all subjects. In many cases a question template, such as a Jeopardy! -type shell, or a template based on Solitare, Asteroids, or PacMan, tied to reference material, can work wonders for an otherwise dull or unwanted topic - as the primary and only learning. Games2train's Sexual Harassment Prevention Certifier is a good example of this. In the legal field there is an inexpensive, yet sophisticated game to teach trial lawyers when and how to object. For entrepreneurship and business management there is a game called Startup, which can be bought off the shelf for $49.95.

Cost is not the issue in creating Digital Game-Based Learning -- imagination is. In my view the e-learning that is most effective - i.e. delivers the most learning at the lowest cost -- is e-learning that is both on the mark in terms of content and extremely fun to do. Digital Game-Based Learning fits this bill very well.

By the way, many other things in training, in addition to cost, ought to be looked at from the learner's perspective rather than the trainer's. Those who tout their e-learning as "anywhere, anytime" should realize that from the learners' point of view it is very often "nowhere, no time," to which many of them would add "no thanks!" Learning through browsers at desktops is a very temporary, uncomfortable situation that will soon be replaced by various combinations of wireless handhelds and possibly home TVs through game consoles. I recommend always focusing on the learners, rather than on the providers or the content.

elearningpost: In our experience we have found that training is most effective when trainers are engaged in creating and maintaining the course content. But game development seems like a domain not many trainers will be familiar or even comfortable with. Do you see this as a problem and if yes how can it be overcome?

Prenksy: I'm not sure I agree with your premise. I find it hard to believe that trainers' continually reinterpreting and updating content that they get from the line or elsewhere is what makes for either effective training or an engaging job for trainers. But to the extent that it is true, game-based templates - such as those that can be seen on www.games2train.com -- fill this need very well. The trainers create and maintain all the content, and the software delivers the fun part. In fact, it is so easy to do this that a better solution might sometimes be to have line people do it themselves, eliminating the trainer as middleman (or, in corporatespeak, middleperson). This frees the trainers for the far more interesting roles discussed above and in the book, including Motivator, Content Structurer, Debriefer, Tutor, and Producer/Designer

On the other hand, anyone who creates Digital Learning -- Game-Based or otherwise - in which the content is NOT modular and very easily changeable by client personnel is, I think, doing a disservice to training. Most business content changes extremely rapidly -- often day-to-day. And even where the subject matter in a game possibly does not change as rapidly -- as some might argue for various soft skills -- every corporation has its own approach, wording, etc. that it hangs onto for dear life. "Workers" in one company are "employees" in another, "associates" in a third and "cast members" at a fourth. Except, of course, when a new CEO comes in and decides that XXCorp will henceforth be known and XXUnicorp. Then everything has to change. Content in ALL corporate learning, including Digital Game-Based Learning, must be able to easily take this into account and change almost instantly.

elearningpost: An important ingredient of learning in these accelerated times is the need to have day-to-day knowledge. This would require constant work and re-work of course content and structure. How would game-based learning fit into this scenario, going by the assumption that the re-work work costs would be substantial? Are we going to see more re-usable (or open source) gaming patterns as we are witnessing with the mod community? [Reference: FeedMag article]

"The days of creating and presenting a "course" that is totally custom-designed in a highly structured way for one particular use are over in the era of "twitch speed" change."

Prensky: Part of this was addressed in the answer to the last question. The days of creating and presenting a "course" that is totally custom-designed in a highly structured way for one particular use are over in the era of "twitch speed" change. If that were all trainers knew how to do, they would need to start to look for other work. Fortunately there are other approaches more in tune with today's needs.

In my view, the learning and engagement parts of training are separate dimensions which must both be maximized as much as possible.

The best way to create online (or other) learning that is engaging and effective is to first analyze the learning problem, in generic terms. Is it about learning facts, skills, judgement, behaviors, theories, reasoning, process, procedures, creativity, language, systems, observation, communication, or, as in most situations, a combination? One can then use a game or series of games designed to address those specific problems, along with the appropriate content. The content, if kept relatively separate (say in a database), can easily updated whenever necessary.

To achieve maximum engagement, the learning game's style (as opposed to its learning methodologies and content just described) must reflect the game style preferences of the audience. If the audience is homogeneous, this is often relatively easy - there are types of games that are known to appeal to almost any segment you can name, e.g. First-person shooters for guys between 15 and 30, Tetris and other "create order" games for professional women (others' assessment, not mine), Jeopardy! for boomers, etc. For more heterogeneous audiences in terms of age, gender, education, competitiveness, etc. there are a couple of possible approaches. These include (1) using games with appeal to broad audiences, such as trivia games (e.g. You Don't Know Jack) and TV games like Millionaire and (2) offering a choice of two or several games, each focused on a segment. In every case, providing a non-game alternative and an easy way to switch between game and no game is also crucial.

In terms of customizing games, the "Mod" approach, in which a game "engine" is left intact but the surrounding graphics are user-modified, is often a good one. Using this approach, a game which involved players' running around in an environment could take place in an office for one industry, a restaurant or hotel for another, and a factory for a third. The book lists several examples of this: Royal Dutch Shell changed the location of a shooter game to an oil platform and the task to putting out fires. Bankers Trust customized a shooter game so that the weapon, instead of being a politically incorrect gun, was a cell phone shooting ideas that overcame problems.

elearningpost: What about bandwidth issues? Don't games with their graphics, sound and animations hog the bandwidth?

Prensky: Games do not hog bandwidth just because they are games -- it depends entirely on how they are designed. Again, the distinction between eye-candy and gameplay is crucial. What hogs bandwidth is the eye-candy - the graphics - but not necessarily other fast moving elements. We need to be creative enough to find interactions that are engaging, not just fun to look at.

Many people cite Myst and Riven as good game examples to emulate, but in terms of gameplay they are not the most engaging games - just a lot of stunning graphics. They are, in general, terrible models for learning games -- one more thing that most people don't finish. On the other hand, the game Giraffe on the Palm Pilot is graphically insignificant - but the game is addictive and teaches the Graffiti language very effectively.

Another useful concept to think about when designing learning games is scalability. This means that if a game is well designed in terms of gameplay the same game can exist through a slow dial-up internet connection with minimal graphics, but the graphics improve automatically as the program detects more bandwidth available. (Remember, though, that even though corporation have "fat pipes" those pipes are typically filled with mission critical corporate information and are not available for high bandwidth training or games).

Thirdly, designers must understand their technology well and use it to maximum advantage. While bit-mapped graphics are bandwidth hogs, vector-based graphics are much less so. "Talking head video", whether streamed or not, is always a huge bandwidth hog, presenting little additional value over other methods of presenting information, and is widely over-rated. Those who insist on using lots of video over the web before universal fiber, are, in my view, just making their own lives difficult while providing little to users..

And finally, if the content in a training game is really good and important, and high-end graphics are necessary to make it work effectively, local graphics, either on CD-ROM or downloaded to a hard disk, (and possibly linked to a web-based game) are still a viable alternative. This is true despite any bitching, moaning or directives you might hear from IT. PricewaterhouseCoopers found this out with its CD-ROM based In$ider - the fact that it was on four CD's was not a problem when the line people wanted it for its content, in their own organization and at their clients.

About Marc Prensky

Marc Prensky is the founder, CEO and Chief Creative Officer of games2train.com and Corporate Gameware LLC. A nationally-known leader in the field of business learning and a noted authority in the training and learning field, he speaks extensively in the U.S., Europe and Japan and his work has been cited in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Fast Company and many other business publications. His book, Digital Game-Based Learning also has a companion site, twitchspeed.com, showcasing numerous examples and articles on this latest trend in e-learning.

The commenting section is closed for this article.

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.