April 11, 2024

Clinical Professor of eLearning, Training + Development, + Instructional Design at NYU

Dana Bernardino

1Huddle Podcast Episode #128

On this episode of the Bring It In podcast, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder, Sam Caucci, sat down with Dr. Dave Eng, creative educator, designer and researcher, focusing on games theory and technology. Dr. Eng delves into the transformative role of games in education and workforce training. Drawing from his extensive background in higher education and a decade-long exploration of games-based learning, Dr. Eng highlights the rich history of games in experiential learning, emphasizing their ability to enhance knowledge acquisition and skill development.

He also discusses ethical considerations in gamification, advocating for fair and purposeful game design. Dr. Eng envisions a future where individuals pursue fulfilling work driven by intrinsic motivation, offering valuable insights for leveraging games as effective tools for learning and development in the workplace.

Audio available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.


Below are some of the insights Dr. Eng shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “Learning is the transformation of experience into knowledge.”
  • “My hope for the future of work is something that will always reward an individual’s intrinsic motivation to do something.”
  • “Experiential learning is learning taking place through experience.”

Sam Caucci: To kick us off. Do you mind maybe giving a little background on yourself?  

Dr. Dave Eng: Sure. My name is Dave Eng. I lead the website. So it’s universityxp.com. It’s where I write in podcasts and have my own video series about using games for teaching, learning, and development.

And by extension to that, they also run the Game Space Learning Alliance, which is a collection of other academics and professionals and thinkers and thought leaders who also use games for learning. And we also put together our annual Game Space Learning Virtual Conference, which is a virtual online event that connects other people from around the world that are also looking forward to using games, game based learning, gamification, serious games, simulations, and all of that.

So you could say that I’m a leader in the training, learning, and education space, but specifically also using games for learning and development. 

Sam: What made you kind of get into– sounds pretty fun. What made you get into that line of work? 

Dave: So, it’s interesting because my background is almost exclusively in higher education. And at the time, I knew that I wanted to become a senior administrator in higher education. So in academia. and in order to do that, I needed to spend some more time. I need to go back to grad school. I needed to get my terminal degree doctorate. And at the time my advisor said that I have to pick a dissertation topic. It’s got to be something that I’m enthusiastic about. But also know that I’m going to be spending several years researching this topic.

And at the time, and this was when the new, I guess, renaissance of tabletop games was coming up, me being a gamer from a very early age, it was just very germane to me. And I figured, you know, is there a way, or is there a field that combines games with learning and development? And I discovered games based learning and that was the start of a four plus year, or I would say that started in 2014.

So almost a 10 year journey now of researching, finding games, learning how to use games for learning and development, finding other people who are creating games. So it came about from a need, a specific need to finish your program. And it just kind of blossomed into, into something else. So I can’t say that this is the path that I predicted for myself, but I’m happy to be on the journey. 

Sam: I bet some people are surprised that games have, you know, such a long history and there’s programs like the ones you’re describing that focus on games within academia and for learning and for skill development. I guess to give folks that don’t know, maybe a little background or history, I mean, how long and how serious is this concept of using games, in an environment for learning and training and development?

Dave: So, the interesting part about this is that using games for teaching and learning is almost as old as games itself. And one of the earliest examples that I think a lot of listeners may realize is that war games have been used for centuries now on how to train officers, soldiers, leaders, even, you know, politicians and policymakers on the outcomes of different scenarios. And one of the earliest examples I would say is the Kriegspiel, which is a German tabletop game krieg meaning war and spiel meaning, meaning game in German.

And what was interesting about it was that it was what we see today in a lot of like hobby gamings, like tabletop war games in which different commanders and officers would play out these different scenarios on a tabletop where one side would represent an opposing force, one side would represent the home force. And they would essentially play this war game against each other. And they had a referee in the middle that would kind of negotiate some of the details of the specific war game. And what was interesting about it is that there was an immediate reflection on the application that this could be used for teaching and learning specifically military officers.

But there was also a fun aspect of it. This ability to create and control this microcosm of this tiny world. So while war games do have a very specific application, there are other ways that games can be used for teaching and learning specifically like gamification that we see now in a lot of different learning management systems. 

Sam: I’d imagine that you, you have heard or hear at times people who may challenge the seriousness of, you know, of a course or a topic that uses a game as the vehicle. I guess, what do you say to people who, you know, and obviously you just kind of talked to it a little bit with war games, because that’s some pretty serious stuff.

But I guess, why do you think there’s this point of view that because something is a game, it’s not to be taken seriously, or it’s just all play and not purposeful?

Dave: I think it’s because a lot of people have their own interpretation of what they see as games. Those that really kind of dismiss games as not really having an application outside of entertainment are really thinking about games like Angry Birds or mobile games or games that have just pure I guess engagement value, you know, they were just things that activity to do or, or something to play with and engage with, but not really have a lot of meaning.

But what I tell people is that games, as a medium for teaching and learning, is really something that’s based on experiential learning. And experiential learning is learning taking place through experience. And one of the phrases I like to use most often is that learning is the transformation of experience into knowledge.

And I use that as the basis for really honoring the kind of contribution that games can be used for learning, because right now experiential learning is seen in a lot of different formats. Internships are a form of experiential learning. Cooperatives are experiential learning. Study abroad can be considered experiential learning, but a lot of people don’t really criticize those individual programs.

I mean, a lot of people would say that internships are a very critical part of starting your career, but these are all ways that we can learn through experience. Likewise, games are a form of experiential learning, because when you think about it, the game contains a specific structure for how you interact with it.

But that structure can really be in the hands of a skilled professional, be whatever you want it to be. Like with the Kriegspiel, that’s a simulation of an actual, you know, like war like scenario, but that doesn’t also mean that you can’t make simulations of other things that aren’t or like probably a game.

And I guess I’m kind of dating myself here is when I played the stock market game in high school. That is a simulation while it did use actual data from stock market trading. It happened within a closed simulation of just my other classmates and I. And through that, we learned how different equities trade, what it means to buy and sell different stocks at different times and how to evaluate a company and everything else.

And I would say that that’s not something that a lot of people criticize, even though it is a serious game, that stock market trading game.

Sam: I’m sure you’ve seen all types of good games and bad games or proper uses and misuses of gamification around teaching and learning.  I guess for folks out there that are set that are considering  implementing a form of gamification into their workplace, whether that’s for learning or whether it’s for engagement or whether it’s for connection, whether it’s for productivity, any insights around what are the few things you should, do and a few things, maybe you should stay away from? 

Dave: One of the things I see most often, and this is probably a consideration of why a lot of people use gamification is because it’s very easy to implement right now.

One of the things that we see regularly is just the use of points. People quantify different activities and you earn points for doing certain things, or maybe you lose points for doing other things. And that’s fine. I think points at face value can be useful, but when it’s only used to quantify different activities, it isn’t very indicative of a very focused learning and development approach.

One of the examples I like to use is, because I own one, I have a Fitbit. Fitbit is really great at gamifying quote unquote behavior in that different activities are quantified based on the statistics and insights generated from the actual tracker, like steps, active minutes and everything else.

But those statistics on their own are not very useful. But when you combine them with incentives to do different things, they are useful. One of the things I like doing regularly with Fitbit is earning different badges for, you know, steps earned during a certain time or active minutes during the week or anything else.

Likewise, whenever you are using gamification points at face value are not a bad thing, but how are you giving those points out? How are they awarded and are they attached to anything else? I would say one of the more successful applications of using points on a learning management system is one to track progress for a specific course or module or anything else, but then also awarding a credential at the completion of it and points can be used in order to inform what credential you offer, when it’s offered and how it’s offered. But at face value, just giving points to something could be interpreted as gamification, but I wouldn’t say it’s a very good use of gamification.  

Sam: I’m sure you’ve seen, you know, this is dating maybe a year or two ago, but Amazon utilized the technology inside of their warehousing space where one of their challenges was their pick and packers, the folks that were literally packing the boxes on the front lines, they were struggling to make sure that people were picking and packing a certain number of boxes per hour, whatever the standard number was, let’s say it’s 50 boxes an hour.

And one of the things they did is they created a technology to– they created a leaderboard and they put all of the workers up on the leaderboard against each other in lieu of a manager or a shift leader. So this is sort of a way for them to avoid investing in coaching and development, but instead sort of create an environment where the workers pushed each other.

And it got a lot of, you know, pretty critical reviews because of the fact that in many ways it started to create, you know, a negative cultural impact where, you know, one person who just so happened to be a little bit healthier and in a position to pack 75 boxes versus the person who maybe couldn’t pack and was only packing 25.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with this story, but I’m throwing it out there as a deeper question around how we should be thinking about the opportunity for games, especially when we’re thinking about, you know, frontline workers or workers who are coming from different backgrounds and different education levels.

Or bring different things into the workplace. And then to have work, you know, gamification sprinkled over injected into their day to day functions. You know, I guess I’d love to hear your opinion on that and guidance to folks that are, you know, considering a way to implement gamification. That’s  not going to have a negative impact.  

Dave: So I’m really glad you brought up that story, Sam, because some of my colleagues and I presented in the past on the dark side of gamification, quote unquote. Its gamification used often with very dubious ethical considerations. And the top three considerations I would bring up for this particular question is one, the Amazon incident that you talked about before.

And I think that it is exploitative of workers in order to emphasize different productivity goals through this app. There are different ways that you can implement this that I think is less exploitative, particularly if you make it an opt-in experience or something that isn’t necessarily tied to compensation or performance or anything else.

Another instance in which we have observed something like this happening is with I believe it was the Disney World resort down in Orlando, where they had a gamified system for hotel laundry workers to turn over loads of laundry at a gamified system at a faster pace in order to get more people to, you know, complete cycles of laundry faster. However, it did have a negative impact with specific workers not taking offered breaks during their shift because they wanted to stay on top of the gamified leaderboard.

And then a third instance, and this one is more pervasive that we kind of see in just regular, I would say commercial games is this aspect of loot boxes. And for those who are listening, who are not familiar with loot boxes, they are a form of randomized prizes usually related to a specific game in the form of cosmetics, like different  character skins or clothing or anything else.

But those loot boxes can be earned through gameplay or they can be purchased. And because you are incentivizing your players to purchase them, it’s sort of like a gambling mechanic of, you know, paying a certain amount of money and not being able to generally discover what you’re going to get from this particular loot box.

So I’d say that these are all instances of gamification implemented in dubious ethical circumstances, they’re definitely not ways that I would want to implement gamification, but these are definitely individual aspects to, to look out for and to try to avoid, when possible.  

Sam: It just makes me think, you know, one of the most powerful opportunities or maybe critical ingredients of a great game is that it’s fair that there’s a level, like everybody’s on an essentially a level playing field, and can have the opportunity to compete or pursue, you know, an outcome. So yeah, I mean, again, as you talk about those three scenarios, it’s, you know, I think it’s really timely, especially given the environment today. 

You know, one in two workers are low wage workers. They’re in many ways a parking ticket away from poverty and they’re coming to work every day. And the story about Disney, I mean, it’s wild. Like again, I can imagine a laundry, you know, a worker on the front lines in a situation like housekeeping or laundry who is skipping a break because of the impact of the game or the effect that a game could have on them. 

It’s just, I think it also speaks to the responsibility leaders have today to think about their workforce and when they think about how they design and what tools they use. 

One other question for you. And I appreciate you taking the time with us today. You know, so much of what you’re talking about, Dave affects people in the workplace. And as we think about the future of work, I’m interested in your point of view all around, you know, what is your hope for the future of work? 

Dave: It’s an interesting question, Sam, because I would say that my real future, my hope for the future of work, is something that will always reward an individual’s intrinsic motivation to do something. And I say that right now, because the way our society works and the way work is structured right now is that people must work in order to survive.

Whereas I think like, and I’m thinking of Star Trek next generation right now, where it’s a post-scarcity society, where if you’d like to work, you can work, but you’re not forced to do work in order to just survive, whereas your basic needs are met. I’d say that an idealized future work for me is one where  if you choose to work, you can do work that I think is very fulfilling for yourself, is very interesting for yourself and is not necessary from a survival standpoint, but is really kinds of kind of I would say like, quote unquote, feed your soul. 

If you’re familiar with Arthur Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, this is the highest level of individual need, which is self actualization once you’ve met all those other biological needs, like food, air, water, sleep, a sense of belonging and everything else.

Self actualization is the height of human potential. So while it sounds kind of idealistic of me to think about it like I really hope it’s something that, you know, In the not so far future we can attain. But that is really my idealized version of what I see work looking like in the future. 

Sam: Dave, thank you for taking time.

Dave: You got it. Thank you, Sam, for having me. I appreciate it. 

Topics Discussed: Future of Work, Leadership, Failure, Games, Gamification, Training

Dana Bernardino, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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