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NogginLabs was founded on the notion that custom e-learning design and development is the ultimate horizontal industry. Time and again, each new project, client, and industry proves it. The biggest advantage of the e-learning horizontal is cross-pollinating ideas from two wildly different domains. A restaurant service simulation for iPad may influence a high-fashion online retail challenge. E-learning for financial advisors in a bank could inspire a mobile outreach program for cancer survivors. This variety also keeps the creative folks at NogginLabs fresh. Fresh learning ideas and designs come from a set of constantly changing constraints.

Rules, probabilities, and gamification: lessons from a childhood game


Rules, probabilities, and gamification: lessons from a childhood game

Brian Knudson

There is so much talk about gamification, learning games, and social games in our industry. Many people struggle with simply defining why it matters. We have been building these types of custom e-learning (under different names) for almost 20 years. The most basic attribute of a true game or simulation is that rules and probabilities affect the experience. This core difference can be used as a hidden litmus test of whether something is a bad course with added "gamification" elements, or an actual game.

We write often about business simulation games for retail, sales training simulations,social gamification, and other fairly complex ways to engage your learners. Recently, I was struck by the simple games we take for granted.

We took an amazing trip to the north woods of Wisconsin over MLK weekend. It's deep in the woods, with nothing but outdoor winter fun (snowmobiling, cross country skiing, sledding, ice skating, fat tire riding, etc.) and indoor cabin family fun (no TVs). Before we get into how rules and probabilities effect games (and define them), I want to give a big shout-out to our client, Columbia Sportswear. Without their clothing from head to toe, my family would definitely have not survived (let alone had any fun) in the -10 degree weather and snow.

Because there is no TV up there, families actually sit around tables and play card games--real ones that require a classic deck. Hearts, Spades, Bridge, Go Fish, and even some fairly complex individual family card games with weird rules I've never seen. Now I am not a card game guy (no patience for rules), but one of kids on our trip was an 11-year-old who couldn't get enough of cards. I asked her if she had ever played War, figuring it was almost an insulting question given her clear card game experience that vastly outstripped mine. When she said she had never heard of it, I explained the rules of the game.


War is one of the simplest card games. Start by shuffling the deck and split it in half for the setup. Each person puts down the top card from their deck and the highest card wins. 2 is lowest, Ace is highest. It's basically a math game. The object of the game is to get all of the other person's cards.  Simple as that. 

My brother and I used to play for hours, and now I know why. Why am I talking about this? Well, what I didn't know is that the way I have been playing my whole life (the way my parents taught me), is at best wrong and at worst intentionally meant to keep me occupied. The rules (which in this case actually influenced the probabilities) were off.

Here's where both rules and probabilities influence and define a game. If the high card wins, what do you do when there is a tie? The way I was taught: simply keep putting down cards until the tie is broken, and then the ultimate winner of that round takes all the cards.


So we were playing my way, and the fun in this game is in going faster and faster to see who can figure out who won first. We played about 10 rounds (going through all of our cards) in about 10 minutes. That's fast! What was interesting was that even though it seemed at times that one person was winning by quite a bit, once we counted the cards at the end of each round, we were almost always even. It felt like a long game of flipping a coin. And I'd bet some statistics or math person out there could figure out the math and it wouldn't be 50/50, but it would be close.

My buddy was watching all this and starting to laugh and make fun of me for playing War wrong. He kept saying, "That's not how you do ties! This is going to go on forever." I told him he was clueless. War was the only real card game I remembered from childhood, and I certainly was playing the rules correctly. Now 20 minutes went by, my opponent's mom comes into the room, and she wants to go back to the game she and her daughter were playing earlier. We were about 30 rounds into our game, and neither one of us wanted to stop (good 'ol competition also works to keep learners motivated). But, as much as I wanted someone to win so I could move on to other fun, it wasn't happening.

I finally agreed to change the rules to my buddy's rules. NEW RULE: Whenever there is a tie, put 3 new cards face down, and the fourth card is the one you try to break the tie with. Winner still takes all. That simple rule change ended the game in 5 minutes (I lost, by the way). To me, it was fascinating. Such a simple rule can turn a game from hours of seat-time (in e-learning development speak) to minutes. No change in content, no change in performance (high card wins), simply a change in what happens in one unlikely case.

Incidentally, did you know that American game designer Greg Costikyan doesn't consider War a game, essentially because there are no decision points and all outcomes are random? That's crazy talk. It's fun, you learn stuff (if you are terrible at math), and I had a group of kids laughing their butts off as we went faster and faster and made fun of each other. If that's not a game, I don't what is.


Rules and probabilities are the hallmarks of all true learning games. They determine when a game or online learning experience adapts, based on your decisions and performance. If you don't have a learning game where you can move at least one major lever to change the experience significantly, you simply don't have a game.

It's that customization and adaptability that make the extra investment in building a gamified learning solution worth the ROI that businesses demand. Such a design means that each employee will have a custom experience, and that you can easily update that experience by changing rules and probabilities. All this, brought to you by a card game.