Ep 047 with Valary Oleinik the superhero of curiosity in gamification

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Valary is one part artist and one part geek and has been accused of having a contagious level of passion and curiosity. Her career path has twisted and turned through the performing arts, computer support, business communication, and more along the path to multiple roles in the adult learning and development space. Along the way she decided that learners deserved better, so she set out on a quest to uncover ways to disrupt boring traditional approaches and improve learner experiences and outcomes. As a result, Valary has become a consultant and sought-after speaker at learning events across the United States. She has contributed to a number of articles and publications on learning, creativity and gamification and is the creator of the GAME Plan framework for gamifying learning.

Valary used to be a project manager by day and superhero by night (yes, gamification is what she was doing). She is currently working in an international law firm as project manager for the learning and development side, it includes technical support and troubleshooting, working with people who are customizing software, data analysis, its a totally mixed bag of things. On the other hand, she has a 1.5 to 2-hour commute to work, and with a gameful mindset she has managed to make it better by reading, playing and experimenting with games and apps, binge listens to podcasts like Professor Game and also plans out other projects she is working on, like speaking at conferences, online and in-person workshops on higher ed and corporate and recently some online coaching sessions with online learners who are now creating online courses without much experience on that but rather with their area of expertise.

Valary starts this by saying that “success validates but failure educates” so she really likes this question. It happened with an outside company who was changing the new phone system to use VoIP and was related to the training to use the new software. The trainers refused to give the appropriate attention to the fact that there were two different populations: one who uses their phones almost casually and another who has to juggle with calls most of the day (calls on hold, forwarding to different people, etc.), so pretty heavy and advanced users. She described it as seeing a slow-motion car wreck when you could know how it was happening. They had some mock phones prior to the final implementation so people could play around with them for a while, and were “gamified” by using superhero names in each phone (so you call Valary but the name that shows up could be Spiderman, for example). That was fine and fun for the light users. The others could normally be handling twelve calls at a time, and for very important people so you don’t want to screw up and hang up on them by mistake, you might lose a client for such thing! A lot of anxiety was involved for them because of this change that could mean a lot of risks. They had to redo the whole training, completely for the second time. Aside from the fact that the training didn’t consider the audience (which she already knew and tried to get through to these trainers), something she would change would be to prepare them for what to expect, even the superhero theme. In the second run, they did more of scenarios for real-life situations so they were able to understand how to handle them with the new system.

For the success story Valary talked about the case-study she’ll be talking about at GamiCon (remember you can get some cool bonuses by purchasing your tickets for this Chicago conference clicking here.) She had a two-year learning project at the law firm that was being worked with a vendor who was helping with the design and was hosting the digital side. It was some early gamified project, and halfway through the vendor came to announce that the company was shutting down and everyone turned to Valary saying “you can fix this right?” Of course, she said yes. She knew the project upside down, had been facilitating a large portion of the online side and was very into it. The vendor simply passed over the content and wished her good luck. This would become either a wonderful learning opportunity (big crash) or a great success because of the size of the challenge. Given that the project had a very long time-span, like any other, for a trainer who is doing the same thing time and over again, it loses novelty and even with the best efforts, if you have to do the exact same thing, the trainer loses some of the initial energy and motivation. This became an opportunity to renew this energy with a massive challenge, in a way she felt like a McGyver. One of the things that worked quite well was that she let the learners know that some things were perhaps not going to be perfect (they had this last minute change with a provider who disappeared) but that they could still make the most out of it. She has found that learners can be forgiving of some things, especially if they know you are giving your best.

Valary has a process for using gamification in learning situations, and she points out that it is important to always keep in mind that whatever you do it is about the learning.  And she highlighted the difference between the traditional instructional design that seems to be just encapsulating some learning and delivering it in a box versus learning experience design where you should be thinking about where the learner is and how they will incorporate what you are showing. Her process she likes to call it the GAME plan and is very simplified to help starters. The G is for goals, it is necessary to have a clear picture of what you want to obtain, there is the learning objectives but also the reason why you want to gamify, you should have metrics that you want to improve, even a higher goal that could be something like increasing the pass rate of your students (without compromising quality standards, of course). The A stands for the audience, which can set you and them up for failure if you don’t take them into account! The M is for mechanics but not strictly as in-game mechanics, but rather about the moving parts of the whole learning experience and where to infuse some gameful elements, that would be appropriate to reach the goals with the audience. Finally, the E is for the experience because everything has to be wrapped together, it has to include the ecosystem of the learner, the culture of the organization (company, school, NGO, etc). This is not a linear process and this final element certainly tries to ensure that the pieces are put together in a good way.

A best practice for Valary, even beyond knowing your audience which is something we’ve talked about before, is to respect your audience. That means to trust them, to give them some freedom and choices. She is big on the self-determination theory. This could go from choosing between two different activities to deciding how to accomplish an objective/complete the activity. Valary has always loved games that have a story, one of the first was the game Clue, but what she came up as her favorite is a recent one for her: Beholder. It is a great example of giving choice to players.

She would like to have several people interviewed on Professor Game and she named JD Dillon more for the corporate learning level, then for k-12 Michael Matera and Chris Aviles. In the book recommendation area, for K12 The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter by Greg Toppo. For HigherEd Game On! Gamification, Gameful Design, and the Rise of the Gamer Educator by Kevin Bell and for Adult Learning Captivology: The Science of Capturing People’s Attention by Ben Parr.

Valary’s superpower is that she inspires curiosity! Hopefully, you are curious about her talk at GamiCon 2018 in Chicago “4 C’s to an A+ Learning Experience” which she talks about during the interview. Her final advice is to go out, play games and start small to build on it. We can find her on Twitter/Instagram/Facebook: @valarywithawhy and her website valarywithawhy.com

There are many ways to get in touch with us, you can go to my Twitter @RobAlvarezB, my Instagram, our Facebook Page, subscribe to our email list and even ask a question to future guests!

Looking forward to reading or hearing from you,


P.D.: Monica Cornetti, a previous guest of Professor Game, also has a fantastic podcast about gamification in corporate learning. I think you might enjoy it as much as I do, so you can find it on your favorite podcasting app or listen directly on the web by going to professorgame.com/GamificationTalkRadio.

One Reply to “Ep 047 with Valary Oleinik the superhero of curiosity in gamification”

  1. Pingback: Ep 054 First Anniversary of Professor Game! – Professor Game

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