Ep 055 Willem Jan-Renger and his approach to gamification: ludodidactiek

Listen to this episode on your phone!

This podcast episode features Willem-Jan Renger (1967) who is the Head of Innovation Studio at HKU, part of the Center for Research & Innovation@ HKU. It is a crossover creative space for research, design and education, and functions as an innovation lab for design and applied research on the design of human behavior, motivation and perception. Their proposition is rooted in design, psychology, using design principles from the field game- and play design to solve real-world problems in an innovative way. Their mission is to foster innovation in Healthcare, Education, and Cultural Heritage, to build up knowledge and expertise on innovation processes in these contexts and share this knowledge both within and outside HKU.

He is also the founder of ‘ludodidactiek’, a unique design methodology focused on a specific application of game and play principles for teaching and learning. Ludodidactiek is a specific form of applying game and play principles in the design of learning processes leading to both analog or digital solutions.

There is not a regular day for Willem-Jan, so a week is easier to describe. One of the perks of his job is that there are no regular days. In general, he is involved in education so he is supervising masters students, coaching them in a flexible schedule. This master aims to create game changers, so they are taught to use creativity and design in areas where that is not the common thing. He is also involved in some learning innovation for the university, in a European program as well, about citizen engagement, with tens of parties involved and it has him quite excited as well. As the head of the Innovation Studio, he spends around a day a week involved with the studio. Last but not least, he dedicates around half a day every week to ludodidactiek! We went into a small rant about terms with gamification, ludodidactiek, gamificación and ludificación (the last two in Spanish). Most of his materials are in Dutch and not English, so this chance to listen to Willem-Jan is particularly valuable to us the non-Dutch speakers!

He feels he hasn’t had an epic fail (as in being 100% wrong at a certain project) so he went for a “modest” and recent fail to talk about. In this project, he created a card game to help guide through an innovation methodology. While creating the game, he kept getting this voice in his head that was saying that he was guiding the innovators maybe too much into his specific way of thinking, but he moved on nonetheless. It generated great conversations but a strong critique was that the game was guiding them towards a certain outcome and they were right! This is something you want to stay away from when working with creative people and to pull their creativity for them. In this case, the fail was actually to create a game! He changed it into a series of steps and now works great. Looking back, he would say that taking into account self-determination theory (Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose) is something that should always be ingrained in the design. In this case, he didn’t give the players enough autonomy and that was what was not working well.

An also recent challenge that involved using his ludodidactiek, involved a theologist who researched and created a methodology to guide 5-8 people on conversations about life-changing (called contrast) experiences. Through this methodology she is able to guide the group into an “area of wisdom” and it works fantastic but required her to be present every time. She approached Willem-Jan to turn it into a game and his first response (given his recent experience with the previous story) was to say no! Then she insisted and asked if she could be designed out of the experience, which he agreed to and got them going, it was a new design challenge. The solution involves a manual, a set of cards and after 15 minutes you see a group of highly engaged individuals who are following the protocols she designed, so the results are fantastic! The general idea of subtracting the facilitator is fascinating to me, the possibilities are endless if this works well. The rest of the discussion is pretty cool I must add.

He created the playful design canvas, that includes the elements and steps he goes through when designing. It changes a bit depending on whether he is guiding someone else or using it himself. One of the first things he does is the “treja-vu” (wink to deja-vu) where he pictures the situation he wants to achieve with the design, what the learning is going to have them doing. On the other hand, he also pictures the things he does not want to see them do. For example, if it involves groups of five he doesn’t want one or more of the members to feel left out. Then he looks for a context for the learning goals, where they can be transformed into play objectives, that the learners will want to achieve. That is where the design starts to get shaped. If you contact him he is quite willing to send us an English copy or version.

Willem-Jan will also be speaking at Gamification Europe! His talk spins around the importance of game design for gamification designers, that it is fundamental to really understand the power of games to implement it successfully in gamification. Another topic is that he is struggling with tech in this field, especially in education. And that this is pushing educators away as we barely have time to learn those new tools, which is why he has decided to go back to pen and paper to use game design principles in the classroom and increased the adoption greatly. Remember that you can get your discounted tickets for Gamification Europe 2018 in Amsterdam just by going through this link: professorgame.com/GamificationEurope. You will get a 10% discount and you will also support Professor Game’s mission because we will receive a small reward if you purchase the tickets through that link.

A best practice for gamification in his perspective would be to do “asymmetric design”. In the majority of cases, all the learners would have to do the same task at the same time with the same outcomes. This has many downsides, for example in groups of four one will push forward, two follow along and a fourth typically enjoys the ride. So he proposes splitting the information into, for example, A, B and C, and give just one of those to each group, disperse information among the learners. That way they need each other and collaborate to reach their objectives. A “let’s not do that” is always trying to involve competition. In general, there is already a social ladder due to grades. In such a situation, competition reinforces this situation. He tries to make the weak learners the epic winners and the stronger ones dependent on the weaker ones, to pull the class upwards. There are instances where competition can work for some things, especially where the competition does not involve grades, but it is true that staying away from competition in general, or at least being quite careful with it, is something you want to keep in mind.

His favorite games include Minecraft and certainly The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. He would love to listen to Jane McGonigal as well! Another guest he would be particularly interested in is Miguel Sicart. A book Willem-Jan would recommend is How Computer Games Help Children Learn by David Shaffer.

The final advice is to try to get the first prototype out to your players as fast and as simple as possible. Humans are insane species, we never do what is expected from us, so you don’t lose time polishing something that might be wrong.

To contact Willem-Jan (for example to ask for the Playful Design Canvas) on Twitter @Naj_melliw, on LinkedIn or the HKU website, specifically www.hku.nl/Home/Research/InnovationStudio/InnovationStudioPortfolio.htm.


There are many ways to get in touch with Professor Game, 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,


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

14 + 18 =

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.