Case Study: The Gamification of the Foster Care System

In 2010, I was asked to help design a 2-day training curriculum.  In a stroke of what I considered at the time to be genius, I worked with another instructional designer to create a board game as a final assessment activity.  As I wrap up Gamification Week on the Train Like A Champion blog, I present the following case study to offer details on how this situation played out.  Would you have done anything differently?  Add your thoughts to the comments section.

The Problem

A non-profit organization had been awarded funding to create a training curriculum to assist professionals in the foster care system to improve outcomes for adolescent youth who “age out” of foster care.  These professionals would be asked to assist youth in envisioning a healthy and successful future while addressing the looming uncertainties of access to health care, higher education and independent living.

The Solution 

A 2-day training curriculum was designed that included theory, best practices and job aids such as a specific checklist for the professionals to use when interacting with the adolescent youth.  In order to tie all of the content together and to assess whether or not the learners “got it,” the designers crafted a final activity in the form of a board game.

In order to advance through the board game, different learners were given different dice – some had 6 sides, some had 12 sides, some had 18 sides.  Before reaching the end of the game board, learners needed to respond to a number of challenges an adolescent youth might face – an encounter with a relative that would expose the youth to some bad habits, some type of housing crisis, a problem at school.  If the learner reached the end of the game board without having helped the youth with all of these challenges, the youth would “age out” of the foster care system without being prepared.  Learners were required to use the job aids and checklists they were given throughout the training to assist them through the game (and so that trainers could assess whether or not learners could properly use the tools).

Learners with 18-sided dice moved through the game much more quickly (and generally much less successfully) than learners with 6-sided dice.  This was an intentional design element to simulate the fact that some professionals would be working with youth who were much closer to “aging out” than other professionals, and it would be important to be prepared for the inconsistent and unfair nature of the work.

The Results

Initially confusion reigned.  There were so many elements and tasks that learners had to complete, very few learners finished the game successfully.  Challenge – almost to the point of being impossible to be successful in the game – was an intentional design element.  The game designers wanted professionals to understand the difficult nature of their work.  However, because it was so challenging, some of the learning points became lost in the confusion and frustration felt by the learners.  The designers allowed trainers the latitude to revise the game rules in order to simplify the activity.  When they interviewed the curriculum’s beta testers, the designers discovered that some trainers remained faithful to the game rules stating that it was useful in reinforcing the skills and tools introduced during the training.  On the other hand, some beta test trainers had adjusted the rules though they still found the game helpful.  Some trainers discarded the activity altogether.

An Expert Breaks Down The Gamification Aspect

By nature, humans are a competitive lot, so after spending nearly two days together the participants of this workshop were allowed to “win” by playing a board game with their colleagues. By using media (a game board & dice) that most people have used before in social or familial settings the initial introduction immediately evoked a sense of fun.  Although the true training objective was to practice fluently & spontaneously using the tools introduced and having conversation with integral components embedded in these conversations, some participants were focused on “winning.” From a trainer’s perspective, I like to sum this up as “whatever it takes to get them engaged!” This game turned out to be a great interactive capstone experience, mixing fun, competition and skills practice, while sprinkling in scenarios in which participants may not have yet experienced outside the classroom in order to prepare them for “the real world.”

– Peter Dahlin, MS, Principal of Dahlin & Associates Consulting

Additional case studies with expert commentary are also available on the Train Like A Champion blog.

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