If I had to describe Rasul Majid in one word, that word would be, generous. In a wide-ranging conversation that spanned topics as varied as gamification, game-based learning, play-based learning, the rise of gamification in China, and how the best way to be better is to constantly be curious, the certified Lego Serious Play facilitator and GamFed Ambassador, China generously shared his journey. Read on to be a part of it.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and coherence.
Rakshith: How did you get introduced to gamification and what has your journey been like so far?
Rasul: For me, the journey converged from two separate “roads” I guess you could say.
First was from a nagging feeling of dissatisfaction and overall disengagement with my first say, 5-6 years as a working professional. I knew that much of work involved stress and struggle but I couldn’t see myself continuing down a path of “bad stress” for much longer so I started looking into what it was that made work experiences, in general, more “meaningful”.
Second is that I’ve been a fan of games for as long as I can remember. When I was younger my video game console of choice was the SNES (Super Nintendo) and I just remember being immersed in this fantasy world and having fond memories of playing with family and friends. As I got older into the high school years I got into Blizzard’s original Starcraft and became fascinated with not just the game itself but with this setting of having LAN parties where all the kids from school – no matter if you were a science geek, jock, artsy, introvert, party-animal, etc… When it came to playing Starcraft, we all put our differences aside, got together and worked as a team for one purpose – to win. To me, that is beauty in action.
So around the year 2012, I started researching how I could use this feeling of immersion and inclusion (particularly those in games) to help solve a real-world problem like the first work disengagement issue above. Reading one article led to one book led to another and then another. As I talked to more and more people about the potential of this type of design, projects started slowly filtering in. Fast forward 7 years and I’ve been grateful to have been invited to conferences and host various talks on the topic ever since.
Rakshith: What were your top 3 projects and learning in the last 12 months?
Rasul: For the past 5 years, my full-time work revolves around play-based learning for kids in various cities in China. Our main teaching tool is LEGO (yes, the colourful toy bricks we hate to step on) to ensure that our students not only absorb the information quickly but also retain what they learn for the long term. We live in a very digital world but I believe that especially in recent years, I have reverted to being a more “analogue” type of person. The future will depend on the careful balancing of these two worlds and I am happy to report that I feel that what our company currently provides is directly headed towards that direction.
Most of my consulting work and talks are based where I live in Shanghai, China. Here, gamification and game-based design have just started picking up in the past year or so as an actual strategic investment. For years, the problem talking to big companies and small start-ups alike about implementing this type of design had always been that the idea of using any type of “game thinking” for serious work to meet KPIs and reach financial targets was never really taken seriously. I think the market is finally catching up.
Rakshith: Can you elaborate a little on the last point? What is leading up to this change in China? What are practitioners in China doing differently than the rest of the world can learn from?
Rasul: China’s technology sector is developing. And China is using some interesting strategies to break the mould in terms of how they engage users, especially digitally. Most of my career has been based in China. What I have noticed is that this idea of using gamification and game thinking, it’s not like it did not exist in the past. One thing that has to be clarified is that the idea of using external and internal strategies to motivate and engage users, especially in the digital space, has been in China for the past 10-12 years. But the idea of dissecting design is new.
So, from an external motivation stand-point, China has been doing this well. There are a lot of apps in the Chinese market that users use regularly. They’ve been around pretty much since China opened up its market. But they tap primarily into extrinsic motivation drives. What’s new is a focus on how to design it from an individual user or a smaller corporate or business perspective.
So there is a desire on the ground to know more about how to design game-like experiences in all sort of situations whether it is business or HR or learning.
Rakshith: Rasul, since you work in game based learning, I wanted to ask you, is that the same as gamification or do you draw a distinction between the two?
Rasul: That’s a good question. That’s been a question on the minds of people pretty much on a global level from the start, which is defining what this term means. Personally, I tend to steer a little away from the term gamification just because there was a time when gamification was hyped and people got it on a surface level but when it came to actually putting it into practice and getting results, it wasn’t what people were hoping for. So if you’re asking me, gamification at this point, is applying game thinking to everyday scenarios in order to achieve a goal. So from there, we should define what a game is, right. A game can be a playful experience that has a purpose and a structure. So for me, very simply, that is what gamification is.
On the other side, there is game-based learning. Now, because you have that term at the end, learning, that is using game strategies to foster learning either of children or of adults. But having the core of it based around game thinking, which if you look back to my definition of what a game is, is structured play. So, game-based learning very much has to do with education science and learning while gamification does not necessarily have to do with learning something. It just has to create or influence some desired behaviour while using a game or game principles.
Rakshith: What are your focus areas in the next 12 months?
Rasul: Outside of my work with education, I have a couple projects I am currently consulting for. I can’t say which ones exactly but they are relatively small startups. One in the fitness space and one in HR/training. Both involve technology and both with “game thinking” at the heart of their user experience.
Rakshith: Tell us a little bit about The Genius Workshop and its work in STEM education.
Rasul: The Company was founded in Canada back in 1997. We started operations in Hong Kong in 2004 and have been in mainland China since 2005. In a nutshell, we provide after-school programs for children aged 3 years old to 14 years old with LEGO as our primary teaching tool. Our whole focus is for students to be learning while playing because research has shown that this is the most effective form of learning for children (and many adults). All our curriculums are designed with this philosophy in mind. Kids as young as 3 years old get introduced to simple machine concepts, various forms of energy, even simple programming logic, and more. As they get older they build on this knowledge and experiment with robotics, movie animation, and even game design. It’s a super cool place to work and, as many of our current staff and interviewees have told us – they wish they had this option as an extracurricular when they were a kid.
As we are a bilingual company, we work with pretty much all the best international and private kindergartens and schools in Shanghai. And as a side note, parents are increasingly finding value in having their kids be involved with this type of education. Who knew that there would be a market for parents to pay for their kids to learn as they played?
We are currently expanding to various locations in China. You can check out www.g-workshop.com.cn to find out more.
Rakshith: That’s really encouraging. Do you have any data that points to specific benefits that kids derive from play-based learning?
Rasul: That’s a valid question. As of now, the great thing is that, as of this year, we’ve rolled out testing of how to get these metrics on a more analytical level. So we measure 4 components – whether or not, the kids understand the theory of the class, i.e. the knowledge level, the second part is whether or not they understand the technical part, we look at how they use LEGO and whether they can apply their knowledge to build using LEGO; the third is whether or not they can be creative which is whether they can solve problems, think critically and be creative, and the fourth and final one is how they are behaving – whether or not they are interacting with the other kids in the class, whether they are confident or if their behaviour is participative.
So for now, we’re using this system as our bar for assessing the development of the kids based on our core curriculum. Since we just rolled this out this year we’re still collecting this data across our centres and hopefully, by the end of the year, we should have concrete findings emerging from this data.
For now, unofficially, we have parents reporting significant improvement in their kids whether it is in terms of concepts, or confidence or their proficiency with English within 10 sessions of our workshops.
Rakshith: For someone who is working to develop Play-based learning systems, you have fairly traditional educational qualifications. Are you self-taught in this field? For someone starting out in game-based learning systems, what is the roadmap to educate oneself?
Rasul: Yes definitely. Back in university, I never really saw myself being in the field of education in any way. The options from my parents were “Be a doctor, be a lawyer, or be a banker.” So I got a finance degree to try to meet the third criteria but realized I couldn’t spend the next 30-40 years of my life working in finance. Thus began my period of self-exploration.
For anyone out there who has ever experienced doubt in choosing the right career path I offer one simple question to ask yourself: “What problem in the world today do you want to be part of the solution to?” Everyone has a different answer to this question because everyone sees “problems” differently. The key is to connect those problems to something inside you. Something personal. Stress is a part of work no matter what but having clarity on this question is what will change your normal work days from many hours of “bad stress” to many hours of “good stress.”
As for the roadmap, just be curious. Be curious about many things. Never stop learning. I read non-fiction books regularly. In 2019 alone, the topics have ranged from behavioural science, music theory (I don’t play an instrument), educational psychology, anthropology, technology and habits, and philosophy to name a few. Hooked by Nir Eyal, Thinking fast and slow by Daniel Kahneman, and the podcast by Jamie Madigan and his book, Getting Gamers, these are great resources when you’re starting out. It widens my scope of perspective which I think naturally narrows without regular conscious study. Next up on my list is a book on Western Superhero ethics.
Rakshith: How might a forum like GamFed contribute to the growth of gamification and gamification professionals? What are your expectations from GamFed?
Rasul: GamFed has been a wonderful platform for spreading the word on what is becoming an ever-growing topic of interest for various communities and industries around the world. I worry that “gamification” as a term has been slightly tainted in the international community after many years of “plug-and-play” promises that failed to deliver during its first phase of life. So I wouldn’t be surprised if the spirit of gamification was reborn under a different phrase or design philosophy in the next few years.
It’s always an effort to grow and maintain an active community – especially on an international level – so it will take consistent effort from volunteers such as yourself to see it into the future. Regular newsletters, sharing related articles, and updated research from universities would be a great way to attract even more awareness to not just GamFed but the topic as a whole. At the moment, there isn’t really “one way” to do gamification right so I think consolidating best practices but also analysing its greatest failures would be very useful.
You can connect with Rasul on LinkedIn