Training the workforce is a critical responsibility of an organization’s management. Constant effort is required to ensure that all members are operating according to the latest information and techniques. Whether training is developed and delivered by internal resources or third-party trainers, more efficacious techniques are always sought.
Learning games, as we know them, have existed for decades (perhaps even longer than we realize), but are gaining popularity in the 21st century. Younger generations’ affinity for technology and games, including role-playing games, makes them particularly receptive to this type of training exercise. Learning games need not be purely digital, however. In fact, games that employ physical artifacts have significant advantages of their own.
Several terms may be encountered when researching learning games. Most include “game,” “simulation,” or a combination of the two. Broadly-accepted definitions describe games as activities that include an element of competition, while simulations attempt to reproduce aspects of the real world. For simplicity and brevity, this post will use learning games as an umbrella term covering all variants, including simulation games, serious games, serious simulation games, and so on.
Learning games have been developed for a variety of topics, while others could benefit from creative developers’ attention. This discussion focuses on typical Third Degree topics, such as engineering, operations and supply chain management, business strategy, and project management in post-secondary and professional education.
Learning games can take many forms. Simulations of critical processes are made as realistic as possible to convey the gravity of the real-world situation it represents and teach participants how to manage the risk involved in order to make prudent decisions. Games can also teach certain concepts or proper judgment through fantastical presentations; this approach can be particularly useful when faced with a reluctant, unreceptive audience.
Learning games can be digital, analog, or hybrid. Computer games are popular with tech-savvy students that are accustomed to sophisticated programs and high-quality graphics. Highly-sophisticated versions may even employ virtual reality or augmented reality. Use of highly accurate digital twins can improve a game’s effectiveness.
Tabletop games utilize physical space and objects in game play. The layout of a game need not be limited to the size of a table; an entire room can be mapped as a gameboard, allowing people, as well as objects, ample space to move about. The physical representation of the learning game can be used to impart lessons more tangibly than displays and numbers can achieve. Concepts of inventory and transportation waste are examples of this type of application. Hybrid games employ digital and physical elements, seeking the most effective combination to aid learning and retention.
The level of interaction participants have with a learning game is another important characteristic to consider. Observational games present participants with a situation and a fixed data set. The data can be analyzed in various ways and other queries may be possible. From these analyses, participants draw conclusions and make decisions that are then critiqued by facilitators. Observational games can be thought of as enhanced case studies; they are somewhat more interactive, and may employ multimedia technology or other embellishments for a more appealing and engaging presentation.
Experimental games, on the other hand, are highly interactive, allowing participants to modify elements of the game and directly assess the impacts of their decisions on system or process performance. Multiple analyses can be performed in search of an optimal solution. The ability to manipulate the system and receive feedback on the effects of each change often leads to deeper understanding of the systems and processes simulated. The resulting competence improves safety and efficiency of the real-world counterparts when the students become managers.
Learning games can also be categorized according to their level of complexity. One such taxonomy [Wood, 2007] includes insight games, analysis games, and capstone games. Wood’s taxonomy of games is summarized in Exhibit 1. Insight games seek to develop understanding of basic concepts and context required for students to comprehend subsequent material and advanced concepts.
Students develop required skills “through iterations of hypothesis, trial, and assessment” [Wood, 2007] in analysis games. These games seek to bridge the gap between understanding a concept and performing a related task effectively. Wood cites the example of riding a bicycle; a student may understand the task by reading its written description, but this does not ensure a safe ride upon first attempt. Practice is needed to match ability with understanding.
Capstone games, as you may have guessed, require participants to consider multiple objectives or perspectives. These games incorporate multiple disciplines in a single game to simulate the complexity of decisions that real-world managers must make. When conducted as a team exercise, with members of varying background and experience, capstone games can provide a very realistic approximation of situations faced by managers on a regular basis.
Stages of Game Play
Learning games typically proceed in three stages: preparation, play, and debriefing. Players and facilitators bear responsibility for a successful game in each stage. As is the case with any type of training, engagement of participants is critical to success.
In the preparation stage, facilitators are responsible for “setting the stage” for game play. This may include preparing presentations to explain the rules of the game, assigning students to teams within the group, or stocking the physical space with required materials or accommodations. Players are required to review any information provided in advance and procure any material they are expected to provide.
During game play, players are expected to remain engaged, maximizing the learning benefit for themselves and others through active participation and knowledge-sharing. Facilitators enforce rules, such as time limits, and may have to “keep score” as the game progresses. Facilitators also answer questions, provide guidance to ensure a successful game, and monitor the proceedings for improvement ideas.
An effective debriefing is essential to a successful learning game. It is in this stage that participants’ performance is evaluated. Critiques of decisions made during the game provide participants with valuable insights. In many game configurations, this is where the greatest learning occurs; it provides an opportunity to learn from the experience of other teams, including situations that may not have occurred in one’s own game. Facilitators are responsible for providing information participants may need in order to understand why certain decisions are better than others. Players may assist facilitators in providing critiques and explanations, ensuring that all participants develop the understanding necessary to apply the new information to future real-world scenarios.
Benefits of Learning Games
Learning games provide many benefits to players and the organizations that employ them. Advantages include the number of people that can be effectively trained, the time and expense required for training, and the risk of poor performance. The advantages of learning games relative to on-the-job-training is summarized in Exhibit 2, where the “real world” is compared to a learning game environment.
Learning games may also offer additional benefits related to onboarding, team-building, or unique aspects of your organization. Consider all possible benefits to be gained when evaluating learning games for your team.
Example Learning Games
While some organizations may use proprietary learning games, many are widely distributed, often for free or at very low cost. Several learning games are cited below, but only to serve as inspiration. Assessment of each should be conducted in the context of the group to be trained. Therefore, the time and space required to provide a thorough review of each would provide little value. Also, doing so may encourage readers to limit their choices to those games mentioned here which is contrary to the objective of this post.
Physics/Engineering: Whether your interest is in equations of motion or medieval warfare, the Virtual Trebuchet is for you. Players define several attributes of the trebuchet, launch a projectile, and observe its trajectory. Peak height, maximum distance, and other flight data are displayed for comparison of different configurations. Visually simple, highly educational, and surprisingly fun, even the non-nerds among us can appreciate this one.
Project Management: The Project Management Institute (PMI) Educational Foundation has developed the Tower Game for players ranging from elementary school students to practicing professionals. Teams compete to build the “tallest” tower in a fixed time period with a standard set of materials. “Height bonuses” are earned through resource efficiency. The game can be customized according to the group’s experience level.
Operations Management: Considering the complexity of operations management, it is no surprise that these games are among the most sophisticated. OMG!, the Operations Management Game, is a tabletop game that maps a production process with tablemats for each step. Each step is represented by a single player; the number of steps can be varied to accommodate groups of different size. Physical artifacts represent work-in-process (WIP) and finished goods inventories, and dice are used to simulate demand and process variability. Upgrades are available when sufficient profits have been retained to purchase them. Many important aspects of operations management are included in this game; it could be a valuable learning tool.
A camshaft manufacturing process is modelled in Watfactory, a game used to study techniques of variation reduction. It includes a large number of variables – 60 variable inputs, 30 fixed inputs, and 3 process step outputs – and several investigation options that define data analyses to be performed. This one is not for beginners or the faint of heart, but is a solid test of skills.
Supply Chain Management: Revered as the granddaddy of all learning games, the Beer Game was first developed at MIT in the 1960s to explore the bullwhip effect in supply chains. Since then, many alternate versions have been developed, including virtual ones.
Business Strategy: BizMAP is a game that can be used to assess an individual’s aptitude for entrepreneurship or suitability for an executive leadership role. If one trusts its predictive capability, it could be an extremely valuable aid in averting disasters. Poor executive decision-making or an ill-advised decision to quit one’s day job can be avoided.
Many other learning games are available with differing objectives, configurations, and complexity. Other professional practices, including Managerial Accounting (!) and bridge design can be explored using learning games. Explore and be amazed!
In some circles, learning games have become serious business. High-stakes decisions are often based on simulations. Ever heard of War Games? The accuracy and reliability of such simulations is a serious matter indeed.
Less costly in terms of human life, but potentially catastrophic in financial terms, businesses may simulate the competitive landscape in which they operate. If invalid assumptions are made, or the simulation otherwise misrepresents the competitive marketplace, decisions based on it could be financially ruinous.
The development of the learning games industry reflects just how serious it has become. Industry conferences, such as the Serious Games Summit and the Serious Play Conference, are held for serious gamers to share developments with one another. A professional association – Association for Business Simulation and Experiential Learning (ABSEL) – has also been chartered to serve this growing community.
In the early 2000s, MIT embarked on its Games to Teach Project, a collaboration aimed at developing games for science and engineering instruction. Decades after launching the movement, MIT’s ongoing commitment to learning games is reflected in the Scheller Teacher Education Program, in which these tools play a prominent role.
No matter your field of study or level of experience, chances are good that a learning game has been developed for your target demographic. However, improvements can always be made. If you are an aspiring programmer or game developer, a learning game is an excellent vehicle for demonstrating your skills while providing value to users. It will look great on your resume!
If you have a favorite learning game, or an idea for a new one, please tell us about it in the comments section. If you would like to introduce learning games to your organization, contact JayWink Solutions for additional guidance.
[Link] “The Role of Computer Games in the Future of Manufacturing Education and Training.” Sudhanshu Nahata; Manufacturing Engineering, November 2020.
[Link] “Online Games to Teach Operations.” Samuel C. Wood; INFORMS Transactions on Education, 2007.
[Link] “Game playing and operations management education.” Michael A. Lewis and Harvey R. Maylor; International Journal of Production Economics, January, 2007.
[Link] “A game for the education and training of production/ operations management.” Hongyi Sun; Education + Training, December 1998.
Jody W. Phelps, MSc, PMP®, MBA
JayWink Solutions, LLC
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