Let me start by saying: The only problem I had with this book was figuring out how to review it. It is a wonderful, witty, thorough – Encyclopedia? Glossary? Handbook? Guide? – to all things related to simulations (sims) and games for learning. Taking the author’s advice and browsing, rather than trying to do a straight read-through, was great fun, and reminded me of my 5th-grade geek self, reading encyclopedias for hours at a stretch (Oh, to have had the Internet then! ) .

bookcover :simulations and serious games

Aldrich opens with the good metaphor of “the campfire and the veldt,” describing the campfire, where experienced hunters talk and explain and tell tales, and the veldt, where novice hunters practice actually throwing spears. In the 21st century the learning/training/education fields have mastered the campfire, and for specific physical tasks we’re pretty good at the veldt. We’re not so good, though, at what Aldrich calls “big skills” (a term I don’t especially like, but admittedly prefer to “soft skills”), like leadership, decision-making, and adaptation. As often as not, our default, when confronted with the need to teach big skills, is the campfire: “Ask a top business school professor to develop leadership in a student, and she will go into campfire mode with PowerPoint slides and graphs, case studies, and so-called inspirational stories.” Sims and serious games help us move learning from the lecture of the campfire to the real learning field of the veldt.

The book covers expected major areas, including Genres; Simulation Elements: Action and Results; Simulation Elements: Systems; Building Interactive Environments; and Formal Learning Programs. It’s not a how-to but a what-is, and explanations and definitions are extended with dozens of helpful, relevant screenshots taken from real sims and games. Some places I stuck sticky notes, left a pen, or made a note in the margin. The challenge is teaching the concept of doing nothing as the correct choice, in the face of an industry filled with heroes who must choose one path or another, and with case studies of leaders who are “bold.” We need to make a simulation both realistic and tolerable because in the real world a complex supply problem will likely not be solved in 15 minutes (or end with a completion form). Neither will a learner sit for four days working through a real-time solution to such problems as: the danger of offering Seussian worlds (in which the learner is tasked with, oh, saving the endangered planet of Snicklewhacks), the necessity of the student experiencing frustration and resolution, the tricky balance of increasing engagement while not subverting learning. And a favorite: A note about dealing with “technology incompetents,” often those who think that aesthetics should override instructional considerations, and that clicking “next” makes a program interactive.

Here’s the thing: if you are an e-Learning designer, especially someone who authors or develops sims and games, the book is perfect. You’ll love it. I promise. Even the index is interesting.

So let’s talk about something else. Aldrich is clear that the book is for those who develop and manage content, and I agree. That is exactly the audience he reaches. But I’d say that The Complete Guide to Simulations & Serious Games is also appropriate for anyone who buys content or makes decisions about choosing content. Of the people involved in e-Learning, the subset of those building these kinds of items from scratch is very small. It’s a tiny niche, which helps explain the book’s $72 price tag: most of us won’t do much of this. But lots of us will buy some of these products, or suites of courses that incorporate sims and games, and some more of us will be involved in outsourcing or asking for customization of them. For those in that larger set, you need this book, and I’ll tell you why.

It’s an invaluable tool at helping you to understand what you’re looking at, and what to look for, and why one product is better than another. It will help you understand why a sim may intentionally allow some learner frustration, or why it lets the “hero” just sit and do nothing for a bit, and perhaps generates a better understanding of smaller concerns, like the finer points of the didactic use of a progress bar (or its absence). Even more – and this is where I often find the most value in my own personal reading and formal coursework I have taken – it will help you articulate to management why a product is “good” or not, and why your organization should or shouldn’t buy it. (You could also call this: beware the boss who has been to a trade show.) It will help you have conversations about what you want, or not, and what you’re buying, and why. And if you study up a little bit, those who do this for a living might not think you’re such a moron when you try to explain what you want to accomplish.

You know what I wish? If we had it to do over, I wish that the “e-Learning” business had started with this book. That this was the first thing trainers and training departments and creators of authoring tools had seen. “Computer games” were around before everyone had computers and Internet access and PowerPoint, and I wish e-Learning had started here, before online training as an industry managed to replicate the very worst elements of the traditional classroom experience. I wish this book as a starter gift for everyone who enters the e-Learning or training design and development field: a new person starting with this would not accept flying lines of text supported by word-for-word narration as anything resembling a learning experience.

And that’s where Aldrich ends, too. In a most satisfying closure, he calls for a rethinking of how we teach – adults, children, anyone. He admits that the book, “designed to look like a helpful guide … underneath is an attack on all of the educational and knowledge industries … a manifesto for the overthrow of the intellectual legacy of civilization to date.” And I say more power to him.


Aldrich, Clark. The Complete Guide to Simulations & Serious Games. 2010: Pfeiffer. 533 pages. Hardback: $72. Available for Kindle e-reader: $64.80.