"You can't be serious about using games for learning!" is something we sometimes hear from sponsors and others. And yet we are very serious about the use of games to support learning when:

  • Lecture is not effective;
  • "Hands on" training is risky or dangerous;
  • Compliance training is boring;
  • Rote learning is not appropriate;
  • Application calls for judgment.

Games immerse learners in the learning and make it come alive. There are two main challenges, however. First, it is difficult for some organizations to take games seriously. Second, instructional designers are rarely taught to build serious games for online use.

Reflection and reframing

When you get the objection that "we can't have our people playing games when they need to be learning to do their jobs," here are some things to keep in mind.

  • History. Chess originated as a mental exercise that trained leaders in strategic and tactical thinking. The same is true of Go. These are still games that help develop those skills and that put them out in the world, not just in the brain and not just for war.
  • Today, war games are serious learning for military commanders. War games are also expensive learning, if the cost tells you anything, and even then the cost is less than the real thing in dollars and blood.
  • The word game does not mean entertainment or pastime.
  • Ernest Adams, the founder of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), offers this practical although not complete definition that is worth emphasizing: "Games are a type of play activity, conducted in the context of a pretended reality, in which the participant(s) try to achieve at least one arbitrary, non-trivial goal by acting in accordance with rules." There will be examples and exceptions to this definition that people can cite, but for now, this will do. (Fundamentals of Game Design, Third Edition. 2014. New Riders)

In games, players :

  • Test their mental skills and discover the important gaps in specific situations
  • Practice applying their skills and knowledge in appropriate situations
  • Change their behavior in order to find better solutions
  • Observe what other players do, and consider the results as they apply to the situation, for possible adoption or adaptation in their own performance

Aren't these valid examples of learning? If applied to achieve valued outcomes on the job, aren't they sufficient justification for use by L & D?

Learning how to create a game for learning

Adams identifies the essential elements of a game, whether designed for use as part of our work in L&D or not.

  • Play. Games are interactive, requiring participation by active players in order to change the course of events. The players' choices are constrained by the rules.
  • Pretending. The act of creating a conceptual reality in the minds of the players. In other words, thinking is required.
  • A goal. There must be at least one goal: creation of an imaginary outcome, the highest score, avoiding the lowest score, or even unachievable.
  • Rules. These are definitions and instructions that players must agree to follow during the game. The rules may be unwritten. In a good game, the rules will effectively require that players be clever, imaginative, or skillful.

Competition or conflict is not a requirement. The rules will provide for that. There is more to understanding how to put a game together, but again, this will do for the purposes of this article.

The process of creating a game for learning

The process for creating a game involves at least three steps before you can prototype your game, test it, and make it "pretty." Until these three steps are done, you are not ready to make the game perfect or to be concerned about the graphics.

  • Identifying your goal
  • Finding an app, template, or example that is compatible with your goal (borrowing or adjusting rules and context as needed)
  • A way to keep score or knowing when the game is finished

You need a goal or goals

In the event that the rules set things up so that no player can win, the goal may become playing for the longest time or going out last.

There are apps and examples that may help you

The Capterra Buyers Guide contains a wealth of information about the benefits, selection, and use of game development software. Note, however, that the software reviewed in the Game Development Software section on Capterra is heavily loaded toward dealing with graphics and game engines more for creating AAA commercial games. These reviews may not be all that useful in the initial design thinking for learning games. At the same time, it is still worth careful search and reading.

Economic, medical, and business simulation games that you can find online may be worth purchasing and use as they are, and they may also make good models. Careful study will help you include aspects of real business life: manufacturing, marketing, purchasing, importing, and retailing. You must respect copyright, you can't steal code, you can't copy and paste text or characters or plot, but you can get inspiration and a good idea of what features are important. Ranker.com provides an up-to date list, numerical rankings, and reviews of economic simulation games. Rankred.com covers business simulation games. There are so many medical, medical practice, and hospital management simulation games out there that your biggest challenge will be sorting out the ones that fit your objectives.

You need a way to keep score

For simple games, you can use a spreadsheet to score. Create the spreadsheet as you create the game.

Scoring mechanics: Read Matt Sparks' Metafocus: Designing Effective Scoring Mechanics for Learning Games. As Matt says, with a goal and a good scoring model built to support your game, you can make it pretty later.

Learning Solutions can help your teamwork

Collaboration Strategy for Designing Learning Games: Bucky Dodd offers good advice.

How realistic do you need to be?

Learning Solutions can help you be more realistic. Matt Sparks provides the best guidelines in his article Metafocus: How Realistic Should Your Serious Game Be? “Ultimately, we must carefully consider how much realism we include in our serious game design. While we can’t make our games too basic, it’s better to focus more on our intended learning objectives than the quality of the graphics and complexity of the gameplay."

And there's two more things

You (probably) need a team. In many, if not most cases, building a game to support business learning is not going to be something that a single designer will be able to do. Games of this type, if they are more than simple 2D games that involve competition and building up your score, are still simulations of the real world. Experience and conversation among the team definitely help. You may need a backstory, character profiles, and other details that provide context and help make the game immersive. These details need not be extensive, but they help make the game immersive.

Remember to include provision for reflection. Your game should give players the opportunity to discuss the way the game went, what didn't go as well as they hoped, and what they will change in their everyday practice based on that learning.