Since I can remember, I have been playing games of one sort or another.  At various points in my life I have fallen deep into various gaming wells, from miniature wargames, all manner of video games, board and card games, and, of course being a proper nerd, pen and paper role playing games.  The experiences and lessons I’ve learned, and continue to learn, from gaming have a massive impact on how I think about and build engaging business simulations.

You’ll find content on this blog that discusses the criticality of bringing aspects of gaming into business simulations and how gaming as a cultural force necessitates its inclusion in professional program training development design.  At the risk of being reductive, this article sets out to identify five factors from casual gaming that can be used to optimize a business simulation experience. The five factors are:

  • Immersive
  • Performative
  • Strategic
  • Creative
  • Competitive

Simulation training not utilizing each of the five factors may still be successful, but the best simulation will leverage each one to create the best learning experience for participants.

Immersive

Typical leadership and management training focuses on teaching people to do X rather than Y.  It’s a PowerPoint deck being read out loud in the front of a class.  It tells training participants what to think rather than creating an environment that encourages them how to think.  Getting to a how to think environment requires immersion.  Games excel at immersion and many hook players before they ever sit down to play.  

In miniature wargaming, a player usually spends hours building, painting, and learning about an army long before they ever start playing.  They are invested in the experience before it ever actually happens.  Furthermore, preparation and planning are an integral part of the fun.  This concept is paramount for business simulations.  People are busy and they are usually taking time out of their schedule to attend the simulation.  Getting and holding their attention is hard.  The more immersive the simulation, the more they will be focused on its goals.  

There are ways to create an immersive business simulation.  At a high level, it means creating engaging pre-work that prepares a participant for the simulation and gets them to start thinking about their performance in the sim. The experience itself should be reflective of the participant’s day-to-day interactions and the challenges they face modeled on real-life situations.  

Performative

Simulation based training gives participants’ opportunity to demonstrate acumen within the context of the simulation.  By working within the boundaries and responsibilities of a given role in the simulation, participants are provided the opportunity to understand the function of the role and how to maximize its efficacy.  Whether or not a participant is successful in the task is irrelevant.  Being given the chance to take on a role, experience the perspective, and face the challenges of the role is what’s important.  

Role-playing games, like the venerable Dungeons and Dragons, embody this factor.  Players assume a role and work within its strengths and limitations to achieve their goals.  In a traditional role-playing game a player works in concert with others to balance their proficiencies and maximize their chances of success.  The better players understand their own role and how to work with their team the more likely they are to succeed.  A successful business simulation does the same thing.  Furthermore, it provides participants an opportunity to debrief about how they viewed the role and what actions they took to maximize personal or team efficiency.

Strategic

Strategic thinking is a way of organizing a series of decisions to have the desired impact on a system and mitigate any undesired effects.  Work doesn’t happen in a static environment where we expect a direct one-to-one relationship between the decisions we make and their effect on the business’ ecosystem.  It is difficult, if not impossible, to attribute one decision to one impact.  

The most common situation businesses experience is when they change even a single part of how they operate and see multiple cascading effects that may, or may not, be related to that single decision.  Further complicating the evaluation of decision is that some impacts aren’t seen for months or years.

In a game environment, players can see the results of their decisions quickly.  Take a strategic resource management card game like Magic:  The Gathering.  Lines of play develop over the course of multiple turns.  Those lines of play change constantly.  Every player turn, every phase of the turn, and the decision to play, or not play a card has an impact on the game.  The impact may or may not be seen immediately, but it will be apparent by the end of the game.  All of this happens within thirty minutes of play.

The best business simulations not only manage the effects of decisions in a way to show participants the results of their choices, but also allow them to see the systemic impacts of the decisions they’ve made.  Additionally, the simulated environment allows for delayed effects that wouldn’t happen for years in a real world context be visible and able to be evaluated.

Creative

Video games of all types, from platformer to procedurally generated stealth games, allow space for a player to try myriad strategies to see what works best. A player is able to see the result of their decisions in real time and, depending on the type of game, succeeds in completing a level or gets a result that negatively impacts the environment around them for the remainder of the game.  Either result has a profound effect on how the player continues to operate in the game and may change their behavior to improve their opportunity to get the best result at the end of the experience.

A well-designed business simulation gives participants opportunity to experiment with strategies they may not normally be able to attempt.  It doesn’t tell participants how to get the best results, but provides a safe environment where a risky decision won’t result in the loss of real revenue or reputation.  

A participant has the freedom to employ creative solutions and find out if they might work.  “Might” is the operative word.  Choices have consequences and poor or risky decisions made in sim may yield bad results.  Poor in-sim performance isn’t the point.  The point is to try something new and see the results.    

Competitive

Competition is the core driver keeping people engaged in games and in business simulations.  It doesn’t matter whether competing against your own previous performance, another person or team, or attempting to beat a high score, competition is the most tangible factor holding a player or participant’s attention.  

Competition acts as the glue that binds the other factors together into a system, though it can be over emphasized in a way that negatively affects the learning.  The key is to use competition to support immersion, encourage strategic and creative thinking, and provide the incentive to really engage in the artifice created by the simulation environment.

If you’ve made it to this point in the post, hopefully you’ve realized that one factor isn’t more important than another, or that these are necessarily the only ones, but that the best business simulations model the system that participants find themselves working in daily.  When they show up for a three-day learning event, or sit down in front of a computer for an hour-and-a-half training, they are put into an experience that is recognizable and familiar enough so their existing mental models are activated.  It then becomes the job of the simulation to challenge those mental models and enable participants to begin the hard work of changing their behavior.

Zachary Schreiner

Author Zachary Schreiner

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