Serious Games for Serious Business

This is a guest post by Marigo Raftapoulus

Gaming technology, interactive media, digital entertainment and knowledge industries are converging to create new forms of learning. Learning 2.0, in the form of ‘serious games,’ allows people to learn new skills and experiment with different strategies in ‘safe-fail’ environments. Serious games build in safe-fail experimentation based on the premise that through failure we learn more about the problem that we want to solve through adaptive learning. In contrast, ‘fail-safe’ environments tend to stifle experimentation and innovation through an ensuing ‘fear of failure’ culture that tends to develop in such environments.

So what does a serious game look like? Check out this demo for a game designed to train emergency response paramedics in case of a terrorist attack (warning! Scenes are bloody).

What I like about this example is the absence of narrative. It stimulates the senses and encourages the learner to shorten the time-span between analysis and action, as a delay in action can cost someone their life.  Civil aviation, space exploration, military training and healthcare services have been using safe-fail training techniques for decades mainly due to the fact that failure in ‘real life’ is very costly in these industries.  A virtual experience can never replace a real-life experience, but it can better prepare the learner through experimentation.

The corporate world has now adopted the idea of encouraging safe-fail experimentation in the workplace as a means to improve staff training, strategy development and innovation in increasingly complex and competitive environments. There are several examples of serious games used in the corporate training and strategy experimentation. While most serious games are proprietary, some free flash-based games for you to look at and play can be found here.

Learners are changing

In times of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists (Eric Hoffer)

Learners have changed yet our education, training and development techniques are still anchored in the post-industrial era that produced workers for command-control institutions. However we are now in the grips of fundamental transition as economies move from the industrial age into the information age and an increasingly complex environment of doing business.  This new environment necessitates a shift in management style and new forms of knowledge and skill acquisition. These new forms can be found in gaming technology.

Consider this scenario.   You may be surprised at how many of your co-workers are engaged in critical thinking in on-line games such as World of Warcaft in their leisure time. Consider this typical scene:

The player in this scene (the glowing avatar in the middle of the screen) has choices to make about which quests to undertake given the level of resources she has on hand (displayed on the control panels on the screen), who to partner with (see the other avatars around her) to achieve her desired outcome of levelling (achieve a promotion).

If you or your coworkers enjoy entertainment games similar to World of Warcraft, then learning about work related critical thinking through a serious game is not a radical idea, but a perfectly natural medium. Consider this typical scene in a serious game:

This is a snapshot of a serious game that is performing the same critical thinking function as the World of Warcaft example above. The key differences however are that the design is suited to capture a wider audience (gamer/non-gamer, novice/experienced) and a more obvious learning outcome. In both cases, a safe-fail environment is provided to experiment with different ideas and techniques to explore all possible ways to achieve an end goal.

The systemic changes currently taking place in business and economics are coinciding with a significant demographic shifts with ‘baby-boomers’ leaving the workforce, with ‘GenX’ taking the helm in senior management positions and ‘GenY’ moving into junior to middle management roles. These two generations think differently to their predecessors – they are much more technologically savvy and value autonomy, self-determination and collaboration over hierarchy and authority; the very traits required to prosper in the information age.

So where do serious games fit in?

Imagination is more important than knowledge (Einstein)

Serious games have only recently entered the corporate learning and development scene. The military though, has been actively using serious games and simulations since the 1950’s. To place serious games in the context of other learning and development tools, consider the following matrix that I have drawn as a broad overview of key learning frames:

Serious games have the flexibility and capacity to work across both structured and unstructured pedagogies and both formal and informal delivery mechanisms. What is not obvious in the matrix however, is the importance of a blended learning approach and the value that can be provided by a serious game element in supporting an organisation’s existing learning and development strategies.

While learning outcomes and its measurement are important, serious games tend to be bogged down by dictatorial pedagogy (thanks to our current post-industrial model of what constitutes education, learning and training) that fails to appreciate that there are many different ways in which people can learn.

The next generation of serious games that is emerging is now focussing equally on fun and engagement and are challenging traditional ideas about how we can learn and strategise in business. Already the use of narrative and story-telling is now becoming an accepted practice applied to research and marketing as a different medium to understand markets and communicate with stakeholders.  Serious games are a digital form of narrative and story telling blended with learning outcomes – and a medium that appeals to the next generation of learners and knowledge workers.

Implications for business strategy

It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory (W.E. Deming)

The main driver for a serious game in business is for the organisation to gain competitive advantage through a more skilled workforce.  Or in the case of public sector organisations, the key drivers are to gain efficiencies in service delivery or public policy optimisation through a more skilled workforce.

Developing serious games takes some work, and it starts with the organisation’s strategic learning goals.  Based on the works of Clark Aldrich and Marc Prensky, a typical serious game development process would look something like this:

  • Set your strategic learning goals.
    This is the most critical part as it sets the foundations for the game. Here we define the learning or training problem, a needs analysis and indicators of how success will be measured.  For example in a current project under development we interviewed senior staff and ran a questionnaire across a selection of other staff on the issue of optimising business planning between partners in a retail supply chain. As a backdrop, research was undertaken into industry ‘best practice’ to benchmark performance in the game.
  • Scoping the game
    To scope the game we look at how staff will be engaged, how to motivate them with gameplay and determine how best they can learn the target skills or knowledge. In my example, many of the staff played casual games but mostly first-person shooters (and this is how they conducted their business plans in real-life!). So we decided to design a game around building a community, similar to SimCity, but still maintaining a competitive element in terms of who can build the best community.
  • Reflection and comprehension
    During gameplay and within the facilitated sessions, ‘progress breaks’ are built in to the game to ensure the player reflects on what has been played so far, what had been built, how they feel playing the game and ‘checks’ that they understand what has been learned so far.
  • Feedback
    At the end of the session feedback is given to staff in terms of a fun element i.e. a picture and printout of the community they built and more ‘serious’ feedback in terms of how they scored against each other and against what was deemed best practice.
  • Coaching and review
    To ensure that the strategic learning goals of the organisation are met and maintained we suggest strategies that the staff and the organisation incorporate into ongoing learning and development plans. Games can be replayed for continuous learning on a formal and informal basis.

Integrating serious games with strategy

Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand (Chinese proverb)

Serious games need to be carefully integrated with other parallel organisation strategies for them to be effective. Business strategy is often compromised by mismatched organisational capability and culture. The dynamic capability of an organisation largely drives its ability to meet its strategic objectives.  Therefore the integration strategy should include the following:

  • The learning outcomes of the serious game must be tied to your business strategy;
  • Integrate a serious game into your organisation’s prevailing culture through appropriate staff engagement.  This needs to be managed like any other change management strategy. Communicate clearly why a game is being introduced, what is expected from staff, and ‘what is in it for them’.  Like any other strategy working in isolation, do not expect a serious game to change your staff or your culture.
  • Game design and gameplay needs to focus on achieving target competencies.
  • The perennial challenge is to ensure that your organisations culture is aligned with your required capabilities and competencies. Often there is ‘push-back’ from the traditional system (mental models and legacy processes) whenever something new or different is introduced into an organisation. This needs to be pro-actively managed.

Remember that a serious game is also a very important communication tool. ‘Telling’ your staff that they need to take a different approach or that the organisation is going to shift its paradigm is one thing. Introducing a serious game really makes that message crystal clear.

Gaming technology, interactive media, digital entertainment and knowledge industries are converging to create exciting new forms of learning. We currently have neat silos that keep these specialist areas separate from one another. To realize the true potential of learning through serious games, we require a breakdown of the current mental models that create silos and the unintentional blindness to new and different opportunities that games can offer business.

Today’s kids have been weaned on MMORPGs (massive multiplayer online role playing games) which are dynamic, collaborative, on-line with thousands of individuals playing at any one time across all time zones. And above all, they encourage experimentation.  What other model is a better match for the organisational challenges we face today?

Marigo is a business consultant from Australia with a unique angle: using gaming technology for business.

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  1. Marigo: This line made me curious: What I like about this example is the absence of narrative..

    Could you elaborate? Games have generally evolved towards more narrative, and in some ways I like the trend and in other ways I don’t. What do you like about ‘the absence of narrative’?

  2. To what extent do you feel that serious games can contribute to “deliberate practice”? How transferrable are leveling skills to real world performance?

    I would like to incorporate serious games into our consulting practice, creating a “safe fail” environment for small firms to experiment with different business models and product strategies, how would you recommend we get started. I attended the first Serious Games in San Jose a few years ago but the focus at that time seemed to be more on getting grant money to fund development.

    An interesting and thought provoking post.

  3. Hi Venkat. What I love about the absence of narrative is that it allows the player the freedom to explore and to add their own unique perspective to a situation. One of the great limitations of narrative is that certain words or phrases evoke a predicted response (this is how we are ‘socialised’ and ‘educated’ as people in communities). However when we want to move away from predicted responses, we need to put players in an open-ended situation where they react with intuition rather than analysis and in the process think of something new or innovative.

    But this approach to learning and innovation doesn’t appeal to everyone. As an ENTP I love it. I have ISFJ colleagues who hate it!

  4. Hi Sean. I can recommend two great books on the topic as a start, Learning by Doing, by Clark Aldrich and Digital Game-Based Learning, by Marc Prensky. Both these authors also have great resources on their sites (links are provided in the original blogpost). Next step would be to talk to developers about your specific needs: if you’re on LinkedIn, join the groups ‘serious game people’ and ‘serious games group’ and all the key players are there. Happy to make any recommendations for you.

    In the past serious games has just been an ‘add-on’ to the San Jose Games Conference however last year the “serious games summit’ at this conference was apparently excellent and the promise is that the March09 summit will also be good (see you there?!) There are a few specialist serious games conferences that I can post on RibbonFarm (if that’s okay with you Venkat!).

    There is limited research on the the issue of transferability of skills in business outside of the military, education and healthcare services as this tends to be proprietary work. However I can post some additional resources to share.

  5. Go right ahead Marigo, post any links you think might be useful. You can either post them in comments, or send ’em to me and I can add in the body of the article.

  6. Hi Guys, we run the Association for Serious games, web 2.0 and virtual worlds (ANGILS) and there is a free membership opportunity if you sign up for the Facebook group ANGILS (just do a search for it).

    Also, find out more at (I’m just up-dating the site).
    We also have our 4th annual conference runnign this year – with a date yet to be set, in London. Do contact me if you’d like to speak, demo or attend. More at


  7. Great Post…..

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    Thanks for sharing….