Are You Game For Learning?

Games and simulations give learners a fun, immersive way to learn the same lessons companies used to teach them in a traditional class.

If you ever doubted the power of games to engage people, just consider the legions of folks—from high school students to business-people—who spent the summer trying to corral little monsters with their smartphones everywhere they went. Learning and Development professionals would do well to take note of the characteristics of Pokémon Go, a free-to-play, location-based, augmented reality game, that quickly captivated people of all ages around the world.

Listening to a lecture, or reading pages of text, gets old fast. It reminds even the best learner of high school or college. But when those same principles are presented in an engaging game that draws participants in with in-the-moment decision-making, the material becomes less of a chore. It sometimes even becomes enjoyable.

Games and simulations have been common training tools in organizations over the last decade. As the technology becomes more advanced, more companies are seeking ways to make the experience have an even greater impact on learners.


With improved technology has come greater choice. Games and simulations are becoming more accessible and easier to implement. University Hospitals has used Jeopardy-like quiz games, rolebased simulation games, and scenario-based games to help train learners, says Jennifer DeFrancesco, director, IT&S Training Services, Training and Development. “These are popular because they are quick and easy to incorporate into classroom training, and they keep learners engaged and energized during all-day training sessions,” she says. “For physician electronic medical record (EMR) training, we incorporate various real-life scenarios to foster learning. For example, we provide a scenario of a patient presenting with a cough and sore throat and the physician-learners have to navigate through the EMR workflow.”

University Hospitals also has created a library of interactive simulation videos that are a hit with learners. “Many learners like them because they are quick, easy, and user-friendly,” says DeFrancesco. “Learners can complete a simulation at their convenience, at their own pace, and do not have to take time away to attend an additional class in person.”

The organization is able to keep costs down by doing much of the development work in-house. “Generally, the use of games and simulations is practical and cost-effective for us. We develop the materials ourselves, so we do not have associated external costs,” says DeFrancesco. “The only ‘cost’ is the trainer’s time to develop the materials, which varies with the type and length of game or simulation. We maximize our efficiency through simulations because creating a simulation video is less timeconsuming than teaching a classroom course over multiple days.”

In addition to ease of use, the latest games and simulations can be implemented in frequent, short bursts, rather than in long training sessions, says Karl Kapp, consultant and author of “The Gamification of Learning and Instruction.” “These are games with a set number of questions, or activities, which often are delivered via a mobile device or desktop in short bursts, and the game experience lasts over a specified period of time rather than taking place in one sitting. The term used in the industry is ‘Gamification Platform,’” says Kapp, who explains that these games are designed to be played briefly for a few minutes a day. The learner engages with the game, answers questions related to content presented in the game, and then is scored. There are leaderboards, team competitions, levels, and even badges. The entire game-play interaction then is repeated the next day. “The idea is to provide a short game experience while reinforcing key content, such as safety information, or the features and functionality of a piece of equipment or software being sold,” he says.


Learning games are often best when they resemble the video games employees might play outside of the office, and when they feature themes seen in the movies and on TV. Humana has taken this approach in its Group Sales Training division. “In the past, we have used app-based challenges to drive engagement and participation, and to reinforce learning. Within the next month, we are planning to launch a video gamelike experience called ‘Zombie SalesApocalypse,’” say Director, Sales Training, Amy M. Barbour; Manager, Instructional Design Deb DeNure; and Learning Consultant Deb Hull. “Thissolution is necessary due to our geographically dispersed sales force and work-at-home associates. In addition, the majority of our sales force is now from the Gen X and Gen Y (Millennials) demographic. Research shows these generations gravitate toward more learning on demand using real-time solutions.”

Barbour, DeNure, and Hull note that their learning audiences are driven by rewards and motivated by competitions, leaderboards, point systems, and peer recognition. “The Zombie SalesApocalypse game provides a wide range of interactivity that promotes engagement, feedback, accomplishment, and overcoming challenges,” they point out.

Creating games that relate to current events, or challenges, in the news, also keeps the experience engaging for learners. Anders Gronstedt, founder and president of The Gronstedt Group, says his team recently developed a game for technology company Intuit that challenges learners to defend a system against hacker attacks. “Players defend their Web app in an epic battle against a hacker attack. They learn and practice security protocols while having fun and earning prizes. The learning game is modeled after tower defense-style games, which is a subgenre of real-time strategy video games,” Gronstedt explains. “Players learn about such security concepts as Classless Inter-Domain Routing (CIDR), Access Control Lists (ACL), Security groups, Bastion Host, and Identity and Access Management service (IAM). The game calculates a score and provides rewards and feedback. A leaderboard provides scoring information across the player population. The approach thrives on the sense of engagement, storytelling, character identification, immersion, problem solving, control, and feeling of accomplishment offered by games.”


Another way to keep learners immersed in a simulation or game is to have the program offer an almost exact preview of what employees will experience in reallife, on-the-job situations. WellSpan Health’s clinical setting simulations, for example, are tailored to the needs of the particular unit and learning objectives. “For example, we did a simulation for the operating room at one of our hospitals where the patient required defibrillation while facedown on the OR table for spine surgery,” says Director of Learning Solutions & Workforce Development Tammy Newcomer. “This allowed the team to ‘test’ its procedures for getting the patient off the table quickly and safely in order to administer the care required. The process went smoothly, but staff still came up with additional enhancements as a result that will make the process even smoother and more efficient.”

This type of “real-world” simulation is common across industries, notes Juliette Denny, managing director of Growth Engineering, a provider of game and simulation technology. “The variety of learning games is as diverse as the variety of corporations. The common thread between them all is that they combine game mechanics with custom simulations that are relevant to the learning objective,” she says. “For example, McDonald’s till training game replicates the till a McDonald’s employee would use. In this case, the cost savings in creating a risk-free environment is of enormous benefit, not to mention the fact that employees can practice these skills wherever they are.”

In addition to providing a realistic practice zone for job skills, true-to-life simulations can make it easier to tie performance objectives into the program, and to then measure whether those objectives are met. Denny notes that when simulations, or games, fail to be effective, the most common problem is the program wasn’t created with the learning objectives in mind. The desire for a fun, immersive experience sometimes can lead trainers and program developers to forget the reason they are creating the simulation in the first place.

“Usually the culprit is that the focus has drifted too far from the learning objective,” Denny points out. “It’s all too easy to concentrate too much on the game and disrupt the balance between the game and the learning content. Overall, what you’re looking for is a harmony between the two, and for them to work hand-in-hand, without one overpowering the other.”

The best way to ensure the learning objectives are not forgotten is to start with them—before even taking the first step in the development process. “The key is for companies to ensure they have clear performance objectives up front. Trainers should ask themselves: What will the employee be expected to do when they have the knowledge or skill?” says Shaun McMahon, founder of Illuminate, a developer of clinical sales training programs for the life science industry. “Then, the developer must remain true to these performance objectives, ensuring that the activities drive learning that enables people to perform on the job.”

At WellSpan Health, it is a tight bridge between learning objective—improved performance on the job—and simulation technology. Its technology even includes simulated patients. “From a clinical simulation perspective, the use of standardized patients (mock patients) in simulation has been in existence for a while; however, we have started utilizing them to assist with training for everything from orientation presentations for fall prevention to stroke response and bedside rounding,” says Newcomer. “Learners love the interaction and realism it brings to the education.”


  • Use Jeopardy-like quiz games, role-based simulation games, and scenario-based games to help train learners.
  • Create games with a set number of questions, or activities, delivered via a mobile device or desktop in short bursts.
  • Pattern games on video games learners are used to playing outside of the office.
  • Incorporate popular culture themes into the games you create, such as a learning game set in the midst of a “zombie apocalypse.”
  • Use real-life situations from the news to make the game have greater impact, such as a tech company creating a game in which learners must protect their IT system from hackers.
  • Set learning objectives up front, before the development process begins, and check throughout the development work that fulfillment of the learning objectives remains the top priority.


The total market for learning games is already $3.9 billion, and is expected to grow to $ 8.9 billion by 2017, according to a research report by Ambient Insight.

Capterra, a gamification software research company, and TalentLMS teamed up on a survey of 400 learning management system (LMS) users and instructional designers to take the industry’s pulse on gamification. Key takeaways from the survey results include:

  • Gamification and learning games already have widespread adoption, with 83% and 90% use, respectively.
  • 70% of respondents claimed gamification led to an increase in student scores.
  • 83% of LMS users reported their students retained course content better using gamification.
  • The most popular gamification features were points (85% ), progress bars (78% ), and levels (76%).
  • Social gamification features such as activity feeds (16% ), avatars (24% ), and leaderboards (26% ) were desired the least by users.


Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.