Get Your Head in the Game

Intense graphics and technology that up the ante on interaction are just two of the latest turns in the world of educational games and simulations.

By Margery Weinstein

A changing mindset combined with changing technology is driving the use of games and simulations, says Karl M. Kapp, a learning and technology expert and professor of instructional technology at Bloomsburg University in Bloomsburg, PA. “People are becoming more open to using games and simulations for learning, and, at the same time, the technologies are making the development of games and simulations easier and faster than a mere five years ago.”

Together, Kapp says, the changing mindset and the new tools “have created a powerfully attractive combination that has learning and development professionals seriously involved in creating games and simulations on a larger level than ever before.”

Kapp says two different consumer-based game products are setting learners’ expectations these days. “Madden Football and Halo franchises are setting high expectations for 3-D graphics, realistic scenes, and authentic interactions,” he notes. “At the other end, mobile device games such as Angry Birds are setting the bar for engaging games with simple but fun graphical user interfaces. Learners want both types of games in their organization’s online learning tool kit.”

High-End Graphics

High-fidelity computer graphics used to require a team of graphic artists to create a 3-D environment, not to mention characters or objects, Kapp explains. Highly specialized software and graphics cards were needed to create the 3-D elements. But, he says, “within the last few years, several 3-D tools have been released that are simple to use, render powerful graphics, and don’t require an army of artists.”

Kapp points to three products that illustrate easy-to-develop high-graphic games and simulations. He says Second Life provided tools to the average user to build objects in the 3-D environment with a user-friendly tool kit. “Previously, most 3-D development package interfaces were so complicated, they looked like the cockpit of a 747. In comparison, Second Life’s simple interface and drag-and-drop ability to change textures and add basic scripts opened the eyes of many in the learning profession about the possibilities of using 3-D interfaces for learning,” he says. “The door was knocked down by Second Life, and it allowed similar, more corporate-focused products to enter the market and the psyche of learning and development professionals. It showed what was possible with a little imagination and simple 3-D programs.”

Around the same time, Kapp says, several products launched that focused on creating 3-D games and simulations and were easier to use than past products. “With these newer products, the underlying code for how objects interact in a 3-D environment, how the shading works, animations, and the movement of characters already was built into the software. In some cases, objects and characters were already available and are placed into the environment simply by dragging and dropping them where they are needed. Most of the difficult coding work is built into the software program itself. This makes it easy to focus on the design of the content with less cost and difficulty involved with the development of the software itself.”

Kapp offers two examples of these types of software programs: Unity 3-D and Thinking Worlds. Both programs provide 3-D interfaces that are easy to manipulate, provide many pre-built elements, and are much easier to use than 3-D software development programs. “Both of these programs have been used by organizations to create 3-D training programs to teach everything from how to inspect a house for natural gas leaks to teaching firefighting personnel to work together to put out a house fire,” says Kapp.

Mobile App Inspiration

Tools that previously only had been used for animation and e-learning interactions now are being used to create games. “Adobe Flash is now a mature product and, as a result, there are many programmers who know the ActionScripting language of Adobe Flash and are highly talented at creating interactive games. Developers now are letting clients know about the availability of those games and are encouraging clients to explore those games as a learning option,” Kapp explains.

And while Flash currently won’t run on an iPhone or iPad (Adobe is creating a product, code-named Wallaby that will convert Flash to HTML 5, so eventually one will be able to create Flash and release on Apple devices), the apps revolution has sparked interest among learning professionals in the development of simple, quick games that can be played to reinforce concepts or ideas. “While the games may not be delivered on a mobile device, they have the same look and feel as the games delivered on those devices,” says Kapp, “so the graphics will be simple like the Angry Bird graphics, but the content will be serious, such as preparing for a sales meeting or working through an ethics dilemma.”

Kapp says to expect more games and simulations that can be accessed via mobile device. “The maturity of the technology and the expertise of the developers in using a well-known product such as Flash have pushed the development to new and exciting game areas,” he says. “With the advent of HTML 5, the use of simple graphics and animated environments will be available on virtually any device. This will continue to push the use of graphics to provide short but meaningful game interactions.”

Jeopardy! (and other games) for Learners

Games and simulations are being used to address a variety of learning needs in organizations. “The most popular, but least valuable from an overall strategic viewpoint, is the use of Jeopardy!-type games, matching games, hangman-type games, sequencing games, and multiple-choice games that reinforce declarative knowledge (information that needs to be memorized),” says Kapp. “Many e-learning development tools have game templates built in, and e-learning developers are sprinkling in those games to add interest to e-learning. While the addition of these games adds variety and interest to e-learning courses, this is not a high-value use of game-based learning. But it is easy and quick and allows organizations and corporations to incorporate ‘games’ in their training.”

Kapp says games that provide the most value to organizations are games focused on problem-solving. “Problem-solving occurs when an employee is confronted with a previously unencountered situation and applies prior learning or knowledge to solve the problem. This is where employee knowledge creates the greatest value to the organization,” Kapp points out. “Problem-solving in this context means tasks such as the creation of a business case for a new product, launching a social media marketing campaign, the generation of ideas for a new product, or the development of a new subdivision of houses.”

Simulations in which learners assume a specific role such as a sales representative or claims analyst and then confront a problem they must solve are especially effective, says Kapp. These programs usually make use of a branching simulation in which the learner responds to a series of questions, and each question branches the learner in a different direction. In these games/simulations, learners often acquire points or skills such as “credibility” and perform acts and make decisions in a manner similar to what they would encounter while on the job. Kapp says these programs are “highly effective for teaching decision-making and problem-solving. Many of these games are focused on a single learner, but, increasingly, organizations are using simulation and game-based learning environments that allow for multiple players. This adds more realistic interactions within the game environment.”

“Crowdsourcing” Problems via Simulations

On the cutting edge of learning games and simulations are game-based mechanics and techniques to crowdsource problems using a video game-type interface. Kapp says the United States military is trying to generate ideas on how to battle Somali pirates through the use of a massive multiplayer game. “The initiative involves the military creating a game-based environment and crowdsourcing military problems to civilians. The goal is to find innovative solutions by observing what players do within the game environment,” says Kapp.

The game platform, named by the military, is called a Massive Multiplayer Online WarGame Leveraging the Internet (MMOWGLI), and will have more than 1,000 online players who will immerse themselves in the online game environment focused on defeating the efforts of Somali pirates. “This unique use of gamification,” says Kapp, “is the first time the American military has integrated crowdsourcing and gamification into traditional military wargames.”

The game, created by the Office of Naval Research (ONR), is designed to test the feasibility of using massive multiplayer online games to solve difficult and non-conventional strategic problems. The first integration of the game focuses on combating Somali piracy, Kapp notes, but the platform is designed so it can be adapted to a variety of military situations. The goal is to see if the game will help the military gain insights into fighting piracy in the Horn of Africa and Gulf of Aden. Players negotiate the logistics of arming ships; determine the likelihood of pirate attacks; and carefully consider the financial, jurisdictional, and temporal difficulties of military action needed to support commercial shipping and cruise ships. Then they set sail and face pirate attacks and see if they are successfully prepared. If unsuccessful, the players will make adjustments and try again.

Says Kapp: “The military will track what happens, hoping that the scaled-up participant pool offers novel combinations of actions and ideas that ultimately assist with solving the real-life problem.”

What’s on Your Mind

James Sharpe, senior vice president, Strategic Solutions, PDI Ninth House, tells Training what today’s training professionals are most excited about—and most need to think about—in the realm of educational games and simulations.

  • Social media and “we-learning” is being integrated into corporate games and simulations. “We-learning” includes using mini-groups to solve simulated problems online and in face-to-face intensive simulation workshops that leverage technology before, during, and after the simulation. Leveraging existing corporate infrastructure for collaboration allows for ongoing relationships facilitated by technology.
  • Organizations want simulations that provide application to the job and return on the development investment. As with any developmental investment, you have to fight for every dollar of spend. Gaming accounts for a small portion of spend and is still not a mainstream approach corporations have embraced. There are a few exemplars, but most of the gaming and simulation spend is in the form of simulations applied to learning and assessment.
  • Adaptive simulations have been used on the high end for years; however, in the next few years, corporate trainers will see more technology-enabled simulations with the options of making changes on the fly to push the realism and stretch the participants in a safe learning environment.
  • Make sure your investments in games and simulations are longer term. For example, our high-potential and pivotal leader programs and the “stickiness” of our online simulations incorporate application sessions and ongoing performance support tools and methods that are leveraged after the initial program. Organizations should make such simulations part of the learning and development process, not just a one-time event.

4 Simulation Facilitation FAQs

Chris Musselwhite, Sue Kennedy, and Sue Probst of Discovery Learning Inc., offered their insights into solutions to frequently asked simulation questions.

1. How do you handle participants who verbalize or demonstrate through body language that they don’t like simulations?

Thank them for being honest and acknowledge that not everyone is comfortable with simulations. Also acknowledge that others in the room may be feeling the same way, then encourage them to give it their best shot, if not for themselves, then for the others on their team. In our experience, most initial resistors get engaged in the simulation and forget their original concerns. In the rare instance where they continue to resist participating, observe how the other participants respond to this and whether they make any attempts to draw in the resistor. This can become a powerful learning opportunity for discussion later.

2. How do you prepare a “senior person” to participate in a simulation with other members of their team or organization?

It adds to the simulation experience when a senior manager elects to participate. To ensure their participation does not stifle the full participation of the others, there are a few points to stress privately before the simulation begins:

  • If it is a simulation that includes a leadership role, the senior person should NOT be assigned that role.
  • The person should be encouraged to participate fully but be reminded they are NOT in charge during the simulation.
  • During the debrief, it is important that they not be the first person to share their insights or answer the debrief questions. By speaking first or early, they can unduly influence the course of the debrief.

3. How do you handle a group that chooses to break or ignore the simulation “rules”?

The rules that are written for a specific simulation should be explained carefully during the introduction process. When questions arise relative to rules during the simulation, it is permissible for the facilitator to answer the question. It is not unusual for a group to challenge rules that do not make sense to them. This may represent an aspect of the culture in which they work and, therefore, may be an important debrief point. Often, a group isn’t breaking rules but instead coming up with different, innovative ways to improve work processes. Most facilitators will allow a group to initiate innovation as long as it doesn’t change the intent of the simulation.

4. How do I ensure that peer feedback during the debrief is open, honest, respectful, and balanced?

Prior to facilitating the feedback portion of the debrief, make sure time is allotted for carefully explaining the behavioral feedback process and for addressing any questions, concerns, or fears. An approach that has proven successful is to have participants providing feedback to describe a specific situation or event; define the behavior in terms of speech, interaction, or body language; identify where the behavior was observed; and make the feedback relevant by explaining the impact of that behavior on the group.

Generally, one person volunteers to receive feedback and each person delivers their feedback as you go around the table/room. The facilitator usually gives his or her feedback last. However, if you sense participants are having difficulty delivering feedback early in the process (especially constructive feedback), the facilitator may wish to provide feedback early in the process to demonstrate the proper way to do so.

To read the full article, with answers to 12 frequently asked simulation questions, visit

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.