Training Games: The Military Way

Military games offer lessons for the corporate training sector.

Jim Lunsford makes games other people don’t.

He designs training games for the U.S. military. That’s unusual enough. But he also makes games on subjects that don’t seem very game-like.

For example, there is “Forward Into Battle” (, a computer game of military logistics designed to train students at the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College. Despite its target audience, it’s not a Risklike wargame. The challenge of the game is to get supplies and reinforcements to the combat troops. That may sound routine, but as many a defeated general can attest, it’s not. In the game, the player must cope with limited port capacities that force him or her to prioritize which ships and cargo are unloaded first, even as the computer-controlled enemy tries to block truck convoys from reaching the front.

Then there is “Future Force” (, a game designed to teach military force planning—or how to build the military you need with the funds you have. The player controls the armed forces of the fictional nation of Blueland. He or she receives a defense budget each game year, which can be spent on various purchases, such as different types of combat brigades, research and development, and intelligence and counterintelligence operations.

Naturally, there isn’t enough money to buy everything Blueland needs. More important, Blueland is contesting several conflict zones with rival nation Orangeland. The problem is that the various conflicts require different types of troops, so that a tank brigade is useful in regular warfare but not chasing guerrillas, while the reverse is true for Special Forces units. Funding changes each year, as does the type of conflict in each zone, yet it takes time to respond by creating new combat units. So the player must be astute enough to guess what sort of wars to prepare for, as well as flexible enough to adapt when he or she inevitably guesses wrong.

Do these sound like complicated games? Actually, they are very simple. I was able to sit down and play Future Force in just a few minutes. And that’s the way Lunsford likes it.

A retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and a former tactics instructor at the Command and General Staff College, Lunsford believes training games should be kept simple. Games are there to support the instructor, not the other way around.

Whether it’s for a military or corporate training game, “the time required to learn the fundamentals of the game rules and mechanics must be kept to the absolute minimum,” says Lunsford, now owner of Decisive-Point Games ( in Kansas City, MO. “Ten minutes has to be the goal. Otherwise, they spend too much time learning to play the game and not enough time practicing the skills and tasks associated with the learning objectives.”

An after-action review mechanism is also vital. The game must allow instructors to analyze performance, identify desirable and undesirable behaviors, and provide feedback.

Lunsford, who has designed more than a dozen games for the U.S. military and West Point, was one of the innovators in the military’s growing use of games. Over the last decade, training games have spread across the U.S. Armed Forces, as well as Britain, Canada, Australia, and other nations. It’s not that the Pentagon brass has an irresistible urge to grab a joystick. But training soldiers nowadays is expensive in terms of money, resources, and time. Games are not a substitute for live training in the mud or the cockpit, but they are cost-effective in preparing soldiers for many tasks.

After years of preparing soldiers for combat, Lunsford has turned his game design skills toward the civilian sector. He devised “Municipal Crisis,” which trains first responders in how to handle disasters. Players must cope with various types of incidents such as fires and plane crashes, as information is relayed to them through text messages and multimedia files.

Lunsford also runs a corporate leadership and teambuilding computer game called “Explore,” in which leaders and their employees embark on an expedition based on Lewis and Clark’s transcontinental journey. Each team member is assigned a unique slot on the expedition, similar, if possible, to what they do in their real-life company. Team roles include expedition leaders (which rotate among the different players), navigators, guides, quartermasters, scientists, and doctors.

The expedition must choose a route through uncharted terrain, as well as how they are going to travel (by canoe, foot, etc.). Every team member has a chance for a unique (and secret) reward: The scientist, for example, gets bonus money for each scientific discovery. Yet to accomplish their individual goals, the team as a whole must succeed.

Lunsford finds that the same issues that crop up in the workplace also appear in “Explore.” “During our discussions about their performance, we routinely hear them say things such as, ‘This is the same problem we always have,’ or ‘I’m not surprised, you usually ignore us and do not ask for advice.’ When this occurs, we stop the game, try to quickly address the problem, recommend a solution, and then challenge them to continue the game without repeating their mistakes. As their familiarity with the game increases, we increase the pace and complexity of the exercise.”

That is the whole reason for training games, whether they are military or corporate. It is far less costly to expose and address problems in a game than it is on the battlefield or in the office.

“Explore” was designed to address what Lunsford sees as a lack of corporate leader development and team training. “Most organizations find it difficult to justify this expense since it doesn’t check a required box or provide quantifiable results. Another challenge is convincing the leaders that they need routine leader and team training for their organization to thrive.”

While Lunsford concedes the military “is far from perfect” when it comes to leadership, he also believes that “when military leaders make mistakes, most people around them can articulate the nature of the problem and identify the correct behavior. In the corporate world, the detailed study and practice of leadership is rare.”

Lunsford is a firm believer in the value of games for training, but he is adamant that the human element is what makes a training game work. “The one thing to always remember is the game is merely an educational training tool. Regardless of the quality of the game, I believe 75 percent of the actual learning is dependent on the quality of the instructor.”

Serious Games

By Jean Martin and Mike Fetzer, CEB

The use of serious games is quickly becoming a more mainstream method for achieving key objectives in a variety of business initiatives. Applications designed for the military, education, health care, and government have produced many positive outcomes and kicked off the infiltration of serious games in the broader corporate world.

Serious games are best defined as games used for purposes other than pure entertainment. They incorporate elements of game design in order to enhance the level of engagement of the target user above and beyond that which can be achieved with non-game approaches. These elements include, but are not limited to:

• Interactive problem solving

• Adaptive or branching storylines

• Specific goals and rules

• Ongoing feedback

• Sensory stimuli

Many serious games also incorporate technologies used in today’s entertainment gaming industry, such as computer-generated animation.

Currently, the most prevalent use of serious games is for training purposes. Organizations are using serious games to train employees on broad and diverse topics from teamwork to strategic planning. Serious games also are used for job-specific skill development, such as training on aircraft repair and patient triage. Serious games can be used in situations that are too cost-prohibitive or risky to accomplish in a real-world situation—for instance, the military uses serious games to train its members on complex and/or dangerous situations.

Initiatives from customer attraction and retention to performance management quickly are realizing the benefits of serious games and the broader trend of gamification. In the 2013 “Playing to Win: Gamification and Serious Games in Organizational Learning” survey conducted by ASTD, 25 percent of responding organizations indicated that they are using gamification for training and development. Additionally, analysts have posited that the serious games and gamification market will grow from $421 million in 2013 to $5.5 billion in 2018, an annual growth rate of 67 percent (MarketsandMarkets global research). Clearly, we are on the verge of a revolution in the way businesses approach traditional challenges.

CEB’s 2014 Global Assessment Trends Report, which includes survey results from more than 1,400 HR professionals globally, indicates that training will be the HR area most likely to receive increased budget this year. Given this trend and the explosive growth in the serious games market, it is highly likely that many corporate training programs will be leveraging elements of gamification to some degree in the future.

Game-Based Learning and Soft Skills Training

By Ibrahim Jabary, CEO, Gamelearn

As HR and L&D professionals worldwide look to deliver consistent training across geographies in engaging ways, leveraging technology and game-based learning is a hot topic of conversation. Long used to develop technical skills, particularly through custom-built simulations, only recently have game-based learning solutions addressed training on soft skills—the most critical area of employee development needs.

As often happens in the buzz surrounding new technologies, two key concepts are being confused: “gamification” and “game-based” learning.

Gamification (the sugar pill)

When applied to training, gamification refers to the use of game mechanics to engage and motivate students so they participate in and complete a training course. Gamification mechanics include competitions, badges, and the ability to achieve different status levels and earn prizes and rewards. These techniques by themselves, however, do not make students learn. Rather, gamification is the sugar pill around the medicine (the training), which requires subject matter that is being learned, the ability to put this content into practice, and the receipt of personalized feedback that allows the learner to improve as he or she applies what is being learned.

Game-Based Learning (the effective medicine)

Game-based learning refers to simply learning through games, where the game’s story and its characters and other elements teach new learning concepts. Game-based learning can occur in a physical context, such as through board games, or virtually through video games. Whether physical or virtual, the game must provide the learner with the opportunity to understand and then apply and practice what is being learned and receive feedback so the learning is captured—i.e., there is cognitive residue that carries forward—and instills new (learned) behavior—i.e., the medicine has taken effect.

Learning Design

Any training format for soft skills development must fulfill the following criteria:

1. Compelling content (the subject matter to be learned)

2. Clear emphasis on practical application 

3. Interactivity and experimentation

4. Genuine skills development through practice and feedback

5. Motivation for students to learn and complete the course they begin

So any attempt to use game-based learning also should ensure these criteria are fulfilled.

Our approach at Gamelearn is to develop game-based learning products that mix three key components:

1. A comprehensive course, equivalent to a two-day instructor-led course with a clear focus on practical application.

2. A virtual simulator that allows students to practice and learn soft skills while receiving constant personalized feedback.

3. A graphical adventure video game that incorporates a great amount of gamification elements to ensure engagement, motivation, and completion (competition, trophies, etc.).

This way, game-based learning meets the necessary criteria and can be broadly deployed as an effective training tool for soft skills development.

Knowledge Keepers: Digital Legacy Avatars

By Mick McLaughlin, Head of Marketing, Serious Games International (

What do companies lose in terms of knowledge when long-serving employees leave the building? Without a plan or program to transfer knowledge, business processes, and procedures to their younger counterparts, many companies may be faced with severe business continuity issues and gaps in knowledge that could have a serious impact on the future of their organization.

We have seen a couple of emerging trends that are making knowledge transfer in organizations today an increasingly noticeable issue. One is the major demographic shifts that are coming. These include not only the retirement of Baby Boomers, but the increased turnover of highly skilled employees mid-career and the increased difficulties of recruiting, developing, and retaining younger workers. These demographic shifts, combined with the increasingly sophisticated technical, scientific, and managerial knowledge in the workplace in the last 30 years, means that when people leave organizations today, they potentially are taking with them knowledge that’s critical to the future of the business.

As many Baby Boomers approach retirement and Generation Yers and Millennials enter the marketplace, Serious Games International (SGIL) has addressed the issue of knowledge transfer with a 3-D intelligent avatar solution that not only encompasses key company information and procedures but also keeps the long-standing retiring employee’s legacy alive.

Utilizing SGIL’s 3-D technology, an avatar was created with a photo-realistic image of a leading security and defense organization’s long-serving employee who was approaching retirement. He was pre-programmed with key information about the company, procedural knowledge, and frequently asked questions and made available across multiple platforms, including Web, tablet, and smart phone. New and existing employees were able to ask the avatar questions and receive answers at their leisure.

The introduction of the Digital Legacy Avatar proved to engage users, created a fun alternative route to learning, broke down barriers to learning, and instilled a real sense of pride with employees. Utilizing a long-serving and much-loved employee as an avatar who was known as the “fountain of all knowledge” had a major impact on the business with a real return on investment in the form of knowledge remaining with the company and at employees’ fingertips.

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.