Use Games To Practice Strategic Thinking

The well-defined goal and distraction-free environment within the game space create a rich incubator for fostering skills such as preparing for the unexpected, problem solving, and critical thinking.

While games might seem childish and inappropriate for use in a corporate setting, many organizations that deal in life and death frequently use games for training. Military organizations use war games to help generals learn various battlefield strategies. In the medical industry, games help future healthcare providers develop diagnostic skills and uncover disease states based on the presentation of various symptoms. In cyberwar exercises, games are used to help identify and correct security vulnerabilities.

Games provide a safe place to practice strategic thinking, preparing for the unexpected, and resource allocation. An advantage of using a game to teach strategic thinking is that the act of playing a game requires players to remove themselves from everyday situations and focus on what is happening in the game. In fact, a well-designed game keeps players’ minds from wandering because they are “all in” on the game. This state is known technically as “flow,” and flow helps players be more open to learning.

The Magic Circle

When playing a game, the player is in the “game space” or what some people call the “magic circle.” In this magic circle, the rules of the game are in force, and elements of fantasy, competition, chance, and even resource allocation come together to create a place where the player has specific, well-defined goals and knows what he or she needs to do to win. The well-defined goal and distraction-free environment within the game space create a rich incubator for fostering skills such as preparing for the unexpected, problem solving, and strategic thinking because players are thinking, weighing options, and predicting future events in an attempt to win.

In most work environments, the daily grind makes it difficult for management and leadership to take a “timeout” and consider possible catastrophes that may strike the business, such as major shifts in the competitive landscape or security breaches. But when organizations are forward thinking and prepare for such events with games, they are able to handle infrequent, improbable but very real situations.

Prepared for Disaster

Here’s a sense of the possibilities: In the 1970s, BP created a game about working on an oil rig. One of the scenarios in that game was a catastrophic failure of an offshore oil well. In the game, a major oil spill occurs. Had that game been played continuously by upper management and had it been designed to help prepare leadership to think about the implications and actions that would need to take place if the event happened in real life, the organization may have been better prepared when the actual disaster struck.

A well-designed game, tailored to a specific company or industry sector, provides a safe place to consider, examine, and contemplate what otherwise might be unthinkable or unbelievable. Because games require players to “suspend disbelief” and buy into the premise of the game, players are more likely to accept and even consider unusual events and work to solve those events within the context of the game.

The act of participating in the events of the game forces learners to think about various situations that might occur. If the game includes elements of strategy and resource allocation requirements, the players must develop a strategy and actively think of the trade-offs that might be required when resources are limited. If the game is developed carefully, it will push players to think critically, examine assumptions, and make predictions that will help them become better leaders and help the organization weather unexpected issues and problems.

Karl Kapp, Ed.D., is a professor of Instructional Technology at Bloomsburg University in Bloomsburg, PA. He is co-author of the bestselling training design book, “Play to Learn: Everything You Need to Know About Designing Effective Learning Games.” He is also a author of courses on gamification and interactive learning and creator of sales training game Zombie Sales Apocalypse.