Games in Training: A Powerful Learning Tool or Just Playing Around?

Humans are wired to learn skills through play then perform under intense competitive pressure.  Even when we aren’t running from tigers, we feel compelled to create artificial survival situations through sports, games and contests.  

There’s been a lot of interest lately in using games to motivate learners and reinforce learning by tapping into our competitive instincts.  The only trouble is, when trying to “gamify” training programs, many organizations miss the real value of play.

In our experience, learning games can be grouped into three general categories based on how they develop skills and reinforce knowledge:

  • Games that use competition as motivation.  You’ve probably participated in training sessions where the instructor did a review in the format of a television quiz show, perhaps even offering the winning team some kind of prize.  

    This approach can help energize a room and incentivize learners when their intrinsic motivation is low.  Just bear in mind that people only retain information for as long as it’s useful, so if you can’t make a meaningful case for its relevance beyond winning a gift card, they’ll likely forget once the game is over.

  • Games that build transferable skills.  There are some games that, while they might not have an obvious connection to work, build critical skills that can be transferred to the workplace.  

    Military leaders have long used chess to build strategic decision-making skills.  While it’s not a realistic simulation of warfare, chess forces players to evaluate evolving conditions, assess the capabilities and position of each unit, then make calculated decisions about where to attack, when to fall back and what to sacrifice to achieve their objective.  

    Chess isn’t the only example.  Some organizations have teams take improv comedy lessons as a way to develop group communication and problem-solving skills.  Toys like Bee-Bot, where children tap buttons on the back of a plastic bee to direct its movements, can teach basic computer programming concepts like sequencing and debugging.

    If you decide to use these types of games in your training program, make sure to have a debriefing where learners can make the connection to their jobs, otherwise it’s just goofing around.

  • Games that simulate real-life tasks.  Simulations or “serious games” help learners practice tasks that are impossible to replicate in a training context.  This can include role plays of difficult workplace conversations, computer simulations for managing staff and supplies aboard a cruise ship or using mannequins to practice defibrillating someone in cardiac arrest.  

    The key is to focus on the underlying skills and decision-making processes and not get distracted by superficial “realism”.  If a simulation can be accomplished well enough with pencil and paper, then there’s no need for virtual reality.  And no matter how realistic a simulation might be, people’s brains function differently when dealing with hypotheticals versus real life.  Make sure to underline this fact during the debriefing. 

If your organization is interested in developing game-based training, or dealing with any other learning-related challenges, feel free to contact Sonata Learning for a consultation.

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Emil Heidkamp is the founder and senior learning strategist at Sonata Learning.  He works with NGOs, corporations and government agencies to implement training and knowledge management initiatives impacting thousands of learners in over 50 countries.