Serious Games for Serious Issues

I am a really bad note taker when I go to conferences.  I scribble notes madly in my notebook as speakers share their ideas, with full confidence that weeks or months later I will be able to decipher exactly what my notes mean.  Big surprise, that is not the case.  I am offering up this confession because, now that I have had time to go through the notes I took at the International Business Learning Games Competition and Conference, in September 2018, I find that I have not clearly attributed the ideas that caught my attention to the people the ideas came from.  The ideas below are not mine, but they may have come from any of the following great speakers on the topic of business learning games—Paul O’Connor, Pere Juarez Vives, Helen Routledge, Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen and Lars Hoffman.

Business learning games are, as the name implies, games that are used in a business context to enable leaders, employees and/or business students to explore challenges that an organization is experiencing and to the learn skills that are needed to address those challenges.  Business learning games form part of a larger concept, serious play, the use of creative and innovative play for learning purposes.  In addition to games, serious play includes simulations, role play, improv and, one of my favourites, LEGO® Serious Play®.

Why are business learning games attracting so much attention with business leaders, trainers and educators?  Business learning games address a clear problem in training, professional development and education, namely that participants are unhappy with learning experiences that are irrelevant, boring, and outdated, and that use cumbersome materials with little practical transferrable value.  Business learning games, when done well, provide engaging and memorable experiences for participants, so that the learning gets traction and can be applied in the here and now.

That said, business learning games are not magic wands that we can wave to solve all of an organization’s learning and development issues.  To quote one of the speakers (see the list above for possibilities), “We don’t use business learning games all the time.  If we know what to do to address an issue, we say it and we get to work.  But, if we are stuck and we don’t know what to do, we use a business learning game to explore the issue, to build relationships and to connect with people to find a way forward.”  In other words, business learning games are used to explore an organization’s tough issues.

What are some of these tough organizational issues to which business learning games can be applied?

  • Connecting people across deep differences of perspective and opinion.
  • Testing a new strategy in an uncertain environment.
  • Determining how to combat a disruptive competitor.
  • Analyzing a highly complex and rapidly changing situation.
  • Uncovering a problem that is deeply hidden under layers of organizational process and practice.
  • Making decisions in ambiguous situations in which key information is not available.

Business learning games can also be used to help participants develop 21st century skills—collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking, complex problem-solving and people management. Well-designed business learning games leverage participant curiousity, facilitate out-of-the-box thinking and promote non-linear learning.  Businesses need people with 21st century skills in order to navigate the dynamic complexity of today’s business environment.  

Context is a crucial component of business learning game effectiveness.  By placing participants in novel contexts, games allow participants to leave behind the constraints imposed by their everyday realities.  Participants say and do things that they would not be able to say and do in real life.  They can explore the hypothetical to generate possible decision outcomes and then evaluate the resulting scenarios.

I don’t have scribbled notes on my last take away about business learning games from the conference.  But I have a strong memory of it—pure fun.  I have been to many conferences, but this was, without a doubt, the most fun.  I spent the entire conference with a big grin on my face because, not only did I get to learn, I also got to play.  Sign me up for a business learning game.  Any day.  Any time.