Game-based simulations

Recent evidence-based research (Sitzmann T: “A Meta-Analytic Examination Of The Instructional Effectiveness Of Computer-Based Simulation Games”, Personnel Psychology 2011) provides compelling reasons for using game-based simulations in adult training. After analysing 65 studies and data from 6,476 train­ees, Traci Sitzmann found that trainees who used simulations gained the following performance improvements over a comparison group who were trained with other forms of instruction (e.g. lectures and assignments):

  • 20% higher confidence levels
  • 14% higher skill-based knowledge
  • 11% higher factual knowledge levels
  • 9% higher retention levels

These findings chime with my own experience of using simulations in a wide range of training interventions over the last 14 years. Learners respond enthusiastically to game-based simulations because they provide an authentic but risk-free environment where you can practise skills, and also feature motivational devices (exploration, challenge, feedback, rewards and virtual coaches) which makes learning fun and addictive. Game-based simulations can also help overcome ‘e-learning fatigue’ in organisations where learners have become tired of clicking through linear tutorials. But to maximise the business impact of game-based simulations, it’s important to deliver them within a blended learning model which provides learners with the opportunity to discuss how newly acquired knowledge and skills can be applied in the real-world. As Traci Sitzman notes: “Games are beneficial for practicing work-related skills, but trainees must first learn work-related knowledge to apply it during game play. Furthermore, a debriefing ses­sion after game play is beneficial for ensuring that trainees realize how their experience in the game is applicable to the work environment.

While playing the computer game LA Noire (where you take on the role of a detective investigating a series of crimes in 1940s Los Angeles), I was reminded of a fraud investigation simulation I produced several years ago.  As part of your detective work in LA Noire you must interview ‘persons of interest’, ask them the right questions, and decide if they’re telling the truth.

LA Noire

Still from LA Noire, produced by Rockstar Games.

The fraud investigation sim I worked on featured a similar interactive approach. We filmed actors talking straight to camera to mimic the experience of being in a tense, face-to-face interview situation. Depending on your choice of questions, the characters under investigation would react accordingly (sometimes with explosive results!). Similarly to LA Noire, the goal was to challenge learners to ask the right questions and get to the truth.

Realism and authentic practice activities like this are key to effective game-based simulations. As Ruth Clark (“E-learning & the Science of Instruction”) makes clear: The surest road to learning is to engineer overt interactions…Rather than asking learners to ‘click on the guidelines for a good client response’ design a simulation in which they will respond to the client and see the client’s reactions.”

Evidence-based research conducted by academics such as Traci Sitzman is starting to validate what many training practitioners have known for years: game-based simulations can provide some of the most effective, motivational and memorable learning experiences the e-learning industry has to offer.