Games can play a vital role in corporate learning. But when designing a game that’s right for your company, think carefully about role play, reality and rewards, writes Catherine Mazy.

Does the thought of learning 150 audit, tax and advisory services make your eyes glaze over?

It’s why global consultancy KPMG created a Web-based game, KPMG Globerunner. It helps new employees acquire essential knowledge via a graphics-filled chase around the world, as they answer tax questions and unlock new locations. ‘It’s very dry material,’ says Christian Gossan, director at KPMG International. ‘We needed to do something different and fun and used game elements like time pressure, rapid feedback and scores to engage our people.’

More than 25,000 employees have played Globerunner since its launch in 2016. Though mandatory for new employees, many existing executives, including senior staff members, have also chosen to play it as a way to refresh their knowledge.

Companies are increasingly using serious games as learning tools. The aim is to deliver practical, workplace-oriented information and skills via an immersive, hopefully enjoyable, experience. Games and simulations allow employees to practice skills that would be expensive or dangerous in real life—like practicing for emergencies or playing out business disruption scenarios—without fear of failure. Moreover, computer-based games can be cheaper than face-to-face training involving far-flung offices, and fit flexibly into employees’ schedules.

‘Serious games can be graphically clunky but get the job done and be fun. They don’t even have to be computer-based.’

But companies looking to gamify learning should bear in mind the following:

Don’t be seduced by special effects. ‘Managers tasked with researching a game look first at the polish, its graphics and ease of use. They often don’t have the time or expertise to dig into whether it does what it’s supposed to do,’ says Lee Sheldon, professor of interactive media and game development at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. He advises companies to test it first on active gamers in the organisation to see if works as intended.

Conversely, serious games can be graphically clunky but get the job done and be fun, says Dr. Pam Kato, of Pam Kato Consulting, California. Games don’t even have to be computer-based; board games can be just as popular. Similarly, group role-playing can teach leadership, negotiation, sales techniques and cooperation. ‘It’s about taking another perspective. You can’t get that across in a lecture. It doesn’t tell you how you’re going to react when the situation arises,’ she says.

Beware games bearing rewards. ‘There’s an innate human need to be acknowledged,’ Dr. Kato says. But how? Extrinsic rewards such as points, badges and leader boards provide an appealing dopamine rush. But motivation risks tailing off when those rewards stop. What really gains attention, and helps players remember and practice what they learn, are the intrinsic rewards that one might get from simply mastering a subject or helping others.

This distinction goes to the heart of a common confusion between games and gamification. A game is meant to be fun or challenging, whether one wins or loses. But a work-based leader board that includes underperformers, especially one that is made public, is gamification. ‘It’s not a game; it’s punishment,’ says Mr Sheldon.  KPMG Globerunner’s annual global tournament pits teams from various countries against one another; but its leader board only lists the top 100 players. ‘There’s no loser board,’ Mr Gossan says. ‘We’re not using performance to grade employees.’

Alternatively, an employee can compete against himself. However, games too often rely on answering multiple-choice questions posing as ‘gameplay,’ with the same questions asked every time. Users will eventually figure out the right answer, but the learning won’t sink in. ‘If you have to play the game three or four times, there should be different iterations,’ Mr Sheldon says.

Embrace fantasy. Some professionals, such as doctors and astronauts, want their simulations to be ‘very, very serious,’ Dr. Kato says. But precise real-life details may not always be necessary to meet the learning goals. ‘The idea is to mimic reality enough that you learn something so that when you get out in the real world you can do it,’ she notes. An element of fantasy also allows players to relax and it encourages experimentation. ‘When it’s too serious, they feel evaluated or judged,’ Mr Sheldon says. The game needs to be ‘abstract enough so it doesn’t feel like you’re on the firing line, without losing sight of what it has to teach.’ KPMG Globerunner, for example, involves hot-air balloons and dog sleds in its race around the world.

Buy off the shelf—then customise. There is a widening variety of serious gaming options available. The global market is expected to surpass $9bn by 2023, according to Allied Market Research. Companies that require bespoke options, but lack the resources to develop their own, can customise existing games. But some caution is advised. Although there’s usually scope to make game questions harder, alter the number of reward points, change deadlines, or create shorter episodes, a game’s basic psychology should be preserved.


Catherine Mazy is a freelance business writer, and former editor at The Wall Street Journal.

This article was written for FT|IE Corporate Learning Alliance.
© 2018 Corporate Learning Alliance