How Games Are Magic

Because Serious Games Can Engage and Teach Employees, Their Role in Corporate Learning Can Be Vital

Games are magical. From a basic word search to the most advanced multilevel, socially collaborative role-playing experiences, we are intrigued. These experiences have the power to remove us from the everyday complexities of life and place us in a safe, challenging, educational and entertaining state of mind that is unparalleled to any other activity so easily available. Think about it: we get to be a part of the experience, immersed in the activity itself. We are not merely passive observers like when watching movies or athletic events. When playing games, we are the activity.

So if games provide a playground for engagement, challenge and learning, why should this activity be reserved purely for entertainment?

Think about the last time you played a game, what did you learn? Maybe you developed a strategy to dominate the housing market in Monopoly. Trivial Pursuit may have taught you that the 1967 clay court champion was Arthur Ashe. Perhaps a crossword puzzle taught you that Frank LloydWright was a Guggenheim architect. Chances are, anytime you play a game you will walk away knowing something new.

The magic of games should extend well beyond your dining-room table and into the one place it is more often than not prohibited: the workplace.

What scares us the most about games is the overwhelming perception that fun has no redeeming value. This perception is what keeps many traditional companies and their leadership from embarking on a path of learning that could change the way employees view corporate education.

Maybe we as leaders are just afraid of failure. Perhaps games make us nervous because they may not work. Could it really be that simple?

Just for fun, consider this mistake in history that turned out pretty good: An innkeeper cuts up a chocolate bar and puts it into the batter of her butter cookies expecting it to create chocolate-flavored butter cookies. When she pulls the cookies out of the oven, she gets butter cookies with gooey chocolate chunks embedded throughout, accidentally inventing the chocolate chip cookie!

The point is we are all going to take chances and inevitably learn from the outcome. Some outcomes will be good and may become best practices; some outcomes will not be as we had hoped. Either way, something will be learned. Anytime we venture into the unknown — especially when ROI and justifications are involved — it makes us uncomfortable.

In most circumstances, the unknown is scary. We need certainty in life to feel safe
and confident because we don’t like surprises. We like to know our direct deposit was successful; we like to know our car will start in the morning; and we even like to know whether it will rain or shine today. Certainty makes us feel in control, and without it we lose confidence.

The world of learning and development is different. It thrives on the unknown and certainty is a snooze.We need to keep our learners thinking on their feet. The less they can anticipate, the more intrigued they become as long as the content has a high degree of relevancy.What better format to present or teach information than in a serious game? In general, games are designed to have uncertain outcomes, supply varying levels of difficulty, and should reward good performance.


Serious games can provide an incredible source of measurable data along with insight for future learning opportunities. Consider games the most authentic survey of knowledge any business could ask for.

Not every game is designed to teach a new skill, but don’t underestimate the power of simply clarifying confusion through these activities. Participants play games with very little apprehension or fear of being criticized for losing. Games are played without the expectation of perfection, and players are open to the idea of doing better next time.Multiple levels can be created so participants can progress at their pace of learning and be rewarded for the achievement. Both intrinsic motivation (the satisfaction of advancing to the next level) and extrinsic motivation (allowing players to post their results on a leaderboard for public recognition) are available — but it’s up to learners to decide how they want to be rewarded. This is not the case in most traditional learning formats, as the facilitator or instructional designer makes that decision for the participant, which in turn takes control away from the learner.

Now, swap that same serious game for a traditional learning module with an assessment and watch how “magically” the same participants become stressed, discouraged, and maybe even lose interest to the point they quit.


Serious games have a mystical effect on people and develop a following unlike any other traditional training module can. The important takeaway is the depths at which serious games can benefit your business extend well beyond the surface perception of “fun.” If done correctly, these activities provide employees with amazing learning opportunities coupled with motivation and improved morale. Employees will often proactively request the next game or new content once they have mastered the current activity. This is not usually the case with most learning modules.

Using serious games should not be taken lightly or oversimplified. There are many important elements to consider when creating games for educational purposes. Traditionally, these types of games created by game developers were very high on the graphic and interface side but not educationally sound. The participant would get to play a very exciting and visually enhanced game but didn’t learn much. Or, you visit the other side of the spectrum and have a game that was designed by educators where the graphics were so poor and educational material was so prevalent the game came across as a very fancy assessment.

Game play is crucial to the success of using these activities properly as an educational supplement. Striking the right balance of visual stimulus and educational benefit can be challenging, not complex with lengthy instructions impossible. Games often are made too and ambiguous objectives, leaving the player confused about something as simple as getting started. The purpose of the
serious game should be to learn what the objectives indicate, not to test the player’s technical aptitude.

Another consideration is properly aligning the game format to your audience. Simple games work best. Certain game formats that are easily recognizable seem to generate as much, if not more, buzz than complex games. These games allows for a wider range of demographic participants (can be less computer savvy, educational levels are inconsequential, and age or gender specificity are irrelevant, etc.) and provides plenty of competition among players.

If the technology is intimidating, people will quit. Games are meant to be inviting, not threatening. Choose formats like Jeopardy, hangman, memory, snakes and ladders, or get creative with a casino-style slot machine game. All of these formats are easy to play, build, and are not age- or gender-specific. Think about the end users and the experience they will have, not about making a name for yourself as the next Chris Crawford. Not everyone wants to be a Secret Agent on a mission assigned by the French operative dubbed “Rainbow” either!


Your employees deserve an opportunity to be successful in their learning and development goals — however they are achieved. As a leader, your job is to find the best way to support these employees while managing the cost. Does it really matter how someone learns or corrects an ongoing mistake as long as the intended result is accomplished?

Just because things have always been done a certain way doesn’t make it the right way. We need classroom training and online modules to coexist in a blended environment where instructors and designers have solid relationships.

Use serious games as a debriefing tool in the classroom or mix your media online to prevent learning from becoming stale. Challenge yourself and your peers to venture out, take a chance, and change the culture at your company. That’s when the magic happens and that’s where you will make a name for yourself.

—Richard J. Vars is the e-learning manager for Coca-Cola Enterprises’s North American Customer Development Centers.

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