The Secret to Implementing Serious Learning Games

The Secret to Implementing Serious Learning Games

Recent Research Shows 50 Percent Of Companies Surveyed Use Games For Some Training.

BY Linda K. Galloway

While Brandon Hall Group’s research is showing increasing use of games for corporate learning in many companies, games are currently being used in very limited ways.

“Essentially, companies are digging a lot of holes, but they’re all still pretty shallow,” says Michael Rochelle, chief strategy officer for Brandon Hall Group.

Given that serious learning games represent unchartered territory for most training departments, it’s natural that many executives have questions about implementation. And there’s not much available information to go on. The market is still too young to easily find case studies or best-practice advice; peer groups are still largely focused on technology and “making the case.”

But, according to Carol Clark, advisory game changer for Game On! Learning, the implementation process for serious games is likely to be familiar to most training executives. “Serious learning game implementation is actually verysimilar to the best-practice implementation processes recommended for any major training initiative,” she says.

“Over the years, many companies have gotten a bit lax about training program implementation. Constrained budgets, limited training resources and business pressures
have often resulted in shortcuts,” she says. “Because game-based learning is relatively new to managers and learners, it’s imperative to have a well-thought-out implementation plan. Your program’s success will hinge on the implementation.”

Clark developed Game On! Learning’s strategy for implementing online learning games. Because this form of online training introduces new characteristics like cohort-based competition, Game On! Learning guides its customers through these steps for each phase of the overall implementation: preparation, kick off, mid-point check-in and debriefing. The
objectives to be achieved:

>> Setting expectations for, and benefits of, the learning.

>> Building excitement and collaboration among participants.

>> Checking in on experiences and progress.

>> Anchoring learning application to job roles.

>> Collecting data, feedback, and anecdotes that yield insight into attainment of the learning outcomes.



Prior to each implementation phase, you need to focus on educating stakeholders, managers and learners about the program and getting business and emotional buy-in.

Communication should address thepurpose of the program, its objectives and the business rationale — including several specific benefits of how the training will support identified business goals and job-performance requirements. For instance, if the training is designed to sharpen negotiation skills, relate the program to relevant business goals such as increased deal sizes, more contract renewals or improved collections.

During this stage, Clark advises customers not to go into great detail about the game itself. “When you focus on the outcomes, rather than the delivery, you’ll minimize push back. If you and your vendor have done your homework, you’ve already made the business case for the program. You can address any questions and uncertainties about the game itself
during the kick off meeting.”

Games that require setting up cohorts (teams of employees that will progress through the game together) will require advance planning. Cohorts can be composed
of employees with different job roles across organizational functions or composed of employees with more homogeneous job roles and functions. Your vendor can give you recommendations on cohort demographics and optimal group size.

Clark also advises setting up social groups for game cohorts on Yammer, Chatter or other social learning tools. These groups, which can be introduced at the kick off sessions, give employees a way to share experiences on an ongoing basis.


An effective kick-off at each phase of the implementation is critical. Learner expectations are largely set at this stage.

Kick-offs are conducted as virtual or face-to-face leader-led sessions. These sessions should revisit the training pro-
gram’s purpose, the intended learning outcomes and benefits, and examples of what learners should personally expect to
take away from the game.

You’ll also want to explain in detail how the game is structured and how this structure impacts the learner experience. Learning from failure and setbacks is integral to most serious learning games. Some games also prevent learners from progressing from one level to the next until they’ve achieved a baseline level of competency for that level. Serious learning games also require dedicated attention and time. (These aren’t the page-turning courses most employees can do while checking email or surfing the Web.) Learners need to understand and prepare for these differences to optimize their focus.

For competitive games, you’ll want to explain how scoring works. Many companies implement reward systems for learners such as branded T-shirts or mugs earned when employees achieve certain levels or scores.

Your vendor may also have game-play guides for learners. If that’s the case, these should be reviewed during kick-off. Game On! Learning has detailed playbooks for each of its online multi-level games that learners can reference throughout the game. For each game level, the playbook sets the stage, communicates the objective, and identifies the learning points.

To further motivate employees and create a sense of fun, Clark encourages Game On! customers to have employees choose gamer names during kick-off meetings. According to Clark, employees get a kick out of sharing these names during the session.



Because serious learning games may span multiple weeks, you’ll want to plan at least one formal virtual or face-to-face check-in session approximately halfway through the game.
Such sessions give learners the opportunity to ask questions, share experiences and discuss the game itself. (And perhaps talk a little trash.)

You’ll want to prepare in advance questions for learners that can help direct conversation, uncover any points of confusion,and elicit discussion about any “lessons learned” to date. For games that include leaderboards, you should review scores prior to the session to familiarize yourself with learner progress.

You can also use check-ins to recognize learner achievements.

While check-in sessions are very important, Clark also recommends that learner progress be monitored closely throughout the game. Game On! Learning actually assigns a learner engagement manager to monitor participant progress and identify early on those who are encountering difficulty or falling behind. Such monitoring is actually much easier to do with games than other types of training, since learner scores and progress status are typically readily accessible.


“Debriefings are hugely important, because it’s during these sessions that learners move from the game scenarios to work relevance,” says Clark. Effective debriefings should be designed to help employees understand how they can personally apply learned skills to their specific jobs.

While you definitely want to encourage learner feedback — both positive and negative — you want to ensure that the debriefing session goes far beyond a “learner satisfaction” assessment. Debriefings should be structured to address outstanding questions, to summarize new knowledge and skills acquired in the game, and to provide opportunity for collaboration on how to apply the training to actual work situations.


When implementing a large-scale game-based program, you’ll likely need a team of facilitators trained to manage and run implementation sessions. These individuals are important catalysts in bridging the gap between the game scenarios and the actual workplace.

In his book “The End of Training: How Simulations Are Reshaping Business,” Michael Vaughan devotes an entire section to the role of trainers and facilitators in game implementation.

According to Vaughan, effective facilitators must have the ability to understand and work within this new learning model. Therefore, a strong knowledge of the business and the disciplines required by the role are important assets. He also stresses the ability to deal with critical thinking and ambiguity, since serious games and simulations are built around complex situations and processes and typically don’t have black/white, right/wrong answers. And since game competition can arouse strong feelings, the ability to work with
team dynamics is important.

Because serious learning games deliberately include the opportunity for failure, some learners can get stuck along the way.
When a learner is struggling, a “game coach” can work directly with the individual to suggest ways to think about the game challenges, direct learners to outside resources, and to provide tips.

In addition to the use of social tools mentioned earlier, coaches can also encourage and support learners throughout the game with tip emails, phone conversations and one-on-one chats.


As with any major learning initiative, an effective implementation should yield analytics that offer insight into the training outcomes. Outcomes — and associated metrics — should be aligned with organizational and business goals.

In advance of implementation, you’ll want to collaborate with stakeholders and managers to determine the specific outcomes desired and ways to effectively measure them.

For example, if the game is designed to improve sales communication skills, to assess its impact on your sales representatives, you can examine quarterly sales data
pre- and post-implementation (ideally formultiple quarters), along with win and loss data and new customer satisfaction scores. You can also correlate individual game scores to sales performance to determine if learner scores are predictive of individual sales performance. Consult with learning analytics experts to structure your evaluation to isolate the impact of the training versus non-training factors.

You’ll also want to work with employee managers, supervisors and participants to identify and verify behavioral change and performance improvement. This feedback can be collected through surveys and questionnaires or through solicitation of personal observations and examples of how the training has been applied. This information is just as important as
quantifiable data.


Because of their experience, vendors can be a huge help in planning and executing a successful implementation. Following are examples of support offerings to look for:

>> Support for a carefully crafted pilot project, if needed.

>> Assistance in developing a detailed implementation plan, including examples of communications, tip emails, and reward programs.

>> Advice on selecting optimal cohorts.

>> Detailed guidance for planning kick-off, check-in and debriefing sessions, including sample questions and suggestions for case scenarios and group exercises.

>> Learner support during the game.

>> Best practices and advice for determining measurable business and personal outcomes.


Serious games are game-changers for corporate training. Training and talent executives must be open to their use and consider how they can supplement —and likely accelerate — critical training initiatives.

According to Clark, who brings to Game On! Learning more than 20 years of corporate training and consulting experience, the reactions and changes she’s observed from serious game implementations far exceed any other type of training she’s managed:

“When I read the wrap-up reports, I’m continually amazed by learner and manager comments. People really do enjoy the training and admit to being challenged. But best of all, I see story after story of how they are actually using the training every day. Now that’s rewarding.”

—Galloway is president of insidHR Communications. Reach her at

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