Designing Games and Simulations

What they are

Many of us probably have experience with learning games and simulations. Who has not played classroom Jeopardy, done teambuilding games, or heard of the Model UN or done a management simulation? Both simulate reality, have rules and objectives. The difference is competitiveness- simulations do not have a competitive element. This makes sense for safety reasons- competitive firefighting might be an interesting reality show, but the dangers of this should be obvious.

Benefits of Games

Games and simulations have been shown to increase learner motivation and engagement. According to Gamification of Learning and Instruction by Karl Kapp, there are several ways these are increased. Chapter 3 tells of 9 learning theories that support this. Kapp also outlines how games are effective for learning in Chapter 4 with 6 Meta-analysis.

A list of the benefits includes: engages learning, increases retention, learner internalizes content, possible collaboration, accessibility and safe environment for risk taking.

But you probably don’t need to read this book unless you are justifying games to a supervisor. My niece’s best friend just saw my notes and said, “Classroom Jeopardy! I love that game because it gets me out of class!”

How to Design

No one has come up with a quick and simple method of designing learning games and simulations. Think about the variety of games and human activities that could be simulated. But there are certain best practices about the considerations that go into effective design.

The most important of these is relating to the learning objective.  For games this can be broken down into 3 areas: Activity, Narrative and Structure. The activity concerns the mechanics of the game and that it appears fair and balanced. No one feels comfortable playing a game that feels unfair. Narrative is the context of the game- the imaginary world the player enters to participate. Structure is the pattern of the game- the type of game it is, cards, hero’s path, etc.

Concerning simulations, one has to consider the learners role, the necessary amount of detail and complexity required.

Design with End Result in Mind

It is important to conceptualize the flow and conclusion of the game or simulation. Here is a list of questions to consider:

How will the learning objectives be reinforced?

How will the rules be maintained?

Is a debriefing required so content is internalized?

Most important, how can the learning be transferred and applied to real life?

Why Games Are Not Used More?

There are some limits to games and simulations. Time is one of these. Games take time to implement and prepare, and designing and preparing a game can be expensive. There is also complexity in designing effective learning games. There can be many parts that must be aligned for the learning to be believable and effective. Having a trained facilitator is another factor. To reach higher objectives of understanding, a trained facilitator is needed to guide or deprogram the learners.

Attitude can be another problem. Concerning learning mind styles, a Concrete Sequential (CS) learner might not see the veiled purpose of the learning objectives of a game or simulation. The organizations attitude towards games may also be an impediment. For example, learning games are shown to be effective in medicine, but might be seen as frivolous by management.


Certainly games and simulations are effective and engage the learners. But it takes a serious commitment to design and implement them effectively. And, depending on your organization and learners, you may have to be the hero to effect a change to gaming in your training.

Kapp, K. M. (2012). The gamification of learning and instruction. San Francisco: Wiley

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