15 Principles of Business Game Design for team-based learning

I develop custom business games for team-based experiential learning workshops which usually have a significant computer element. This whole area is strewn with pitfalls, good intentions and misconceptions and there is a huge risk that the game becomes too complex or an end in itself or the graphical aspect of the user interface becomes all consuming at the expense of the learning.

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Therefore I have been constantly on the lookout for a really good practical set of business game design guidelines (like Disney's Principles of Animation).

The Art of Game Design by Jesse Schell is also a very impressive resource book (with its neat iphone app) but it deals with games in general not business team games. Also 100 principles is more than I was looking for!

So unfortunately I have not yet been able to find just what I was looking for so in their absence I thought I should try and write my own.

Just to be clear my focus here is on custom games to be played in teams to help the participants improve their understanding of their organisations or businesses. These games may also be designed to help participants observe and change their own behaviours, develop better team skills and improve their ability to manage dilemmas.

Before we go any further it might be useful to define what we mean by a "game". One of the simplest and best definitions is offered by Jane McGonigal, in her excellent book Reality is Broken, where she lists the 4 defining characteristics of any game as:

  1. The Goal
  2. The Rules
  3. The Feedback System
  4. Voluntary Participation

(Jane illustrates how these 4 components can be used to define various different types of games such as Golf, Scrabble and Tetris. Note that it is even more interesting to note what is NOT a defining characteristic of a game, for example the myth that "ability to win" is a defining aspect of all games - its not!)

I believe Business Games fall into 2 main categories - sharply defined "Skill Games" and broad-based "War Games". The principles I outline here apply to both categories but are probably most relevant to the War Games where you are running a complete business operation rather than a Skill Game where you are developing a couple of specialized skills.

For an introduction to the main ingredients in a business War Game checkout 5 things a good Business War Game should help us learn to do better. For a comprehensive set of examples of real live business simulation Games checkout my Portfolio of leadership development and business management games.

So here are my 15 principles - I am sure there are more (and this list may grow to reflect this) but these ones seem to work for me:

1. CLEAR GOALS - What constitutes good performance? Some degree of ambiguity is ok (just like the real world) but not too much.

2. OPERATIONAL CLARITY - At the most basic level the How, What and When you do things in the game must be crystal clear. At a deeper but equally important level the game must provide the players with the right level of feedback to enable them to formulate mental strategies and game plans. For example if it is a financial game then it should feedback not just the final numbers (lagging indicators in balanced scorecard terminology) but also the trend indicators (leading indicators). Leading indicators point to how future results will develop unless things are changed and without such feedback players will be effectively "playing cognitively blind" with the only game plan open to them being "try it and see!" This does not lead to the optimum learning experience which brings me on to my next point.

3. ITS THE CONVERSATIONS, STUPID - The game should be based around real business issues, dilemmas or trade-offs and not right/wrong answers. The right issues will inspire rich conversations and give players the opportunity to learn from each other. The most useful games focus on specific company pain-points rather than just generic business challenges.

4. ENGAGING CONTEXT/CONVINCING STORYLINE - The Context and Scene are crucial - this is how you earn the right to the player's time, attention and energy. If you have time you should develop what gamers call a "chaotic story" which is much more engaging than a sequential briefing. Reality is Broken talks about breaking the story into "thousands of pieces like a jigsaw puzzle and diffused across many different media platforms: podcasts and blog posts; videos and online photographs; e-mails and Twitter posts from game characters; even live instant message conversations and face-to-face interactions with characters portrayed by "game masters."

5. RICH OFF-GAME CONVERSATIONS, PROPS, SCENARIOS and INTERVENTIONS - These are essential to capture participant imagination and engagement. Don't try and do it all on the computer. Real people are much more engaging than embedded videos and avatars! There is a very important counter-intuitive principle here: the more you can break the flow between the players and the computer screen the richer the learning experience. So in general resist the temptation to put stuff inside the (computer) game and instead build it outside the game. So for example, don't put a handy calculator inside the comouter game - let the players find, use and fight over a real one!

6. SUPPORTS LEARNING OBJECTIVES - The game should never be seen an end in itself or positioned to be able to deliver value all by itself. It should be subservient to clearly defined learning objectives.

7. REQUISITE DIFFICULTY - "Requisite" is a great word - it means exactly the right amount of something. Good games are not too easy but not too hard - demanding but not demoralising. Also you must allow the players time to take complexity on-board incrementally - they should not have to take it all in in one go.

8. CLOSURE - It must always be clear exactly where participants are in the game in relation to the finish line and that a particular turn/phase has ended. Don't leave them hanging or wondering am I done yet?

9. THE UNEXPECTED - A good game is rational and logical but not totally predictable - it is important to provide changes and the unexpected just like the real world but don't create total chaos either or you will just overwhelm and confuse.

10. FUN - Its very important to build in some elements of novelty and lightness - overly "serious games" are little fun and "playfulness" is a great catalyst for learning. Don't underestimate the value of trivia and novelties such as amusing sound effects!

11. FAMILIAR BUSINESS TERMS & CONCEPTS - If people have to learn new and unfamiliar terminology just to run your game then they won't have enough cognitive space or energy left to engage with the REALLY important stuff you designed the game to allow them to explore!

12. NOT A TECHNOLOGY SHOWCASE - The game should use the minimum technology to achieve its objectives - no more/no less.

13. NOT A CALCULATOR - Games which churn out numeric results like an old-fashioned data processing machine are usually too one dimensional to engage and quickly become boring. For example, the results could also depend on how well the participants engage with their stakeholders as well as their algorithmic scores.

14. BIG CLIMAX - The game should work towards a definite climax and be building participant anticipation of this early on so that it ends with a bang and not a whimper!

15. FAIR AND REASONABLE - Whenever the participants are debriefed during and/or after the game on the reasons why they got the results they did it must make sense in hindsight and not leave them confused or feeling that they were doomed to failure from the very start!


About Ken Thompson

Ken Thompson delivers keynote conference speeches, workshop facilitation and in-house consultancy in four key business areas:

  1. Creating High Performing Teams in enterprises including Virtual and Mobile Teams (based on the Bioteams Book)
  2. Establishing effective Collaborative Business Networks enabling companies to co-operate effectively in areas such as sales and product development (based on the book - The Networked Enterprise)
  3. How to use the latest social media technologies including blogging and online communities to promote enterprises, brand, organisation or event
  4. Development of graphical on-line interactive Business Dashboards and What-if Simulators for organisations to support Performance Improvement, Strategy Development and Executive Team Development.


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