From Unspeakable To Appearing Everywhere

Millions of people all around the World have just watched the closing ceremony of the XXXI Olympiad and that got me thinking about games.  I learned early in my facilitation career not to announce to participants that we were about to engage in a “game”.  Apparently, serious leaders don’t play games, they do serious work.  Which is a shame really because there’s a growing body of research that shows that “games” or “serious play” in learning is one of the most powerful ways for leaders to learn new lessons. Here’s one example:

“We believe that (a) learning is at its best when it is active, goal-oriented, contextualized, and interesting and (b) learning environments should thus be interactive, provide ongoing feedback, grab and sustain attention, and have appropriate and adaptive levels of challenge— i.e., the features of good games “ (1)

Academics in the field have created a semantic, sometimes pedantic debate about the meaning of “gamification”, “game based learning”, “serious play”, “game elements”, “game theory” “game engineering” “game mechanisms” and so on. For my purposes I’m talking about the broad field of engaging learners in an activity that has “the features of good games” in support of the learning I’m inviting them into into. This view from leading thinker in instructional design and gamification Professor Karl Kapp is a good summary:

“A game is a system in which players engage in an abstract challenge, defined by rules, interactivity and feedback that results in a quantifiable outcome often eliciting an emotional reaction” (2)

The Shifting Learning Landscape

There’s no doubt leaders expect their learning interventions to be grounded in rigorous theory, but gone are the days when the theory was the hero. It’s surprising then that many providers of executive education still persist in delivering their work through a mode of delivery that has passed its time; a single “wise” person, delivering a monologue from the front of a tiered theatre designed to amplify their voice and focus learners’ attention on them.

Today’s leaders expect more than the transmission of theoretical information from a self-proclaimed expert. They expect to be co-creators of learning that is both specific to their needs and applicable to their working world. They expect to be actively engaged in the process of learning. Somewhat paradoxically, taking leaders into a constructed world and having them immerse themselves in another reality turns out to be a really good way to do that. Not the only way, but a really good way.

A Very Personal View

For two decades I’ve been helping leaders develop for the challenges of their roles. In that time I’ve lectured, held small group discussions, coached, created group work or work-based projects… and I’ve used games. Of course I didn’t call them games, I used “grown-up” terminology to invite participants into the activity, but they were games. When organisations come back for further work, or when I speak, sometimes years later with the leaders in my programs, it’s often the games they talk about as pivotal learning experiences.

These games have taken many forms but the underlying principles have been the same:

  • Put the learner not the teacher at the heart of the learning
  • Create an environment that is like the learner’s, but not the learners with an associated task, goal or purpose
  • Make the environment a safe-to-fail place where learners can try out new behaviours/skills/ideas without real risk
  • Build in repeated real-time feedback loops and knowledge sharing
  • Involve as much of the body as possible, not just the ears and brain
  • Bring joy and a sense of playfulness into the learning.
  • Let the learner discover what’s important rather than telling them

But Don't Just Take My Word For It

While the use of games in learning is a hot topic in leadership development, it's not exactly new. The military have been using "war games" for centuries.  The earliest example I've encountered is a game called Chaturanga which is a board game on a fictional battlefield that dates back to the 7th Century. There are some important reasons why games have been in use for so long.

When the game is about a serious topic, but not too serious itself, learners are more inclined to relax. Studies including, but not limited to that conducted by researchers from the California Institute of Technology and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles show that the brain learns better when it’s relaxed. 

We also learn better when we’re having fun and that’s because fun involves the release of dopamine in our brains. Dr. Martha Burns, a neuroscientist and expert on learning, calls dopamine the “save button.” When dopamine is present during an experience, we remember it. But when it’s absent, nothing seems to stay with us. The more engaged we are in an activity, the more dopamine is released and the better we remember it. (3)

Most importantly, we learn when we have an opportunity to apply knowledge rather than just receive it. Without application of new knowledge it quickly disappears from memory.

Games have an added advantage in leadership development.  They allow us to double task by focussing on the content of the experience while also focussing on the interpersonal skills demonstrated while working on the exercise.

The world of the leader is more and more pressured each year.  If they are to devote their precious time to continue their development we owe it to them to use that time wisely. And that means engaging them in activities that are about them as learners not us as educators, that offer the greatest chance of them recalling and applying their learning, ways that treat them with enough respect to allow them to make their own meaning from what we offer and maybe even introducing an element of joy into their otherwise terribly serious worlds.

1.     Shute, V. J., Masduki, I., & Donmez, O. (2010). Conceptual Framework for Modeling, Assessing and Supporting Competencies within Game Environments. Technology Instruction Cognition and Learning, 8(2), 137–161.

2.     Kapp, K.  (2012). The Gamification of Learning and Instruction: Game Based Methods And Strategies For Training & Education, Pfieffer, San Fransisco, CA.

3.     Burns, m. (2016). Dopamine and Learning: What The Brain’s Reward Center Can Teach Educators. [Blog] The Science of Learning. Available at: [Accessed 19 Aug. 2016].


Cameron Houston, Principal, Batley Evans & Co

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