As director of editorial development at NexLearn, I get the opportunity to speak and work with some of the most interesting thinkers in the eLearning industry. I want to share a portion of my conversation with Clark Quinn, Executive Director at Quinnovation and author of Engaging Learning: Designing E-Learning Simulation Games. In our discussion, Clark explains his take on the games versus simulation debate.

PM: I like to stress the importance of simulating company-specific, real-world scenarios that enable learners to experience the effects of both successful and unsuccessful decisions in environments where they won’t get hurt or bankrupt their company. After all, many “aha!” learning moments are generated by mistakes. As the learn-by-doing approach continues to gain momentum, many people ask if there’s a difference between simulations and games. How do you define the two categories?

CQ: Technically, a simulation is just a model. When you put a simulation into an initial state, and ask the learner to take it to a goal state (typically wrapped with a story), it’s a scenario. Then, when you tune that experience until it’s engaging, it’s a game. In my terminology a game is a subset of a simulation. These distinctions are important. For instance, virtual worlds such as Second Life are not intrinsically scenarios or games, they’re simulations. You can build scenarios or games into them, but they aren’t inherently either. Similarly, just because you build a learning scenario, it’s not a game until you tune the experience. You can’t decide it’s a game, your players will tell you.

The eLearning Guild’s research on gaming and simulation (I was a part of the research team) found that too many people thought that “game” was a problematic word, so instead of “serious games” we coined the phrase “Immersive Learning Simulation” (ILS).

PM: In your book, you discuss “hard fun.” Elaborate on this phrase.

CQ: I found an alignment between the elements that optimize learning practice and the ones that make us prefer an experience. This alignment means that the best learning experience is also an engaging one (and gives you a handle on systematically designing them; even if it’s desirable, if you can’t do it reliably and repeatedly you’re wasting your time). These elements include a story setting that’s of interest to the learner and where the decisions made by the learner affect the outcome, with a tightly controlled level of challenge. Ideally, you tune that experience to the point that it’s fun, but it’s not too easy. You’ll have to learn to accomplish the goals, and then you’ll have to pay attention to achieve them, but you’re motivated. That’s what I mean by ‘hard fun’.

PM: Specific goals and relevant, believable challenges are critical for developing effective and engaging simulations. What do you think are the best uses of Immersive Learning Simulations?

CQ: I believe that the learning objectives that address organizational competitiveness and success are not about knowledge, but about the ability to make better decisions (yes, knowledge plays a role, but focus on the decisions first). When Sid Meier (famed developer of the Civilization series of games) said that “a game is a series of interesting decisions,” he justified using games as a serious learning tool. These environments, done right, offer deeply contextualized, motivating practice for the types of cognitive skills learners need. We’re talking about putting important decisions to practice into a setting where they become interesting decisions. Even when it’s about driving FedEx trucks, it’s not about the motor skills, it’s about the decisions about how to navigate, where to park, etc. PM: We’ve recently experienced a dramatic rise in the number of people interested in simulations. As more companies realize that engaged learners are better learners, more trainers, CLOs and even CEOs are looking to incorporate sim-based programs into their existing training. What do you think the future holds for games and simulations in business training?

CQ: I think that we’ll see scenarios used more often, and more correctly. This will happen as several things occur. First, they’ll be more used as their learning effectiveness becomes known. Second, they’ll become more used as the design processes are more widely understood. Finally, they’ll become more used as efficient production solutions are explored. I think we’ll see more experimentation, too, and blurring the boundaries. For example, there’s a lot of excitement around the use of Virtual Worlds right now. I think that’s a good thing. Eventually, the unique properties of those environments will be understood, and use of them will get more targeted. I also believe, sadly, that we’ll continue to see some snake oil for the near future, as quite a bit of stuff will continue to be touted as learning games that either aren’t really fun, or more worryingly have a lot of gloss but the underlying learning objectives have been compromised. There’s way too much of that already, and until people really “get” the importance of high-level learning objectives, we’ll see some bad examples. PM: As Executive Director at Quinnovation, you work with many organizations to develop effective learning strategies for their employees. Do you have any advice for trainers or CLOs interested in introducing games or simulations to their employee training programs?

CQ: The first thing is to get meaningful objectives. Focus on the decisions that learners need to be able to make that’ll have a big impact on the bottom line. Don’t get sidelined into dumping knowledge. Drive the motivation to acquire the knowledge from the desire to successfully complete the scenario. It’s often the case that courses are designed when the needs really are just information updates, or more about attitude than skills (though games can help here to). Don’t be put off by concerns over cost. The design overhead to take it to this next level is pretty marginal, and there are numerous ways to keep the development budget low whether using tools like SimWriter or outsourcing the production. If you don’t get the design right, it doesn’t matter how you build it. If you get the design right, there are a number of ways to get it produced. You should be seriously looking at simulation games/ILS as a tool in your learning solution repertoire. Roll up your sleeves, get out there, find a critical decision that the organization needs people to make better, make the case, and start. Good luck!