Work hard,
play harder:
serious games
in business

Serious games are hot. From education, to health services, to business—the use of games for a purpose other than pure entertainment is on the rise. It’s not hard to understand why serious games are so popular. These games are designed to be both engaging and rewarding for players and make use of human’s innate enjoyment of play. However, business games are more than just “playing around”. They can positively influence our behaviour on the work floor and help us understand and improve our core business activities as professionals.

Applying game elements to business processes is called gamification. Effective gamification influences our behaviour by creating engaging experiences and enabling us to think outside of the box. Turning complex or tedious material into games makes the learning process enjoyable and helps people retain new knowledge or skills better, making it an interesting method to train staff, increase productivity, and stimulate motivation and commitment. Serious games can come in many shapes and forms, so how do you choose the variant that suits your business? Two serious gaming experts share their thoughts.

Gamifying the international supply chain

One example of the application of serious gaming in a logistics context is Terminal Excellence. “Terminal Excellence is a business simulation that exposes people to the various dynamics of an operating container terminal,” explains Patrick van de Ven, developer of the game. The game assists individuals in recognising the main processes in container terminals and analysing how they influence one another. In the game, everyone is trained and educated in all essential aspects of terminal management, enabling them to take essential decisions and understand the implications of these decisions.

Terminal Excellence takes a user-centric approach by allowing the game’s complexity to be modified depending on the players’ existing knowledge of terminal operations. It can be used as an introduction to professionals who have recently joined the world of maritime logistics and helps them understand the basics of terminal operations. On the other end of the spectrum, Terminal Excellence can be used to simulate existing terminals to help real-life terminal operators address real-life organisational challenges. At some point, organisations reach a size where colleagues do not know each other and departments do not understand the key drivers in other departments. People can lose the overview of what their own role and the role of their colleagues is in the bigger picture. Terminal Excellence tackles all of these issues and many more scenarios, one year at a time.

Serious games do not always need to bear such an obvious resemblance to the own business processes to be appropriate. One example of a more widely-applicable form of serious gaming is the LEGO Serious Play (LSP) method, which uses the all-familiar LEGO bricks to implement more creative thinking and commitment in decision-making processes. Over the past two decades, the method has been refined and backed by management theory to identify exactly how it can be used to improve strategic development.

Britta Hedegaard, experienced LSP facilitator, recounts various examples of environments in which the method can be used: from public institutions such as the military, hospitals, and schools to the private sector, in which LSP is the most popular. She has overseen workshops with various purposes: renewal of marketing activities, ideal competency mapping, redefinition of service, strategic planning after mergers. Any complex issue that needs input from various stakeholders and asks for creative solutions is suitable.

Putting the fun in functional

“It’s about the process. It’s all about the process.”

Aside from the examples mentioned, serious games provide many more opportunities for different challenges that maritime and logistics companies face. Besides training hard skills and improving knowledge of operations, serious gaming creates a positive space in which interpersonal and intercultural competencies can be developed. Referring to LSP, Britta remarks: “It’s a common language. You are talking in metaphors, so anyone can join the process. You can bring people together regardless of their culture, education, position, and so on.”

Enabling participants to contribute to strategic decisions increases commitment, because they become part of the solution. This commitment and understanding of the new strategy leads to increased initiative after serious gaming. Often, coming up with a specific action plan is part of the process.

“It’s not about the bricks,” Britta states in regard to what is needed for a successful LSP session. “It’s about the process. It’s all about the process. The bricks are only the tools.” Just like in business, good serious games put the person—not the tools or technological possibilities—at the centre of its design. Who is your target audience? What is their role in the business? What do they value and what are their pain points? Understanding what the player wants helps you create successful and satisfactory game experiences.

In LSP, the bricks are a valuable tangible asset to serve as a reminder of the process participants have collaborated on, even after the workshop ends. “A lot of companies prefer to keep the models that they built in the company,” Britta mentions. “When they have management meetings, they can put it on the table and see the vision—and the decisions you make, you can hold them to the model and ask: does this fit with what we wished in our vision?”

Teamwork makes the dream work

Humans are inherently social creatures. Games facilitate social behaviour by offering a setting that brings people together to achieve clear, common goals. For users that value community and collaboration, turning the learning process into a team effort makes serious games compelling. An added benefit within the business context is the feedback tempo. Projects in real life can take weeks, months or even years and typically feedback moments are sparsely distributed. In serious gaming, the pace is higher and players are able to see the results or consequences of their actions quickly. This also makes it easier to understand what others are doing and how their actions affect the outcome of the game. This sense of community is particularly important in LSP, which isn’t a traditional game. “There’s no winners and losers,” Britta explains. In fact, it’s the opposite: the aim of LSP is not to win, but to achieve consensus and commitment.

A sense of community is not only appealing to those that prioritise collaboration. Game mechanics also make use of people’s competitivity. In Terminal Excellence, for example, teams compete against each other for several rounds to see whose terminal achieves the best results. Clearing missions, earning points or rewards—these game objectives can be powerful for those who place value on how they are performing compared to others. Players who are doing well are able to derive satisfaction from the learning process. Players who are behind may work harder to understand how they can improve or why others are more successful in the game. Of course, winning the game itself is not the end goal of serious gaming. It does increase overall learning effectiveness by creating a sense of purpose.

“The traditional meeting is a lean-back meeting, where we sit leaned back and listen, inactively, to a manager at the end of the table.”

LSP focuses on a harmonious community, while Terminal Excellence pits teams against one another. However, they have in common that they use play to increase participation. When prompted on participation, Britta gives a telling example of decision-making processes in corporate environments: “The traditional meeting is a lean-back meeting, where we sit leaned back and listen, inactively, to a manager at the end of the table. You know, someone will be checking their telephone or tablet…” With the LSP method, players have to deliver and collaborate with their fellow participants to come up with solutions. “You can’t join an LSP session and not be active. It’s simply not a possibility.”

Let the games begin

It isn’t necessary to reinvent the wheel and design something from scratch to reap the benefits of serious gaming. As illustrated, a number of existing options exist for you to explore. When choosing a method, always keep in mind the three P’s:

  • Which processes are you simulating or defining? – Depending on the complexity or impact of these processes, you may choose one game setting over another.
  • Who will be the participants? – What is their background knowledge on the subject matter and which barriers in time and location do they need to overcome?
  • What is the purpose of the game? – What is the challenge that you are trying to find a solution for or the main outcome you are working towards?

Once you’ve figured out which basic criteria the game should meet, you can start thinking about the details. Will it be a competition, like Terminal Excellence, or a community activity such as LSP? Will there be teams or are people participating individually? Do you need to get all participants in the room together or would a digital application be more suitable? In today’s world, the only limit is your imagination!

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