How Effective Are Training Games?

Which is more effective: training games or instructional videos? This frequent type of question is also a very frustrating one.

This question is very much like another question, Which is more popular: apples or oranges? The answer to this question obviously depends on a number of factors.

What specific type of the fruit are we talking about? I like golden delicious apples but hate the Granny Smith variety. I like navel oranges but not the thick-skinned variety.

What purpose are we talking about? Oranges are more popular for making breakfast juice but not very popular for making pies.

Who are we talking about? Some people prefer oranges and some prefer apples. Some people actually don’t like one or the other of these fruits. And some people are allergic to one or the other.

The comparison between training games and videos (or lectures, or textbooks, or eLearning, or workshops, or any other training technique) is as meaningless as comparing apples and oranges.

What type of game?

When we say games, what exactly do we mean? Obviously, there is an enormous difference between a simulation game that authentically reflects workplace processes and an icebreaker that requires participants to match the lines of a limerick. Similarly, what do we mean by the term video? Are we referring to a talking-head video of a lecture by an expert or an award winning documentary of creative behaviors, or a segment of a feature movie that is used to illustrate some leadership behavior? How about a video that presents critical customer-relations vignettes, pauses after each vignette, requires teams to analyze the situation and come up with recommendations, and score points based on the similarity of these recommendations and those from a panel of experts? Do we classify this hybrid technique as a training game or a videotape?

A decade ago, my colleague Richard Clark at University of Southern California did a meta-analysis of controlled research studies that compared different training media such as  educational film and classroom instruction. Not surprisingly, Clark came up with the conclusion that media don’t make any difference. What makes the difference is the design elements. For example, we can use a “discovery-learning” design approach in an educational film or a classroom lesson. The critical factor is not the medium but some specific feature of the medium. If we extrapolate Clark’s findings to our initial question, we will conclude that it is not games but specific features of games (such as active participation, score points, interaction among team members, and competition across teams) that make a difference. It is not videos in general, but the critical features (such as realism, motion, and audiovisual capabilities) that make a difference.

What Is the Purpose?

Whether a game is more effective than a video also depends on the purpose to which it is being used. A simulation game is effective when used for helping participants acquire certain analytical skills. However, it would be ineffective for helping participants get acquainted with each other at the beginning of a training session. An icebreaker with lines of limerick effectively serves the purpose of getting acquainted but it will be perceived as being silly when used in the middle of a workshop on cost-benefit analysis. Whether we compare a training game with a video, or one training game with another, or one video with another, it is important to specify the purpose for which the training technique is being used.

Who Are the Participants?

Different people react differently to the same training game. For example, a game that highly motivates a typical US group may be perceived as fluff and irrelevant by a typical Canadian group and downright threatening by a typical Japanese group. Similarly, a video that excites a group of young adults can confuse a group of older adults. The opposite could also be true: a traditional video that appeals to baby boomers may bore members of the Nintendo generation.

Toward the Answer

Comparing training games with other training techniques is a meaningless exercise unless we specify exactly

  • The specific features of the game and the other method
  • The purpose for which the game and the other training technique are used for
  • Who are the participants using the game and the other training technique

Here’s a sample of our initial question can be rephrased:

Which of these two techniques is more effective in helping a group of experienced hotel employees acquire customer-service skills: an authentic simulation game that incorporates critical incidents and includes a lengthy debriefing by an expert facilitator or a documentary-format video with workplace vignettes and graphics and captions followed by a group discussion?

The answer to this version of the question is obvious: Either technique can be equally effective.

A General Question

Many people accuse me of academic hair splitting when I analyze the question comparing games with other training techniques. These people protest that all they wanted to know is whether training games, in general, are effective.

Let me answer this question.

In my definition, these are the critical features of a game: They have a structure (rules), they require active participation, and they frequently involve collaboration among team members and competition across teams. A critical feature of a training game is its direct relationship to a set of relevant skills, knowledge, and attitudes. If we agree to this definition, let me make some generalizations about the effectiveness of training games. In doing so, let me use Kirkpatrick’s four levels of instructional evaluation:

Level 1 in Kirkpatrick’s model relates to participants’ reactions. In general, participants react favorably to the use of training games. This generalization is based on reports from external observers and from the participants themselves. Participants have fun while playing a training game; they immerse themselves in the activity.

Level 2 evaluation relates to learning outcomes. Test results indicate that if the game is relevant to instructional objectives, participants learn effectively in terms of both immediate recall and long-term retention. This is probably because games provide opportunities for repeated practice in a highly motivating situation.

Level 3 evaluation relates to behavior changes. Games tend to produce more transfer and application of newly-learned skills to workplace situations. This is especially true of simulation games that involve authentic reflection of workplace situations. The transfer a training game to the real world increases when participants are debriefed after the game and encouraged to do some action planning.

Level 4 evaluation relates to organizational impact. If the instructional content of a game is directly related to skills and knowledge associated with improving the organization’s bottom line, then it has a high probability of achieving a high impact.

Useful Questions

Here are three questions that avoid invidious comparisons and provide useful answers:

  • How can we select the most appropriate training technique that effectively matches the specific instructional purpose and preferences of a specific group of participants?
  • How can we modify a training game (or any other training technique) to better suit the instructional purpose and participant preferences?
  • How can we combine different training techniques to increase their joint effectiveness?

These questions are definitely worth looking into.