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Don’t Let Your Simulation Game Become a Shit Sandwich

According to a 2011 metastudy by Traci Sitzmann in Personnel Psychology, declarative and procedural knowledge and retention were observed to be higher in groups taught with computer-based simulation games than in groups taught without, and even self-efficacy was observed to be substantially higher—surprisingly high, I might say. But that isn’t the whole story.

Common knowledge, and often among the main rationales for developing computer-based simulation games, is that wrapping entertainment around course materials will boost motivation. Motivation, hopefully, for learning new skills and not merely for playing the simulation game.

But do we know for sure that this works?

Two key simulation game theories propose that the primary benefit of using simulation games in training is their motivational potential. Thus, it is ironic that a dearth of research has compared posttraining motivation for trainees taught with simulation games to a comparison group. A number of studies have compared changes in motivation and other affective outcomes from pre- to posttraining for trainees taught with simulation games, but this research design suffers from numerous internal validity threats, including history, selection, and maturation. Also, the use of pre-to-post comparisons may result in an upward bias in effect sizes, leading researchers to overestimate the effect of simulation games on motivational processes.

Sounds bad enough. But there’s more! In a corporate environment, motivation is intimately linked to work-motivation—think of it as a special case of transfer of learning—but which, it turns out, hasn’t so far been tested in any meaningful manner at all:

However, the instructional benefits of simulation games would be maximized if trainees were also motivated to utilize the knowledge and skills taught in simulation games on the job. Confirming that simulation games enhance work-related motivation is a critical area for future research.

Also, there’s something else. How well declarative and procedural knowledge, retention, and self-efficacy are raised depends, according to this meta analysis, on several factors. The best results were observed for games where work-related competencies were actively rather than passively learned during game play; when the game could be played as often as desired; and when the simulation game was embedded in an instructional program rather than a stand-alone device.

Lots of implications there. And ample opportunity to turn your corporate simulation game into a veritable shit sandwich: when the game is merely the digital version of your textbooks, training handbooks, or field guides; when the replay value is low; and when you think you can cut down on your programs, trainers, and field exercises.

In other words: a good simulation game will cost you, and you can’t recover these costs by cutting down on your training environment. Instead, a simulation game is a substantial investment in your internal market, and you better make sure to get the right team on board so that motivation will translate into training success and training success into work-motivation.

Paper cited: Sitzmann, Tracy. “A Meta-Analytic Examination of the Instruction Effectiveness of Computer-Based Simulation Games.” Personnel Psychology. Vol.64, Issue 2 (Summer 2011). 489–528.