Fun vs. Frustration in Business & Management Serious Games

There has long been a discussion as to make whether adding ‘fun’ assists learners’ engagement and retention. Traditionally, games are not considered ‘serious’ by some business actors, because business is business and whenever money is involved, or competition is at stake, there is no perceived room for ‘funny’ playgrounds. In competitive contexts you have winners and losers: and this is an extremely serious concern. That’s why business games have been more comfortably called “Simulations”. Not only the games which model economic environments, but every kind of game designed for lida addressing  Business & Management (B&M) topics, including the ones addressing soft skills, such as collaboration or leadership etc (2). Now that this taboo is (slowly) fading thanks to the increasing use of Serious Games in general, another one, exactly the opposite one, is arising, that is, fun is a must-to-be component for any Serious Game(1), B&M ones included.

However, even in general computer games fun is not a necessary component (3). There are games that neglect on purpose any competition or are even designed with a “you never win form”. What really matters instead is the pleasure of the immersion into the game, its ability to engage and, more significantly, the learning experience it contributes to, not just fun per se.

As a matter of fact, several examples of Serious Games in B&M have been designed in such a way that players’ fulfilment of game objectives is practically impossible, despite theoretically achievable. This is not done for the pleasure of disappointing the players, but because the learning points are within the process of game session development. Therefore, the failure in pursuing the goals set at the beginning of the game is not really a relevant learning point. On the contrary, it represents just a snapshot of the progressive advancement in the game and a proof of the validity of the actions taken and of the decisions made by the players over time. Such snapshot is used after the playtime during the facilitated debriefing session for illustrating the critical issues raised by the learning experience. The derived frustration is just a consequent psychological result, but it doesn’t affect the key learning points retention. On the contrary, in practically all the cases observed, after the debrief, the vast majority of EIS players asked to play this game on change management (4) again and again in order to prove (to themselves and to the other participants, facilitators included) that next time they would have been able to fulfil also the game goals, because they understood in which traps they fell into and how to skip or solve them. Therefore, the frustration felt during the game session due to the negative feedback in real time (due to poor tactical implementation) and to the time pressure, led players to seriously reflect on the actual reasons of their failure. We can say that it was purposely part of the design of the game.

Once more it is apparent that what is really important, from a learning experience point of view, is the generation of player’s engagement, rather than just the fun component of the gameplay. The gameplay has to be compelling and serving the learning objectives. Fun and / or frustration are just instrumental techniques implemented into the gameplay.

For reference / further readings:

  1. Prenski, M. (2001) “Digital Game-Based Learning”. New York, London: McGraw Hill; 2001.
  2. “Tackling business problems with online games” by Mark Tutton, published under the Executive Education section of CNN.com at http://edition.cnn.com/2009/BUSINESS/06/05/business.simulations/index.html on 5th June 2009.
  3. Lee, Shuen-shing (2003), “”I Lose, Therefore I Think” A Search for Contemplation amid Wars of Push-Button Glare”, Games Studies, volume 3, issue 2, December 2003 retrieved at http://www.gamestudies.org/0302/lee/ on 30th September 2011.
  4. Angehrn, Albert A. (2006) “Designing SmallWorld Simulations: Experiences and Developments”; The 6th IEEE International Conference on Advanced Learning Technologies (ICALT 2006), 5-7 July 2006, Kerkrade, The Netherlands; retrieved at http://www.calt.insead.edu/Publication/conference/2006-icalt-Small-World-Simulations.pdf on 30 September 2011

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