Crossroads: Serious Games for Business

Welcome to the second part of crossroads. Last week we took a brief look at how the current economic climate was affecting the workplace how learning and development is fairing and how serious games could help. In this week’s article we will review and discuss a number of serious games developed by PIXELearning for corporate learning and development and main lessons we have learned.


In 2005 PIXELearning were commissioned to design and develop a serious game for KPMG (US) to aid in the training of new hires. In order for the designers to gain an understanding of the process they volunteered to attend a typical training session. What they experienced was a very through but incredibly intense 2 day training course whereby each participant was provided with a very large box of audit materials and has to complete an audit on a fictitious company. The designers immediately saw ways to make the training more interactive and immersive and the solution aimed to bring on-the-job experience to new hires into the classroom.

The training course, of which the simulation was part, won the ASTD 2007 Excellence in Practice Award.

Between lectures and demonstration modules, participants audit the fictitious company via their laptops. They interview virtual people, gather financial data, execute specific audit tasks, conduct analyses, and document results. They also create audit work papers that are reviewed by instructors who serve as supervisors during the activity. Yet they do all this in a virtual world where they must also utilize their soft skills to interview clients, create a good impression and locate hidden information. In follow-up evaluations, participants estimated that the simulation was one of the highest contributors to their job performance; just behind on-the-job coaching from supervisors and the work experience itself. And a large majority of the supervisors rated participants as “equal to” or “better” prepared than the ones supervised the year before.


In 2008, PIXELearning along with our partners Global Novations created Our Worlds of Makrini™ an “out of this world” immersive learning simulation which teaches the learner introductory diversity awareness and inclusion skills in a unique, engaging way. Makrini was a very ambitious and innovative project aimed at tackling issues around diversity and inclusion topics within an initial 27,000 employee base.  Within this particular organisation, a major US Retail Bank, employees are required to complete regular diversity and inclusion training; the management recognise the value this awareness brings to their products and services. Previously, employees followed a traditional facilitated training programme which although successful, eventually led to ‘diversity fatigue’, thus resulting in a lack of emotional connection to the subject that was desired. With this diversity fatigue front and centre in Global Novations mind, they set about, with the team here at PIXELearning creating a product that would move beyond awareness of diversity issues, towards promoting a culture focused on ‘behaving inclusively’.

Players take a break in the cafe on Makrini

The result, Makrini, is part of a blended solution; however the sci-fi theme runs as a continuous thread throughout the entire course.  From the moment learners are allocated to the course (or sign up) they receive emails from the main characters in the game; receive a webinar where they are briefed before their trip to Makrini and after the experience they could also be given a toy in the shape of ‘their’ alien species.

Makrini aims to tackle diversity fatigue through effectively engaging the current and new generation of learners creating a personalised journey that truly reflects the users own personalities, traits and behaviours. We are proud to say that Makrini has won several awards since its launch and has managed to capture the imagination of front line staff up to C-level executives.


In 2009 a US defence contractor commissioned a multiplayer serious game from PIXELearning to focus on aspects of leadership development. Utilising the LearningBeans multiplayer engine to build this game, which runs through Flash Media Interactive Server, the end product was a sandbox environment where learners could practice their leadership skills with 3 other users. The player to player interaction facilitated the opportunity for individuals to experience different leadership dynamics and real conflict situations as they worked through the puzzles and challenges.

To manage the scope of the project our in house artists created a scale map of the game world. Covering half of one wall we could easily track progress and manipulate the level design. In total there were 500 nodes (player positions) and 2000 view points. This became particularly helpful when testing user in game view points and navigation (it was clear getting lost would impact our testing time 🙂 ).

We learnt a lot during the design and development, it was a challenging project; both from a technical perspective (working within the locked down corporate infrastructure) but also from a conceptual perspective. The chosen concept was very much towards the game end of the spectrum for serious games. Designed to appeal to a new generation of learners and to really challenge them to lead in difficult situations; this was a step change in thought processes for internal ID and end users and one that some were uncertain of. The words game and fun and play are still treated with an air of caution in L&D, there is growing evidence to support approaches such as these but it is always worth taking a step back and questioning the culture of the organisation and match to chosen genre.

Telecommunications: Customer Service

In 2008 we were commissioned by Comcast, one of the largest telco’s in the US to create a piece of software to help with their customer service. During the initial design consultation it became clear to us that Comcast had a very specific issue; the company had grown quickly through acquisition of smaller more localised telecommunications companies and had maintained a localised approach to training. There was no script, there were no standards, and agents were trained on a call strategy, but were left to add their own flavour to the customer interactions. Sounds nice doesn’t it? But it also leads to mixed customer service. So we were set the tricky task of creating a training application along the lines of a call strategy but with very little guidance on what constituted best practice; as this was down to individual preference. To accomplish the desired feel for the training, we created a tool set to allow the team to create incredibly detailed and seemingly naturally flowing  conversations. This tool set aided in rapid prototyping and increased the ease of editing the conversations; both structurally as well as adding new content.

Putting Communication Skills to Work

The original intention for the simulation was for call agents to use the training in their down time, when the queue was reasonably low; they would be able to log on at their station, play through a scenario and then log back onto the queue. However a year after delivery and when preparing for e-virtuoses 2009 we discovered Comcast had been using the training in an alternative way. As well as allowing current agents to practice their skills, they brought the simulation into their induction training as a way of up skilling their new employees.  They used the online simulation as a pre-classroom practice session, where new agents could practice different approaches without fear of embarrassment or making mistakes. This had the effect of making the classroom sessions where they would role play face to face much more effective as they were already prepared with the basics!


These are just a few examples of the serious games we have developed over the past few years. We would love to share more but fear this post will never end if we do!

The main lessons we have learned from these few examples can be summarised as follows;

Keep it flexible – as we saw with Comcast, the original intention was not the only use for the application. By keeping the content inside the simulation focused on the learning rather than focused on a particular initiative or scheme, the client was able to use the application more widely than originally anticipated.

It’s not just a ‘game’ – this seems to come up time and time again; there is a misconception that the serious game is the silver bullet and will solve all of learning trouble in a single swipe. We have seen serious games work best when combined with other learning interventions as is the case for any method of learning.

Skill discovery vs. Skill improvement– the activities within the serious game must be carefully matched to the aim of the ‘training’; is the aim to improve a specific process, or to generally raise awareness of learners strengths and weaknesses and provide a pathway for improvement. This is a very important question to ask before any design takes place.

Meaning and Context – The tasks within the serious game must also be in context to the objective but they must be recognisable to the end audience as having value. Meaning and support go hand in hand especially if you are looking towards more ‘abstract’ game concepts. In the case of the leadership game, the learning is not be immediately obvious, as the crux of the learning comes from the interaction between the players; the game is merely a vessel to allow for this interaction. The more you give to the game the more you will receive. If this context is not set prior to the experience learners may be left questioning why they are here at all. Juxtapose this to the audit simulation where learners are put into a familiar situation and know exactly what is expected of them and you will see very different behaviour.

Realism/Fidelity of the scenario – this is an interesting topic as fidelity is seen differently by different people. However the point we would like to make here is that no matter what style or genre your serious game, the task must be realistic. Take Makrini for example; not very realistic you might argue, set on a space station with countless species and androids and holophones, but that’s not what we mean by realistic. Every task you do in Makrini is a business relevant task that can be transferred into actual workplace scenarios; you must resolve a conflict between personnel, you must investigate an act of discrimination, and you must understand your market in order to sell your goods. Whether you are blue, have 6 legs or two heads doesn’t really matter, you become engaged in the scenario; and that’s what’s important for learning.

The growing awareness of serious games in the general media has helped with the recognition and understanding of the benefits, the capabilities and the potential of such applications. With numerous papers and organisations beginning to integrate serious games word is getting out there particularly with the help of the Sitzmann and Ely‘s meta analysis of business game effectiveness.

More and more organisations are looking to serious games as a real option for their training, not only for the cost saving, because they don’t require employees to take a number of days away from their desk, but also due to their flexibility, scalability and support for enhancing skills, knowledge, confidence and lateral thinking.


2 Responses to Crossroads: Serious Games for Business

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Crossroads: Serious Games for Business « PIXELearning's Blog – Serious Games and more --

  2. Pingback: Pixelearning présente ses idées, réflexions et expériences pour le serious game » Ceci est un jeu

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