Plato once said that: ‘you can learn more about a man in an hour of play than in a year of conversation’. If that’s true, we’re going to learn a great deal during the forthcoming Olympic Games in London.


Educators (including L&D professionals) should be interested in using games – especially those known as ‘serious games’ – because they can improve learners’ performance and their awareness of their role. They can also help in competency testing, assessing the return on investment in learning, assessing would-be recruits and so on. There’s more to games based learning than having fun – but that’s not a bad start.


Learners, too, should be interested in using games to give them shortcuts to acquiring knowledge and skills – and, in the case of simulations, vicarious experience. Many years after Plato, when Isaac Newton was asked why he was so clever, he replied that it was because he ‘stood on the shoulders of giants’. In other words, he claimed to be merely building on the discoveries of those clever individuals who had lived in earlier times. Discovery through playing serious games offers learners similar benefits.


Although most games have something to do with power (and to learn more about this aspect of gaming, you could read James Paul Gee’s book, ‘What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy’, which sets out these lessons in 36 principles) people tend to play games for fun – as a source of enjoyment and to experience the release of endorphins at the moment of triumph, when we learn something or master a task.


This is intrinsic to our DNA. Humans have always had to learn in order to survive – and experiencing the release of endorphins is a reward for this. That’s why we like to have games to play and puzzles to solve. Exploring possibilities leads to a learning process. Games are pre-defined ‘problem spaces’ – and solving problems gives us satisfaction.


Game based learning problems need to be authentic and relevant. What you do – or don’t do – in one of these games should have an obvious and meaningful effect on the game. One of the key characteristics of games based learning in a ‘corporate context’ is that it should be highly experiential, relevant, meaningful and authentic. These games should give learners virtual experience which can be transferred to the real workplace.


Making the case for using games and simulations is no different from the L&D professional’s standard dilemma: how do you ensure that the learners learn what they need to learn? Just because 50 per cent of people play games, it doesn’t follow that 50 per cent of your organisation’s staff will want to play the game you make available for them to play. Moreover, just because you put ‘learning’ into a game doesn’t mean that people will learn more effectively through playing it. And, although playing a game teaches you how to play the game, maybe teamworking is its only transferable skill – and that might be taught more cost-effectively through attending one of the many teamwork training events fronted by, for example, former Olympians.


The theories of Kolb and Fry (1975) on how learners learn outline a four stage cyclical process comprising concrete experience, observation and reflection, forming abstract concepts and testing new situations. In today’s technology-enhanced learning world, we need to take additional account of the interplay of:

  • The impact of online learning and
  • Reflection and conceptualisation – in the ‘internal’ world,
  • The virtual world,
  • The external world and
  • The real world


Maybe having the chance to ponder these and other games-related learning issues will justify all those hours we’ll be spending watching the Olympics.