Designing Training Games

(The Challenges and The Rewards)

If you are a trainer, then you must have experienced the extraordinary power of training games. Training games make training programs more interactive and of course, a lot more fun than they otherwise would be. However, the main goal of any training program is learning – and so such games should be created with learning as their primary objective. Sometimes, even the training programs conducted by the best and the brightest trainers in the industry; end up bartering learning effectiveness for fun, which of course is totally unacceptable!

For the uninitiated, training games may seem to be a completely different ballgame – something that’s too immature for adult learners. I have come across many individuals who’ve wondered whether it was a good idea to include games in training programs. “True,” they say, “games generate fun and energy, but the adult learning principles tell us that the adults are self-motivated, self-directed individuals who just want to learn as efficiently as they can, and then go back to their jobs and apply their learning!”

The fact remains that most of the entertainment in this world is geared to meet the needs of adults. The adults are the biggest consumers of novels and movies, of restaurants and of funfests, of computer games and of sports! Adults need to play…especially when they are on training programs, for although most won’t accept it on the proverbial camera; many corporate learners visualize training programs as a much-needed break. So when we think of adult learning experiences, we cannot just throw entertainment out of the window and move on. We need to consciously create a tapestry of learning, with its warp and weft being the content, and its colors being any and all elements of fun that we can include in the training program.

So let us begin by re-discovering games and connecting them with learning. We will then see how instructional design helps us create relevant and effective games that enhance the learner’s experience with content.

Game - A Definition

The Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary, my favorite reference that has a permanent home on my table, defines a game as an “activity engaged in for diversion or amusement.” This simple definition helps me put things into perspective and establish a more directional definition for the term Training Game that could help us design and develop effective training games.

The dictionary definition suggests that

  • a game is an activity engaged in for amusement; and
  • training is the process of imparting learning for some immediate application.

Training Game - A Definition

This means that a Training Game could be defined as follows:
A training game is an amusement activity that is included in a training program, to impart/enhance learning.

This is a workable definition that provides us two clear dimensions of a training game. These are:

  1. Amusement and
  2. Learning

Thus, if we could create activities that lead to “amusement/entertainment” and “learning” at the same time, we would’ve create training games. The whole challenge then, percolates to ensuring the presence of these two factors in an activity to transform it into a training game! Unfortunately, it’s easier said than done – especially in the case of a game, where the expectation of amusement borders on thrill. I may be amused when I read a joke, but I am thrilled when I clear the final level of an especially challenging game! A training game is expected to result in a rush of adrenaline, in an emotional connect with the concept of the game, and in learning that’s retained better.

Training Game - The Anatomy

Let’s try to look beneath the surface and figure out the anatomical details of a game. A game accomplishes the surge of adrenaline through a system of challenges and rewards. A game is different from other amusement activities as it establishes a series of challenges and corresponding rewards; and the gamer experiences the thrill of winning (or the pain of losing), which results in a heightened state of attentiveness and an expanded capacity to retain the relevant learning.

With this format established, without going into further details, let me present the other dimension, which is learning, from the viewpoint of a training game.

During the process of creating training games, at no point in time should we forget the learning and, the learner. Learning is the reason we built the game in the first place, so don’t relegate learning to the second place, when you begin designing your training games. Learning should be embedded in the game play, and the learner (our temporary gamer) should be aware of the fact that learning is the overall output desired from the activity. Yet, learning should be integrated seamlessly into the game, without making the game lose its entertainment appeal.

The Mahabharata Game - A Short Analysis:

Here’s a case that would help you understand this “game” of balancing learning with amusement, better.

Let us assume that a trainer wishes to enhance a communication workshop by using a game. With Mahabharat as the theme for the game, the trainer divides the team into Kauravas and Pandavas, narrates the story, and establishes the rules. The goal is to ensure clear communication between the two warring factions. For every instance of clear un-distorted communication, the message sending team wins points! The messages are written around the daily lives of the participants.

The trainer’s intentions are laudable and at first glance, the idea seems quite creative. However, the game has implementation issues. The first issue that we see cropping up is a thematic-disconnect between the concept and the implementation. The communication is completely modern, the theme is ancient, and those who know the positive and negative connotations of Kauravas and Pandavas would not be keen on being the Kauravas! The next problem would arise on the floor as the rewards and penalties are not clearly defined. Rewards are “mentioned” as points, but Penalties are not even mentioned. Furthermore, the criteria for providing the reward-points need to be objectively stated – and clearly understood by both teams. The overall result of such a game would be: time lost in discussion over points, the cognitive dissonance resulting from the theme-learning disconnect, and general disenchantment and dissatisfaction due to a nebulous connection between learning and entertainment!

Training Games – Common Design Issues:

The issue that plague most training games are:

  1. The Amusement Factor is weak
  2. The Amusement Factor outweighs the Learning Factor
  3. The Implementation doesn’t result in thrill
  4. The Rewards and Penalties are not clearly defined
  5. The Learning Objective is not clearly outlined
  6. The Suspension-of-Disbelief is neither established nor sustained


As training game designers, we need to analyze our audience’s demographics and psychographics, determine what kind of game would suit their profiles and then set about designing a game that would click. Some games can span different audience groups, but most games need to be tailored to the audience’s expectations. The principles of instructional design help us design, develop, and implement games that ensure learning; and we need to always keep these principles in mind while we design training games.

- Author: Shafali R. Anand

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