In This Post:
- Learn what simulations are and aren’t.
- Understanding where they fit in an organizations’ flow of skills.
- Learn best practices in designing and creating sims.
Section One – Sims: What and Why
A good educational simulation may look a lot like a casual computer game. It may have stylized, fast moving graphics. There may be a timer during some part of a level, and exaggerated consequences of failure. The person engaging the sim may look very much like a gamer, hunched over with a hand tightly grasped on the mouse and eyes riveted on the screen. The student may even be in a flow state, and having a lot of fun.
This has led to a lot of people to erroneously conclude that the primary point of sims is to "make content enjoyable" often (a skeptic may further and logically intuit) at the expense of depth and flexibility while increasing of cost of production and time to “play.” And if a designer of a sim shares this assumption, the formal learning program is unlikely to be successful.
Rather, the necessary goal of a well-designed sim-based program is to develop in the student a deep, flexible, intuitive, kinesthetic understanding of the subject matter. Students learn what their real-world options are in situations, and a conviction in what are often complex and even indirect strategies that lead to positive results. They earn situational awareness.
As a result, students who learn via simulation can improvise better in the real world. They can handle unpredicted situations. The knowledge is not structured around a list of extrinsic “rules” or processes that can be broken if no one is looking (such as posted speed limits), but developed from intrinsic personal experience (such as if a driver had a few near misses and even accidents with significant consequences). This is knowledge they retain for years or decades.
To deliver this condensed experience, sims have to necessarily present richly interactive content models, interfaces and visualizations, and then entice or force students to repeat patterns of actions in increasingly complex and novel situations, and with rigorous short term and increasingly long term feedback. It is here that computer games, much more than classrooms or books, become the better framework to organize content and motivate students. Games have plenty of useful attributes, such as being self-paced, easy to access, good at developing learning through self-motivated repetition without the need for a coach.
Having said that, the content of the sims itself has to reflect the learning goals, not a reskinned game. As we will explain in Part II, an experienced sim designer will first identify key learning goals, then analyze the content through a simulation lens, and only then find a good interactive content model, sometimes inspired by the game world.
Sims in the Context of the Flow of Enterprise Skills
Before going into design and end-to-end creation, however, let’s look at the broader contexts of organizational learning into which sims must be designed to fit.
Figure: The Flow of Skills
Here are some of the flows:
- Instructors might learn from experts, and format the information for students.
- Experts might mentor practitioners.
- Practitioners might get promoted to expert.
- Practitioners may work on special projects, that if successful, then elevates them to expert.
- Students might work to get into a class, and get credit for successfully completing it.
- Peer to peer communities might chew on problems and come to a solution.
The Eight C’s
It is in the flow of enterprise skills that an organization has to ensure the value proposition of formal learning. The full equation looks something like: (Content * Curricula * Coaching * Certification * Community * Calling *day Care) / Cost, where each are defined as follows:
- Content: The material supporting any learning objective.
- Curricula: How the content is chosen, validated, organized, and presented.
- Coaching: The individual attention helping each student overcome their individual weaknesses, answers specific questions, and leverage their individual strengths, as well as provide motivation.
- Certification: Proof and documentation that a level of competency has been reached (which also provides motivation).
- Community: A group of peers that both make learning more effective and engaging.
- Calling: The vision and mission of the learning organization.
- day Care: The ability to house students for a specific time, including classrooms and even virtual environment tools.
- Cost: The amount of resources, including student time, a program requires.
The Role of Simulations
There is the recently ramped up focus on dramatically reducing the entire right side of the Flow of Skills chart - the formal role of instructor and the role of student - while dramatically increasing the areas of overlap between expert and novice (middle left), such as peer-to-peer work and social networking, often labeled as informal learning. But all Eight C’s, including very specific content and the corresponding certification/tracking, are even more necessary for both legal and strategic reasons.
Given this, the new models of sims uniquely fill that razor edge of opportunity and necessity for people responsible for organizational or community learning. Specifically, sims should be used when two or more of the following criteria are met:
- The application of the content in the real world is critical to an organization or community.
- Developing a conviction in the content is critical to an organization or community.
- Certification or other measuring and record keeping is critical.
- The content is both important for the student to understand, and other formal learning techniques have failed or are too expensive.
- The content has a broad, geographically distributed audience.
Structured in chunks no longer than an hour, these new sims develop business-critical concepts and drive long lasting behavioral changes in a way that is engaging for the user, reinforced by a deeper understanding of the material, and can meet certification requirements and other external measurements for the sponsor. Multiple sims can be chained together for greater depth and breadth. And their visual and kinesthetic nature makes them the perfect choice for global audiences.
Section Two: Creating Simulations and Serious Games
What follows is that methodology and identified best practices to produce a sim. Let us first look at a framework to get you through the Design Process in four predictable steps.
Design Step One: Collecting the Top-Down Rules
The first step in designing a sim is to collect all of the top-down patterns that have already been created, including established analysis, best practices, and rules. In this step (and maybe only in this step), traditional educational content and linear material, if they exist, such as courses and curricula, books, reports, famous or inspirational quotes, and rules and policies are very helpful. They also serve to set a scale for what the sim will and won't cover.
If you were building a simulation about composting, you would collect all of common established advice as established by experts. Here are some:
- Don't throw in dairy or meat, turn your pile every few weeks, mix in grass clippings to keep the nitrogen at the right level so it doesn't smell, and that people compost to reduce their impact on landfills and improve their land.
Design Step Two: Identifying the Bottom-Up Tiny Relationships
The second step, after all of the traditional rules and analysis are collected, is to uncover the hundreds of tiny relationships. These tiny relationships should roughly follow into the simulation framework of actions systems results. (The form of these tiny relationships are described in detail in the award winning The Complete Guide to Simulations and Serious Games)
Tiny Relationships: Actions
One set of tiny relationships is around actions. Yell. Beg. Put tongue A in groove B. Invest money. Run. These are all examples of actions.
For actions, here are the biggest questions: what are the seriously considered options available to an expert? Then, what do naïve people do? Can they be defined very specifically, down to exact quotes or levels of magnitude?
For example, imagine we were creating a sim around end user computer security. some of the actions available are: a user (when getting an email) can follow an embedded link to a web site (and then perhaps enter personal data), open the attachment, forward an email to a friend, log in or not, even install the suggested program. Or they can try to figure out if the email is legitimate or not. Or they can delete the email, or perhaps report it to their manager or IT department. These are the specific target actions.
Further, a sim designer may also have to surface the activities that are done around the target actions in order to provide an accurate context. For our end user computer security example, people have to make the above decisions around potentially fraudulent emails while they are focusing on doing their job, or managing their personal life, or entertaining and relaxing themselves. These “life” actions might have to be worked into any final set of actions available in the sim.
Tiny Relationships: Results
The second category of tiny relations on which we need to focus is results. For results: we ask, what does success and failure look like? Is it all or nothing, such as the accomplishment of a mission? Or are there three or four things that a person is trying to balance and grow? Or is success in the sim (as well as from the sim) the ability to consistently apply an increasingly complex set of competencies?
Again, we look at target results, but also contextual results if appropriate. The target results for computer security may be smooth IT environment vs. massive virus infection. But the contextual results are just as important: people need to do a job and will entertain themselves. For other examples, being an ethical person or a great leader is also only done in context.
Identifying the results of failure is more interesting, more important, and more counter-intuitive for most instructional designers than identifying success. We have to figure out, what are the various types of failure one can experience, and what are the situations that lead to them? What are the immediate wrong things to do, and what are long-term failures?
By the way, it is tough for any media person to realize that any given user should not see most failure states that have been created. But the one they do see will be targeted to their individual weakness and align with real life.
Tiny Relationships: Systems
The final set of relationships to identify is that around systems. Systems, practically defined, are what get in the way between actions and desired results. If the collection of all sets of tiny relationships are an iceberg, the systems are the part of the iceberg that is underwater - often a huge hidden mass.
Here are two quick examples: When playing Chess, a person may want to capture the other player’s king, but the systems of rules and positions and the activities of an opponent on the board need to be navigated and overcome (which is of course what makes it fun and interesting). Meanwhile, in leadership, we may want to build a great team, but the rules of accomplishment, personal egos and motivation, and reward need to be navigated (which can be fun, but more likely frustrating).
For systems: some questions might be: are there processes or mazes that have to be followed? Are there opponents that are striving to keep the person from being successful? Are there hidden processes that others are following (in our computer security example, bad guys may be taking scraps of personal data and crafting highly targeted profiles for scams)? Are there cycles or balancing loops or feedback loops? Are there delays? Are there some mathematical relationships?
To return to our composting model, here are some examples of all three sets of tiny relationships:
- Actions: put different kinds of food in compost (egg shells, coffee grounds, hamburger, plastic, yogurt), turn compost, shovel out and spread compost, put in other organic matter (leaves, branches, weeds), cover pile, start new pile, buy barrels, mixing tools, water pile, sift compost, throw out food as garbage, design compost area
- Systems: rain washes through compost, food breaks down with aeration in about a month, food breaks down without aeration in about a year, nitrogen level imbalances can result in smell and inefficiencies, table of what matter contributes what nitrogen amounts; compost creates better soil which creates better growing conditions for flowers and vegetables, growing one's own vegetables results in cheaper and healthier food, garbage costs money per pound to put in a landfill, exposed vegetables will attract mildy attract critters, exposed meat will strongly attract critters, different microbes do different things at different temperatures, earthworms can aerate dirt.
- Results: great soil, smell, less garbage sent to landfills, yellow jackets, great vegetables, critters
Many of these relationships are so simple that it feels absurd to even capture them in a document. But there power comes in their rigor, volume, and integration. You have to be a detective here, grilling subject matter experts (and my favorite tool, listening to podcasts), pouncing on every scrap.
Design Step Three: Find the Closest Existing Toolset, Game or Sim Genre, or Microcosm
We have already identified the high level rules and the mounds of tiny relationships. Now, find an existing simulation or game that comes close to the framework or spirit of some or all of what you want to accomplish (if you possibly can).
Is it a first person shooter? Tower defense? Branching story? Then, borrow the established format as much as possible. If an engine exists, such as Second Life or Adventuremaker, figure out how to use it (this can save more than 80% of the development time). Regardless, use the gameplay and level design conventions. In many cases, you will also draw models from other genres as well, glomming them together. Even the most narrow toolset allows for importing of great ideas.
There are times when there are no appropriate games or sims, let alone toolsets. In these cases, find a perfect example or microcosm that can serve as the model for the interaction.
The Order Matters (A Lot)
While each of the above three steps ultimately should inform the other steps (as we will soon discuss), the order is actually hugely important. Interestingly, depending on if you start with step two or with step three, you get dramatically opposite effects.
Starting with the identification of the little relationships (step two) often occurs when either a researcher or subject matter expert starts an effort. Identifying the little relationships without the framing of the best practices (step one) is a staggeringly complex activity, which while satiates the purists, can take huge amounts of time and overwhelms all but the most intrepid. Projects that start here seldom see the light of day. Even if they do survive, there is so much wasted effort.
In contrast, starting with the identification of the genre (step three) or enigne and filling in the blanks is a much more typical phenomenon. I often see this when either a vendor has a pre-built engine they are using for a new project, or when an organization has invested in a platform or authoring environment themselves and are trying to push more programs onto it. The results are quick (weeks instead of months), cost effective, and efficient. The course is spit out on time. The only problem is that the content is flat. Designers end up merely reskinning rather than teaching anything of note. Two or three different programs, ostensibly covering different topics, starting from the vantage of same engine all look the same, and more importantly, basically "teach" the same thing. We are seeing this in abundance with sims in Second Life, but also from small specialty vendors. From a business perspective, this makes sense for them – the vendor’s internal cost, time frame, unpredictability, and quality of talent needed are five to ten times greater if they are creating a new engine than using an old. But it can result in a substandard or forced student experience.
Design Step Four: Synchronize
Now, at stage four, we have to bring everything together. Use the rules in step one to organize the tiny relationships in step two, and then use the genre from step three to frame everything. You will work in from the three corners to the middle. Ultimately, all three should converge (even if there is fear at first that they won't).
Reconciling Broad Rules and Tiny Relationships
During this process, we start seeing plenty of places where the broad rules from Step One and the tiny relationships from Step Two do not necessary align.
One example is when you are given a list of different possible successful approaches, especially when given superficially illustrative examples. For example, (the old training might read):
To influence someone, a leader can tell someone what to do, but the leader can also bribe then, threaten them, appeal to their sense of purpose, ask them as a favor, or make a logical case for a request. To illustrate (the old training might further read): consider a documented case where a CFO was asked to postpone her retirement, and the new CEO was successful because he appealed to her loyalty to the company.
This may be a sufficient for a PowerPoint slide, but like philosophy, it begs more questions than it answers for a sim designer. Things that need to reconciled include:
- Why did the expert (the CEO) use that approach? Was that his favorite influence strategy? Had that worked before with the CFO?
- Did the CEO consider two or three different approaches, and what was the criteria that won out?
- Did the CEO switch approaches midstream, and if so, why?
At a higher level, I ask, is there a common underlying model of tiny relationships that aligns most (I am not naïve enough to hope for all) of the identified approaches?
There are other situations as well, you will find when sifting through the body of linear content, when different experts have different and contradictory pieces of advice. A classic contradictory construct: Are you turning the other cheek (good) or are you appeasing (bad)? As with the above situation, a goal is to find common mechanics that allows for both.
Creating Strategic and First Person Perspective
The most effective sims use two or more parallel and mutually-reinforcing perspectives. This approach is consistent with generations of computer games and flight simulators. These have traditionally featured a first person perspective and a strategic (aka a radar or "mini map") perspective. The protypical example is of a driving game, where the screen is used to show the world from the driver perspective looking out at the highway and other nearby cars, while also showing a tops-down perspective on the entire track with all competitors. Players made decisions based on both perspectives simultaneously.
The first-person perspective presents the actual decisions that the student will see and make in the real world. This often involves interpersonal conversations. The strategic perspective presents the “big picture” and involves a visualization of a system and interactions often invisible in the real world.
Other Steps in the Synchronization Process
As one closes in on a final design, some tough questions have to be answered. Here are some.
How broadly can the identified actions be abstracted? For our computer security example, all of the actions, in both the target set and the contextual set, can be generally abstracted into the core three actions of accept the incoming request and act upon it, probe the request, or reject the request.
This is critical, as most sims work best in real time, where the computer does not wait for the student. Ideally a few actions are applied repeatedly, in different orders and sensitive to timing. Further, abstracting actions can increase the applicability of the sim to wider groups.
Another type of problem we have to answer: how does the sim handle little failures? Being inappropriately aggressive to a subordinate, for example, is a bad idea in a leadership sim. But does it stop the whole sim? In real life, plenty of successful people have little slips. Is it cumulative? (I am jumping ahead to Step Three, now but….) Arcade games often had a “three lives” model. Is that appropriate?
You may have a few outlier rules (from Step One) at the end of the process that fall outside of the system and level designs that you have created, but that still need to be included. Here you might use traditional pedagogical technique such as slides or pop-ups to convey this content. But hopefully this is minimal, and you know you have done a good job when all three perspectives support each other rather than grind. And often, amazingly, you will gain unique and industry valued perspectives through this process.
In our compost example, my goal is a thriving ecosystem, so I might choose a variation of SimCity or Roller Coaster Tycoon. I might use quality of life, cost, and environmental impact as some core metrics the player tries to optimize. I might create a house area, a compost area, a garden area, and a garbage area, and have people be able to move stuff between the four. Finally, moving away from these genres, I might zoom in and allow people to create and modify their own composting structure.
Of course, the design process has to fit into a larger serious game development process. Let me zoom out now a bit and look at the rest of the process.
The Three Trimesters of a Serious Game Development Process
The time for a serious game usually falls into three trimesters of create, code, and calibrate. In just a moment, let’s look at them in some detail, including key roles and responsibilities.
How Long Does it Take to Create a Serious Game?
Although before we dig in, let’s talk a bit about end-to-end time frames. Everyone asks about it.
Let me come at this from two sides. From one side, the most effective sims of the next five years, single-player and Adobe Flash based, will take about six months to create starting from scratch, and take about one to two hours of student time (we will discuss why this student duration is critical in the final section). From the other side, most corporations want something delivered in about three months of signing a contract.
These two realities are not incompatible, thankfully. There are some significant modifiers that are cumulative (so you can get something out the door in weeks not months if you have to). Here are the key decisions to both decrease and increase the default nine-month development time:
|Multiplayer Instead of Single Player:||Multiplayer in Addition to Single Player:|
|Very Light Weight Mechanics:||3D Client Installed “Game-Like”:|
|Reuse Established Approach:||Total Creation of New Genre:|
These time modifiers tend to impact all three trimesters evenly. Now, here are the trimesters in a bit more detail. (And even though I present them as discrete, they really do overlap.)
Sim Development Trimester One: Create
In the first trimester, the sim is designed; using some of the techniques we discussed above. The goal is to produce a great design document, between 30 and 50 pages long. The lead designer (such as myself) immerses him or herself in the content, often becoming an expert.
But yes, there’s more to this trimester. The learning objectives and requirements are formalized, often using people in the role of a client liaison and program sponsor. The look and feel are nailed down, hopefully with the work of a good graphic designer. Any technical decisions, including media, authoring environments, engines, and end-user requirements, are established. Steps also have to be taken to set up trimester two.
Sim Development Trimester Two: Code
In the second trimester, the two or three people in the role of programmers/coders (hopefully well briefed and otherwise involved during Trimester One) will program the material in the design document. They will produce much of the core sim engine itself, and provide the links to the fluid content, such as graphic files, videos, sound files, text, and entire level designs and sim flow, using industry standard media and xmls. The program sponsor, lead designer, graphic designer, and client liaison will be peripherally involved, making decisions, and helping flesh out the numerous parts of the sim engine that need refining. Near the end of this process, the lead designer will begin inputting as much of the final content as possible. About 70% of the project budget is spent in this stage.
Sim Development Trimester Three: Calibrate
In the final trimester, the lead designer finish inputting content into the engine, and the entire package is put in front of target audiences by the program sponsor (by the way, finding the right target audience, and introducing the experience to them, is a surprisingly hard task). The programmers/coders need to be available to make core engine changes, but even more so the lead designer and client liaison have to refine the fluid content. Finally, there can be integration work with the LMS or database.
Things have never seemed harder for those tasked with developing the skill sets of organizations. They have to deliver content, and sometimes entire curricula, sometimes with coaching, often with tracking and certification, with the minimal of costs (in terms of development and delivery dollars, student time, and student disruption).
The good new is that simulations and serious games can instruct more, in less time, and at less cost. The most successful organizations will either have an internal sim development capability, or partner with an external vendor that does. I hope following these steps and processes makes the implementation a bit easier and more predictable.