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Untold Play

Building a Learning Game Around a Model or Framework: How Models and Frameworks Can Inspire Learning Games

Building a Learning Game Around a Model or Framework: How Models and Frameworks Can Inspire Learning Games

by Terry Pearce

17 hours ago


If you’re creating a learning experience around a model or framework, you have an ideal opportunity to create a learning game. A lot of models or frameworks look a little bit like boards from boardgames, or tech trees from videogames. They suggest movement around the model, or progress through the framework, in much the same way as players sometimes progress through games.

A grid for categorising can make a great ‘board’ for a learning game

I once built a game for a client around the ‘Nine Box Grid’ for Talent Management. This model suggests rating staff as having one of three levels of potential and one of three levels of current performance, placing them in one of the nine boxes that result.

To me, the grid suggested a game and that’s what I built. Character cards represented team members and players had to place them in the grid based on the information given. New cards turned over each turn represented opportunities or challenges such as a training opportunity, a period of low staffing levels, or a secondment opportunity.

Players solved each of the issues or took advantage of the opportunities by choosing and using their team members, based on which of the nine boxes they’d placed them in. Team members got a happiness marker which changed based on whether their needs were being met and the teams had an ongoing productivity score based on how well they met the challenges or seized the opportunities.

Games give us an ideal platform to explore exactly how useful models are

If you’re thinking that this sort of approach can be reductionist, I think that’s a valid objection. But it’s more an objection to the idea of using models at all, than the idea of using games to explore models.

My own view is that, so long as you remember that the map is not the territory, models are a great way to reduce real-life complexity enough to study it and draw general rules. These rules may not hold in every situation but that’s not a reason not to formulate rules (as we all do, in practice). Another way this has been put is: that all models are wrong but some are useful.

In fact, games give us a great opportunity to explore exactly how applicable a model or framework is. Games-based learning experiences can link the game experience to real life via a debrief, exploring questions like, ‘what exactly happened there?’, ‘what can we take away from that?’, and ‘how does that compare to your work environment?’. Takeaways can include exceptions and nuances as well as broad rules.

You can also think of models and frameworks as abstractions of reality and I look at how abstractions can work in the context of learning games in a previous article.

You can build the habit of translating models into game ideas

If this is new to you, once you get into the habit of seeing models and frameworks as potential game boards, you’ll find that you can generate your own ideas. I can hardly look at a model without seeing a way it could become a board game, card game or something similar.

If you think about some of the key things that tend to happen in games, you can start to see how they might work for your model:

  • Are there spaces or areas that players or pieces could move between?
  • Is there a flow or process that could suggest a turn sequence?
  • What would happen if the elements of the model were represented on cards?
  • Could you give different parts of the model to different players or teams?
  • If elements of the model were a board, what could be placed on or moved around it?
  • Could piecing the model together be a kind of puzzle that could form part of a game?
  • Could specific cases/examples be used as challenges, with model elements providing the solution?

These are just a small selection of questions. But these and questions like them can lead to a huge range of ideas for basing games on models and frameworks. I’d like to illustrate this with a brief treatment of five models.

Cialdini’s Six Influencing Principles

Cialdini suggests that there are six key methods of influencing people: reciprocity, commitment and consistency, social proof, authority, liking and scarcity.

These immediately suggest to me options, or suits of cards. A series of challenges within a game could prompt players to consider: which of these six would be best to use? How could I employ each?

I can imagine a game inspired by Balderdash, Dixit and Cards Against Humanity, where players or teams bid to convince others that their selection and implementation are best. Or a game of passing a series of challenges by making the best choices using the cards (influencing tactics) available to you. The cards could be the six categories, with players adding detail, or they could be specific, different instances of each of the six categories.

The GROW Model for Coaching

The GROW Model suggests that coaching can usefully follow a sequence of exploring someone’s goals, current reality, possible options and way forward. And that the best way to navigate this is by asking open, useful questions that allow the person being coached to explore each in turn.

This progression immediately suggests to me a board or track, moving from one to another. But players don’t want to move too fast from one to another — proper exploration of each is key. I can imagine board spaces or cards that fit with each stage, representing specific questions. This could work with specific scenarios provided by the game or scenarios the players themselves contribute, e.g. their next career steps.

Design Thinking

Probably the most popular design thinking process, developed at Stanford, suggests successful design (of more or less anything) can usefully follow the steps: Empathise, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test.

Again, this suggests to me the progress that players often make around a game board, or through a videogame. Riffing on a traditional board game, the five could be sections of the board around which play progresses, with events or challenges at each stage. Or thinking about how video games are structured, a design thinking game, could involve ‘levelling up’ when ready, from earlier to later stages, once a certain number of conditions have been fulfilled.

The STAR Questioning Technique

Situation. Task. Action. Result. These are the four elements of any story, and they’re particularly well-suited as a model for interview examples, either for areas for the interviewer to probe with questions, or for the candidate as a structure for an example.

Pondering this for a moment, the structure of Cluedo (Clue in the US) pops into my head, with its room-weapon-person breakdown of a crime. I start to think about a candidate story to uncover in a game, with details needed in each of the four S-T-A-R categories, and players acquiring or generating questions in each of the four and using them to uncover the relevant information.

Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing

Bruce Tuckman’s classic model of team development suggests four stages for teams to go through, as per the title of the model. The model is usually used to help managers and leaders recognise the stage their team is at and to help them take the right actions to coax their team towards the high-performing stage.

This seems rich to me with game possibilities. Maybe players control a team with the aim of getting them through the stages to ‘performing’ and they face challenges appropriate to their current stages, perhaps drawn from a deck of cards for their current stage. Actions might be generated freeform by players, or selected from a range of options — perhaps using a deckbuilding or worker placement mechanic. Appropriate handling of challenges could build points towards moving to the next stage.

These ideas are just sparks but you can build them into games

It’s worth keeping in mind that whatever game you come up with, it should encourage the learners to exercise the kind of skills and behaviours you’re looking for. It can be easy to stray to the extent that learners spend time with the model but don’t learn to use it in the way you want them to use it in real life.

If you keep the learning objectives and desired behaviours in mind, you can build a game around one of these ideas. For more help around building games, you might like to check out my cohort-based course on the topic, my article about the four ways to use games in learning or the six levers of games-based learning.