Game Design – The Bold New Frontier of Talent Development

As a long time video gamer and talent development professional I’ve always been perplexed by the differences between the games I play on my PC, Xbox, and iPhone and the “games” that are created to develop employees skills and knowledge in the workplace. Over the last five years this gap between the quality of games played at home, and the “games” for learning played at work has grown even wider.   This ever widening gap represents a significant challenge for Talent Development professionals now and in the future.  Consider the following statistics about video gamers in the US published by the ESA on April 14, 2015.

Headline Stats

  • 155 million Americans regularly play video games.
  • 42 percent of Americans play for at least three hours per week.
  • Four out of five American households contain a device used to play video games.


  • The average game player is 35 years old.
  • 26 percent of players are under 18 years old. 27 percent are over 50.
  • 56 percent of players are male. 44 percent are female.
  • The most frequent female game player is on average 43 years old and the average male game player is 35 years old.
  • Of the most frequent game purchasers, 41 percent are female and 59 percent are male.

Based on these statistics I would say it is safe to assume that about 50% of your employees play video games regularly, and as the demographics shift to a younger workforce that percentage of gamers will  increase.

Why You Should Care

The critical takeaway for Talent Development professionals is that our customers have extremely high expectations when it comes to gaming experiences. Whether it is Call of Duty, Angry Birds, or Luminosity, they know what is fun and what’s not. They are not going to waste their time playing bad games even if it will help them learn something important. If you are creating a learning experience that even remotely looks or feels like a game then you can bet it will be compared to the games that your learners play every day for fun.

Good instructional design is not enough to capture the attention of our learners any more. If we are looking to truly engage our learners we need to build our capabilities beyond instructional design and into game design. Consider the difference between the two definitions below that I pulled up from a Google search:

  • Instructional design  is the practice of creating instructional experiences which make the acquisition of knowledge and skill more efficient, effective, and appealing.
  • Game design is the art of applying design and aesthetics to create a game to facilitate interaction between players for entertainment or for medical, educational, or experimental purposes.

The skill sets required for these activities are very different, and based on my decade of experience designing games and simulations for fortune 500 organizations there are very few talent development organizations that have anyemployees who have been trained in game design.

Fortunately it is something that can be learned, and should be learned if we want to engage our learning populations in the ways they are being engaged by games outside of work. For the last year I’ve been delivering Gaming Mechanics lectures across the country on this topic, and here are a few key questions that will get you started as a game designer.

  1. Who is the gamer? You need to understand your audience and how you want to impact them through the design of your game.
  2. Why do they play the game? You need to understand their motivation for playing and tap into it.  Do they play for recognition, to meet other people, for extrinsic rewards, to gain mastery of a skill?
  3. What are the rules of the game? Often called gaming mechanics the rules are a critical part of the design process because it is the mechanics that impact how we play and how much fun the game is.  One of the easiest ways to understand gaming mechanics is to think about how different a game would be if some of the mechanics were changed. For example:
  • Imagine an NFL game without the ability to substitute players!
  • Imagine a chess match where each piece was controlled by a separate player!
  • Imagine frequent flyer miles programs without a yearly time limit!

Fortunately for us, game design and gamification is a skill anyone can learn, and it is a lot of fun. I’ve been creating games and simulations to teach employees skills like finance, strategy and leadership for the last 12 years and I can’t think of anything I’d rather do.  I hope you are inspired by the challenge we face as games become more prevalent in all aspects of our lives, and see it as an opportunity to transform the way we teach and develop our talent. If you would like to learn more or just talk shop reach out to me through LinkedIn or contact us at

Play – Learn – Repeat

In his latest film Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise must save the world from total annihilation yet again. As usual, he is completely overmatched by his enemies, an alien race set on destroying the earth that has better weapons, better technology, and brighter minds. This time around Tom Cruise’s character can’t rely on his ability to shoot a gun or leap off buildings to win. His enemies have what seems to be an insurmountable advantage — they can peer into the future, predict his next move, and counter it with ruthless efficiency.

Imagine that scenario playing out in the world of business:

  • Scenario 1: Your organization is about to launch a new product and, after months of development, a competitor launches a competing product with better features at a lower price and with better distribution a month earlier.
  • Scenario 2: Your organization decides to invest in new manufacturing capabilities that will reduce your cost of goods and improve quality, only to find that another competitor implements these capabilities six months before you.

These are not unrealistic scenarios. In fact, they are real world examples taken from clients I have worked with at Executive Perspectives. Unlike Mr. Cruise, their competitors were not aliens with a technology that allows them to see into the future — they were just men and women who somehow managed to out-think and out-execute their competitors. So the question is, how can we ensure that our leaders are not out-thought and out-executed by the competition? Mr. Cruise has the answer: Live – Die – Repeat, or as we say in the Business Simulation World:

Play – Learn – Repeat

In the movie, Cruise and his co-star, Emily Blunt, use a “magic” technology that allows them to continue to fight the same battle over and over again, applying their learning to each situation so that they can overcome the obstacles thrown in front of them and get closer to their goal. Sound familiar?

For anyone who has played a game of Angry Birds, Super Mario Brothers, or Call of Duty, this should sound quite familiar. You start off the game and quickly realize you are unable to overcome the obstacles, and then you die…repeatedly. Yet you continue to try, and through that sustained effort you begin to understand the situation more completely. You have a better sense of the cause and effect of your actions, you develop new strategies, and eventually you succeed. The best part of the process is that it doesn’t feel like work at all, it’s actually fun!

This is the same formula that we use at EP to build leadership and business capabilities at Fortune 500 organizations across the globe. Put people in realistic business settings where they need to solve problems, have them work in groups to address those issues, get real time feedback on the impact of their decisions on business metrics, understand what they did wrong, and try a different way to address the issue based on the lessons learned.

At the end of the movie Tom Cruise wins because he out-practiced the competition, allowing him to out-think and out-strategize them despite their overwhelming advantage. Your team can have the same advantage Tom Cruise had by out-practicing the competition. It doesn’t require alien technology — just EP simulations!

Demise of the #Gameophobes

It has been over two years since I challenged the audience at TEDx Gramercy to bring games into their lives as a way to transform the way they learn, and to avoid being a “Game-o-Phobe.” Now that our next generation of speakers is ready to take the stage at TEDx Gramercy 2014, I thought it would be a good idea to consider the changes in public perception of games and the transformation of learning over the last two years.

One thing that is abundantly clear is that games are no longer considered child’s play

We are in the midst of a revolution in how people play, perceive, and consume games, which I am confident will have long-lasting effects on how we as a society view the place of games in our lives. Just consider the front cover of the New York Times on August 31, 2014. The headline read “In e-Sports, Video Gamers Draw Real Crowds and Real Money.” Note the use of the word “Real” twice, an acknowledgement that games should be taken seriously by serious people. The picture to the left shows thousands of people filling the Key

The International – one of the largest e-Sport tournaments in the World attracts thousands in person and millions on-line

Arena in Seattle watching The International, a video game tournament where the winning team would walk away with a $6 million purse.

Two years ago, most of us had never heard of e-sports, but it was already an incredibly popular form of entertainment. In 2013 more people watched the League of Legends Season 3 World Championship than watched Game 7 of the NBA Finals, the BCS College Football Championship, and the World Series!

Watching professional video-gamers play live in massive tournaments is just the tip of the iceberg. Amazon recently purchased a company called Twitch for over $1B. Twitch is a website and App that allows people to watch others play video games. Some watch for pure entertainment, but others use it to learn how to play games better. Microsoft has been reported to be in talks with the creators of ridiculously popular game

Total Viewers in Millions of Major 2013 Sporting Events

Minecraft for $2B. And, last but not least, consider the recent purchase of Oculus Rift by Facebook for $2B. Oculus Rift is a virtual reality headset that provides true sensory immersion that has the potential to not only transform games, but the way that we interact and share experiences virtually. (Think The Matrix, but with a happier backstory.) I just received our Oculus yesterday, and after just a short time using it, I am confident that this is a game changer (pun intended).

On the educational front, there is positive movement towards the use of games in traditional educational processes as well. Scholars are beginning to better understand the role that games can play in the educational process. While traditional lectures, textbooks, and tests will always have a place in developing cognitive skills, research has proven that games are superior at developing non-cognitive skills, such as collaboration, grit, communication, and discipline, which are essential to successful development and success in our ever-more collaborative and networked world.

However, as anyone knows who has a child, parents are as much a part of the educational process as the teachers and administrators of our schools. Without acceptance by parents, games will be relegated to the “wasted time category” when at home. As a parent of a 5th grade boy who spent a lot of his summer playing Minecraft, Dota2, and Team Fortress, I understand the tension that one feels when seeing their child sitting for hours on end in front of a computer on a beautiful summer day.

That being said, I do sense a shift in attitudes towards games in the media and in my day to day interactions with other parents. A recent dinner table discussion with six other parents on the virtues of Minecraft showed a true appreciation of how it can lead to the development of creativity, curiosity, collaboration, and mischief. Recently my son, Asher, was inspired to improve his Minecraft building skills, and, using the Internet, he found multiple guides on YouTube describing how to design different structures. The results were fantastic. His new Minecraft home is worthy of Architectural Digest. 

Oculus Rift VR Headset – The Next Breakthrough in Games and Education?

This is the type of experience that gets me excited about the future of games and learning. Imagine a world where Asher would get as excited about American History as he is about Minecraft. Maybe he is playing a game where he takes on the role of George Washington as he is managing the Winter Camp in Morristown, NJ and must keep his army well-fed and morale high in order to be prepared to take on the British in the coming spring. He wants to learn more about how you improve morale so he uses the Internet to research the drivers of morale in troops. He wants to keep his army healthy so he learns about the most effective and nutritious foods to buy.

This type of user-directed learning is often ignited by an inspirational teacher. We can all remember that one teacher that made us want to learn more. Games have the power to not only enhance that teacher’s ability to inspire, but to create a whole new way to inspire us to want to learn more. For more on this concept, James Gee, a games researcher, discusses the power of games to create engagement

and interest that leads to user-directed learning in his talk Learning With Video Games (

Inspiring others to learn through games is not only possible, but it is already being done by innovative and creative teachers and leaders around the world. However, it requires extra work, time, and expertise to build these game-based learning experiences. The skills required to build these learning experiences are very different than the skills that are typically associated with developing teaching and training experiences.

So the question must be posed again, as it was in my TEDx talk two years ago: Where does this leave us — should we be optimistic or pessimistic about the future of games in learning?

I believe that we are on the cusp of a major transformation in how we learn. Games are now serious business, and money will help address many of the technological barriers to developing games that educate. Members of Generation X, the first generation to be raised playing video games, are now in leadership positions at both academic and corporate settings which is leading to more excitement and experimentation with games for learning. Also, the promise of combining the decision-making process of games with the analytical power of big data will allow us to finally address one of the most vexing challenges of education — measuring the effectiveness of our efforts.

So congratulations game-lovers, we are making progress. This is a great time to be a gamer who believes in the power of games to not only entertain but to transform how we live, work, and learn. I look forward to hearing what you have done in the last two years to bring gaming into your life, your work, and your play!

Send me your favorite articles, links, and videos to @MarshallBmann on Twitter #nogameophobes.

The Hidden Power of Games: a TED Talk

Research has proven that games and simulations are a more effective way for people to learn. Why then, do we continue to rely on traditional and ineffective ways of learning that we have relied on for thousands of years? Marshall Bergmann, Vice-President of the New York Office of EP, answers this question and provides an inspiring view of the future of learning in his TEDx Gramercy talk entitled The Hidden Power of Games.