In This Issue
Winter Issue of The Bridge on Frontiers of Engineering
December 20, 2012 Volume 42 Issue 4

Playing to Win: Serious Games for Business

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Author: Phaedra Boinodiris

Gaming techniques can save money, time, and resources while making departments and organizations more agile.

Gordian Knots

Thousands of years ago in ancient Phrygia, there was a massive mound of tangled ropes that was so impressive, it had a name: the Gordian knot. Legend was that whoever could untangle the great knot would become king of all of Asia.

One can imagine a stream of men arriving on horseback, strolling up to the ropes, cursing loudly as they pulled here and pushed there, inadvertently making the mound even bigger and more tangled.

According to the legend, one day Alexander the Great came into town, jumped off his horse, and with his supernaturally sharp blade sliced through the Gordian knot in one stroke, effectively ending the knot’s persistent challenge.

If only today’s intractable problems could be solved so simply. As the world has become smaller and more interconnected, people and businesses rely on systems that produce huge quantities of data. Executives face enormous challenges in analyzing these quantities as they seek to transform their business to be more responsive to the global economy. According to a recent MIT report (Hopkins et al. 2010), company executives are seeking ways to not only visualize data but also run simulations and scenario development in order to learn how their organizations might be more agile. Agile businesses achieve 10–15% higher margins, up to 5% faster revenue growth, and up to 38% higher capital efficiency.1 Agility requires enterprise visibility, operational dexterity, and process integrity. Visualization, motivation, and collaboration are the components of the solution—the blade that can cut through the massive mounds of data to enable businesses to adapt quickly and compete.

Transformation is not optional but it doesn’t come easily to companies. Organizations that wish to be agile must transform their processes and decisions, embrace rapid, adaptable integration, and have a flexible and efficient infrastructure. For example, in a recent report, Gartner states that by 2015 more than 50% of organizations that manage innovation processes will “gamify” those processes—make them more accessible for adoption by engaging and teaching executives, managers, and employees through game techniques.2

In this article I explain how organizations can incorporate “serious games” to add value and agility in an increasingly complex environment.

Serious Games and Serious Solutions

Play is a universal language characterized by enjoyment, established rules, and tangible, clear goals. Digital games can create deep, immersive experiences or quick bursts of excitement. Serious games, designed for a primary purpose other than entertainment, focus on clarifying goals, excising irrelevant information, and developing tangible, measurable improvements in a particular activity or task. They create realistic environments for testing strategies, tactics, theories, and ideas, leveraging the best aspects of games to make modeling, prototyping, experimenting, training, and skill acquisition faster, cheaper, more enjoyable, and more visible.

Whether for a training exercise, supply chain, or cyber defense scenario, smart games techniques can help participants visualize and understand complex systems through video and online gaming, engaging them through competition, teamwork, intrigue, curiosity, and problem solving. These features attract participation, encourage creativity, and help establish a path to collaborative work and analysis.

Although technology has changed the appearance and interactions associated with games, the experience associated with the best games has not changed: the challenge of any game or simulation should match the skills—and test the limits—of the players and the surrounding system in a meaningful, enjoyable way. What better test of game and gamer limits than the most serious challenges facing the world today?

Game Playing to Enhance Business Processes

Business simulations have been around for many years. They allow inputs and, given a set of business rules, produce new outputs. What they lack is the collaborative environment that motivates people to optimize. Keeping a business process locked up in a castle turret with fortified walls does no one any good. Business processes need to be vetted, stressed, and prioritized by the entire value chain to yield a meaningful return on investment.

Today’s 24/7 world is filled with large streams of data in previously unimaginable volumes. Approaches such as serious games techniques allow data to be viewed in different ways that nonexperts can understand, contribute to, and act on. In the summer of 2011, thousands of people helped map the structure of an enzyme that could fight HIV and AIDS by playing a downloadable game called Foldit. Researchers were able to crunch data from players’ moves to quickly gain valuable insights into protein folding, critical to the development of treatment options. This project shows the power of collective intelligence when big data are harnessed and analyzed through games.

Serious games are increasingly used to test business scenarios and conduct training in both public- and private-sector organizations and corporations around the world. Business gaming techniques are used to motivate and lead large global, virtual teams and to encourage creative problem solving, load balancing, and complex system (e.g., supply chain) optimization. Cross-genre games and games with natural language interpretation3 are also growing popular as a means to aid critical thinking in the military. These new techniques can save money, time, and resources while making departments and organizations more agile.

One of the key differentiators of a serious games approach to problem solving is a concentration on process optimization. This focus involves examining the most efficient and effective ways to improve procedures via iterative collaborative gameplay, applying Six Sigma principles. Business process improvement can reduce cost and cycle time by as much as 90% while improving quality by more than 60% (Harrington 1991). Results can also include improvements in margin, capacity, and capital reductions.

In a serious games approach, participants sort and understand real data, analyze real issues, and test real potential solutions, applying variables that can be adjusted and readjusted for different approaches. Game play preserves engagement while focusing players on important concerns and helping transform their assumptions, skills, and behaviors.

With cloud computing infrastructure, organizations can use serious games to improve business processes by solving complex problems collaboratively through predictive modeling and real-time visualization of methods to, for example, reduce costs and cycle times. Gaming systems tap employee and citizen insights and promote collaboration with partners for greater organizational agility.

Game Playing to Enhance National Security

Military, security, and emergency services organizations were early adopters of serious games to help test interagency disaster response scenarios or scale skills training beyond the platoon level to tackle complex strategy and operational use. The coordinated and cooperative nature of defense work requires team building and prepares for specific and highly synchronized missions. Potentially hazardous work benefits from simulations in which mistakes can be made without causing actual damage or endangerment and then evaluated for future learning.

Serious games techniques can also help optimize military supply chains. By creating real-time strategy games that enable players to examine how unforeseen events might affect real-world components, departments can help make their supply chains work more reliably and efficiently. Business or industry partners can also be included to tap insights from a wider network. The endproduct becomes a new, executable supply chain process that has been prevetted by the broader value chain.

In a cyber defense scenario, players benefit from competing in opposing roles on offense, defense, and network exploitation, playing as different entities such as countries and organizations. Strategic-level serious games should mimic the mundane and repetitive aspects of a scenario as well as information technology (IT) tasks, business processes, and attacks.

Direct representation of the decision process can be an instructive way to introduce new leaders to their roles and to allow key decision makers to focus on anomalous incidents by automating the common. A cyber security game that includes the possibilities of organizational policy, politics, operating costs, and social engineering will better prepare players for real-world complexities.

With current advances in process optimization, cloud, analytics, and artificial intelligence capabilities, the defense industry has the tools it needs to conduct strategy-level and process optimization gaming. These approaches teach the kinds of abilities needed to solve complex problems, including leading and managing, handling logistics and resources, prioritizing tasks, making sense of rapidly changing data, and learning from mistakes.

Five Steps to Serious Gaming

Game design and development are constantly under-estimated. Many people assume that all they need to develop a serious game is interns with “game skills.” The assumption that someone who plays games would be able to design a good game is completely erroneous. From the development side, there are countless game engines on the market that require highly specialized coding skills.

Development of a serious game requires determination of the measures of its effectiveness, an architecture, specifically designed puzzles and/or experiences, a genre, and a platform.4 Below are five steps for determining how to approach a serious games project.

Step 1: Determine the measures that will prove the game was worth the investment.

The very first question to answer concerns the purpose of the game. Is it to sell things? Is it to teach something? Is it to solve a problem? The game must then be designed in such a way that its effectiveness can be quantifiably measured. It is critical to start here. It may be tempting to do this last, but the answer to this can affect the entire architecture of the game so it is essential to start here.

If the game is to be used to improve sales skills, then the design must include measurements to prove that salespeople who played the game measurably understood their trade better than those who did not participate.

If the game is meant to optimize strategy among a group of participants, the results report must be able to substantiate that the model created by the players is better than one that has been Six Sigma–certified by a consultant.

If the game is meant to teach physics to 6th graders, results must show that they learned at least as well as from traditional methods.

How an organization measures success may directly affect the design of the game and the architecture of the system. It may be helpful to do an “after-action” review (i.e., to assess what players actually did during the gameplay) in an automated fashion to facilitate real-time insight.

Step 2: What is to be taught or conveyed?

Learning points should be documented in as much detail as possible, as in the following examples:

  • The car salesman’s 7 steps to a sale are . . .
  • The best practice business model associated with a disaster response scenario is . . .

Step 3: What kinds of puzzles or experiences are best suited to the information or lesson to be conveyed?

Simpler puzzles can also be used to explain complex systems such as molecular structures, as in the Foldit example cited earlier.

This is the hardest step of the five, and unfortunately few people realize just how hard it is. Most think they could design a great game. But matching the right puzzle/experience(s) to the learning points documented in Step 2 is difficult. Someone who knows games intimately and across genres should help with this step.

Step 4: Based on the puzzles/experiences, what is the right genre for the game?

Now that the basic design of the game has been determined, what genre does it fall into? Is it a city simulation, first-person adventure, strategy game, simulation-style game, pattern-matching game? Careful study of “flow” (a mental state of operation in which the person performing the activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus; Csikszentmihalyi 1996) in games for entertainment in that genre can yield tips about how to proceed.

City sims, turn-based, and real-time strategy games have proven to be enormously powerful as genres to help explain complex systems. City-building games (city sims) are a genre of strategy computer game where players act as the overall planner and leader of a city, with responsibility for its growth and management. In a turn-based strategy (TBS) game (usually a war game, especially a strategic-level war game), players take turns, as distinct from a real-time strategy game, in which all players participate simultaneously.

Step 5: Knowing the genre and audience, what is the right platform for the game?

It is essential to know the intended audience well if the game is to be effective. How long are participants likely to play? What will motivate them to play? Can the game be standalone or does it need to be integrated with other applications? Does the game need to be Web playable? Mobile? Single or multiplayer? How often does the game’s content need to be refreshed?

Once these questions are answered it is time to shop around for the right platform and the right vendor to help with development, if in-house expertise is not available. It will be key to know whether the platform is proprietary to the selected vendor. If it is, then future updates will have to come from this vendor unless it offers a “mod kit,” which allows noncoders to access and modify surface components of the game (e.g., prices and product descriptions in a sales game).

Choosing the Right Game Studio to Partner With to Make a Serious Game

It is important at the outset to get to know games and know them well. The ability to speak the language of games is essential to work with and gauge the efficacy of the studio that will make the game.

The best way to learn about games is by playing them across genres. The Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco, E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo), and the East Coast Game Conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, are fantastic venues to learn about innovation in entertainment games. Why start there instead of a serious games summit? Because entertainment features the newest and most innovative ideas and is most likely to showcase examples of game play and techniques that can be adapted for a serious gaming purpose.

Younger employees tend to be enthusiastic volunteers for help in this area. Their aptitude can be assessed by asking them what their favorite games are and why, especially if they play across genres and can critique their favorite games well. Such employees can be very useful resources in a new serious games program.

When trying to find the right game studio partner, I recommend considering the following questions:

1. Do they “get” games?

Get the bios of the staff members who would work on your serious games project. Are they full of e-learning and instructional designers and no one else? What game engines do the staff have expertise with? Take a look at the games they have developed. Do they look engaging? Did the staff correctly match the right kind of game experience to what they are trying to teach, or did they instead create chocolate-covered broccoli—merely creating an attractive cover (gaming) for the necessary “nutrients” (the material to be learned)? Make sure the people on your project have an understanding of good game design. If they come from the entertainment gaming industry, why did they leave? If they think a great game is a multiple choice questionnaire, run toward the exit sign.

2. Do they get serious games?

The team members will need to have enough breadth to take a complex idea and make it accessible and engaging to the participants. If all they know is entertainment games, they may not have the skill set needed to work with serious content. The team’s bios should reveal whether the members have what it takes to understand, for example, molecular biology well enough to design an effective protein folding game.

3. What about the proximity of the vendor?

The Internet makes working virtually a lot easier, but there will be times when it will be most helpful to look over the designer’s shoulder—literally—during the design process. The selected team must be able to understand your vision for the game throughout the entire development process.

4. What types of game genre does the vendor specialize in?

Does the game studio specialize in the genre that makes the most sense for your game? If you are making a next-generation city sim game to explain water management, it doesn’t make sense to choose a studio that specializes in first-person shooters.


Sophisticated information technology, abundant human capabilities, a growing appreciation of engagement, and the desire for discovery have created a foundation for utilizing games to tackle intractable problems and achieve big changes. But gaming requires more than business leaders interested in adding experience points and digital merit badges to individuals who answer the most emails. It requires an investment of time and resources from a panoply of contributors—scientists, researchers, visionaries, futurists, game designers, game developers, game testers, gamers themselves, citizens, media, political leaders, informed business leaders, artists, science fiction writers, popular science writers, universities, academia, lobbyists, and educators. The gaming community has a responsibility to advocate for games and provide educational opportunities; likewise, business leaders have a responsibility to look beyond stereotypes and learn what games have become—a valuable tool for learning, communicating, and collaborating around important goals.

When well designed, games can not only be extremely adept at explaining complex systems but also motivate people to play using a wide variety of game design tricks. These same tricks can also be used to motivate and reward employees and partners who optimize the core components of the underlying business.

It’s up to each organization to grasp just how powerful serious games are—and make the most of them. Game on!


architecture: how a game is designed

experience: the flow of the game, what the user encounters through gameplay

genre: a category of game (e.g., puzzle, role play, strategy)

platform: web-based, mobile, console, downloadable executable


Csikszentmihalyi M. 1996. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Perennial.

Harrington HJ. 1991. Business Process Improvement: The Breakthrough Strategy for Total Quality, Productivity, and Competitiveness. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Harry M, Schroeder R. 2000. Six Sigma: The Breakthrough Management Strategy Revolutionizing the World’s Top Corporations. New York: Doubleday.

Hopkins MS, Kruschwitz N, LaValle S, Lesser E, Shockley R. 2010. Analytics: The New Path to Value. MIT Sloan Management Review Research Report, vol 52. Cambridge MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


1 BTM Business Agility, BTM Corporation 2010 (

2 “Gartner Says By 2015, More Than 50 Percent of Organizations That Manage Innovation Processes Will Gamify Those Processes.” Press Release, April 12, 2011;

 3 This term refers to the means for artificial intelligence to interpret natural (i.e., human) language and respond accordingly.

4 Definitions of terms relevant to serious games are provided in a glossary at the end of this article.

About the Author:Phaedra Boinodiris is Serious Games Program Manager at IBM.