Serious Games at University Level

The students of the executive, part-time master’s programme, Leadership and Innovation in Complex Systems (LAICS), between Copenhagen Business School and Aarhus University, have for several years now had the opportunity to experience learning games in their education. To be more precise, Professor Morten Thanning Vendelø has, as a part of a workshop in the Module 1 of the programme, used the leadership simulation Playmakers to generate deep discussions on a number of the programme’s objectives: Organisational power and politics, Problem formulation and reframing, and Organisational networking.

“No matter what decisions the players take, complexity arises. The participants first create plans, which they soon will need to adapt, again and again. This gives rise to valuable discussions on consequences of actions taken, and re-caps on plans made.”

Students at LAICS come to their studies from working life, with the experience it provides them with. Prof. Vendelø’s facilitation of the game allows them to draw on their experience, instead of having to imagine situations they have no comparison point to.

The leadership simulation is a part of a three-day workshop, where Prof. Vendelø incorporates Playmakers as one of several pedagogical techniques. The workshop consists of lectures, Q&A sessions, cases, and other exercises that draw on the participants’ real life experiences. The simulation’s mechanics, and the situations that arise in the course of the game, are suitably complex to encourage deep discussions. Thus the set up encourages a steep, and rapid, learning curve amongst the students.

The fictional game characters that form the team the participants lead in the game are easy to match with real-life people. Most of us know at least one of those noisy primadonna-types, or quiet introverts. Discussions and understanding created by this personal insight makes it easier for participants to associate with the game situations. They are further encouraged to share their views on questions like: ‘How have I seen this done’, or ‘How should / shouldn’t this be done’. These reflections on real-life, practised in a safe environment, are valuable learning moments in the course of the game.

Playmakers enables the students to discuss the complexity of real life, as it helps create a mutual language and gives good ground for discussions

The students are faced with the simulation’s complexity and flexibility, and find that there is no right way to play the game. No matter what decisions the players take, complexity arises and new, often surprising situations need to be dealt with. The game progression directs the participants to first create plans, and then to adapt them, again and again. Prof. Vendelø names this adapting process as one of the main learning points he encourages by his facilitation of the game.

“Playmakers enables the students to discuss the complexity of real life, as it helps create a mutual language and gives good ground for discussions. The discussions on how the plan worked, what happened, and why did it happen, are valuable on their own. When they lead to decision making and the students dealing with the new setting, the learning experience is lifted to a new level”. 

Overall, serious games and simulations are a worthy addition to the pedagogical toolbox of any teacher or lecturer as they have the potential to reach many styles of learning. They include those individuals who require practical experience to learn, at the same time as they stimulate the more cognitively oriented students to think in different ways. As learning-by-doing is for the most of us the best way to guarantee that we remember what we have learned, serious games leave none outside.