Gaming in the education of project managers

Igor A. Osipov, M.A., Ph.D. Candidate

The Basis of this Presentation and White Paper

Author David K. Foot (1996) in his book “Boom, Bust and Echo” states that one premise in life holds true for all of us who are alive and well, each and every day. This one premise is that we all get one day older every day. This fact, combined with the fact that the early adopters of project management, those that are in that Baby Boomer demographic, are on the verge of their next “life step” called retirement creates an interesting educational challenge within the project management profession.

The Baby Boomers, the majority of whom are slated to retire within the next 10 years, will retire and take their extensive project management knowledge into retirement with them. This places a tremendous focus upon educating this new generation of project managers on the basic principles, tools, and techniques of project management but also upon educating them in the more practical aspects of what really works and what really doesn't work in this wondrous artful science called project management.

It also places a huge burden upon the Education Community to more effectively connect with these new generations and their unique learning needs. It is this combination of experienced individuals retiring and the need to rapidly educate these new demographics that creates a new opportunity, the use of games as part of our educational “toolkit.”

Demographics—A Study in Generations

The Baby Boomers will be, over the next 20 years, slowly replaced by the new demographics of what have become known as Generation X and Generation Y. Not only are the Baby Boomers about to be physically replaced, but how they work, learn, and develop knowledge is also about to be replaced. One of the key differences between Gen X, Gen Y and the Baby Boomers, other than their numbers and relative demographic size, is in the way that they learn. The Baby Boomer generation were content to learn in classrooms with the eminently wise “owl” at the front of the room lecturing to them on content and context.

The Gen X demographic resisted this rather passive style of learning. The resultant, begun by the Harvard School of Business in the early 1980s was the advent of the case study. Today, many of our truly useful andragogical learning workshops contain the active use of case studies. Gen X, the smallest of all demographics (also known as the Baby Bust generation) have had an effect upon learning and upon how project management is taught in workshops throughout the world.

Now, we encounter the newest demographic, Gen Y. Also known as the “Nintendo Generation,” this group of individuals has grown up learning on computers and much of their learning has also occurred through playing games. Yes, junior is learning while he or she is playing that Nintendo Mom and Dad! They are learning the consequences of moves, strategies, and actions in the game and how that results in some sort of payoff (positive or negative consequences of their actions).

Kris Kemper in his blog article, “Finding out if the game can be won,” (Kemper, 2009) discusses how he “learned” while playing a car racing game. He notes that he eventually figured out how he could beat the computer at the game. He learned to understand the consequences of his actions, controls, and decisions made in playing the game and used that knowledge in order to be more effective in playing the game. It is this combination of repeated experience, learning from the experience, forming a new set of actions, and using this new action that is the “learning experience.”

What games can do and part of their value is in showing us the consequences of our actions and strategies. The game can also show us how choosing the “right path” or preferred path of decisions can lead to success while other paths can, ultimately, lead to failure. In project management our path of decisions and the consequences of those decisions are what the Baby Boomer generation learned through their real-life experiences.

The value of a game in educating our newest generation of project managers has many facets. Not only can it engage the individual in a meaningful experience of a project, it can do so without the pain and cost of failed projects that many of the Baby Boomer generation have experienced in their cycles of learning (learning by doing and experimentation in “real-life” projects). A game is also fun and entertaining, a key facet of any learning experience for Gen Y individuals. Remember, Gen Y is the Nintendo Generation and, as such, demand that their learning (and life experiences) have an element of fun as a fundamental part of that experience.

Perhaps the language being used to describing the Gen Y propensity for fun does some disservice here. The intention of these words is to state that the Gen Y demographic has made fun and entertainment an integral part of everything they do. At work, at rest, at home and in doing the usual mundane stuff of life, the Gen Y credo of “including fun” is perhaps something that the Baby Boomers and Gen X demographics have missed in their life pursuits and it is time that they “get with the program.” If the wording presents this “fun” element as a potential criticism, it is totally unintended.

As a summary what is being seen that argues strongly for the use of games in the future development of learning experiences are as follows:

  1. An increasing demand for rapid education of the Gen X and Gen Y demographics in the principles of project management. As quoted by Sherry Cooper (2008, pp 94-95), 50% of the North American working population will be 50 years of age or older by 2011, creating a huge imperative to educate those who will inherit this mantle of project management leadership as rapidly as is possible.
  2. An increasing demand for education in project management that not only informs but that also entertains.

Gaming Theory and Games as the New Learning Paradigm

Enter the concept of gaming as a means of providing not only this rapid knowledge development but also, providing this entertainment that is so badly sought by these new Gen X and Gen Y individuals. In order to understand games, we need to develop a fundamental understanding of gaming theory and how this can be used in education in project management.

Although a rash oversimplification, gaming theory is tied to the use of mathematical models as a means to develop “predictive” output in the form of a “game.” For example, we can develop models that will assist us in predicting the total value of a throw of any two dice based on probability theory. Using this game (throwing the dice) we can then participate in a learning experience with the payoff defined by the probability involved in the game (both positive and negative payoff consequences).

Another, perhaps more pragmatic, definition of gaming theory that can be applied more readily to project management learning focuses upon gaming as the application of the mathematics and relationships that can be established through a game to create a scenario or series of scenarios in which individuals can learn a principle, technique or some other aspects that is of value. In other words, a game can be used as the means by which a learner is exposed to some specific principles and learns the proper use of these principles in playing the game.

Project management, from a gaming perspective is a series of decisions that produce scenarios (outcome scenarios based upon the decisions) all of which are linked to the original decision. If, for example, in a project we have chosen not to create a Quality Management Plan, we can trace poor quality in the project deliverables back to this earlier decision. In a gaming sense, the scenario decision of not planning for quality produces an outcome (a payoff). It does save planning time and costs but can produce inadequate quality and potentially additional costs if rework is required to bring the deliverables to an acceptable quality level.

This type of scenario planning and comprehension of the consequences of the actions, is gaming in action. We see the action, the scenario it produces and the consequence or payoff (negative or positive). Gaming has the potential, therefore, to be useful, therefore, in the development of educational scenarios that can provide the learner with a stimulating project management learning experience.

Learning by Doing: Praxis of Skill Acquisition

Industry think tanks, such as Forrester and Accenture, already noted the effectiveness of innovative learning approaches, such as experiential simulations, with their ability to showcase and reinforce the business value of newly implemented processes in organizations, building cross-level communication, and implementing change (Gliedman, Leaver, & Gaynor, 2006, Fitzpatrick, Higgins, & Hoglund, 2006). These learning tools are indispensable in optimizing existing business processes within a shorter period of time by quickly introducing key concepts to all stakeholder parties for subsequent buy-in.

Paul Wilkinson (2007), one of UK ITIL standard authors, provides an example. “You can give a trainee pilot hours of classroom training and theory in which the trainee can demonstrate their understanding of, by passing exams. But without simulation training to experience the theory in action, to translate the information into real knowledge the Pilot is unable to fly the plane” (2007). The same applies to project management theory—where attending lectures and preparing for and passing PMP certification (PMI or IPMA) exams does not necessarily imply that an individual will succeed in completing a project in a reallife situation or being an effective team member. (Exhibit 1)

Exhibit 1

Exhibit 1

Exploring the ways that adults learn is the most significant factor in not only learning a skill, but also retaining that learning over time. One of the very best ways for an adult to learn is through doing. Although often deemed to be obvious today, Confucius is often quoted to convey how important this technique of learning by doing was in his time as well. The techniques of reading, listening, or watching someone else pale in comparison to the impacts associated with experience (Mullaly, 2008).

Games and Learning Styles

Games also support the wide variety of participant learning styles. Kolb's Model of learning styles, as defined by Dorothy MacKeracher (2006) in her book Making Sense of Adult Learning) provides an understanding of learner preferences. (Exhibit 2)

Exhibit 2

Exhibit 2

These four fundamental styles (concrete experience, abstract conceptualization, reflective observation, and active experimentation) can all be satisfied through gaming. The most difficult of these in the gaming environment is that of the reflective observer. However, by building in time and the means by which the learner can reflect during a game, this opportunity is provided.

Given that a gaming experience can be built with time and opportunity to introduce “rounds” or repetitive cycles of the game, a participant can then be engaged in this learning cycle repeatedly. As well, if the game is a cooperative game (we all work together to win) the opportunity to create that win can be made part of the learning cycle of the game.

Games and Emotional Experiential Learning

Jarvis, as quoted by Sharan B. Merriam (Merriam, Caffarella, & Bumgartner, 2007), in the book Learning In Adulthood—A Comprehensive Guide, has also developed a model of learning that reflects both the experiential and the internal emotional style of learning. (Exhibit 3)

Exhibit 3

Exhibit 3

Jarvis hypothesizes that when we can no longer cope with the outcome of experiences (life history) that we construct an experiment in change that will create a change in our knowledge and patterns of memory. One of the most important elements of this cycle of learning is our emotional response to the change. A positive experience and emotion will create a more lasting and robust change than will a negative emotional response.

Games as part of the learning environment, is the embodiment of this socially constructed cycle. A game is quite literally a social construct that provides both entertainment and an experiential opportunity. The game, if constructed properly, can also provide the learner with the reflective opportunity and the emotional recognition opportunity (how did I feel about the experience or the outcome from the experience). It is the combination of these two (both the rational comprehension and the emotional recognition) that make the gaming experience that much more impactful to the learner.

Merriam goes on to point out (Merriam et al., 2007, p. 101) that “the learner is more than a cognitive machine. The learner is a whole person made up of the mind and the body and comes to a learning situation with a history and a biography that interacts in individual ways with the experience that generates the nature of the learning.” Games allow each learner their own individual experience of the game and learning opportunity while providing the context in which that learning can occur.

Games Examples

Many readers may be thinking at this juncture that only big computer games or intricate board games are needed to provide a rich project management game experience. Yes, there are many excellent examples of games that have been developed in the marketplace that provide the rich, complex gaming experience that may be useful to teach the larger context of project management.

Complex Games

A complex game should provide the participant with the full cycle of both Kolb's and Jarvis’ learning models. A good game should provide the learner with multiple instances (or rounds) in which they can play the game, learn from the game, and apply that learning to the next round. Superior games also have different lessons available from each round or phase of the game becoming more complex as the game progresses.

For the purposes of this document and presentation, no specific products will be named but the authors will be pleased to provide examples of effective games that are being used by or that have been developed by their corporation.

Simple Games

Instead, however, let's also look at the simpler games that can be used to develop excellent learning focused upon one or two principles of project management. Remember that these games are simple to both facilitate and use materials that are readily available in any toy or games store.

Although there are several examples that could be cited, we have chosen to focus only upon two very simple games. One of these games will be presented in the Global Congress workshop session and the participants will be provided with the full Kolb cycle to reflect upon their experience and to formulate future actions that they will apply in their back-at-the-office projects.

The Lego Game

(With thanks to Peter Frigon of CCS Energy Services for sharing this game.)

In this game you establish teams of four people. On each team there will be an observer, a communicator, a relayer, and a builder. This is how the game goes:

  • The observer will leave the room and view the model that the rest of the team must build. This Lego model has been built by the facilitator and will be re-created by each four-member team.
  • The observer then provides information on the model to the relayer. The relayer, in turn, passes the model information to the communicator who then informs the builder of the model that they must create using the information passed to them.
  • The builder cannot ask questions of the communicator (reverse the process) for clarification by the relayer and observer.
  • The game proceeds for a fixed period of time where other “analyzers” can watch the game proceed and begin to make decisions around the potential breakdowns occurring in this game and potential learning opportunities.

This simple game can be used to create learning on a variety of different project management topics. These have included everything from communications through to the appropriate setting of expectations. The game requires a minimal amount of facilitator set-up.

The Card Game

(With thanks to Brenda Geil of the Government of Alberta Learning Centre for sharing this game.)

In this game the participants are going to be playing three hands of euchre at each table. The winners in the game (those with the highest score in the euchre game) move to the next table while the “losers” stay where they are.

The facilitator, in setting up this game, provides different instructions at each table. At one table diamonds are automatically trump, no matter what is turned up. At another table the normal procedure of turning over the top card to determine trump occurs. At a third table, clubs are always trump and at a fourth table there is no such thing as trump and therefore the jacks are not part of this game.

There is one rule and that is that nobody talks at the table during the game or after each game.

After the participants have all read their instructions, the facilitator takes away the rules pages from the participants. At the end of three hands, one team of two (the winners) moves on while the other team (the losers) stay put. We then begin the three hands cycle again.

Of course, the lack of information sharing and the lack of communicating lead to chaos and, in some cases, individuals becoming very hostile and upset. Naturally, again, we have an opportunity for the team members to learn about expectations setting, communications, as well as roles and responsibilities in this game exercise.

In Closing

As part of any project management training workshop setting you have the opportunity to stage games as simple as the samples quoted to provide some very profound and deep project management learning experiences. As well, the game can be a lot of fun for the participants. Gaming is the new paradigm in experiential adult learning and, as such, needs to be considered in the design and execution of any new project management workshop.

We hope that this short paper will provide you with the incentive to continue to research gaming for your project management learning experiences.


Cooper, S. (2008) The new retirement. Toronto, Canada: Penguine Press.

Fitzpatrick, S., Higgins, J., & Hoglund, T. (2006). The Future of Enterprise Learning: Driving High-Performance with New Strategies, Tools and a Broader Mission. Accenture White Papers.

Foot, D. K. (1996). Boom, bust & echo: How to profit from the coming demographic shift. Toronto, ON: Macfarlane, Walter and Ross.

Gliedman, C., Leaver, S., & Gaynor, E. (2006). ITIL Simulators demonstrate the value of process models. Forrester Trends (September 1). Forrester Research Inc.

Kemper, K. (2009) Finding out if the game can be won Retrieved from

MacKeracher, D. (2006). Making sense of adult learning, 2nd edition. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

Merriam, Sharan B., Caffarella, Rosemary S., & Baumgartner, Lisa M. (2007). Learning in adulthood, a comprehensive guide, 3rd edition. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons Inc., Jossey-Bass.

Mullaly, M. (2008). Introducing ultimate route: An interactive simulation improves risk and team management. Interthink Consulting Incorporated.

Wilkinson, P. (2007). Practice makes perfect: Simulation games to increase the return-on-investment of ITIL training. GamingWorks BV White Papers.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2009, Interthink Consulting Incorporated
Originally published as a part of 2009 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida, USA



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