Levelling up Leadership with serious games

Leadership, like many other soft topics which are classed as critical 21st Century skills is a tough nut to crack. There is only so much theory one can learn about a soft skill before you need to bite the bullet and head out to the real world to practice your new found knowledge. But therein lies a challenge; to practice leadership skills you need people to lead and said people may not be immediately available. And to top it off, if you turn out to be a poor leader, you risk widespread damage amongst the team.

So how can we address leadership development using games? Or to put it another way how can a game produce a better leader? Using the lessons Totem Learning learned from the development of a multiplayer leadership game I wanted to share the top tips on how games can help build this critical skill. 

The top 3 areas where I believe games can bring real benefit to leadership development are;

  1. To allow skills practice
  2. To observe emerging leadership skills
  3. To evaluate leadership capabilities

Those 3 criteria really became the foundation for a leadership game which I absolutely loved designing and love seeing people play.

Early cardboard mock-up of one of the puzzles in the game

Early cardboard mock-up of one of the puzzles in the game

From my own perspective when I sat down to design a leadership game, it was really important that every person in that game had the opportunity to become the leader during at least one point in the game. I didn’t want to create a game where there was a leader role and the rest of the team were forced into the follower category.

So that was my first challenge. How was I going to create an environment where there were multiple leaders? Well who’s to say that your role in a game stays the same from start to finish? Why can’t it evolve and change? I felt this was a good reflection of reality in that we all have our strengths and weaknesses and our jobs change overtime. So that revelation really set the foundation for the structure and flow of the game moving forward. I knew I wanted to create a scenario where the game changed, roles were fluid and opportunities were aplenty for those willing to grab them.

Provide the raw information about the situation and see what conclusions are drawn

The design incorporated changing the nature of the connections between the team members throughout the experience. They began as single players, isolated from one another, and so there was great individual responsibility. Gradually we built mini teams by introducing players to one another over time, before connecting them all together into one homogenous team.

The benefit this design decision brought was that each player made their own conclusions about the environment, even though every player started off with the same experience. This was a great eye opener into how each of the team members felt about individual working and reading their environments.

Introduce Multiple Goals

As in the real world, leaders have to balance differing priorities and goals. In our game design we represented this through personal and team goals; through setting up an initial competitive environment, where you were in a race against other players to reach the goal. But over time we introduced the concept that the final goal could not be achieved alone. It was very interesting to see how players reacted to sacrificing their personal gain for the benefit of the team.

Players need to collaborate

Players need to collaborate

Use pressure techniques to explore behaviour in different scenarios

Throughout the game, players were faced with the overarching goal of escape and completion but also a series of challenging puzzles along the way to push their individual coaching, team and leadership skills. We applied time pressure to these situations where the faster the problem was addressed the more points the team received. As well as these pressurised situations we mixed in non-pressure situations where they had time and no consequences to solve problems. Using a mix of these situations we could assess how each player behaved differently.

Make sure you have a solid foundation

Throughout the design we underpinned the game design with a foundation of leadership development strategy crafted by subject matter experts.

Leadership is about getting others to do things by creating the environment where progress is possible. In our game design, progress was not possible unless the player cooperated: setting aside personal gain for the good of the team. We built in situations where innovative responses were required from the players, often under pressure and in non-routine situations. Influencing skills were an essential ability team members required to ensure a high score.

Another critical aspect of leadership is coaching, a method of directing, instructing and training a person or group of people, with the aim to achieve some goal or develop specific skills. We built in specific scenarios where users had to coach others through situations. These puzzles involved;

  •  Identifying goals
  • Removing obstacles
  • Generating options
  • Planning actions
  • Actioning the plan

It was important for us to give everyone an opportunity to coach so we always provided opportunities to repeat skills and practice, but in new contexts therefore reinforcing strategies and behaviours.  

Problem solving was a core component to the game. A definition of problem solving is that an individual or a team applies knowledge, skills, and understanding to achieve a desired outcome in an unfamiliar situation. Problem solving is central to many games and underpins many of the design decisions we made.

We wanted our players to objectively identify possible causes of a problem and then proposing potential, often creative, solutions to the team. The great thing about using problem solving in games is that it leads to permanent information retention because you come to the conclusion yourself; you make your own connections rather than being told the correct answer. Problem solving is the opposite of memorization where information is often forgotten after testing.

The final component that was important to our foundation was that we had to make the team feel like a team quickly! We had to give the players a common purpose to (finally) align their efforts to. This was achieved through the use of the storyline, repeating subtly through the game the need to work together, the gradual connection of players into the overall team and the gradual increase in difficulty level, building camaraderie. 

And finally give good feedback!

A sandbox, experimental environment, is no good without guidance and feedback. Because we wanted this game to be used without the need for a facilitator to be present, we had to make sure the game provided all the feedback that was needed. Through the process of highlighting successes and learning from mistakes we were able to bring about a new level of personal effectiveness.

Read more on Unlock: Leadership