What makes a great business simulation?

Some reflections on how to evaluate a business simulation.

Working on three simulations of my own and setting up the Business Simulation Hub, I have looked into a large number of simulations. Some time ago, we exceeded hundred simulations listed, and soon the number will exceed 130. Naturally, I have put some thought into what makes a good simulation. 

While diverse factors inevitably underlie the success of any pedagogical tool, I think the following three-part recipe helps assess the strengths and weaknesses of management simulations. I came across this categorization in developing my own small simulation, but more broadly, I think more broadly it can help you decide whether a simulation is good for you and your students, clients, or employees. 

The core elements of business simulations 

The design of a business simulation can be thought to involve the following three somewhat independent layers that support one another:

  1. “The pedagogical payload”: The underlying knowledge that the simulation is designed to convey to the player. This can involve theoretical understanding, practical skills, and simple domain information.
  2. The gameplay design: The mechanics of the simulation, the storyline that the players progress through, and the way players interact with or compete against each other.
  3. Implementation details: For the players this involves the graphical interface, videos, the quality of writing, and the exact parameters that define how game mechanics are experienced. For the facilitator/teacher the implementation details involve the administration tools that help assess participants and provide feedback.

The layers logically build on each other, yet form a distinctive area of game design that needs to be of adequate quality. Assessing all the three layers is important when choosing a simulation. No simulation is perfect, and knowing the weaknesses will help you make the most of it in the session.

The “pedagogical payload” 

At the core of every simulation are the learnings you want to impart on the participants. Some simulations focus on conveying specific theoretical ideas or mechanisms, such as negative bargaining zones in the Zephyr simulation. More often, simulations relate to broader theoretical domains; the Plymouth Corp simulation incorporates various theories of crisis management, while the People Management simulation by TopSim covers a range of change management and leadership concepts. The comprehensive “capstone” simulations often include elements from marketing, strategy, HR, accounting, and finance.  

Many simulations incorporate practical knowledge outside academic theories, and some are based almost solely on insights from an industry or practice. For example. SmoothTeam explains that its Twists of Remote Work simulation is designed to address the common challenges that arise in the contemporary remote and hybrid work. Because the simulation is designed to address diverse challenges based on teams, the developers deliberately chose not to build it on any specific theories.

It can be difficult to fully assess the knowledge underlying the simulation. Teaching notes often go a long way in explaining the intellectual background. Ideally, simulation content should also be connected to the empirical research, although this does not seem to be the case; some simulations use data from a real company or industry. One quick way to assess the pedagogical quality is to look at the author; it is unsurprising that many simulation games have been developed by senior professors of prominent business schools. Yet, a famous university affiliation does not automatically guarantee that the simulation incorporates the relevant ideas you want to teach. Likewise, a development team can draw extensively on academic research without explicit affiliation with any specific university. The teaching note is the best source of insight into the ideas and research underlying the simulation.

The gameplay design

The simulation design determines how the pedagogical content is delivered. Key questions relate to the length of the game, the kinds of information provided to the players, the decisions they have to make, and the way they interact. Some simulations incorporate a longer plot, where the company or manager goes through a series of challenges.

A key design distinction can be made between “systems dynamics” simulations and “story-driven” simulations. In the former, the gameplay involves a sequence of repeated decisions that influence the context and success of a company. Hubro Business Simulation is a recent example of this approach, involving decisions related to investments, production, and sales. The story-driven simulations, in contrast, involve a sequence of challenges that allow participants to engage with a number of business issues. For example, the Kruger Bau Digital Strategy simulation provides an evolving storyline where players have to choose among issue-specific responses.

Debriefing and classroom interactions of simulations depend on their gameplay design. The systems dynamics approach highlights generic “mechanics” that students experience and learn about, whereas a story-driven simulation provides themes for discussion more akin to a classic case study. Many simulations now incorporate both elements, combining some core “mechanics” that help students grasp the key theoretical insights with engaging storylines that provide a basis for classroom discussion.

Many simulations support collaborative and competitive multiplayer functionality. This design can be particularly effective in executive education and corporate use, when participants belong to the same team. In this vein, the Agility in Practice simulation is designed to facilitate developmental discussion among actual team members. Pitting the student teams against one another can increase engagement. For example, in the Airline simulation the students run regional airlines that compete directly with one another. 

Implementation details 

However great the concept of the simulation is, its ultimate success depends on its usability. Students are unlikely to engage if the simulation looks dated, it is difficult to use, the texts are badly written, or it is incompatible with their device of choice—increasingly a mobile phone. Although the importance of implementation will depend on your group, it is something you should not overlook. Some of the newer simulations are designed from the ground up to work greatly on the mobile phone. Other features in more recent products include pleasant illustrations and well-produced video content. 

Implementation details also include the exact parameters of the simulation that determine the relative attractiveness of various strategies. Students are likely to be upset if there is an easy way to “hack” the simulation, creating superior outcomes by simple strategies, such as instituting ridiculously high prices or investing all funds in cost cutting efforts. When developing my own simulation, the exact game parameters were among the last aspects to be fixed.

Finally, the implementation details include the administration tools that allow the facilitator or teacher to assess how various participants and participant teams did, the strategies they chose, and the outcomes they accomplished. The best admin consoles allow teachers to generate debriefing slides that support and guide classroom discussion. These tools become particularly important when it is difficult to observe teams play the simulation. Such contexts include remote and hybrid teaching, large class sizes, and course designs where simulations are done in-between the sessions.

Designing your own simulation?

The above schematic is based on my reflections on designing my first own simulation, and I hope it might be helpful for academics thinking about developing their own simulation. Once you have identified the academic and practical knowledge that you want to convey, the question of gameplay mechanics arise. If you want to create a story-driven simulation akin to a roleplaying experience, LiveCase provides a mobile-friendly platform that facilitates rapid design of simulations around multiple choice questions without programming. In contrast, if you want to convey certain system dynamics, you need to either enroll some programming talent (as I did with The Data Imperative Game) or get in talks with some of the other established simulation providers.

The various elements of simulation design are fairly independent of each other, but these layers are built on each other. Without a clear understanding of the knowledge you want to convey, it is difficult to design the gameplay mechanics. Likewise, the user interface design and multimedia need to serve the game mechanics.  

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