Secrets of Simulation Design

Posted by Rich Mesch on Jan 10, 2014 1:23:00 PM

As mentioned in our last blog posting, I had the pleasure of co-authoring the recent book The Gamification of Learning and Instruction Fieldbook, contributing several chapters on simulation. I’ve been working with simulations and experiential learning for almost my entire career, over 25 years. I became involved with simulation because, like a lot of people in the learning & development field, I was frustrated. I looked at a lot of the learning initiatives that organizations did and I wondered: Is any of this really making a difference? We’re making people smarter, but are we really changing the way they behave? Is there any real impact on the business?

I became fascinated with simulation because simulation had the potential to not just change what people knew, but to change what they actually did. Simulation immerses people in a realistic environment and causes them to react emotionally and instinctually, much as they do in the real world. And it contextualizes what they’ve learned; rather than being an abstract idea that they have to parrot back, it becomes a real-life behavior that they have to execute.

The earliest simulations I built were very inspired by old text-adventure games like Zork. In the early days of computers, Zork created an immersive environment using only words. But more than that, it required analysis, problem-solving, and creativity—the same skills we want to achieve through training interactions. And nobody forced you to play Zork; you did it because it was challenging and fun. What if training was challenging and fun? By the way, for a retro thrill, you can still play Zork online.

Today’s technology provides more opportunities for immersion, with video, animation, mobile apps, and 3D virtual worlds. But the core of simulation is the same, whether it’s a high-end video simulation or a pencil-and-paper exercise. You need a realistic environment, a real-life goal, an immersive story, and characters you can relate to.

training_2014_LogoIf you’d like to know more about how you accomplish all that, please join me in San Diego, CA on February 3, 2014 for the Training 2014 Conference & Expo where I’ll be presenting a session called The Secrets of Simulation Design. We’ll talk about why simulation is so effective, the different types of simulation, and some basic design concepts. We’ll also look at some examples of effective simulations.

For a deeper dive on simulation, read PDG’s White Paper on Simulation and Experiential Learning, read case studies on using simulation for leadership development in a retail environment, Pharmaceutical sales leadership, or stop by and chat at Training 2014!


Rich Mesch



 Rich Mesch is Senior Director, Customer Engagement at Performance Development Group




Topics: Emerging Technologies, Storytelling, Simulation

The Gamification of Learning and Instruction Fieldbook

Posted by Rich Mesch on Dec 20, 2013 10:59:00 AM

Welcome to the next stop on the blog tour!

I've enjoyed reading Karl Kapp's books so much over the years and I'm doubly pleased to be his co-author on the newest, The Gamification of Learning and Instruction Fieldbook. I first started building simulations and learning games way, way back in 1985. Back then, I was very inspired by text adventure games like fieldbookZork, which created a very compelling and immersive world using only text. I remember thinking, if we can become so involved in fictional worlds like this, what would happen if we became immersed in real-life scenarios the same way? It would be a lot like doing it for real, except we'd be in a nice safe environment where we could try new behaviors and there would be little penalty for failing.

Of course, back then you really couldn't talk to businesses about games. Games were something serious business people simply did not engage in. So we called them interactive case studies and simulations and immersive experiences. But games they were and games they still are, except now we're not afraid to call them that.

I'm proud to be part of the Fieldbook because I think it addresses a real need in the learning industry. "Gamification" has become a (rather awkward) buzzword, and many people don't really understand what it means. Given that one of the strengths of learning games is that they help transform cognitive knowledge to behavioral skills, it makes sense to create a book that focuses on how to actually do this stuff. Karl and Lucas and I set out to create a "how to" book, a roadmap that shows you how to take all of these great ideas and actually create great games and simulations. The book is full of ideas, yes, but also full of tools, processes, guidelines, tips, and tricks.

With The Fieldbook, we created the kind of book we wish we'd had when we started out creating learning games and simulations. We hope it not only inspires you but gives you the tools you need to create awesome learning games. If you'd like a copy of your own, you can get one right here. And if you'd like to continue the conversation, please join me at the Training 2014 Conference in San Diego, CA on February 3, 2014 for my session, The Secrets of Simulation Design. See you there!

For additional thoughts about gaming from this blog, try the following:

The Chocofication of Learning

How Games Improve Performance, Part 1: An Introduction

How Games Improve Performance, Part 2: Why Are Games Effective?

Using Storytelling in Learning, Part 1: Yelling at the Movie Screen

Using Storytelling in Learning, Part 2: 7 Tips for Effective Storytelling

Using Storytelling in Learning, Part 3: The Predictable Unexpected

Using Storytelling in Learning, Part 4: Keeping it Real

Using Storytelling in Learning, Part 5: The Goal-Based Scenario 


Rich Mesch



 Rich Mesch is Senior Director, Customer Engagement at Performance Development Group


Topics: Storytelling, Simulation, Gamification

Using Storytelling in Learning, Part 5: The Goal-Based Scenario

Posted by Rich Mesch on Oct 11, 2010 9:30:00 AM

by Rich Mesch

So what’s the goal of this story?

Okay, so there’s a question you don’t often get when discussing novels or plays. What’s the goal? Well, the goal is to get to the last page of the book, or the curtain call at the end of the play. But when you’re writing stories for learning, the question takes on a different meaning. Not only are you telling a great story, you’re supposed to be helping your learner improve his or her performance.

Great learning stories include Goal-Based Scenarios. In simplest terms, the story includes a goal or a set of goals that need to be achieved; the point of going through the story is to achieve the goal. That sounds simple enough, but here’s the key: the nature of the goal impacts the way you perceive the story. Confused? Let’s break it down.
    • First and foremost, the goal of learning is not just to make you smarter; the goal is to help you build the ability to do something. A Goal-Based Scenario begins to answer to eternal question of performance improvement: what am I going to be able to do as a result of this effort? Why is it important that I’m able to do this?


    • In the business world, almost everything we do has a goal. Why should our business learning be any different? What kinds of problems can I solve with this knowledge?


    • Ultimately, storytelling for learning works best when it presents real life conflicts. It can be pretty easy to regurgitate the “right” way to handle a problem, but can you really do it under pressure? You need to recreate that pressure for the learning to have emotional impact—and Goal-Based Scenarios do that. Rather than applying learning in a vacuum, you’re attempting to solve a real business problem—and actually having to apply what you’ve learned.

So how do you create a Goal-Based Scenario? In order to create good story-based learning, you need to be consultative. You need to understand the subtleties of the job and challenges your learners face in achieving success. For example, if I’m learning selling skills, my ultimate goal is probably to close a sale. But what are the subtleties of effectively closing? Is my customer more likely to buy if I take one path over another? Will I sell more if I’m able to meet my customer’s boss, who has more buying authority? Will I sell more long-term if I’m able to build a good relationship? Am I afraid to talk too much for fear my customer will realize I don’t know as much as I claim to know?

If you’d like to know more about Goal-Based Scenarios, here are a few references:

Topics: Series, Performance Improvement, Learning Theory, Storytelling, Simulation

Using Storytelling in Learning, Part 4: Keeping it Real

Posted by Rich Mesch on May 24, 2010 5:56:00 AM

by Rich Mesch

reality check
Is there such a thing as too much reality?

In my first post on this topic, I said this:

“So how do you apply some of the rules of storytelling to our training initiatives? The key is to focus on how the world works in real life.”

The great thing about writing novels or screenplays is that you can make everything up. You’re not bound by the reality of what’s possible. But in a learning story, there needs to be some grounding in reality, however tenuous. In my simulation work, we often get hung up on reality. Does the simulation environment need to be a carbon copy of the real world? Arguably, the answer is no; one of the reasons we don’t always learn effectively is because our environments are full of distracters; your learning story can focus people on what’s important. But aren’t those distracters part of the learning experience? If you give me a nice clean environment to learn in, won’t I just have difficulty applying it in real life?

So how real do you need to get? The answer is, it depends. And not in a philosophical way. The real question is, what are the variables that need to be considered to tell the story effectively?

The most recognizable kind of simulation is probably the flight simulator. The failure to fly a plane properly will likely lead to mechanical failure, damage, and death. There are so many factors that can lead to failure (gauges, mechanics, alertness, weather, etc,) that flight simulators need to be completely realistic. The adherence to reality in a flight simulator is remarkable.

But in many environments, we want learners to focus on specific items. Where, in fact, presenting the whole reality of the job might actually be confusing. So it’s generally okay to leave stuff out or consolidate stuff. How do you that? Well, there are no hard-and-fast rules, but here are some guidelines:

Make sure you the stuff you leave out won’t distract the learner.
For example, if the learner works on a team where all of the members are in different cities, they might be distracted by a story that involves a scenario where everybody is co-located; however, they might be fine with a story where some team members are co-located and some are distributed.

I worked on a customer service simulation design with a company that made many different types of paper and packaging products. The client was very concerned that no one scenario (food packaging, office paper, print stock, etc.) would resonate with every member of the audience. Ultimately, we made the decision that the company in the simulation made bottles instead of paper. This way, the manufacturing and customer service environment was very recognizable to learners, but they weren’t distracted by the fact that the company didn’t make their exact paper product.

2. Make sure you leave in the stuff that makes the job challenging.
If we go all the way back to the beginning of this series, we established that one of the powers of storytelling in learning is that you can focus on those areas that make a job challenging. Is it a demanding boss? An industry that’s consolidating? Technology that changes rapidly? Clients who don’t know what they want? The power of storytelling is incorporating these elements in a way that affects people emotionally.

3. Focus on the element of time
For example, some businesses are seasonal; in retail, Fall is all about planning for the holiday season, Summer is all about planning for back-to school. If you leave this out, your story won’t have resonance. Also true is the impact of time; some decisions look different if you play them out over time; make sure your learners can see the short-term and long-term impact.

Topics: Series, Performance Improvement, Learning Theory, Storytelling, Simulation

Using Storytelling in Learning, Part 3: The Predictable Unexpected

Posted by Rich Mesch on Apr 29, 2010 5:02:00 AM

by Rich Mesch

Stories are compelling when you think you know what’s going to happen next, and then the story throws in a twist. You can do the same thing in your learning stories; the only issue is that you need some grounding in reality.

Movies freusual1quently build interest by inserting compelling story twists. I won’t include any spoilers, but most people will admit to being thrown for a loop when they learned the truth about Bruce Willis’ character in The Sixth Sense or who Keyser Soze really was in The Usual Suspects. But the technique is nothing new; Alfred Hitchock shocked the movie-going world in 1960 when he killed off the main character in Psycho ten minutes into the film.

One of the oddest twists is in the film Magnolia; themagnolia frogs story takes a twist when it unexpectedly starts raining frogs. And perhaps that’s the key difference between movie storytelling and learning storytelling. If your story completely deviates from reality, you’ll probably lose your audience. So your story probably shouldn’t have any froggy precipitation.

For learning stories, I recommend the use of the “Predictable Unexpected.” That means, create events that are unexpected in the context of your story, but typical in the real world. For example, in a sales simulation I designed, you spend a long time building a relationship with a client, in hopes that he will introduce you to an executive. If you successfully build the relationship, the client agrees to invite you to a meeting with the executive. When you try to return his call, you get a message that his phone line has been disconnected. He’s been fired, he’s not going to get you that meeting with the executive, and you have to begin the process over again.  The event was unexpected, but completely realistic within the scope of the storyline. And still completely gut-wrenching.

We’ll take this a little further in the next post, where we’ll talk about the role of reality in storytelling. How much reality is too much?

Topics: Series, Performance Improvement, Learning Theory, Storytelling, Simulation

Using Storytelling in Learning, Part 2: 7 Tips for Effective Storytelling

Posted by Rich Mesch on Apr 22, 2010 4:10:00 AM

by Rich Mesch

storytelling in learning

In the first post in this series, I provided an overview for integrating storytelling into learning; now, in the spirit of translating all complex ideas into a few bullet points, I wanted to provide some tips.  These tips come from my simulation design experience, but really, they apply to most learning opportunities. While storytelling is more art than science, here are a few points to keep in mind:
  1. Engage the heart as well as the mind. The workplace is emotional, so don’t be afraid to get under people’s skin. People should feel elated when they succeed, uncomfortable when they fail.
  2. Focus on what makes the job challenging. Is it the complexity of the product line? The demands of your boss? The intimidation factor of talking to a well-educated physician? Don’t shy away from the tough stuff.
  3. Show, don’t tell. This is one of the oldest writer’s rules. Instead of writing “he was nervous,” show your character’s behavior, and let your user/reader conclude that he’s nervous.
  4. Storytelling needn’t involve narrative. While a novelist employs narrative as her primary tool, the simulation designer has many more tools available. Computer users can only tolerate reading in small doses. Tell your story with video, audio, graphics and animation.
  5. Don’t feel you have to tell the entire story of a job in a simulation. Simulation stories work best when they are focused just on those parts of the job that are complex or difficult. In designing a sales simulation for a large pharmaceutical customer, we determined that reps did well at product detailing, but had opportunities for improvement in opening and closing calls. We designed a simulation that incorporated the entire call, but focused decisions specifically on openings and closings.
  6. Good stories demonstrate actions and consequences. Your user will be more engaged if you create a sense of anticipation, a driving desire to know what happens next.  Watch the way an audience leans forward in their seats during an exciting movie, and determine what will get your simulation user leaning forward at his computer.
  7. Don’t lose sight of the basics. Good stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They chart a logical progression of conflict, resolution, and conclusion. That’s part of what makes the process of reading a book or watching a movie so satisfying—the feeling that you’ve shared a journey with the characters. Make sure your story develops throughout your course or simulation and reaches a satisfying conclusion (or potentially several satisfying conclusions!) at the end.



Topics: Series, Performance Improvement, Storytelling, Simulation

Using Storytelling in Learning, Part 1: Yelling at the Movie Screen

Posted by Rich Mesch on Apr 20, 2010 6:37:00 AM

cinema photo
by Rich Mesch

Storytelling is one of the most effective yet underused methods for enhancing adult learning.  Ever heard someone yell at characters on a movie screen or talk back to the television? Ever stay up way too late one night because you had to read just one more chapter of a best seller? Ever rearrange your schedule to make sure you’re home for the conclusion of the cliffhanger episode of your favorite TV series?

Odds are good that you answered “yes” to at least one of the questions above, and very possibly to all of them. It’s not surprising. For many cultures, storytelling is one of the most pervasive methods of sharing information. A good story speaks to our minds, our hearts, our deepest emotions. When we’re truly wrapped up in a great story, we sometimes do things that are irrational; we speak to characters we know are fictional, we give up sleep that we desperately need, we laugh or cry or rejoice or despair over the lives of people we know are completely made up, completely fabricated. We’re human beings; we are able to connect on many levels.

We hate to admit it, but the workplace is irrationally emotional as well. On a good workday, we can feel fear, anger, joy, despair and elation. But for some reason, when we train people to be effective in this environment, our approach too often becomes dry and bloodless. We engage the mind (if we’re lucky), but not the heart. As a result, we reduce the likelihood that we will gain learner attention, that our message will be heard, let alone retained and applied.

I’ve been fortunate to spend most of my career working on performance simulations. The word “simulation” means many different things to different people. But at its core, simulations provide a realistic environment for learners to try new behaviors and experience the likely outcomes. And this is where storytelling becomes critical. If I’m going to truly apply new behaviors, I need to feel the same pressures, trade-offs, and barriers to change that I will feel in the real world. If those aspects are not present, I’m likely to dismiss the whole enterprise as “just another training exercise.” There are good simulations and bad simulations (and really bad simulations that don’t simulate anything). Some interpret simulation as a complex multiple choice test, which isn’t even close. Ultimately, what raises a mediocre simulation to a great simulation is the ability of the designers to engage the learner with a compelling story.

Novels, movies, and TV may be more appropriate metaphors for adult learning than classrooms are. The key factor is immersion; an experience that takes you out of the here-and-now and fully involves you in another environment. When people care about how the story turns out, they will start making decisions based on their internal assumptions; they will start getting distracted from the textbook “right” way and start making decisions emotionally, like they do in real life. This creates an opportunity for not just learning, but real behavior change—by allowing you to examine what drives your behavior in the first place.

So how do you apply some of the rules of storytelling to our training initiatives? The key is to focus on how the world works in real life. There’s tons of good leadership content out there, and most of it is not hard to understand. So why is there such a shortage of good leaders? Because when someone actually tries to apply this stuff, they meet challenges, encounter resistance, and need to change the way processes and systems work. Although they may agree that this is the “right stuff,” they don’t do it, because the risk and effort of doing it “right” outweighs the potential consequences of doing it “wrong.” Your story needs to address that. The same constraints and pressures that make your content difficult to implement in the real world need to exist in your training solution. Otherwise, your users will recognize it as a work of fiction, separate and divorced from the real world. Nobody can consider how to overcome the barriers to success until they comprehend what the barriers to success actually look like.

In the next post in this series, we'll review 7 key tips to using storytelling in your learning. See you there!

Topics: Series, Performance Improvement, Storytelling, Simulation