In December 2005, Clark Aldrich began the SimWord of the Day series
on the Learning
According to Aldrich, the purpose of the SimWord entries was to
acknowledge that learning practitioners are developing new tools
for capturing domain knowledge, as well as new language for
describing how they engage the world.
E-Learning News has compiled all of the entries into a
Actuators turn one resource into another. They might turn money
into customer satisfaction. They might turn research into finished
products. They can be bought, built, placed, and upgraded. They
might require a constant stream of resources (fixed costs) and/or
variables. They can be destroyed, or shut down. They might have
some advantage if they are geographically positioned close to
map-based resources or close to other actuators.
There is a special case of actuators called units. Units typically
can move. They have some form of artificial intelligence. They can
perform different types of work, often depending on their
specialty. They can be given priorities. They can swarm. They move
at different speeds, and have different capabilities. They can also
be distracted, and do things that were once useful but no longer.
What is amazing is that when talking to CEOs of large
organizations, they use much the same language. They think about
capabilities. They think about optimizing. They think about value
chains. They try to take money and time out of processes. They are
always interested in replacing unpredictability with
predictability. They are interested in opening up new avenues.
And, as I like to say, when computer gamers and CEOs agree on
reification frameworks, can business schools and corporate training
groups be far behind? (Actually, I never said that before, and I
had to look up the word reification, but you get the idea.)
After Action Reviews
We are using computer games as a beacon to rethink domain expertise
and how to better share it. But one area of critical pedagogy that
computer games poorly role-modeled is after-action reviews.
AARs are sessions to step outside of the real-time engagements,
typically after heightened activity, to better understand what
happened, and what should have happened. And like all pedagogy that
supports sims, they also should be used in real life.
- raw material, such as recordings/timelines
- analysis (what happened at a thematic level)
- coaching (how to get better results next time, and perhaps how
to transfer to real life, from the perspective of an expert)
- evaluation (how ready the player is to handle the real
- game elements like a high score to spur competition and replay.
AARs ultimately requires a combination of human and comptuer
intervention, but one or the other can do in a pinch. In a sim
context, AAR's should also be used often enough to force users to
think about performances, and then give them the opportunity to try
I wrote in Learning By Doing, "In the military, After
Action Reviews (AARs) are very big deals, the same way that air is
a very big deal." I can hope this will eventually be true not only
of all sims, but all intense real experiences as well.
There is a list of skills that could be classified as soft skills,
but I prefer the term Big Skills. These skills have a few
- They are critical to almost any job. But more than vocational,
Big Skills are truly life skills.
- We practice them, in some form or another, almost every day.
- Schools, self-help books, and enterprise training programs have
done a terrible job at facilitating their adoption, although they
talk incessantly about them.
I know I have given various lists before, but enough people have
emailed me about them that I beg your indulgence in posting them
again. Big Skills include
- business process improvement and business process reengineering
- contracting, sourcing, and outsourcing
- conflict management
- cost benefit analysis
- creating and using boards and advisors
- creating new tools
- project management/program management
- relationship management
- risk analysis, management/security
- solutions sales
- turning around a bad situation.
Some call these 21st Century Skills, which they are. But they also
are skills for the 20th century, 19th century, 18th century...and
My premise is that educational simulations will make considerable
headway in allowing the formal development of these skills, and
that they will be hard to scalably teach without using simulations.
The less someone knows about computer games, the more he or she
thinks of them as a solitary activity. Instead, computer games have
driven and modeled online virtual organizations, and educational
simulations will have to go even further.
Roles when there are multiple people include
- opponents and team members
- leaders and followers
- support and frontline.
Technologies that have to be considered for any good collaborative
educational sim include
- message board/forum
- application sharing
- avatars to represent players
- chat rooms/instant messaging
- public/private message
- email integration
- floor control for the facilitator
- massively multiplayer (mmp) components, such these from Star
We have talked a bit about units, little creatures that interact in
a computer game or educational simulation.
While most simulations have broad categories of units, increasingly
when describing constituents, be they customers or voters, the more
accurate simulations use at least 10 or 15 variables to capture
such attributes as spending ability, preferred/trusted media,
relationships with other units, and interests and concerns.
Then, the sim does the necessary fuzzy logic to come up with a
discreet answer to
such questions as "Will they buy from you or a competitor?" "For
whom will they vote?" or "Are they happy?"
In physics, we have wrestled with the question of whether something
is a wave or a particle? Simulation designers will likewise wrestle
with the question: Is behavior best modeled by an abstract high
level system or by creating individual units?
The process of habituating or the state of being habituated. For
example, physiological tolerance to a drug resulting from repeated
use; psychological dependence on a drug.
1. transitive verb
Make somebody used to something; to accustom a person or animal to
something through prolonged and regular exposure ( formal ). For
example, people living in cities become habituated to crowds.
2. transitive and intransitive verb
To learn to ignore stimulus; to learn not to respond to a stimulus
that is frequently repeated, or teach a person or animal to do
Hero is a very tricky word in the formal learning
In most computer games, you play the unique hero, the person who
has the power to save the day, or at least make all of the
decisions. In classic mythology, heroes live apart from the rest of
society, having special responsibilities and getting special perks.
In massive multiplayer online role playing games, we see the
emergence of a band of heroes, groups of equals coming together to
go on some quest.
The role of a "hero" is challenging in educational simulations.
Most of us want to be heroes, although some want it more than
Should HR departments train people to be heroes? Heroes often break
rules, something that every centralized department hates. Yet, Len
Vickers, the marketing guru behind GE's "We Bring Good Things to
Life" and Xerox's "The Document Company," told me that the best
sales people took advantage of vendor loop holes for the advantage
of the customer, heroic in some self-serving way. Every good
organization rewards heroes with praise.
Finally, logistically, programming the user to be a hero in an
educational simulation feels funny. Do you give your player the
most power to make a difference? If yes, the sim feels false. If
no, the sim is unsatisfying.
I guess the paradox today is that HR has to teach people the rules,
and then promote those that break them successfully.
Higher Level Patterns/ Emergence
When capturing what domain experts know and do for a simulation,
one has to interview and watch for high level patterns. What are
the patterns that they see play out time and time again, and what
are the variations of that pattern?
- There are basic patterns, like bell curves.
- There are higher-level patterns, like people hiring other
people that are similar to them, or the fact that new technology is
Systems theorists have a library of patterns like Success to
the Successful, tragedy of commons, and
From a sim perspective, however, patterns are a might tricky.
- There is always the hope that they emerge organically from a
portfolio of well-designed rules.
- More often, they have to be firm-wired into the units and maps.
- Easiest, they can be hard-wired into level design.
And then there is need to understand how domain experts encourage
good patterns and correct bad patterns. Patterns are often easy to
write about or diagram in linear content. But it is only in context
that their true power and treachery become appreciated.
Lines and relationships
Nineteenth-century mathematicians discovered to their
discomfort that as the conceptual machinery of mathematics became
more precise, it became more difficult.
- David Berlinski, The Advent of the Algorithm
I suspect that the same will be said of our industry.
One such precision tool is relationships. At the base of any good
domain expertise pyramid is a whole mess of relationships between
two or more variables. What is the relationship between
compensation and performance? How are budgets spent across the
development and launch of a new project?
Here are some of my favorites generic relationships:
- the linear relationships
- the bell curve
- the s-curve
- the asymptotic relationship
- the price/demand relationship.
I suspect that increasingly, we will all have to be as comfortable
with using these and other relationships to characterize knowledge
as we currently are with bullets, headings, and fonts.
Seeing the world as experts do, and then either through pedagogical
and/or simulation elements capturing and transferring that, is one
of the greatest opportunities for simulations.
A map of the structure is part of any sim world. It influences the
visual experience of the player, level design, type of knowledge
captured, and also the play/know/do.
- There are maze structures, in which the goal is to travel to
the right spot (or spots), or get something (like a ball) to the
right spot, sometimes even learning what the right spot is.
- There are territory structures, in which the goal is to control
as much as possible, or to control the right spots. This could be
marketspace, as well as Poland.
- There are ecosystems structures, in which the goal is to get a
thriving set of interdependencies. Most of the tycoon games fall
under this category.
- There are arenas, where teams or individuals just do combat.
- There are workbench structures, in which the goal is to build
something that works.
- There are conceptual structures, such as in the form of 2X2
grids or Zachman structures.
- There are analogy structures, such as using a virtual museum to
provide access to a mess of objects.
- There are combinations of all of the above.
Different places have different conditions, worth, value, ease of
mobility, and so forth.
Maps are one of the trickiest areas for building business
simulations. Many Big Skills, such as project management, security,
innovation, relationship management, don't have easy corresponding
maps. Yet, maps already are a critical tool of business (and all)
communication. And as the next generations of more visual thinkers,
they will only increase in relevancy.
Players create paths on maps, especially in tycoon style games, to
connect processes and places, and direct and sometimes limit units'
Paths can be
- bi-directional or one way
- narrow/bottleneck or broad
- free to use or have a toll
- expensive to build, cheap, or free
- too few or too numerous
- able to connect the right things or connect the wrong things
- permanent or temporary
- able to wear down with use, or increase with use
- able to align interests
- physical, contractual, virtual, informational
- able to connect people, processes, work units, or even
information and alignments.
What is so interesting about paths is that CEOs spend so much of
their time talking about them. I can't count the number of times I
have heard, "How do I create better communication between different
departments? How do I get different groups to know what other
groups are doing. How do I build a relationship between customers
and designers? How do I get better access to another company's
technology or markets? How do I access the design skills of Italy,
the tech savvy of San Francisco, and the cheap labor of China? How
do we align with shareholders? How do I find the right person for
the job? Are the current organizational lines right, or should I
reorganize (destroy old paths and create new ones)?"
A few examples of paths:
- Xerox's PARC research center has a permanent video link to its
sister research organization in France, connecting two
- Every canal ever dug.
- This very entry is a path between my thoughts and at least four
other people (I am not sure what the actual number is. It might be
as high as 12).
Like many of these SimWords, everyone could probably write a great
paragraph on when and why to build new paths and destroy old ones.
Yet the effective, no, intuitive ability to do that across a
multitude of fronts differentiates between success and failure for
many of us.
Playing Out Information
One of the most interesting things about both good movies and good
computer games is the way that information is played out.
For linear content, movies are a great model. There are back
stories, giving necessary context and information, which some
directors play out seamlessly and some do not. Another technique is
to have a character be the audience proxy and to ask the questions
or make the statement that most people in the audience would ask.
"Why don't you just go to the police?" or "You had an affair? What
are you, crazy?"
Computer games must teach skills that are actually used and
improvised, not just repeated back on a test, which turns out to be
even harder than telling a complicated story.
In Half Life 2, there are creatures that are mounted to ceilings
with long tongues hanging down that grab things and pull them up to
eat them. One technique to inform the player might have been an
encyclopedia-like screen giving some information about these
creatures. Another would be to have a virtual colleague say
something like, "Careful, those tongue creatures are hungry and
once they grab you, it's over."
Instead, Half-Life 2 carefully builds the awareness in the player,
and then pushes it. They first show the player what these creatures
do by, for example, having an unwary crow get scooped up. Then they
expose the player to simple situation with a single creature. A few
levels later, the player has to get through dozens of these
creatures using increasingly clever techniques, including
improvised hybrid strategies learned from other parts of the game.
Many instructional designers say, "Tell learners what you are going
to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them."
Thank goodness computer games have more respect for our
Primary Variables/ Balanced Scorecard
Primary variables are multiple measurable criteria for success. For
example, for a walk in the woods, the primary variables might be
fun, safety, low cost, and exercise.
A collection of primary variables should be optimized, reinforcing
in the long term but sometimes conflicting with each other in the
short term. Primary variables are often influenced indirectly, such
as by tweaking secondary or tertiary variables. Buying good hiking
boots might increase safety but add cost.
The concept of primary variables is often called "balanced
scorecards" in the consulting world, and built into "systems
dynamics" in the type of simulations.
Maps, be they physical or conceptual, have dark spots, places that
we don't know and probably should. The concept of probing involves
diverting resources from a life-as-usual process-optimization
strategy and taking a risk on finding something better.
In real life, we don't know what we don't know. We often think what
we are doing is the only option. Sims can make this unknown space
obvious, such as the blank idea bars in Virtual Leader. We can make
the act of probing an obvious one, such as "press here to probe,"
or require a bit more of finessing typical in real life.
Regardless, a well designed sim in almost any Big Skill area should
make people constantly think, what am I missing?
At the highest level, a simulation is real-time if it does not stop
and wait for the user to input before continuing as a turn-based
simulation might. Said another way, if the user does not do
anything, the simulation takes that as the input.
Almost all computer games are mostly real-time. Some consider
real-time simulations to be more realistic, engaging, and
They are more realistic because many "real-life" target situations,
from flying to negotiating, are real time, and so that dimension is
a critical part of it. They also create pressure that mimics the
pressure found in situations that aren't inherently speed-based.
Real-time sims are more engaging, in that they require intense
awareness, and the constant requirement to deal with surprising
situations. They also might prevent people from over-analyzing.
They are educational, in part, because they make it easier to see
fluid patterns play out.
Of course, even educational simulation real-time zealots (people
who would argue for a real-time simulation even if the target use
of the content is not real-time) would still argue for paused
moments of reflection, such as an After Action Review.
Worth noting: real-time is not synonymous with twitch-speed. A good
real-time simulation, unlike a twitch-game, could still be of
significant educational value if played turned-based.
In making a computer game, rubber banding is the technique to allow
computerized opponents to bend the rules to keep things exciting
and "close" for the player. The term comes from racing games, where
you can imagine a giant rubber band extending out from the player's
car to pull lagging cars forward and winning cars back.
Rubber banding is a game element, something done to make an
experience more fun, in this case at the expense of accuracy. There
will be debates about this technique. Let's look at very specific
examples of using rubber banding in racing situations.
Consider a racing educational simulation that is trying to get the
player to build familiarity with a map (travelers racing around a
foreign city to get a comfort of the layout, students racing
through a functioning ancient city), or to become aware of
principles (driving tiny vehicles through magnetic fields). Because
the learning objective is not winning a race, "rubber banding"
would increase interest without undermining the learning
experience. If the goal of the course was to win a race, this
technique would cripple the learning.
For those of you who play real-time strategy games, to rush is to,
early on in a scenario, build a large, mobile army and attack an
opponent, hopefully catching them unaware while they are still
building up their infrastructure.
This term is increasingly used in real business situations, both
for people internally planning to get support for their idea "Let's
do an email rush before the report is released," and externally,
"It is not enough to be an early mover. We have to do a tank rush
to dominate the store shelves."
This is typically an all or nothing strategy, that if fails, leaves
the attacker in a vulnerable situation.
Scramble: Using a mixture of reflex and practiced tactics in an
attempt to get to a better, more strategic, situation.
I love watching people play real-time simulations. You can tell by
watching their eyes when they go from being in control to suddenly
loosing it. Things go wrong. They panic. They flail. Then,
something happens to the eyes. They gain resolve. They scramble.
Sometimes, they regain control and are once again humming at a
I used to think that you don't really know another country until
you are really bored there. Likewise, you don't really know what it
is like to be an expert until you have to scramble with the
Pilots learn to scramble all of the time in a good flight
simulator. Those few real-time business simulations likewise create
atmospheres where they earn to think through the panic.
It is a mainstay of computer games, sports, classrooms, even
standardized tests: the score. It is the single number that allows
easy comparison and ranking. Usually the higher the score, the
If you believe more in evaluation than formal learning, you might
shoot for a scoring system that follows a nice bell curve, with
some winners, some losers, and most lumped in the middle.
We like to pretend that academic scores/grades are instructional,
but in my opinion, they are motivational. The reason to work hard
is to get a good score, as opposed to using the score to figure out
how to improve.
We also like to pretend that scores are scientific, when in fact
they represent a massive editorialization of what is important, and
by how much. For example, shooting a big asteroid is 50 points,
shooting a little asteroid is 100 points, dodging an asteroid is
Scores in educational simulations seem to work best if they are
built around the academic standard of 100 percent=A=great. This
seems natural to those on the outside, as well as a good cultural
standard to follow. However, imagine using an educational
simulation twice: the first time getting a score of 24; the second
time getting a score of 190. For most designers, squeezing the
world of outcomes into that sort of range is as natural as being a
yoga master. And putting absolute numbers to actions should make
anyone at least a little uncomfortable (try putting numeric values
to the activities you did today).
Using scores unquestionably increases usage and focus. But the
greater the reliance on scores for motivation, the more
participants will worry less about learning the material and more
about gaming the system, finding logic shortcuts to exploit, and
actually subvert the learning.
Experts in various areas see the world differently. When I was
leading hiking trips up in Maine, I used to constantly be on the
lookout for roots, broken glass, steep hills, and other
When working on reengineering an organization, I look for the
relationships between people: who are the factions, and how strong
One of the best training opportunities of a simulation is to force
people to develop a situational awareness, to see the world
differently. This is often done at the interface level.
A tech tree is a list of technologies in a game or sim that have to
be uncovered in order. Discovering the alphabet comes before
widespread literacy. And it might take discoveries in different
areas to lead to one key advancement, just as the one key
advancement can open up many doors.
For example, as players are engaged in a sim, one decision may be
where to put research resources to unlock both short- and long-term
The degree to which we can predictably facilitate in the transfer
of Big Skills depends quite a bit on the ability to accurately
capture them. If we don't do a better job of capturing them, we
will be forever stuck on the training justification infinite-loop.
One reason for some lack of success in transferring big skills is
that most of us in the knowledge-capture business think too much in
terms of linear content.
One critical modeling analogy is the throttle. With a
throttle, there is a simple analog relationship between input and
output. The harder you press on the gas pedal, the more fuel goes
into the engine, and then the faster the car goes (unless you are
out of gas, or you hit a tree, you are topping out, or....).
We all use management throttles every day.
- How hard to push the under-performing employee?
- How much funding do we put toward a project?
- How much of our own time do we spend responding to a critical
- How active do we want to be on that conference call?
- How hard to push a security initiative?
- How hard to look for nutritious food, versus being content with
what is at the buffet table?
- How much do we care about our job?
In capturing domain expertise, the throttle is an input mechanism,
and must have a defined relationship
Pedagogy in educational simulations is that layer on top that makes
things easier to understand. It includes charts and advice, as well
as pre-reading and after action reviews. Done well, it speeds the
learning and avoids the development of superstitious behavior.
One truism of educational sims is that the same pedagogy that helps
in doing the simulation also helps people understand real life. In
fact, some early educational simulations had better pre-canned
pedagogy than simulation, and enterprises stripped away the
simulation and just deployed the pedagogy.
A nice piece of pedagogy is a constant list of core
activities/goals/quests, with updates on little steps either
completed or that need to be completed. This is especially useful
where there are more than two quests going on at a time.
Triggers are almost the opposite of primary variables. While
primary variables tick up or tick down, always ready to be
corrected and for which compensated, triggers are "all or nothing"
When studying what an expert knows/does, the question is, "What are
events that if happen are (at least temporarily) irreversible and
that change the dynamics?" In the game world, this might include
your character losing his health (a primary variable), and finally
dying (a trigger).
- In the real world, after working hard to improve productivity
(a primary variable), you might get a promotion (a trigger).
- After working hard to figure out a solution with a perspective
client (a primary variable), you might get a contract (a trigger).
- After building support for your bill (a primary variable), you
might get a favorable vote (a trigger).
Of course there are bad triggers as well: losing a big client, or
having a factory break down.
Triggers and primary variables go hand in hand. Talking about one
without talking about the other misses the point.