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The learning theories which drive Serious Games

Updated: Nov 15, 2023

PBS combine experiential, social and game-based learning theories to design and deliver high impact learning experiences which enable rapid behaviour change and performance improvements in some of the world's largest organisations.

Experiential Learning

Most learning curriculums and learning designs are still based on Benjamin

Bloom’s (1956) taxonomy, which classifies learning objectives into a hierarchy.

Bloom's theory posits that learning focused on the higher parts of the hierarchy

should result in deeper knowledge – assuming the levels beneath have been


"Game-based learning can help bring real-world experiences and practices to life and make the content more engaging and relatable to the learners."

Rachel Washington, Senior Manager at PWC 2021

Recognising that the learning process works differently for different learners,

topics and contexts, adaptive and agile learning principles have rightly

challenged the fixed and hierarchical nature of the model. Nevertheless, Bloom's

central arguments remain valid (Berger, 2018). The critical challenge most

corporate learning programs face is in the “applying” phase of the model: much

training remains dry and theoretical, never attaining the highest categories of

learning –analysing, evaluating, and creating.

PBS' experiential learning – or

“learn by doing” – methodology is

underpinned by David Kolb’s

(1984) experiential learning cycle,

which is linked to the most

common theories of how people

gain knowledge, especially

behaviourism. An effective

learning experience built on this

framework will ensure that all

categories of Bloom’s taxonomy

are covered.

Essentially, learning happens when the learner experiences something, gets

feedback on it through observed results or reflection, learns from it and

experiences it again – this time practising different behaviours to achieve

different (hopefully improved!) outcomes. In this sense, learning also happens

through “reflecting on doing.”

Anyone who has observed a toddler learning to walk, or a lion cub practising its hunting skills, will recall the "try, fail, try, fail, try, succeed" sequence that is the essence of Kolb’s experiential learning cycle, and the essence of a PBS serious game (Forman, 1985).

Social Learning

Central to both agile learning and PBS’ serious games is the power of social

learning. In a disconnected, disparate workforce, it is perhaps unsurprising that

participants regularly state the experience was impactful for this very reason.

For whilst “learning by doing” can be effective for learning solitary tasks, it must

be combined with social learning to match the reality of the complex challenges

faced by organisations – and to surface the multitude of capabilities and

perspectives of a group of people (Bandura, 1977). In this forum, critical thinking,

complex problem solving and innovation can thrive.

A flock of birds, the ultimate complex-yet-agile system, survives threats and

reaches its destination by moving in unison without any obvious leader or

structure. In the same way, a high performing team in a PBS serious game is one

which creates an inclusive environment for decision making, knowledge sharing

and self-aware reflection. This is social learning in action. This method promotes

21st-century theories of learning (connectivism) and of agile organisational

structure. If recreated by learners in their real jobs, this will lead to profound

competitive advantages for their companies (WGU, 2021; Laloux, 2014).

Game-based learning

Of course, the notion of experimentation and failure clashes with the risk-averse

nature of most organisations. The financial consequences of things going wrong,

and the absence of psychological safety in many workforces, makes

experimentation impractical. So, if we want to really bring experiential and social learning to life, we have to accurately recreate the context that our learner is facing in a safe and – ideally – fun way. This is one of PBS' specialties, and this is where game-based learning comes in.

Turning learning experiences into team-based games simulates, in a safe and fun way, the competitive pressures that most leaders and employees face in their daily roles. For example, it's all very well learning how to demonstrate inclusive behaviours or to read a balance sheet in the hygienic context of a traditional training workshop. But real life tends to be far more stressful, fast-paced and multi-dimensional. Can these skills be learnt and re-produced under simulated pressure?

Theories around the value of play to accelerating the learning of new skills have been around for a long time . "An hour of play discovers more than a year of conversation" is a quote attributed to Plato around 400BC, although the accuracy of this is debatable. Einstein is often attributed with the following statement which was actually from N.V. Scarfe's (1962) contribution to the Childhood Education academic journal: "All play is associated with intense thought activity and rapid intellectual growth. The highest form of research is essentially play."

The developmental psychologist Karen Purvis has been a leading proponent of play-based learning for children in the past 50 years. Her research has widely influenced new approaches to childhood education and care which underpin the key benefit of game-based learning: She states "What we know from research is that it takes 400 repetitions of an act or a learning skill, 400 times, to get one new synapse. Or, just 12 repetitions with joy and laughter and you get a synapse because there's a release of a chemical dopamine."


The solutions to complex challenges lie with the people on the front lines who

deal with customers, suppliers, and processes every day. The catalyst of a serious

game allows these solutions to be expressed, practised, optimised and shared in

a safe and fun way, by combining experiential, social and game-based learning theories.

Participants are then equipped to solve the big challenges back at work, not because they have been told how, but because they have actually experienced finding and working through the solution already.


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