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What are Serious Games?

Updated: Sep 11, 2023

It's a bit like football... In September 1994, I was an extremely shy and nervous 7-year-old muddling my way through my first days at a new school.

Lots of things would make me cry: my mum dropping me off for the day,

teachers asking me a question I couldn’t answer, the horrible food, the

boisterous other kids …

My first clearly positive memory of school was an informal, chaotic game

of football which took place at break time towards the end of September.

I found myself charging around, immersed in the action, with dozens of

other boys, all from different year groups. I didn’t have a clue what I was

doing at first, but I quickly got the hang of it.

That football game made me feel like I was part of something. I was

learning through play, I was forming relationships and I was creating

meaningful shared experiences with others.

On the pitch, I had the confidence that I was lacking in the classroom. I

did not give into my shyness and nervousness by withdrawing into myself

as I had so many times before.

That informal game of football gave the vacuum of breaktime – which I usually dreaded – structure and purpose.

The game itself broke down hierarchies and naturally created bonds. Individually,

I rapidly improved in my shooting, tackling and passing by observing others then

by trying myself within the dynamic, competitive context.

In the game, I started to gain the confidence that helped me to enjoy all aspects

of school life – except the food! That was genuinely revolting and would still

make me cry.

It is not too much of a stretch to compare my schoolboy struggle of September

1994 with the task facing many managers in large companies in 2022:

  • For shyness and nerves, read stress and dis-empowerment

  • For the sterile classroom and my habit of withdrawing to my own company, read traditional learning methods, most e-learning and disconnection from colleague

  • For the impact the football game had on me, see the agendas of most L&D/HR/Talent leads

"Serious games simply swap the 'football' in my story for any topic – leadership, sustainability, business acumen. They enable participants to rapidly develop skills in that area in a highly relevant, engaging and memorable way."

Graham Hutchings, CEO at ProfitAbility

What are Serious Games?

Simply, serious games are games designed for education or professional training

rather than for pure entertainment (De Gloria et al, 2014). They may be played

by individuals or large learner cohorts in digital or analogue formats.

They often take the form of game-based learning experiences, which use

storylines, characters, interactive gameplay, feedback and rewards to

convey/reinforce learning content and generally make training much more fun

(Forbes, 2017).

Serious games can also take the form of business simulations, which are tools

for creating highly engaging, hands-on and business-applicable scenarios in

leadership development training. They are usually experienced by learning

cohorts, led by a facilitator (Forbes, 2020).

"The best course I have attended for building business knowledge."

Tess Humble Dillner, Compass Group Participant, 2022

Serious games are not the same as gamification. In some ways, serious games

flip gamification on its head by putting the game first and the learning second:

PBS' serious games combine the critical elements of game-based learning and

business simulations to create learning experiences that are intrinsically engaging

and competitive, whilst still accurately recreating reality. Here are some

examples of organisational contexts for which PBS have created games:


Business Outcome

Solution Objective

Scenario Recreated

Target Population

The Game








To practise

and see the

impacts of



management decisions

A five-year

stint of

managing a


All people

managers at PepsiCo


compete to

attract and

retain the

talent which

will best

enable them to build the







To understand

the financial

consequences of day-to-

day decisions

The end-toend

process of


and selling



All new

leaders at



compete to win

the most


orders in a live



Taylor Wimpey






the realities

of the

journey of a


n project

Two-year long

home building


All new hires


compete to

secure the best


sites and to




throughout the


Typically, these are facilitator-led experiences for around 25 people at a time

(split into smaller teams), lasting anywhere between 2 and 10 hours (split into

smaller chunks) and delivered in virtual, classroom or hybrid formats.

PBS’ central value proposition is to enable leaders to experience in just a few

hours what might take months or years in their real jobs, thereby accelerating

their progression to peak performance.

What are Serious Games?

The key principle of agile learning is its connection to business outcomes. The

critical outcomes that most business leaders are seeking relate to issues like

diverse talent acquisition and retention, the race for net zero, and enhancing

operational resilience (BCG, 2022).

These topics are critically important because there are major competitive

advantages to solving them. The same is true for other enduring challenges like

leadership development and organisational transformation. History proves that

the businesses that will win over the next 10 years will be the ones that can

solve these issues faster than their competitors. These issues are difficult to

solve because:

  • They are complex, rather than complicated, in nature

  • They can only be overcome with peer group discussion/reflection, cross-functional empathy building and eventually, shared understanding

  • They lead to damaging strategic and cultural failings: these problems only occur when people aren’t able to practise the behaviours required to deliver the change objective

"The interactive nature of the game was excellent: we learnt by doing rather than listening as in a typical training session. The breakout rooms helped generate strong conversation."

Katie Hatton, PepsiCo Visible Value participant, 2022

Traditional learning methods are generally better for topics – such as mandatory training – or for learning closed, technical skills that are performed in a predictable environment, like coding.

Complex problems require training experiences which allow participants to “learn by doing,” in context, together. This is the real adoption of agile learning principles.


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