PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Domaingue: Cultivating breakthrough thinking in serious games

Tabletop exercise – Wikimedia Commons.

This post was written for PAXsims by Robert Domaingue. Before retiring from the U.S. State Department, Robert Domaingue was the lead Conflict Game Designer in the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations.  He now works with local organizations to utilize serious games for solving community problems.


Serious games are used to provide insights into complex problems.  They help decision makers and staff test assumptions, examine strategies, and determine deficiencies in planning.  Many different government departments, businesses, and organizations utilize serious games to provide a safe environment to learn from failure.  These organizations can improve the design of their serious games by incorporating principles from experiential learning.

Experiential learning focuses on the learning that emerges from concrete experience and the reflection and application of that experience.  A frequently cited model of the experiential learning cycle comes from David Kolb’s 1984 book Experiential Learning.  He proposes a cycle that begins with Experiencing→ moves to Reflecting→ to Generalizing→ to Testing→ and starting over again with new Experiencing.  The learner proceeds through all steps in order to make sense of the experience and apply the insights.  There are similar earlier models from John Dewey: Observation→ Knowledge→ Judgement→ more Observation; and Kurt Lewin: Concrete Experience→ Observation and Reflection→ Formation of Abstract Concepts and Generalizations→ Testing Implications of Concepts in New Situations→ and continuing the cycle with new Concrete Experience.  All of these models highlight the importance of reflecting on the nature of the experience for general learning to occur.  Furthermore, John Dewey felt that experiencing something served as a linking process between action and thought.  But not all experiences lead to learning.  In his 1938 book Experience and Education, Dewey wrote “Any experience is miseducation that has the effect of arresting or distorting the growth of further experience (p25).”  This is an important point I will build on.

One problem with these models is with the very first step of identifying the experience.  It implies that we actually understand that we are having an experience – that we “see it”.  E.M. Forster said that the only books that influence us are the ones we are ready for.  Likewise, we may only see what we already know.  We may not identify the experience because we don’t have the awareness to make sense of the experience, or our prior conceptual models block us from seeing the experience as it is.

“The blinders of our categories prevent us from seeing what is there.”

A way to highlight this act of “not seeing” what is in front of us is to explore two psychological experiments that examine “functional fixedness.”  Functional fixedness refers to not seeing the potential novel uses of something because of your narrow prior category of the object in your mind.  The classic “candle experiment” gave subjects a candle, a box of thumb tacks, a bulletin board, and asked them to attach the candle to the bulletin board.  Most people tried to use the thumb tacks to stick the candle to the board, which doesn’t work very well.  A second group of subjects was given the same instructions and materials, with one small change.  This time the tacks were removed from the box and placed next to the empty box.  While it was a small change, it was large enough for people to see a new way of solving the problem.  Subjects in the second group saw that if they tacked the box to the bulletin board they could then place the candle inside the box.  When the box was full of tacks the subjects’ functional fixedness prevented them from seeing other uses for the box.

Another experiment involved giving subjects a problem to solve in which a length of string could be used in the solution of the problem.  The string was hung from a nail on the wall, and most people figured out to use the string as part of the solution to the problem.  Other groups were given the same instructions, but this time the same string on the same nail was used to hold a picture.  In this case no one thought to use the string to solve the problem.  The subjects’ functional fixedness on the string as part of the picture prevented them from seeing it as a resource to solve the problem.  The blinders of our categories prevent us from seeing what is there.

How do we overcome “not seeing”, and what is the impact on serious game design?  When utilizing the experiential learning models to guide our game design we should change the first step to “Identifying the Experience”.  People do not necessarily understand the nature of the experience that they are expected to reflect upon and draw lessons from.  The game designer must have a clear idea of the nature of the experience that the game will be providing to the participants.  This does not mean that the experience needs to be clearly delineated for the players at the start of the game.  It can be, but there are times when ambiguity and uncertainty are valuable features of the game.  In these cases, the nature of the experience needs to be highlighted in the debriefing session at the end of the game.  Here the facilitator can direct attention to how the players made sense of the experience and what they got out of exploring that experience.  It is very important to look at the assumptions that players operated under as to what were viable and nonviable approaches to solving the problem.

Players bring prior experience and preconceived ideas with them to the game, and a novel experience that challenges pre-held beliefs may not even be seen.  The game designer must be aware of the dangers of misinterpreting the nature of the experience by the players.  It could easily lead to learning the wrong thing from the experience.  If, however, the facilitator with the help of the players can identify examples of functional fixedness that occurred when approaching the problem, then they have identified fruitful topics to develop additional games around.  These new iterative games could provide breakthrough thinking for approaching the problem.  The insights are so valuable that the game facilitator must be continually searching for opportunities to explore them when they arise.  Spending the time designing and playing serious games can be enormously useful for organizations if sufficient attention is given to framing the experience and guiding the learning that results from exploring that experience.

Robert Domaingue

One response to “Domaingue: Cultivating breakthrough thinking in serious games

  1. Timothy Smith 16/04/2022 at 11:37 am

    Excellent article. Especially liked the sections on experiential learning and the linking of Dewey, Lewin & Kolb. John Boyd later conceived these as the OODA loop (before Kolb, actually). You could also have mentioned Argyris & Schoen’s double-loop learning. Would you consider expanding this into a full-scale article? You’ve clearly done the research and understand learning theory. Best in everything, TimSmith

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