VIRTUAL GAMES FOR REAL LEARNING: a seriously fun way to learn online

Dr Sivasailam "Thiagi" Thiagarajan and Marie Jasinski

OVERVIEW: Since April 1999, we have designed, facilitated and evaluated a series of web-based games on a range of topics with over 1000 practitioners mostly within the vocational and corporate training sectors in Australia and the USA. Our observations and feedback from our players have led us to reinforce what we suspected: that unglamorous, "low tech" but highly functional communications technology like e-mail, bulletin boards and chat can be used as primary tools to promote and encourage collaborative interactive learning online. This article documents our observations and experiences in the use of e-mail games.

Why virtual games? A significant investment has been made in the development, support and management of online learning environments. Yet there are mixed reports about how well these environments are being utilized. While outstanding successes will always be showcased, there are many online training products gathering dust on virtual shelves. Attracting learners, teachers, and other stakeholders to adopt an online learning environment, seems a bit like handing out samples of a new product line in a supermarket. Customers certainly come and taste, and may even buy a trial size pack, but sampling and trialling doesn't mean that in the long run they are going to buy the product or indeed switch brands.

While enough learners are motivated to enrol in an online course many do not stay or return. How do we motivate learners to not only come but also to stay, contribute and return to the world of online learning?

There are many layers of complexity to consider when exploring how to motivate online learners. This presentation focuses on one of these layers: how to promote and encourage person-to-person interactivity through the use of e-mail games.

Virtual games: promoting person-to-person interaction online

Interactivity is promoted as one of the most valuable features of online learning. However, a closer look at many instructional offerings online, reveals that much of the provided interactivity is of a variety that only connects the learner with the content. The online environment offers much more than person-to-computer interaction. Communication technologies like e-mail, bulletin boards and chat have often been overlooked as primary learning technologies. Yet we have found they offer unique opportunities for supporting game-based instructional strategies that encourage learner-to-learner and learner-to-facilitator interaction.

Through the use of open-ended and often provocative questions, virtual games are a challenging way to create and process content, check and assess participant understanding, use role play and simulations to solve problems, make decisions and provide feedback. The challenge of virtual games is in the instructional design and facilitation rather than technological skill and sophistication.

While virtual games can be played with any combination of e-mail, bulletin boards, chat and web pages, in this instance, we have chosen to focus on e-mail.

How to play an e-mail game

In an e-mail game, a facilitator and a group of players address a key issue by sending and receiving e-mail messages during several rounds of play spread over a period of days or weeks. Unlike fancy web-based or real-time games that involve sophisticated graphics, programming and simultaneous play in chat rooms, our e-mail games are limited to low technology and text messages. Typical e-mail games exploit the ability of the Internet to ignore geographic distances and capitalize on the ability of participants to generate and process content through the posing of an open-ended and often provocative question. In the early rounds of play, the interaction is between players and the facilitator, while in later rounds, players come together via a bulletin board to discuss processed content and to debrief.

In addition to training, e-mail games can be used for encouraging participation in a variety of benchmarking and idea-sharing activities. For example, most of our games have been played in a professional development context in the LearnScope Virtual Learning Community at LearnScope is an Australian national professional development program aimed to encourage teachers and trainers in the vocational education and training sector to utilise online technologies to achieve more flexible learning. Games have also been played with members of the American Society for Training and Development and the North American Simulation and Gaming Association.

Here are three examples of e-mail games we have played with these groups.

Game 1: Depolarizer

Depolarizer is a role play game using e-mail and a bulletin board. An open-ended question is posed; for example, Do lurkers learn? Through a six round series lasting about a week, players explore this issue from both a personal perspective and also from a designated role. Depolarizer is based on the philosophy that many issues that we treat as problems to be solved are actually polarities to be managed. The game begins by having players think about their opinions regarding a selected polarizing issue (in this case, whether lurkers do learn). By informing the players about the range of positions, we increase their awareness of the spread of opinions around the issue. By having players randomly role-play extremes, we encourage them to think about different points of view. By reviewing extremely polarized comments, we help players make more informed decisions. The game seems to encourage players at extremes to get closer to the average. We may not change anyone's opinion, but we increase their level of awareness about alternative points of view by playing the Depolarizer game.

Game 2: Galactic Wormhole

In this role play game, players participate in a time-travel scenario to explore an issue relevant to their context, for example, the status of online learning in vocational training in the year 2004. They are given either a Utopian or a Dystopian scenario based on a newspaper headline, either:

Utopia is here: Australian VET sector leads the world in online learning
Dystopia is here: Australian VET sector lags behind the world in online learning

Players are randomly assigned one of these two scenarios and given a stakeholder role of either teacher, learner, manager, decision maker or industry client. Each player is then asked to submit a 150 word story outlining how their stakeholder contributed to either this utopian or dystopian future for online learning in vocational education and training.

These scenarios are submitted anonymously to the facilitator who collates and posts them in a designated discussion forum or on a web page. After reviewing all the scenarios for both positions, players submit their five top ideas for ensuring a utopian future for online learning in VET. From the list of ideas submitted, players then vote on the five top issues that need to be addressed to ensure a utopian future for online learning in VET.

Game 3: C3PO

C3PO stands for Challenge, Pool, Poll Predict, Outcome. In Round 1 of C3PO, an open-ended challenge is posed to the players eg How do you increase person-to-person interaction in Internet-based training? Players are given a deadline to send their top three ideas to the Facilitator. In Round 2, the resulting pool of ideas is sent back to the players whose next task is to generate a popularity list. They read through the pool of ideas, select the three most personally appealing and send them to the Facilitator. The task for Round 3 is to predict from the original pool the three ideas on top of the group popularity list. The player with the closest prediction is the winner! A bulletin board is then used to debrief the game.

What players have said about playing e-mail games

I understand the use of e-mail and lack of contact with other players being useful in terms of not being 'influenced' by`each other until the next step and making it 'safe' to be extreme.

Depolariser I thought showed how the aims of opening out perspectives on a subject could/should be achieved in new ways with new technologies. It was also pleasant to see someone actually use technology in a new way, rather than theorize about it, so cheers too for Thiagi and Marie, from me. This was an inventive and effective experience.

The anonymity did not worry me. The role playing helped make things more objective. It is more difficult to take offense to an anonymous statement without a real person behind it. The role playing also allowed for extreme statements without the protective social barriers that might otherwise be raised.

Many thanks. I finally managed to get involved and your "games" were fantastic and gave plenty of food for thought.

Observations and feedback The following are the emerging success factors we have observed so far and are in the process of exploring in greater depth.

These observations, and feedback from our players, have been encouraging enough to keep us playing and start us writing! We are currently putting together a training manual on the design, facilitation and debriefing of virtual games.

Designing E-mail games Like any other training method, e-mail games require a significant level of planning to ensure successful outcomes. Our e-mail games are designed as frame games. Frame games are generic templates which have been thoroughly field-tested to ensure the process works in a range of contexts. The key advantage of a frame game is its "tried and true" formula: a facilitator can take a game, plug in their own content and use it with confidence.

However, there is much more to a successful e-mail game than plugging in new content and knowing that the process will work. Besides choosing the right game, there are different design components that must also be considered when deciding whether an e-mail game is appropriate for a training context.

The task: What to do want your learners to do? Will a game be appropriate strategy to achieve a learning task?

The technology: Do your learners have the appropriate hardware, software and technical support to enable them to effectively participate in an e-mail game?

The media: Is a text-based media like e-mail an appropriate way to achieve the learning task and a suitable technology for your user group?

Players: Does the learning context enable players to effectively participate in e-mail games? Issues to consider include voluntary versus mandatory participation, learning location, computer literacy, and type of support provided. People have different learning preferences and this can be a big challenge for some. Some free spirits get irritated by the contrived and artificial rules of the games. They'd prefer an uncontrolled discussion.

Facilitation: Do you have the time, commitment and skill to facilitate a virtual game?


The heart of the matter for a successful virtual game is effective facilitation. Although players generate and process the content, the facilitator orchestrates the game. To provide a seamless virtual game, facilitation requires technical, administrative, interpersonal and instructional design functions .

We'll have a quick look at these in turn.


Facilitators need a working knowledge of the communication technologies they will be using to play virtual games as well as spreadsheets for data management.


As responses to e-mail games arrive they must be processed quickly and accurately in preparation for the next round of play. Accurate and systematic record keeping, like player tracking, collation of input and sending out of next rounds are critical to the smooth flow of e-mail games.


While the templates provide you with all the steps you need to play a game, facilitating a game is more than a mechanical process. Setting the scene, sustaining motivation and debriefing relies on the human factor and a fair degree of interpersonal skill. Facilitators need to monitor the progress of a game and determine when to change pace, contact individual players and change the tone of the play. Player participation patterns vary. Some players reply promptly, others leave it to the last minute, some miss rounds but contribute to others and some will register but never contribute.

Instructional design

Virtual Games require a dynamic instructional process. You are close to your players and in a position to be responsive to feedback. As the games are played in rounds, this makes instructional design a dynamic, iterative process. If something is not working, it can be readily changed.

The game is an excuse for the debrief

People don't always learn from experience! Players can have a great time participating in an e-mail game but learn nothing. To ensure that the games have maximum impact on performance improvement, debriefing is perhaps the most important component of an e-mail game. Debriefing provides the opportunity for reflection to take place which hopefully will facilitate the transfer of learning from the game to the work context. We tend to use a bulletin board for debriefing. It provides an opportunity for players to meet and share their experiences. We have developed a debriefing template which can be adapted to each context by the facilitator. Typical debriefing questions include: How do you feel? What did you learn? What three issues stood out? What could be done differently? How does this apply to your workplace?

Virtual games are serious fun and offer a challenging way to quickly and effectively process open-ended divergent questions that require application, analysis and synthesis.

About Marie and Thiagi

Marie Jasinski, B.Ed, Grad Dip App Psych, Grad Dip Clin Hyp, Psychologist MindMedia, Douglas Mawson Institute South Australia.

Marie's brief in MindMedia is to explore and model innovative practice in the design and application of new learning technologies to achieve more flexible learning. Marie is well known in the Australian VET Sector for pushing the boundaries in the design and facilitation of online learning environments. Marie manages the LearnScope Virtual Learning Community at E-mail:

Sivasailam "Thiagi" Thiagarajan Ph.D., Adjunct Professor, Instructional Systems Technology at Indiana University. Thiagi is also the founder and president of Workshops by Thiagi, Inc. whose mission is to improve human performance effectively, efficiently, and enjoyably. A designer of more than 200 training games and simulations, Thiagi writes a monthly newsletter, the Thiagi Game Letter, published by Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer. Email: Web site:

ITFORUM PAPER #41 - VIRTUAL GAMES FOR REAL LEARNING: a seriously fun way to learn online by Sivasailam "Thiagi" Thiagarajan and Marie Jasinski. Posted on ITFORUM April 17, 2000. The authors retain all copyrights of this work. Used on ITFORUM by permission of the authors. Visit the ITFORUM WWW Home Page at
(c) Sivasailam "Thiagi" Thiagarajan and Marie Jasinski. 2000