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Using Games and Simulations to Engage Federal Workforce


Mon Aug 24 2015

Using Games and Simulations to Engage Federal Workforce

Excelsior College, a non-profit institution founded in 1971, has long been a leader in serving what it calls the “post-traditional learner.” These are typically working adults who seek education and training that can fit their professional and personal obligations. This population’s unique characteristics require highly engaging material and teaching tools—keeping their attention means competing with all of the other demands in their lives. At Excelsior, we’re investing in game- and simulation-based learning as a way to improve education and training outcomes. 

Case in point: Excelsior College’s Online Writing Lab (OWL). Starting in 2007, I began developing ways to improve writing supports for a large, geographically dispersed, student body. After nearly five years of development, with grants totaling more than $1.2 million from the U.S. Department of Education and The Kresge Foundation, OWL has won several national technology awards for design, innovation, and student support. Independent research has found the OWL boosts final grades by more than 6 points


OWL’s engaging design is what sets it apart from its peers. Engagement within an online environment requires multimedia technology, excellent learning designing, and opportunities for learners to practice skills in a safe, non-graded environment. Games have proven to be the most effective engagement tool. Noticing the rise of video games and their adaptation into education, I used the ideas of the writing lab to develop a symposium, “Meeting Students Where They Play.” 

The symposium  featured renowned writing experts Dickie Selfe of Ohio State University and Patricia Belanoff of Stony Brook University, as well as game-design experts including Andy Phelps from the Rochester Institute of Technology, Tobi Saulnier from 1st Playable Productions, Jon Aleckson from Web Courseworks, and Clark Aldrich, an internationally-regarded game and simulation designer. Our writing game, “Paper Capers,” was an immediate byproduct of synergistic collaboration among these individuals.  

Excelsior College’s Center for Game and Simulation-Based Learning was launched in May 2013. It reflects Excelsior College’s commitment to innovation and leadership in adult learning. Our mission statement is to “Provide a transformative model for learner success through the expanding field of educational games and simulations including curriculum and learner support innovation.” 

The center’s three main objectives are particularly notable: 

  1. Integrate educational games and simulations across the curriculum at all levels of education to foster a transformative learning environment.

  2. Promote the benefits of game and simulation-based learning through open educational resources and the sharing of knowledge that facilitates the achievement of educational objectives and outcomes.

  3. Serve as an incubator for innovative online credit and non-credit courses, educational games, simulations, and learning resources. 

Game-based learning has revolutionary potential. However, much of the corporate learning adaptation of game-based learning revolves on “gamification,” a somewhat problematic term. Gamification generally means the application of game elements to non-game environments, such as a training program. The danger is such programs rely too heavily on extrinsic rewards such as leader boards and even compensation, which limits short-term effectiveness.


Genuine game-based thinking is designed to generate intrinsic rewards—the mark of a true lifelong learner. Although this may seem counter-intuitive, it is necessary to divorce the game from direct compensation or salary increases. A good training program will have the ingredients of a good game: 

  • clear concrete goals—obtainable but challenging—that are aligned with the organization’s mission

  • collaboration and team work

  • continual data-driven feedback

  • surprises and unpredictability

  • challenges, aspiration, and support. 

As the field of game-based learning continues to emerge, Excelsior College is committed to remaining at its forefront. We will continue to host symposia, produce webinars and learning modules, and collaborate across Excelsior College to embed these principles into our for-credit and non-credit offerings. If you are interested in keeping up with developments, consider joining our LinkedIn group “Gaming in Education (Excelsior College).” 

Are you ready to take your training strategies to the next level? From Google Glass to console-enabled virtual reality, the promise of new and innovative learning methods is finally here. Join us for a look at the cutting-edge, experimental, and prototypical technology that is being used now to define the future of learning in government in the session, “Problem Solving in Three Dimensions: The Future of Adult Education” at Government Workforce: Learning Innovations.”


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