Simulation Games: A Way to Improve Communication in the Team

One of the hardest daily tasks developers, QA, ScrumMasters, and product owners encounter is effective communication with others. Sound implausible? According to many articles, research, and personal observations, the main cause of project failure is not technology or hardware, but inefficient communication stemming from lack of effective communication between team members, incomplete business analysis, imprecise requirements, and vaguely formulated business objectives.

One of the hardest daily tasks developers, QA, ScrumMasters, and product owners encounter is effective communication with others. Sound implausible? According to many articles, research, and personal observations, the main cause of project failure is not technology or hardware, but inefficient communication stemming from lack of effective communication between team members, incomplete business analysis, imprecise requirements, and vaguely formulated business objectives.

That's why so many people put a lot of effort in finding the holy grail—efficient methods of improving communication skills. The optimization of the communication process includes several phases:

  • analyzing the initial situation;
  • identifying weak points;
  • creating, reviewing, and evaluating new procedures;
  • and introducing changes.

To make each phase easier, we can use simulation games. These games are based on competition, in which rules are fixed and agreed on by the participants, which is an also an example of a heterogeneous simulation model, whose key elements are the participants and game mechanics.[1]. Game mechanics (i.e., rules) can be adapted to the specific needs of the team. Players have defined roles and goals—either private or shared with the team.

You must assume the goal is to optimize communication on your team. In the first phase, participants should use their current procedures. During the next stages, they should have a chance improve those existing procedures or design new ones. The aim of the final stage is to verify the new solutions defined in the previous stages. Participants will have the opportunity to look at selected issues from a different perspective (e.g., from the perspective of a person acting in a different role in the team). Using that information, the team has the opportunity to work out effective methods of communication and integrate the new solutions. 

Simulation Games
Simulation games are a powerful combination of drama and are one of the most effective education methods using the natural human tendency to get into roles, according to Anthony Dallmann-Jones. Participants play an active part in scenarios that are models of real situations. They also contain a competition-stimulating factor [2].

Games can be broken down based on their purpose/goal:

Affective, which enables the development of interpersonal skills, and cognitive, which supports the process of learning complex processes and models.

Games can also be broken down based on the impact of one player’s decision on the other players [3]:

Interaction games (single-player results are dependent on decisions made by other players):

  • Competitive—To win, a player needs to achieve a higher score than the other players.
  • Cooperation—The result of a single player depends on the outcome of the whole group.
  • Mixed—Contains both cooperative and competitive elements

Games without interaction (results are independent of the other players’ decisions)

In the case of simulation games used in the optimization process, we use cooperative and cognitive games.

Simulation Games History
The genesis of simulation games is closely linked to the military history of the world. The first games were used primarily to educate military commanders. During the game, apprentices learned military strategies and acquired practical skills. Simulation games gave them the opportunity to learn quicker and test new solutions in a "secure environment" (without high costs). One of the first games was Wei-Hai (Chinese Danger), created by General Sin Tzu [4]. In the next centuries, there were games like Czaturanga or Taroth. In the nineteenth century, people started using games in other fields such as economics and management (e.g., Money Game and Red Weaver [10]).

The most important part of the game is a debriefing. During debriefing, participants have the opportunity to share their insights, experiences, and ideas. The final "brainstorm" is the time when the team develops new standards of cooperation and solves problems.

Simulation Game Example
HydroExtreme is a game designed to improve communication in an agile team. The game takes place in a small dive center. During the game, players become dive center staff and a customer who wants to take part in a dangerous underwater expedition. The team of divers is organizing a fantastic trip that will meet customer requirements, quality of service, and safety standards. Unfortunately, the customer is a beginner who lacks experience in recreational diving. But, he wants to go down to the bottom of the dive tank and enter the wreck of a sunken aircraft. There is one main goal for the dive team—to satisfy the customer. Each player also has a private task to perform, which in some cases may prevent the team from achieving a common goal.

The game is constructed to highlight the weaknesses in the team’s current procedures. The aim is to inspire the players to discuss how to modify and optimize their processes. The game consists of four main stages, each of which may consist of any number of sub-steps, depending on the needs of the team. After each sub-stage, players have time to discuss the current situation, analyze the mistakes, and try to design effective solutions. Everything takes place in an informal atmosphere to provide a sense of security and comfort. The gamification element stimulates team member’s creativity and engagement.

During the first stage, participants use their current communication procedures to accomplish their tasks. During the second stage, players have the opportunity to learn about alternative approaches, test them, and evaluate. The third stage is the time for the players to create their own solution. The last part of the game is verifying the final solution and then implementing the new process.

Here’s an example of the first stage of HydroExtreme:

DummyGuy will soon celebrate his fortieth birthday. His daily life is calm and peaceful, so he decides to do something crazy. Fascinated by the colorful stories of wrecks, DummyGuy decides to SCUBA dive in nearby waters. He had never been diving before, but he is adventurous and wealthy. After a bit of research, DummyGuy found a company that promised to "fulfill underwater dreams." DummyGuy quickly packed a towel and swimwear, and started a trip of a lifetime.

DummyGuy goal: Participate in extreme expedition (dive a dangerous wreck).

DummyGuy task: Persuade the dive center staff to make his dream come true. He withholds information about his lack of skill and experience.

Dive staff goal: Fulfill customer requirements (design underwater expedition). Dive center is in a difficult financial situation, which motivates the divers to do anything to satisfy the customer.

During the first stage the team has a chance to look at their current communication methods. The first stage is designed to end up with failure. At this point we are planning how to minimize weak points and find the causes of bright spots. During the next stages, players have a chance to introduce small fixes, design, and test new methods. The goal of the last phase is to make players confident and happy; they need to feel the power of their new communication framework. The underwater expeditions ends up happily.

Simulation Game Advantages
The most important part of the game is debriefing after each stage. Participants have the opportunity to share comments, thoughts, and ideas. Having this knowledge and experience, players can design their own effective solutions during next stages. It is also the initial phase of implementation of the new procedure. Active involvement in the process of change creation has a positive impact on its adoption and reduces time of implementation [5].

The team tries out various methods in order to select the most optimal solution. The decision is not dictated only by theoretical knowledge but also by empirical experience. Communication improvement is a complex and time-consuming operation. The biggest challenge is initial analysis of the current state of the team and the process change.

There are three main reasons to use a simulation game: It provides an interactive internal audit of the existing communication procedures, it allows a creative environment to stimulate the team to create its own efficient ways of communication, and it creates new processes verification in a secure test environment.

Simulation games are a flexible tool that can easily be adapted to the current needs of the team. The game allows players to gain new skills and improve existing ones in a pleasant atmosphere and test them in a secure environment without high risk and significant cost. Unfortunately, simulation games are not a silver bullet, but they are an excellent support tool.

As Plutarch said, "The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled." The main aim of a simulation game is to increase players’ creativity and inspire your team to find new, amazing solutions.


[1] " Edward Radosiński
[2] “The Expert Educator: A reference manual of teaching strategies for quality education” Anthony S. Dallmann-Jones, 1994
[3] “Theory of modelling and simulation” Bernard Zeigler, 1984
[4] “The Reader's companion to military history” Robert Cowley, Geoffrey Parker, 1996
[5] “Pełna partycypacja w zarządzaniu”, Ryszard Stocki, Piotr Prokopowicz, Grzegorz Żmuda, 2008
[6] “Change management and communications for IT succes” Michael Krigsman
[7] “Computerworld Survey: Poor communication causes most IT project failures” Linda Rosencrance
[8] “The Bull Survey (1998)”
[9] “The Standish Group Report CHAOS 2010”
[10] “Operational Gaming. An International Approach” Ingolf Stahl (Frontiers of Operational Research an Applied System Analysis Vol. 3”

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