Navigating Real Life through Virtual Worlds

May 29, 2020 1 Min Read

It’s a VUCA world out there, folks.

It’s become a cliché at this point, but it must be stated that the world we live in has become rather complicated. It seems like just yesterday I was tying scrolls to pigeons. Today I tried doing it to the mailman and got some strange looks at the post office. </div>

I am of course joking, but the reality is that the standard of excellence for individuals has risen tremendously in the past 25 years. Simultaneously, the channels to achieve that excellence have not become any easier, as competition and demand for skill sets intensify. To compound matters, we live in an age of constant distraction and disruption. Social media, for all its benefits, has left us with a desire for instant gratification.

This situation is referred to as VUCA, which stands for the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous state of the world. The U.S. Army first introduced the idea of VUCA to refer to the changes the world went through at the end of the Cold War.

Like many military concepts, it was later adopted by the rest of the population, in particular as a response to times of great upheaval such as the financial crisis of 2008 that crippled many businesses.

And the sad truth is that we may never be able to eradicate VUCA. The best we can do is to empower individuals to chip away at it through structures and processes that equip them with knowledge, skills, guidance and conviction.

Translated from egghead to normal English: We need to educate people.

Whereas the heroic manager of the past knew all, could do all, and could solve every problem, the post heroic manager asks how every problem can be solved in a way that develops other people´s capacity to handle it.

~Charles Handy, Irish Economist and Social Philosopher

The needs of the new generation

Pardon me, but things are about to get a bit nerdy. I do hope you’re not one of those people who turn their noses up at theories. I am all for practical experience, but practice based on sound principles is where I find I get the best results.

Over the past decade the learning and innovation skills needed for the 22nd century have been described in a framework by The Partnership for 21st Century Skills. It presents a unified vision for learning to ensure student success in a world where change is constant and learning never stops. It has been narrated in detail by numerous authors who have embraced this conceptual model.

For the purposes of this article, we will focus on the ‘Learning and Innovation Skills’ quadrant. This section can be further broken down into 4 components, which we affectionately refer to as the ‘4 Cs’.

Yes, it’s perfectly normal to feel affection for a learning framework

As far back as 2008, networking conglomerate Cisco has reported the importance of developing such skills in learners. By building competency in these areas, individuals are better prepared for the workforcce.

So, now we know what we want to equip learners with to best prepare them to face a rapidly changing world. The next question is how do we do it?

The answer is: another pragmatic theory!

To fully contextualise this, I must first put forth another theory, this time on the learning process itself.

I present to you Bruner’s 5Es lenses of knowledge construction, focusing on maximizing student’s participation in active learning through a 5 stage cyclical process beginning with engagement.

Note that we are talking about active learning here. The learners are not expected to just sit and listen. They are expected to observe critically, probe and question. That learner is primed to retain much more of the information presented than if they just took notes. That is the type of learner we want in any learning environment.

  1. Engagement with learning tasks, ideas, or concepts;
  2. Exploration, providing scaffolding and guidance through the practice of exploration;
  3. Explanation, resulting in idea and concept elucidation and interpretation, extending the learner’s new understanding and knowledge;
  4. Elaboration, extending learners’ cognitive experiences into domains of increasing complexity; and
  5. Evaluation  through self-assessment and formative assessment.

Games as a teaching tool

If we examine games (both virtual and analog) through the lens of Bruner’s 5 Es, we will see that a properly designed game covers all five stages.

  1. Engagement visually pleasing aesthetics and game pieces, a compelling storyline, a clearly defined goal to strive for that the learner is interested in, multiplayer options for the competitive.
  2. Exploration, various levels worlds etc to explore, rules and limitations to test.
  3. Explanation, all good games have onboarding processes to explain the mechanics of gameplay to the player.
  4. Elaboration, plot twists, choices and dilemmas the game puts players through.
  5. Evaluation  based on immediate and delayed feedback, the player can make adjustments to get better at the game.

Gee, that sure does sound an awful lot like learning.

Naysayers will argue that while learning is indeed happening, players are only learning how to get better at the game, and not actually getting anything that would be useful in the real world. To them, I have only one suggestion:

You. Me. 1 vs 1. Now.

Now we have established that games provide a most conducive environment for learning, the next question to ask is: what can be learned using games? Why, anything the game is designed to deliver as a learning outcome!

Games are an excellent method for building competency in the previously mentioned 4 Cs (creating, collaborating, communicating and critical thinking),

Multiplayer online role-playing games (MORPGs), such as RuneScape and EverQuest® II stimulate increased awareness and sensitivity to practicing collaboration and the spontaneous generation of Communities of Learning and subsequent Learning Ecosystems.

Game developers are also constantly in contact with game communities and provide game updates based on their feedback. When the community knows their voices are heard, they are more likely to speak up. This is a clear parallel to organisations where higher-ups must listen to what their employees have to say.

An RPG (role-playing game – not always online and with a smaller player base) like Wallbreakers  or GameChangers facilitates the construction of a critical thinking and design thinking mindset to approach organisational change/transformation management.

Simulations such as SimCity,  where players manage an entirely different space/environment and every aspect of it can build increased practice in multi-faceted problem-solving. A more overtly education simulation like FLIGBY helps an individual assess 29 measurable leadership competencies and become intimately aware of Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow concept (don’t worry, I won’t show it here, but you should check it out).

This isn’t limited to digital games. Many board games also offer much potential for learning

The entrepreneurship game, FreshBizGame, provides a platform for developing sense-making and decision-making competencies.

In short, serious games and simulations are a fantastic tool for experiential learning. To turn students of all ages into active explorers and discoverers in a safe environment where failure just means restarting a level or losing one of infinite lives. Players who take what they learn from the virtual world and apply it to real-life may well find that the latter becomes oh so slightly less VUCA. Consequently, students can learn through play and fun. What a unique
combination of activities to increase engagement and commitment to learning!

SEE ALSO: Play to Win: A Case for Game-Based Learning

Michael Sutton is the co-author of Emotify!: The Power of the Human Element in Game-Based Learning, Serious Games, and Experiential Education, which advocates game-based learning in education. Michael holds a Ph.D. in Knowledge Management and is currently the Chief Knowledge Officer of his company, Funification. To get in touch with him, contact us at

Ashraf Farid is tentatively on the Leaderonomics Editorial team. His passions include singing in the shower and fighting neighbourhood cats. During his free time, he comes up with wicked basslines he secretly knows are ripped off of Muse songs.

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