Why does a business simulation expand your mental models?

In the current VUCA context, where continuous learning is what matters, expanding our mental models becomes essential to gain tolerance, flexibility and adaptation. Halfway between a pure game and a pure simulation, the game/simulation, commonly in a business simulation format, provides invaluable help.

Simulation is popularly defined as a partial representation of reality which selects essential characteristics of a real situation and makes a replica of them, within an environment or place which is free of risk. (Saunders & Powell, 1998).
Here, we define gaming/simulation as an activity that works, entirely or partially, by the players’ decisions. The simulation is an operational model which involves abstraction, and the representation of a much larger system.

Thus, we distinguish between simulation as an exercise in representation and gaming/simulation as a human, relational activity which uses said simulation as an instrument. This subtle difference is of particular relevance since the gaming/simulation creates a new, shared mental models.

Three essential components may be identified when describing gaming/simulation:

  1. Human relational activity
  2. A scale representation of reality
  3. A base operating model

In contrast, pure games have no representation, and pure simulations have no human activity in the operating model.
Fruit of this human activity is the exchange and modification of individuals’ mental models, on which professors Tomoaki Tsuchiya and Shigehisa Tsuchiya ask: How can games or simulations change the mental models that guide us, and create shared mental models which go beyond the different values, interests and vision of the world of its participants? The reasons are:

1. Voluntary learning

When forced to learn, we learn little, as we usually resist accepting anything new in the governing mental models. The fun elements of simulation and games encourage us to participate in an experiential learning environment in a simulated world and to learn voluntarily.

2. Creation of turmoil

As Festinger points out (1957), the first step in the process of changing attitudes, beliefs and suppositions are to allow participants to doubt the validity of the mental models that guide them. The conflict and turmoil created by gaming/simulation raise doubts in their minds and lessens their resistance to change.

3. The big picture

The schematic approach allows participants to share a holistic view of the matter. It counteracts the narrow perspectives derived from specialisation and provides a model for retaining details. Once the whole is understood, the participants’ mental models grow. Consequently, compatibility between their mental models, increases and the creation of shared mental models become possible.

4. Compression of time

Compression of time and space makes experiential learning possible and accelerates the learning process. Gaming/simulation enables participants to experience the outcomes of their decisions and actions within a short space of time. In the real world, we have only little opportunity to learn from our experience, mainly because the results of our decisions and actions often lie beyond our learning horizons. Also, accelerated learning processes provide a more solid acquisition of knowledge.

5. Risk-free environment

Gaming/simulation lets the participants experiment with new policies, strategies and learning skills, without risk. Actions that in the real world are irreversible or have no turning back can be carried out countless times. Thus the risk-free environment provided by the gaming/simulation broadens the range of experiences that make sense to the participants.

6. Shared experience

Participants’ mental models converge through shared experience and as a result of this, align, which is essential for the creation of a shared mental model.

7. A rich interpretation of history

Our understanding of past experiences, or “history”, through gaming/simulation allows us to learn from small episodes in the real world. These little pieces of experiences are used to construct a theory of history from which a variety of additional scenarios are generated which, though not carried through, are nonetheless possible. The rich interpretation of history facilitates experiential learning.

8. Cause maps

Uncertainty and ambiguity in the real world pose obstacles to our experiential learning because they make it challenging to find meanings or invent explanations. The cause maps, developed through participation in their design and use in a gaming/simulation situation help participants to interpret and make sense of their lives. (Tsuchiya, S & Tsuchiya, T 1999).

Conclusion

Individuals are often unaware that there is a problem and that it can only be solved by altering the mental models that control us. Once we discover this miss-match however, our mental models are affected, though the change may be imperceptibly small. Gaming/simulation allows the participants to experience numerous cycles and thus to accumulate these small changes until they become visible, resulting in a stronger, double-loop, learning process.

References

  • Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford: Stanford University Press. (Retrieved from)
  • Saunders, D., Powell, T., The, T., En, J., & Rolfe, D. (1998). Developing a European media simulation through new information and communication technologies: the TENSAL project. Saunders, & T. Powell (Edits.), The International Simulation & Gaming Research Yearbook. Simulations and Games for Emergency and Crisis Management Vol 6, Pgs 75–86 London Kogan Page. (Amazon)
  • Tsuchiya, T., Tsuchiya, S., & En, D. (1999). The unique contribution of gaming/simulation: towards establishment of the discipline. Saunders J Severn Edits The International Simulation Gaming Research Yearbook. Simulations and Games for Strategy and Planning Vol 7, Pgs 46–57 London Kogan Page. (Amazon)