Gaming away the leadership gap Linking gamification and behavioral science to transform leadership development

16 August 2016

How can video games help organizations develop better leaders? Cary Harr and Roxanne Splitt discuss how games, or simulations, encourage employees to examine their unconscious biases and internalize behaviors to become more inclusive leaders.

CARY HARR: Leadership training in general has not changed that much in the past, probably, 50 years.
ROXANNE SPLITT: It’s like, “Don’t be racist . . . super overtly.” And then everyone will be fine and just say that you embrace core values.
CARY HARR: They’re not keeping up with some of the newer technologies and some of the capabilities that are out there and that probably appeal to a younger, up-and-coming generation of leaders.

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TANYA OTT: What’s that saying? Meet them where they are? That’s what we’re talking about today in the Press Room. I’m Tanya Ott, and this is Deloitte University Press’s podcast on the issues and ideas that matter to your business today.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to being a leader in the workplace. What works for one person may not work for another. What works in one environment may not work in another. What works this month may not work the next. And, as industries become increasingly complex and disruption threatens at any time, it can be hard to find good leaders or to grow them from within. In Deloitte’s Human Capital Trends report for 2015, 9 out of 10 global business leaders cite leadership as a top organizational challenge. More than half said there weren’t enough Millennials on the bench to meet future business demands. That can have pretty serious ramifications, from lower revenues to high employee turnover.

So, more leadership training is in order, right? Cary Harr says, not so fast.

CARY HARR: I am part of the Digital Center for Immersive Learning. I’m a senior manager with Deloitte.

TANYA OTT: Before that, he was a K-12 teacher and a wrestling coach. So Cary knows a little something about leading a team on the mat and in the boardroom.

CARY HARR: Leadership training in general has not changed that much in the past, probably, 50 years. For the most part, there’s a lot of classroom training that’s involved. There’s some mentorship, which is obviously a really great way to train leaders. But some of the ways are sort of falling short in so far as they’re not keeping up with some of the newer technologies and some of the capabilities that are out there and that probably appeal to a younger, up-and-coming generation of leaders.

TANYA OTT: I imagine many of us who have ever worked in a corporate environment and have been through training of any kind will look at e-learning as a great way to not have to sit in a classroom or in a lecture hall for days on end. But a lot of those e-learning experiences can be really pretty static: watching a webinar; taking classes and tests online. Not very fun!

CARY HARR: It’s funny that you would say that. One of the things I’ve seen over the 15 years in the industry is that, really the fatigue has started to set in around those sort of training interventions. Typically, you’re not engaging with the content in those sorts of trainings. What you’re doing is memorizing, at best. Some people are just clicking next and not reading.

TANYA OTT: But it doesn’t have to be that way! There is another more engaging way to teach leadership.

(Sound of father and daughter playing video game)

So what does a post-apocalyptic adventure have to do with leadership?

ROXANNE SPLITT: Sure. I’m Roxanne Splitt.

TANYA OTT: In college, Roxanne studied something called “kinetic imaging.”

ROXANNE SPLITT: Which is like a 3D modeling and animation degree.

TANYA OTT: While she was there, she met Cary. And now . . .

ROXANNE SPLITT: I’m the lead game designer for the Digital Center for Immersive Learning.

TANYA OTT: Roxanne grew up on video games. Give her a microphone—even one over the phone—and she can talk for a very, very long time about her favorites.

At Deloitte, she builds games that help teach people things like leadership skills. Imagine a scenario where you, the would-be leader, get to move your avatar—that’s your digital body—through a 3D world where you interact with people who are different from you, maybe culturally or ethnically or educationally. You get to try different approaches to engaging them and see what works and what doesn’t. That’s what Cary, Roxanne, and their team are doing: using games and behavioral science to transform leadership development.

ROXANNE SPLITT: Just by virtue of being in a game environment, we’re psychologically in a head space where we’re more willing to take a microscopic view of our behavior. We’re more willing to accept failure as part of the experience. Feedback especially, which is a big part of leadership training, kind of looks a certain way—it’s performance related. It generally has a negative connotation, right? So when you hear feedback in the real world, it could potentially be a very negative experience. In a gaming environment, though, not so. You know it’s part of this progression toward getting better and completing your objectives.

Gaming has put us in a space where we are more willing to thoughtfully look at content. [When] we are in this space, where we’re trying to complete and solve a challenge, we are actually more open to finding abstract solutions or just hearing feedback [to which] maybe we would be a little defensive in the actual world.

TANYA OTT: So, guys, paint the scene for me: I’m imagining I’ve got someone on my staff, and I want to put them through leadership training. What am I doing? Am I plopping them in front a large television with a gaming system? Are they on their desktops?

ROXANNE SPLITT: It could potentially be like any number of those things. Most typically, what we see is that it is launched very similarly to the way traditional learning would be. [That’s] part of a cultural assimilation process. You don’t want to throw somebody in front of a Nintendo or throw a VR [virtual reality] headset on them immediately. There has to be some aspect of the experience that’s recognizable and familiar.

These things are typically launched the way traditional training is, but once you click on that link or once you enroll, even though it’s web content, it might nonlinear. You might progress through the world by clicking on objects, clicking on arrows. You might be presented with puzzles or content in a fashion where you get to make decisions about what you see next, or how to absorb and then recontextualize the things that you’re seeing.

A big part of what we do is trying to figure out where is that balance. Where’s that point where you think that the culture can bear it—that people will accept it and be able to engage with it, but then also leave the door open to do something cool. Something that actually engages people and requires them to bear down and engage with the content in the situation.

CARY HARR: When we’re talking about games here, in a lot of cases, we’re talking about supplemental pieces. We’re not talking about completely throwing away the mentoring system, obviously. But we do feel like games will allow leaders to do things that they couldn’t normally do in the workplace. For example, games do a really good job of seeing what cause and effect is: I make a decision in a game, and I may see several steps later the impact of that decision. That’s really hard to do in a classroom.


ROXANNE SPLITT: A lot of times, if you’re teaching these foundational concepts, there is a reason that [they are] taught in a specific way. So that could still be conveyed through a lecture or traditional means. Games really come into play if you’re trying to test the virtual application of those skills. You might learn that it’s really important to engage with every person on your team; don’t just always talk to the same one or two people. But that takes on a different sort of shade, is a little bit more impactful, if you can be in a simulation where you are able to interact with people, and you see the outcome. You see that there’s a difference in employee engagement, or that people are working harder, or seem like they’re a little distant. Instead of just being told that this is the impact, you get to see it as part of your experience, and you’re kind of like a coauthor of that learning point. You feel like you’re responsible for figuring out that that’s why that thing happened.

TANYA OTT: So if a company decides that they want to get into gaming for leadership, and they come to someone like you, and they say help me design something, what’s the process look like? How do you design a game to teach leadership?

CARY HARR: That’s a great question. One of the things that we do right off the bat is we actually get into the client organization, and we sort of gauge the culture of that organization. What sort of things go on there? How open [are they] to the idea of a game? In fact, sometimes we’ll refer to [games] as “simulations” depending on who’s involved in the situation.

TANYA OTT: So you don’t call it a game because that might turn some people off?

CARY HARR: Exactly. Depending on the situation, we’ll actually call it a simulation if that makes people feel better. Then the next step is typically to brainstorm. One of the things that we do is we gather a lot of information about what it is that they’re trying to teach their folks: What is the major objective? What are some of the challenges of the organization? A lot of times, you’ll find that organizations have different cultures that are possibly different types of issues that they would like to address. So that’s one of the first things that we do. We do a lot of data gathering up front, and then we do some brainstorming with the clients to figure out what objective they would like to reach with the game.

ROXANNE SPLITT: I can tell you, the 10,000-foot approach to game design for behavioral design and learning is basically you isolate those behaviors that you want to teach people, and you make sure that those are the ones that are rewarded in the simulation.

Part of the reason that gaming works through all of that really awesome behavioral psychology stuff is that [for] you as a human, your primordial lizard brain is programmed to want to find the most efficient and effective path from point A to point B. So in game design, basically what that means is we make sure that the easiest way to [win the game] is by doing the behaviors that the organization wants to emphasize or highlight. Then conversely, obviously, just to round out that incentive system, if there are things that maybe you shouldn’t be doing, you make sure that that’s reflected in the scoring system; or if people engage in these behaviors, they’ll have a harder time winning the game.

TANYA OTT: I live with two gamers. My husband plays the same game every night before bed: a “tower defense video game,” as they call them. And I have a teen daughter who really loves a very popular first-person shooter game. They can get lost in those games for hours and hours, and you might even say they’re addicted. But there’s science to back that up, right? I mean there’s a reason that people engage in games in a very passionate way.

ROXANNE SPLITT: I think that gaming maybe encourages some compulsive behaviors. On the positive end of the spectrum, that’s really good. It can be used to habituate things that maybe you weren’t doing previously. I’m sure we’ve all heard of things like Fitbit or any kind of popular fitness app, where you are getting points and badges, and that’s kind of helping you build something like exercise or calorie counting into your routine. That’s leaning on the idea that you’re creating these stronger neuron pathways, and you’re getting these psychological and dopamine release awards that are emphasizing that behavior.

CARY HARR: The reason that games have that addictive quality to them, and the reason that we love the fact that they align so well with learning, is that the introduce you to really simple concepts early, and then, just at the time that you’re starting to get just a little bit bored or become very proficient at it, they introduce a new challenge. So we try to leverage that as well with the learning games that we develop. But that’s one of the really unique things about games that make them so perfect for learning situations.

TANYA OTT: That’s what I was wondering—after a while, if you’re playing a game on leadership, I would think that smart people would figure out, okay, this is the way you have to answer that in order to get that reward. So, Roxanne, when you’re looking at that, and you’re trying to think, how can I then up the game, if you will, what are you thinking about?

ROXANNE SPLITT: If we’re talking about making sure people continue to play or continue to be engaged, a really big part of it is understanding your user group. You want to figure out how much time they optimally are going to be able to spend on this experience. Zynga and Facebook, back in the early 2000s, [when] there were billions of those games, did a lot of hard-core research to figure out how long are people on their platform. And they made sure that their games matched that exactly.

So if you know that your user population doesn’t have an hour during the course of their day to sit down and do something, but they do have firm-issued devices and 5–10 minutes throughout the day, you make sure that you get the maximum amount of rewards in that session length. [That helps] curb user burnout.

If people feel like they’re getting rewarded too much, even though it seems crazy, they’ll actually reach a point of diminishing returns, and they won’t feel like they’re getting anything out of the experience. So it’s very, very carefully carving out that engagement curve and making sure that realistically people have time to play your game, [and] that people are going to be given just enough rewards and sense of progression [to] keep wanting to pursue those same challenges.

Probably the more prevalent example that we’re seeing more and more in gamification is the addition of social features. If I can see a leader board, and I feel like I’ve played the heck out of this game, and I see that my coworker surpassed me from rank one to rank two or something, that can compel me to get back into an experience even if I’m not super enjoying it at the moment. If I’ve already played five hours in a day, and I don’t really feel like playing a sixth hour, that’s enough motivation for me just to make sure that I keep my social foot—because that’s a sort of a reward structure as well.

TANYA OTT: So they’re actually doing that? They’re doing gaming against each other in a leaderboard format in this kind of gamification of leadership?

ROXANNE SPLITT: Yeah. People are asking for it more and more. Multi-player’s been around for a really long time, and the competition is really moment to moment. Here, in kind of a lower-tech solution, [it’s] just the ability to asynchronously see the rankings of people. It’s something that’s not very difficult to do technically, and you get a lot of engagement. We’re seeing a lot of interest where people want to compare not just user to user, but they want to see a certain user group—like maybe, let’s look at how all the software engineers are doing compliance-wise [against] all of the salesmen. Can we get any information or figure out why maybe this group is falling behind?

TANYA OTT: I have to think, Cary, that one thing that Roxanne said in her last answer might slightly terrify you. (He laughs.) “Terrify” is probably not the right word, but when she said, “If they’ve already played five hours, they might not be able to play a sixth hour,” I’m thinking, employers are going, “Wait a minute! You’re putting them through a gaming or simulation or whatever for five or six hours? Where’s my worker productivity? It might be too much fun to play this.”

CARY HARR: Absolutely. We do hear that, and that’s one of the reasons that we do use the term simulation as opposed to games a lot of times when we’re sitting with a CEO. They tend to like that a little bit better. People sort of self-regulate themselves, especially when it comes to games.

TANYA OTT: Because they’re not all my teenage daughter, is what you’re saying? Who could easily sit on a couch for a day.

ROXANNE SPLITT: It’s not that you’re required to play hours and hours of the game, but that some people who are motivated by the idea of getting points or getting their office on the leaderboard will sink much more time into it.

Candy Crush is the same way. It used to be really easy to talk about duration. [If] you talk about a movie, you can look up on IMDB and see how long it is. [But] how long is Candy Crush? People play it for two minutes, and are they really having a different experience than the people who play it hours upon hours for years? That scalability issue is an interesting challenge to work into because you obviously want to cater to both groups. You can make an experience that’s so engaging that people can’t put it down. That’s the brass ring for a game development team. But obviously, as you were saying, organizationally you can’t expect that that’s going to be the norm for most of your user base.

TANYA OTT: For a lot of people, when they think gaming, they think it’s all play time. There’s nothing else. There’s not much substance there. But gaming has really evolved in a way that is fascinating in terms of using gaming to talk about health education, gender roles. All those sorts of things are explored through gaming in not the traditional, Donkey Kong vs. Ms. Pacman kind of way.

ROXANNE SPLITT: I think that that’s absolutely true. Gaming, in the same way that I think Hollywood and probably every entertainment industry ever, has had this sort of issue where it’s still to a point focused on the hero’s journey tale. Often it’s a straight, white male protagonist. And I think the next 10 years is where we’re really starting to see that open up, where you’re getting more stories from different viewpoints. That promotes games from different demographics, which promotes different stories, which just makes the entire industry even better.

TANYA OTT: Bringing that back to what we’re talking about, if you take that idea of gamification and diversity, and you put it into a corporate environment, I would imagine that leadership games that you may be looking to develop have to take [that] into account.

ROXANNE SPLITT: “DNI,” or diversity inclusion, is a really difficult topic. There’s a lot of really cool thought and development going on in that space right now, where previously it was kind of compliance oriented. It’s like, “Don’t be racist . . . super overtly.” And then everyone will be fine and just say that you embrace core values.

Now it’s changed to be more about things like unconscious bias. You might have the best of intentions, but the way you go through the world, the way you interact with people, has this profound impact on your environment and other people. It’s so nuanced, because it’s sort of tackling the idea that your base assumptions about the world might be incorrect. I ride the Metro every day, and there’s a pretty good sign above those reserved seats that says that you don’t know who needs to sit here—which is super true. You kind of think, we’ll all move if people in a wheelchair or on crutches comes in, but there are people with chronic illnesses. There’s things you haven’t considered [or] you don’t know that would qualify someone to need that seat. And that’s a microcosm for what DNI is.

That’s the hardest thing in the world to do: to get people to look at something they haven’t looked at ever and don’t feel like they need to look at. That’s why I think games are really good, if you’re trying to win, that min-max sort of mentality is so important. If you can shave off half a second time, or you can get 10 more points on this level, you can bring yourself to the next completion state. The fact that we don’t go through life with that kind of thoughtfulness and willingness to reexamine a situation, and really figure out all of the variables that are impacting your outcomes—[and] the fact that we do that in games opens up this entire space to say, hang on, let’s reexamine something that maybe you think you understand, and see how that plays out.

CARY HARR: People don’t do things on purpose. They’re behaving in a certain way because I think they feel comfortable. What we’ve been able to do with games in the past is show people that there are alternate behaviors that they can demonstrate and the impact of demonstrating those behaviors. Again, DNI is a great example where people are doing things because they’re comfortable. But if you can get them to see the impact of those behaviors and maybe change those behaviors in a way that’s not threatening, it’s a great way to actually roll that out to them as a whole.

ROXANNE SPLITT: It’s really hard to change culture. That’s really difficult. You have to get buy-in for people to understand why this is important. And it’s really hard to do that unless you’re willing to use analogies or metaphors to show how this could conceivably happen. You need to be able to describe, this issue is a problem. It’s impacting people this way. You have to show that people could reasonably feel like these negative influences are happening to them. And if you can’t do that, then it just sounds like platitudes. I think people have a really negative reaction to a lot of culture change things, and games help break that down because you’re showing rather than telling. You’re saying, this is the impact that’s being influenced on these people. What can you do in this environment to make things better?

TANYA OTT: Making things better: That’s the goal of the games Roxanne, Cary, and the team create. You can learn more about it in their article Gaming away the leadership gap. It’s at—along with our podcast archive, a true treasure trove (if I might be so bold) of thought leadership on everything from digital disruption to managing Millennials.

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Tell us what you think. Tweet us at @du_press, or email us at I’m Tanya Ott for the Press Room. Thanks for listening, and have a great day!

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