Mike MacDonagh's Blog

Somewhere in the overlap between software development, process improvement and psychology

Serious Gaming for education with complex layered metaphors

I’ve written a couple of blogs about metaphors. In Direct, Indirect and complex Metaphors I promised I’d post again on complex layered metaphors so here’s the post.

Complex Layered Metaphors

I consider a complex layered metaphor to be a collection of metaphors contained within another metaphor. Potentially this structure can be recursed so that you end up with with a stack of metaphors containing metaphors. There’s a number of reasons for doing this:

  • it’s fun
  • it provides a vehicle for delivering a lot of direct and indirect messages

Since it’s a little complex by it’s nature I’ll describe it in terms of a concrete example of some work I recently did with one of my clients. We wanted to get a number of messages out about awareness and the nature of the process improvement team in the organisation and services as well as specific messages in terms of the attractiveness of continuous integration, change set based scm (software configuration management), the use of a wide variety of collaborative tools.

To do all this in an innovative and creative way I designed a complex layered metaphor in terms of a Serious Game. The game itself was a treasure trail through a series of physical and intranet/web tool based locations.

Here’s the in-game metaphorical framework design:

Analogy Message(s)
[Top Level, contains everything else] The game is a complicated sequence through a diverse range of information sources and collaborative tools [Process Improvement Team] can make a path through the complexity of internal tools and technologies[Process Improvement Team] enables problem solvers to achieve their goals in innovative ways
The game brings together and links up a number of different areas of knowledge and tools (an information web made of new links)The game is rooted in the intranet which provides an information web of existing links.The game involves a clue that is a spider at the centre of a physical “web” which is actually the roof of a large virtual presentation area, literally a web of information. [Process Improvement Team] brings together disparate systems and knowledge into unified ways of working.There is a wide web of interconnected elements that are needed to complete our tasks.
Generally clues are meaningless out of context (e.g. just numbers, the name of an animal etc.)Information is meaningless without context, a broad understanding of the information architecture is necessary to understand the facts. Silo mentality in functional disciplines is working with information out of context. Cross-functional understanding and working, collaboration, is necessary to achieve goals.
Keep coming back to searching in [Internal Search Engine] for general knowledgeKeep coming back to searching in [Project Tool] for project information Much information is open and discoverable, knowing where and how to look is necessary. This is taught implicitly.
The name of the game [Quest] implies a search with a goal Doing the game is worthwhile and will result in finding something

The set of clues that made the game each led to each other and were themselves metaphors, normally containing metaphor restrictions to apply specific process improvement, service management and tooling messages indirectly. There were of course direct messages peppered throughout as well as well.

This provides three layers of metaphorical messages so far, the clues, the framework and the treasure trail game. On top of all of these was an activity sequence which started with a viral messaging campaign that leaked the information about the game in mysterious fashion. The discovery of the clue sequence, engagement in it’s elements (including 3 sequences held inside a virtual 3D environment like Second Life), and entry into the prize draw for a number of prizes ranging from the silly to the seriously cool.

As a result of the external activity sequence the players interacted with individuals in the Process Improvement Team through a variety of communication channels and even started eliciting help from them on a number of topics. Finally they had to physically come to the prize draw which further raised the profile of the Process Improvement Team and it’s individual members whilst delivering a message that the team was approachable and had answers.

This is just an example of how you can design layered complex metaphorical messaging campaigns. You don’t have to build a game structure for this kind of stuff.

Serious Gaming

Serious Gaming” is used to describe games designed for a primary purpose other than pure entertainment. Serious games are often used for educational, investigative and promotional purposes.

I’m a big fan of serious games and gamification as games can be excellent motivators. Gamification is the application of game concepts to solve problems and engage audiences/players. For an example of gamification in the wild check out Chore Wars which helps turn boring household chores into a game.

I play a game with myself to increase the hit count of my blog, for no other purpose that to increase the “points” I get 🙂 Indirectly that makes me ensure my blog is discoverable and I exercise good SEO practices to get good google rankings, oh yeah and post stuff that people want to read (I hope).

Learning through play is considered perfectly normal for children and yet is sometimes frowned up with adults.  As mentioned before, a serious game can be an excellent vehicle for metaphorical messaging as it can provide a framework of engagement and activity towards a goal. Make the activity a metaphor (like the quest example above seeking a goal by working through a web of complex tools and collaborative environments being a metaphor for the process improvement team enabling people to solve problems) and you’ve got a ready made layered complex metaphor.

If you want to run something like this here’s the set of game features I used to “gamify” the eductional treasure trail:

  • The treasure trail itself, they’re fun
  • Clues range from simple to complex to challenge players
  • Clues range from simple directions to multi-part referential clues that need piecing together (mini-puzzles)
  • Depending on the path taken through the game some clues can be referenced more than once in different contexts (i.e. the launch blog entry has a set of textual clues to the first location via encoded IP address, contains a red herring reference embedded in decorated characters in the text and also contains the final code embedded in the task). Discovery of hidden information, especially hidden patterns or elegance is psychologically rewarding for humans.
  • There are a number of “red herrings” in the game, adding another mini-game in terms of find them
  • 3D virtual environments imply game activity and lead to fun construction and interaction activity. There was also a rudimentary tic-tac-toe game in-world.
  • Clues are written in stylised humorous game-like language
  • Competition for prizes (open prize draw for all finishers who submit the correct code word, minor silly prizes for fastest and slowest completion, minor prize for funniest feedback comment)
  • The winning of virtual badges by completing the game that people could add to their profile
  • Early viral messaging campaign to make the game seem “subversive” initially

Feedback was overwhelmingly positive, in fact some of the most positive feedback I’ve ever seen, and we estimated we completed several hundred hours of high engagement practitioner training for only 4 days effort (game design and running) + the cost of the prizes.

All work should be like this, creativity should be the norm, not the exception.


This blog is part of a series on Holistic Communication: The linguistics of business change. Introduction, ethics and table of contents is all in the first post.

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2 responses to “Serious Gaming for education with complex layered metaphors

  1. Pingback: Linguistics of business change: Holistic communication, ethics and morals « The Mac Daddy

  2. Pingback: Direct, Indirect and complex metaphors « The Mac Daddy

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