Software Testing Training and Gaming

If you spend time at conferences, or hire a well-known testing consultant to provide some training for your company, it’s likely that one or more of them have used game mechanics as teaching tools. In fact, they probably used them on you. You may not be aware that they did, but they used gaming mechanics to help you learn something important.

James Bach is famous for using magic tricks and puzzle solving as teaching tools. When I spent time with James learning about how to be a more effective trainer, he told me that magic tricks are great teaching tools because we all love to be fooled. When we are fooled by something, we are entertained, and our mind is primed for learning about what we missed during the trick. That is an ideal state for the introduction to new ideas. If you spend any time with James or any of his adherents at a conference or peer workshop, you will likely be inundated with puzzles to solve. There is always a testing lesson to be learned at the end, and it is a novel way of helping people learn through solving a tangible problem. If you love to solve puzzles and learning about testing, you’ll enjoy these experiences.

Dorothy Graham has a board game that she developed for testing tutorials. It’s a traditional style game that she created as a training aid, and Dot loves to deliver this course. The tutorial attendees have a lot of fun, and they learn some important lessons, but Dot admits she may even have more fun than they do. Dot loves training, and the game takes the entertainment value of learning up a few notches. I’ve taught next door to Dot and heard attendees as they play the game and learn with her, and I’ve seen their smiling faces during breaks and after the course. There is something inherently positive about using a real, physical game, designed for a specific purpose (and fun) in this way.

Fiona Charles and Michael Bolton also created a board game for a software development game workshop they facilitated in 2006. Fiona says:  “Our experience with the game highlighted the power of games and simulations in teaching: their ability to teach the participants (and the teachers) more than was consciously intended.”

Ben Simo uses a variation on a board game. I’m not going to give it away, since it’s highly effective, but he used it on me when I was moving from a dabbler in performance and load testing to working on some serious projects. Ben is an experienced and talented performance tester, and he has taught a lot of people how to do the job well. Ben spent hours with me using pieces from a board game, and posing problems for me and having me work on solving them. It was highly interactive, was chock full of performance testing analysis lessons, and we enjoyed working together on it. He would set up the scenario, enhanced by the board game, and I would work on approaches to solve it. I had about 15 pages of notes from this game play activity to take back and apply to my work on Monday. After playing this training game with Ben, I had much more confidence and I was able to spot far more performance anomaly patterns than I had prior to working with him. (We worked through this in a hotel lounge, and we got a lot of weird looks. We didn’t care, we were having fun! Besides, channeling Ralph Wiggum: I was “learnding”!)

James Lyndsay developed a fascinating course on exploratory testing, and with it, simple “black box test machines” that he developed in Flash to aid in experiential learning. These machines had no text on them, and they are difficult to start using, because there are no outward signs of what they are for. This is done on purpose, and each machine helps each class participant experience the lesson through their own exploration and discovery. This is one of my favorite game-like experiences in a testing training course. The machine exercises remind me of a puzzle adventure game. One of my favorites of this type of game is Myst. You have to explore and go off of your observations and clues to figure out what to do, and the possibilities for application and experience are wide open. James managed to create 4 incredibly simple programs that can replicate this sort of game experience during training. Simply brilliant.

Those of you who follow Jerry Weinberg, or the many consultants who have been influenced by him have likely worked through simulations during a workshop or tutorial. Much like an RPG (role playing game), attendees are organized around different goals, roles, activities and tasks to create an improvised simulation of a real-life problem. This involves drawing on improvisation, your “pretending” skills and applying your problem solving techniques in a different context than a work context. Many people report having very positive experiences and “aha!” moments when learning from these sorts of activities.

Another theme in Jerry’s people working is physical activity. Jerry gets people to move around, and he can influence the mood of the room by adding in physical activity to a workshop. In the book, the Gift of Time, Fiona Charles shares a poignant story about Jerry using a movement activity to calm down a room full of people during a workshop when they first learned about the events of September 11. Michael Bolton has told me several stories of how Jerry changes the learning dynamic by getting people to move and work in different parts of the room, or grouping people and having them move and work with others in creative combinations. Movement is a huge part of many games, especially sports and outdoor activities, and it gets different parts of our brain working. If you couple movement with learning concepts, it brings together more of your senses to help with concept retention. It is also associated with good health, a sense of well being and fun.

(Speaking of experiential learning, pretty much everyone I have mentioned here, including me, (and a lot more trainers you have heard of) have been influenced either directly or indirectly by Jerry Weinberg’s work on experiential learning. He even has a series books on the topic on Leanpub. The first one: Experiential Learning: Beginning , the second: Experiential Learning: Inventing and the third: Experiential Learning: Simulation.)

There are other examples of trainers using game structures in software testing, and I’ve probably missed some obvious ones. (I haven’t even told you about the ones I use, but that doesn’t matter.) These are some good examples off the top of my head that demonstrate the use of game mechanics in teaching.

I wanted to point out that each of them use game mechanics to teach serious lessons. While people may have fun, they come away with real-world skills that they can apply to their work as soon as they are back in the office.

Don’t be turned off by the term “game” when it comes to serious business – if you look at gaming with an open mind, you’ll see that it is all around us, being used in effective ways.

Did I miss a good software testing training gaming example? Please add them in the comments.

Edit: I just discovered an interesting post on games and learning on the testinggeek.com blog: Software Testing Games – Do They Help?

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