Wharton’s Ethan Mollick and Sarah Toms discuss why game-based learning has the potential to change education for students of all ages.

Imagine a classroom setting where traditional lectures and slides are augmented with interactive games that let students fully immerse themselves in the lesson. That’s the goal at Wharton Interactive, which is dedicated to transforming education through game-based learning. The idea is not to allow teenagers to spend hours playing Minecraft or Among Us; instead, it’s about creating games that intensify the learning process by stimulating the brain in ways that make the subject matter really stick.

Co-founded by executive director Sarah Toms and Wharton management professor Ethan Mollick, Wharton Interactive is backed by research that shows how gamified learning leads to more positive outcomes for both educators and students of all ages, such as the professionals who enroll in Wharton Executive Education programs. Toms and Mollick joined Knowledge at Wharton to talk about Wharton Interactive and to explain how game-based education can help younger and older students alike acquire new skills in a more compelling and immediate way than traditional teaching methods alone. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page, or read the edited transcript of the conversation that follows.)

Knowledge at Wharton: This idea was hatched by the two of you one afternoon in a coffee shop in San Francisco. Tell us about that meeting and about what this kind of learning entails.

Sarah Toms: Our origin story begins with a really interactive partnership between me and Ethan. We started working together about seven or eight years ago, recreating some of the simulations that Ethan already had been running for his entrepreneurship classes. While doing that, we realized that we had a lot of synergy with respect to our backgrounds. We both came from entrepreneurship and we both love gaming. I have a very strong technology background — Ethan obviously in entrepreneurship and research. We just had a partnership made in heaven, quite frankly.

The idea that came out of that conversation in the coffee shop was Idea Machine, which is one of the platforms that we’re offering at Wharton Interactive and is being utilized by learners all over Penn. We also started to wrangle with this concept that traditional simulations are great, but they’re very expensive to create and are usually sort of on rails — the way Ethan and I describe them — where you’re entering numbers into a dashboard, you’re hitting submit, and you’re artificially moving to the next period. And that doesn’t sit well with us.

We’re interested in thinking about more authentic decision-making, more authentic learning, where there are more gray zones between that decision-making — there’s a narrative, personalities, challenges and trade-offs. It’s all happening together, which makes it incredibly difficult to teach in a classroom. But we decided we wanted to take it on.

“Interact with people from other cultures around the world, get personalized feedback and feelings of real accomplishment — that’s our goal.” –Ethan Mollick

As our partnership started to develop when I was director of Wharton’s Learning Lab, we came to an inflection point where we decided it was time to take these ideas and concepts and develop them in our incubator at Wharton Interactive, and think about how we bring these incredible platforms — this next-generation of thinking in serious games — not just to Wharton classes, but to the world.

Knowledge at Wharton: Wharton Interactive’s stated mission is to “democratize the future of education. When students actively participate in their own learning, they own what they know.” What does that mean?

Ethan Mollick: It means a few things, and one of them is about how we learn. One of the great, powerful ways we learn is through experience and tying experience to pedagogy. That’s having the best teaching techniques, using stuff that we know boosts learning, and having those woven into an actual experience. Rather than telling you how to run a company, you run a fake company. But you don’t just run it without feedback. You get feedback built in, you get tests on things. If you do badly at something, you try it again. It’s about the latest interactive pedagogy for teaching and about that feeling of ownership, control and agency.

The other important piece is about democratization. Wharton is an incredible place. [Penn] is an amazing university that I think we’re all happy to be a part of. We teach amazing students, but there are students all over the world who could benefit from [what we do here]. Just in the last few years, there have been a couple of very powerful studies showing that even basic business education boosts entrepreneurship rates, success rates, and helps people get out of poverty, helps countries develop better. We want to increase access to that sort of education, and games are a really great way to do that. This goes beyond those massive online open courses (MOOCs), the videos that people watch, and moves it instead to a world of interactivity. Interact with people from other cultures around the world, get personalized feedback and feelings of real accomplishment — that’s our goal.

Toms: One of the things that I found incredibly compelling came from a small study we conducted on the first generation of our platform, Alternate Reality Courseware. When we think about a traditional classroom, we know that 20% of the students on average are raising their hands, and their voice is heard in the class. That means that 80% probably have things to say, but they’re not engaging vocally in that class discussion. Ethan was curious and said, “I wonder what’s happening in our three-week-long entrepreneurship game. Are those students who are not vocal in the class also not engaging and participating as heavily in the game?” He found zero correlation.

He had a research assistant watch videos of the classroom and saw who was raising their hand. Then we looked at the level of engagement in the games. Students who were not raising their hand were highly engaged [in the game], meaning that this is another mode for learners to get engaged and feel psychological safety in the classroom. That’s another way that we can democratize the access and the voice of those students with respect to the lessons that they’re receiving.

Knowledge at Wharton: Unlike a traditional class, where you think maybe the quiet students aren’t paying attention or aren’t getting the lesson, you found that they are highly engaged — just maybe with their screen. But the synapses are firing and they are absorbing what they’re learning through the simulation, correct?

“It’s creating that indelible impression in a learner’s memory that they can then retrieve and put into action later on in their career. It’s really magic.” –Sarah Toms

Mollick: Yeah, but it’s not just through the screen. You mentioned Among Us earlier. That’s a cooperative game. Minecraft is also a cooperative game. Our games are not for a single player staring at a screen; you are interacting with other humans, often over the course of weeks. And you’re building a team in real life as you build it in the game. So, it’s not just a passive experience. The educational impact is clear. In other early studies, we find a full standard deviation increase in learning outcomes from people who do the simulation versus control experiments.

We’re still in the early days of this research, but we know it’s very compelling from a lot of different perspectives. There’s been a long tradition of trying to make games that can teach. It was once referred to derisively as chocolate-covered broccoli because people would just take teaching and add bad games on top. I think we’re one of the first to start from the ground up and say, “How do we build something that isn’t quite a game and isn’t quite a simulation, but it’s somewhere in between, that can teach compelling lessons and is based on the best science of how we learn?” What we do is based on the science as well as the art of gaming.

Knowledge at Wharton: How can gamified learning help an adult professional who doesn’t live in a sci-fi world but has to tackle real-world problems every day?

Toms: We do run a lot of our simulations through Wharton Executive Education classes, and we are rated incredibly high in all of those classes. What’s great for these executive learners is that we can leverage what’s known in gaming as appropriate fidelity. That means it’s better to shift you into a fictitious world where we are making you focus on learning and getting immersed in the world. A great example is a game we have called The Saturn Parable, which has now been played by hundreds of executives. In that experience, over the course of two days, they are learning crisis management, they are learning teamwork, leadership skills, etc. That’s all coming to life in this really engaging game where they are manning a mission to Saturn.

Mollick: The idea is that we don’t need to be in completely realistic worlds to teach realistic lessons. We wouldn’t let pilots fly a plane without being in a flight simulator first and crashing a bunch of times. We don’t penalize them for crashing. But in real life, we penalize executives for failing. We might say “fail fast,” but failing fast is not actually that appreciated, and often people learn the wrong lessons from failure. We want to put people in a flight simulator for management. We want to give them a chance to crash, but learn from those crashes and understand what happened, to apply those lessons and get the experience they need before they’re actually flying the plane.

“We wouldn’t let pilots fly a plane without being in a flight simulator first and crashing a bunch of times.” –Ethan Mollick

Knowledge at Wharton: Where do you see the future of simulated learning? Has the increase in virtual instruction during the pandemic shown us that perhaps simulated learning could replace traditional classroom instruction?

Mollick: I don’t think that it’s going to replace classroom instruction. Classroom instruction is still vitally important. We’ve been doing this for thousands of years, and the truth is it’s still pretty effective. Getting people together and having conversations — that’s important. I think what it can do is a couple of things. One, it could extend the reach of classroom education. It’s being able to reach more people with more kinds of education. And I think it acts as a supplement to what’s happening in the classroom.

It also works incredibly well remotely. We were building these simulations to work remotely long before COVID happened, because we were building them around massive multiplayer games. The idea is that you don’t need to be in a class to get the same kind of compelling experience. I don’t think replacing classroom education is our goal. I think democratizing, spreading it, making classrooms more effective and making it easier for instructors and more effective for students is our goal.

Toms: I absolutely agree. One of the things that I have seen that’s been incredibly valuable is that when you hit that eight hours of simulation and beyond, it really counteracts one of the issues with classroom learning. That is, you may learn a few lessons at the beginning of your semester, and then those ideas start to atrophy and you start to not remember them as well as you move on into more and more new lessons.

What’s great about a simulation is it brings all of those lessons together and shows all of the trade-offs that may be happening, and how all of those ideas are interconnected. We do that with narratives, we do that with nonplayer characters who bring challenges to life. And that starts to add a lot more of that three-dimensionality to the coursework.

The next piece is memorable transference. It allows our learners to practice what we’re talking about, which creates memorable connections for them. We’ve had dozens and dozens of Ethan’s learners come back to us years later and say, “That thing that happened in the game,” and they quote chapter and verse and character, “saved me a lot of trouble because I got to practice it in your class and I knew what I needed to do.” It’s creating that indelible impression in a learner’s memory that they can then retrieve and put into action later on in their career. It’s really magic.

Knowledge at Wharton: Can you give us a sneak peek about what’s coming up next at Wharton Interactive?

Mollick: Sure. Sarah and I, we’re both entrepreneurs, both started companies. And we have long since been thinking about, how do you help entrepreneurs get better at their job? Entrepreneurship is really tough because it involves all kinds of fields. You have to be an expert in negotiations, pitching, financing your business, and being able to explore new customer possibilities. We have been working on a simulation that has been running internally at Wharton for a long time, and pretty soon we hope to announce it outside of Wharton. It will allow people to have the experience of running a [startup] with all the support of expert entrepreneurs, of myself and other professors and all sorts of incredible interactive experiences. So, stay tuned. I’m very excited that we’ll be able to announce that soon.