Pushing the envelope and creating new — experiences from the TradeAway learning game development

Business management students in Hyvinkää developed the TradeAway game for learning international trade. The project started in the autumn of 2015 and has lasted a total of five full semesters in various forms. During this time, various prototypes of the game were developed and they were tested with upper secondary school students as users of the game. The latest version of the game can be downloaded at www.tradeaway.fi.

In the University of Applied Sciences rhetoric, “research and development”, “regional development” and “working-life oriented” are concepts that one hears often. These concepts form a culture (Schein, 1996) and an environment that reinforces itself. Investments, processes and organisational structures are created to support this rhetoric.  Within universities of applied sciences, there is no desire to question these concepts.

A global revolution of learning is taking place around the world (Harasim, 2000). Learning and studying are moving to the web to a considerable degree. Suddenly, from the online student’s perspective, “research and development” and “regional development” move to the background and the student’s own learning becomes the core. The motive of learning is one’s own desire to learn or generate a new skillset for earning one’s living, for example. From the student’s perspective, working life no longer needs to be present in every project. It is enough that working life expresses what skills will be needed in the future. One such skill is international trade competence. The learning game developed at Laurea focuses on teaching skills required in international trade by means of playing the game.

“Learning events” are at the core of online learning (Koli & Siljander, 2002). In a learning event, the student is assigned an exercise they must pass. The students familiarise themselves with the exercise and seek solutions by using the material provided by the teacher and video lectures, for example. The time spent on the learning events and the causes and effects of the events can be measured with analytics. In some way, a step has been taken back towards a behaviouristic concept of learning. However, at the same time, the approach also reinforces the old saying of “Practice makes perfect”, which seems to apply to master chefs, developers, e-sports champions and experts of international trade alike.

Games and gamification are old methods of learning. Games hone one’s skills through repetition. Due to its easy scalability, a digital game is particularly suited for inclusion in online studies. Over the years, various board games supporting learning have been created in projects completed on the Hyvinkää campus. The game project carries on this legacy of gamification in Hyvinkää.

The project by the business management students in Hyvinkää was the first time that a board game was also digitalised and provided online. No working life partner was involved in the project as a client. By default, the game is global instead of regional. The primary goal was to produce a completed game. In the process, the project participants also encountered unknown situations in many ways and realised the importance of networks (Ahuja, 2000) and had to build new kinds of networks. For example, Laurea’s curriculum does not include game design and programming at all. The teachers guiding the project did not have programming skills or experience in designing games. In project-based learning, teachers cannot always rely on their existing competence but also need to learn new things.

Creating something new often happens while one is outside of their comfort zone, in encounters with others and in the interfaces of different competences (Gavetti & Levinthal, 2000). Operating in the interfaces often requires that one learns new things and new skills to manage one’s lack of competence. This can also be seen in the substance area of the game, in other words, in international trade in that an exporter does not always master the language and know enough about the trading practices and cultures of the destination countries. One has to learn enough in the process in order to cope. The same applied to the project team and teachers: the knowledge base and competence had to be built as the project went along.

A natural question to ask when one does not know is who does know (Eisenhardt & Tabrixi, 1995). Initially, programmers were sought from outside the project. However, what turned out to be a problem was that the project participants did not know how to define what they wanted in a manner that enabled the programmer to do it. Thus, the skill to define what was wanted in the project became a key competence area. As the role of software is continuously increasing, being able to define what they want will be an important future skill for students of Business Management. It is interesting that working life seems to need programmers (Helsingin Sanomat) but not people who would tell the programmers what needs to be done and why (Matikainen 2008).

In the project run by the Business Management students, programming competence was subcontracted from a Finnish university of applied sciences that teaches programming, from abroad, or provided by the students themselves. However, we achieved the best results when the programmers were included in our own product development team. The takeaway from this experience seems quite clear: when facing new situations, the different parties must work in close cooperation and preferably as part of the same project team.

The project progressed towards a completed digital game step by step. At the beginning of semesters, what would be done in the project was defined to the best of the participants’ competence and skills. In addition, the knowledge base that the students would be gaining and achieving during the semester, taking into consideration their learning, was discussed. Students participating in the project changed along the way. The regular weekly meetings, knowledge base reports and project reports formed a sizeable repository of information that could be revisited afterwards to examine what actually happened in the development projects and what development looked like.

In his thesis, Waltteri Koivisto (2018) reviewed all documents generated in the different project cycles (during semesters), categorised them into different subject areas and, based on this categorisation, answered the question: what is development in the game project by Laurea students? The following ten sub-areas were paid attention to in the project:

  1. products
  2. stakeholders
  3. use of the product
  4. role assignments in the project team
  5. product objectives and ways in which ideas were developed
  6. testing the concept
  7. systematic operations, scheduling, requirements and funding
  8. implementation
  9. testing
  10. release and product presentation.

Laurea’s development project included all the central elements that are usually involved in development.  In conclusion, it can be said that student-led projects can also tackle ambitious topics even if the participants do not possess pre-existing competence in the project’s area of expertise. The goal is to proceed towards a hazy vision while solving problems as one goes along. In that situation, it is essential to maintain a systematic approach in which the objectives and plans for the near future are as clear as possible. It is of utmost importance to document everything essential that is done. It is particularly important to create a culture that tolerates the unknown and has a curious attitude towards it. Nevertheless, actions and the outputs generated should be viewed critically and the project inputs should be redirected, if necessary. The project cycles lasting one semester made it possible to choose a new direction for the project after the semester was over, if necessary.

In professional product development, management can allocate additional resources to a project if the schedule is delayed, unexpected problems arise along the way or the importance of the project in the achievement of the company’s business objectives increases. This is not possible in a student-driven project. The commitment of each student mainly depends on whether their own goals set for studies and learning are met and whether the students find better and more interesting projects elsewhere. For these reasons, the project lacked resources from time to time and every now and then prioritisation and rescheduling were needed.

This project achieved its goals; the game was created and released. It is rewarding for the participants to see the completion of the product they have been building. In terms of learning, it should still be kept in mind that what was learned is even more important than the completed product. The project had approximately five participating students per semester. As the students changed nearly every semester, the total number of students in the project was approximately 20. However, only five of them were in the project by the time the latest product version was released. In a way, this observation emphasises that perhaps it is the journey and what was learned during the journey that is more important than crossing the finish line.

Waltteri Koivisto, student,

Annemari Kuhmonen, senior lecturer

Ville Saarikoski, principal lecturer

Service business management

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