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Engagement in business simulation games: A self-system model of motivational development

Isabel Buil Sara Catalán Eva Martínez

The concept of student engagement has attracted increasing attention over recent years due to its potential predictiveness of students’ learning outcomes, and to the fact that student disengagement is considered as one of the main problems in the OECD learning systems (Hamari et al., 2016). While students are little motivated by traditional classes, they are more often so in game-based settings (McGonigal, 2011). Therefore, recent studies have suggested gamifying learning aspects (Hamari et al., 2016), making academic activities more fun, interesting and appealing to students.

An effective teaching tool that motivates and engages players actively in the learning experience is business simulation games (BSGs). BSGs are training tools based on simulated environments representing real business situations. These virtual worlds allow players to manage a company within a safe environment, fostering learning. Thus, BSGs are an effective tool to help players develop the generic and specific managerial competencies that are highly valued in the business world.

Although previous studies have recognised the benefits derived from BSGs, little is known about what factors make them engaging. In the article ‘Engagement in business simulation games: A self-system model of motivational development’ (Buil, Catalán, & Martínez, 2019), published in the British Journal of Educational Technology, we draw on the self-system model of motivational development (Connell & Wellborn, 1991), a framework grounded in self-determination theory (Deci, 1975), to analyse the factors that foster engagement within BSGs.

The model suggests that fundamental human needs – competence, autonomy and relatedness – are the basis for the development of self-system processes (Connell & Wellborn, 1991). Thus, when psychological needs are met, engagement occurs. Additional self-system processes, such as self-efficacy, are also of real importance. Therefore, we postulate that students’ perceptions of competence, autonomy, relatedness and self-efficacy while playing BSGs promote their cognitive, emotional, and behavioural engagement. In addition, we hypothesise that the cognitive, emotional and behavioural engagement experienced while playing BSGs will facilitate the development of various work-related skills and perceived learning.

Based on data from 360 individuals who played a BSG during a semester-long marketing course, the findings confirm that self-system processes are essential for the development of greater engagement. Specifically, students’ perceptions of competence, autonomy and relatedness while playing BSGs have a positive impact on their cognitive, emotional and behavioural engagement. Findings also show that students’ cognitive and emotional engagement positively impact on their skills development and perceived learning. In particular, the emotional engagement dimension had the greatest impact of both outcomes, suggesting that being involved with the game and experiencing fun are the main determinants of the success of BSGs.

‘Our study sheds new light on the processes that promote students’ engagement while playing business simulation games, and on the effects of engagement – which is multifaceted in nature – on students’ outcomes.’

This study makes a number of theoretical contributions. First, it advances knowledge by analysing BSGs through the self-system model of motivational development. Second, it sheds new light on the processes that promote students’ engagement while playing BSGs, and on the effects of engagement on students’ outcomes. Third, it considers the multifaceted nature of engagement (that is, cognitive, emotional and behavioural engagement) in the higher education context.

The findings also have a number of implications for the design of BSGs. We have concluded that, to be engaged, it is important that students feel a sense of competence, autonomy, relatedness and self-efficacy while playing. How can the experience of these self-system processes be promoted? Prior studies have recommended the application of game design elements. In particular, to promote the experience of competence and autonomy, the application of achievement-oriented elements (such as points, leader-boards and progress graphs) is recommended. Therefore, BSGs should provide students with points at the end of each simulation to gauge their performance, leaderboards to compare their score to those of other players, and performance graphs that give them information about their progress over time. The need for relatedness has been associated with co-operation and social competition. Thus, BSGs should be designed in groups of students who work together and engage in a friendly competition.

This blog post is based on the article ‘Engagement in business simulation games: A self‐system model of motivational development’ by Isabel Buil, Sara Catalán & Eva Martínez, which is published in the British Journal of Educational Technology and is free-to-view for a time-limited period, courtesy of the journal’s publisher, Wiley.


Buil, I., Catalán, S., & Martínez, E. (2019). Engagement in business simulation games: A self-system model of motivational development. British Journal of Educational Technology. Advance online publication.

Connell, J. P. & Wellborn, J. G. (1991). Competence, autonomy and relatedness: A motivational analysis of selfsystem processes. In Gunnar, M. & Sroufe. L. A. (Eds.), Minnesota Symposium on Child Psychology, Vol. 23: Self processes in development (pp. 43–77). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Deci, E. (1975). Intrinsic motivation. New York: Plenum Press.

Hamari, J., Shernoff, D., Rowe, E., Coller, B., Asbell-Clarke, J., & Edwards, T. (2016). Challenging games help students learn: An empirical study on engagement, flow and immersion in game-based learning. Computers in Human Behavior, 54, 170–179.

McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality Is Broken. New York: Penguin Press.