Gamifying a Restaurant

As you probably know, I've worked as a Producer (and sometimes designer) for Maxis since 2005. This week I received a fascinating email: a restaurant manager in Chicago asked me about using our game, The Sims 4 Dine Out, to train employees. How neat! While EA isn't interested in making corporate training software, I, personally, am interested in helping. Here's what I wrote (with some things removed for obvious reasons). 

The Sims 4 Dine Out may or may not even work for you. Ultimately, our goal is to make a fun storytelling experience that loosely, or strictly, abstracts a real world scenario. Dine Out isn't meant to be realistic and in some ways it patently isn't. NOW, you could use it to setup scenarios, take screenshots, and use those to make instruction imagery or videos...almost like the airlines do for the pre-flight safety video. But, there's a level of goofiness and non-realism that wouldn't work well for your purposes. 

That being said, I've been a game developer and designer for 12+ years. I think games can be an excellent tool for businesses such as yourself, and I'd love to help you out.

At the outset, it's really key for you to understand clearly what your goals in this endeavor are. For example:

If you see this primarily as a team building exercise, an ice breaker, you want something that focuses on fun, is more simple, is more social and playful.

If you see this primarily as a way to train new employees, you want something simple, less fun, more instructive, that is hopefully better than non-interactive instructional videos. 

If you see this primarily as a way to sharpen experienced employees, potentially to test them as they go from wait staff to management, you may want to shift towards a role-playing format that requires experienced people working one on one to execute the simulation.

​Now, these aren't mutually exclusive. You can have games for all of these scenarios, and keep in mind, I don't know your business, and I haven't worked as a waiter or chef (though I did work in catering and at a bed and breakfast back in high school). 

Case One: Teambuilding/Icebreaker

In this first case, it may be useful to help your employees "walk a mile in their co-worker's shoes," (or toque, in your case). Restaurants have several deeply connected roles. The host/hostess needs to seat and manage tables to minimize waiting, keep reservation customers happy, not overwhelm tired waiters, and generally act as air traffic controllers. Waiters take orders, explain specials, solve problems (sorry that wasn't to your liking, or, we're sorry we're out of that), direct bussers and those who deliver the food. There's side staff to clean tables, keep drinks filled, deliver food to the right place. There's chefs to prep the food, different types, adhere to the orders taken. 

You can engineer a situation with 5-10 employees where you take the empty restaurant, use paper plates and empty cups, force people to go into a role that isn't theirs, and give them silly, real-time games to mimic what they have to do. For example:

People playing the chef must reach into a box, blindly, and pull out the appropriate shapes. The box can contain circles, squares, and triangles, each in 3 different colors. If you pull out the wrong shape, you must put it back and try again until you get the right shape. You're timed!

The waiter must take the order. They cannot write it down! The order will be 1-3 shapes, each with a color. So, "blue triangle, red circle, blue circle." They deliver this to the chef.

The customer sits and makes their order. They should do things to throw off the waiter, such as: "What are the specials?", Change their order after delivered!, Make special requests: "Put my blue triangle on the side."

The side staff must keep glasses full, bring plates back, and take on side requests the customers make. To simulate how busy they can get, they should be forced to carry a set number of items before they can return to the kitchen.

Customers should have ridiculous requests to make people laugh, relax, but also recognize that sometimes this happens!

The host/hostess will have to seat the customers. Customers should come in with a variety of requests (which you can write ahead of time on note cards and give them randomly). You should designate a subset of tables as valid to create scarcity and force problems. Mark them with a piece of colored paper or something. You can maybe make this extra challenging by not allowing the person playing host to turn around and SEE which tables are full. They must do it by memory. These include: I want a seat by the window., Our reservation was for 2, but now we have a third, I want to sit RIGHT NOW, I want to cancel our reservation, I want to sit at the bar. 

As you can see, the goal here is to create chaos. Create a silly situation. Force people to take a minute to think about the problems of their co-workers. The managers should play as the customers to a.) rally the team against them and b.) be "the bad guys" (so the peers don't have to be). Do this for 15 minutes, or until a breaking point is reached, laugh, and shuffle the people up.

Case Two: Training New Employees

Traditionally, people are trained with no instruction, being told to shadow someone (or be shadowed), watch and instructional video, or read a manual. Some of these methods work better than others, In games we create tutorials, which are step by step interactive instructions to guide new players. Again, some work better than others. 

A new waiter will need to:

  • Learn how to take orders
  • Learn how to be friendly and make recommendations
  • Learn how to communicate to their partners 
  • Learn how to escalate and ask for help
  • Learn how to check up on their table
  • Learn how to do this for multiple tables!
  • Learn how to juggle plates -- figuratively and literally!

I'm curious if you did something as simple as giving them a dead simple menu: cheese or pepperoni. Give them a kind customer. Choose a few of these basic needs. And just walk through the motions. Task one: Take an order. Hooray, you win. You unlock: the Special. Task two: Present the special. Hooray, you win. Unlock: The guest with a special request.

Escalate. Keep adding layers. Make it fun and give them buttons, or medals, or something silly to make it more playful. 

You can also do this with groups and make it cooperative or competitive. You can even make it team versus team. For example, assign two waiters to a table. Make one the waiter, one the busser/water filler/food deliverer. Specifically limit their roles and forbid them from doing certain things. Force them to work together, with a timer, and against another team! 

By the end of the exercise, they should have several tables each. A lot of work is based on muscle memory, so create a fun environment with clear goals, clear rules, clear rewards, to provide some of that muscle memory in a comfortable, no-stakes environment.

Case Three: Training for Management

There are a few things you might want to teach here. I would imagine a big part of management in a restaurant is learning to deal with adversity: both with customers and with inner staff, and learning how to schedule and train staff yourself.

For this first one, roleplaying is a great tool. You should create characters, some ridiculous, some logical. Give someone the script and the rules. Then, at the table, have them play this out and without prompting, challenge the manager to make decisions and work with it. What is important here, versus the ice breaker, is to not make it ridiculous. Here you want to refine actual skills in actual situations. I hate people who do this, but I have friends/acquaintances who are awful customers (and don't like dining with them). Their complaints range from: there are four of us and our appetizer only has 3 shrimp. Or, my steak isn't cooked perfectly. Or, I'd like to speak to a manager because you failed to fill up my water. Give them these real situations, have the character stick to the rules and the script, and force the manager trainee to resolve it, on the spot, then stop and provide guidance. 

I imagine you can simulate so much of what actually happens. So, simulate it!

Another case is scheduling and staffing the restaurant. This may be the place where we can actually take a lesson from The Sims. Give the trainee a large white board and turn it into a two week calendar. Monday through Sunday on each, which shift slots broken out. Create index cards with people on them. Give the people names, but also give them some stats. How good are these people at:

  • Charm and social skills
  • Multi-tasking
  • Working with Peers

Or other stats. Keep it simple, around 2-4, and rate them all on a 1-5 scale. Use simple, whole numbers. This person is 3/5 at table charm, but 5/5 in waiting tables under pressure.

Then, give the trainee the task to schedule everyone and fill up the restaurant. Talk about it with them afterwards. Why did you assign Lisa here? And so forth.

Then, make the game more complicated. Provide additional cards with staff requests. I want Sunday off. I need more hours. I can't work with Lisa. Have them do the exercise again, and talk through it. Even ask them: Long term, what would you do to improve this case.

Like above, create scenarios to help simulate their actual job and work through it with them.

Was this useful? Questions? How can I help further?