Having revolutionized entertainment, video games are now about to upend corporate learning. From their start in arcade parlors in the 1970s, video games have grown into a multibillion dollar industry that has surpassed Hollywood movies in revenues. Moreover, in the past 10 years, they have moved out of entertainment and into development and learning. The military was among the first to harness these “mindless toys” for serious purposes. Faced with a recruiting crisis in the late 1990s, the U.S. Army was forced to rethink its methods for attracting, developing and retaining a new generation of soldiers. It took the radical step of meeting the next generation in their world. The military has used interactive multimedia technology — a natural outgrowth of war games and strategic planning — to create advanced immersive virtual environments such as America’s Army, a recruiting game to test troops in limitless real-world scenarios.
Today, the video game generation has fully entered the workforce, but only a few corporations have embraced games and other interactive media and collaborative technologies to win the engagement of this new generation of workers. However, unrelenting pressures to improve productivity and performance, combined with this fundamentally different technology and the new mix of skills and attitudes of this next generation of workers, portends powerful shifts in how businesses will be managed and run.
The next generation of workers enters the workplace with capabilities tailor-made for global teams, collaboration and making a difference, but is also saddled with some well-known weaknesses in communication and basic business skills. Planting them in traditional classroom settings or requiring them to click on the “next” button of “interactive” e-learning will be neither cost nor time effective, let alone inspiring. UPS found that it took three times longer to train new hires under the age of 25 in the basics of its business using traditional learning tools. This generation is wired differently, and training approaches, tools and techniques must be adapted to how they learn.
How Video Games Support Learning
Video games have a place in the corporate learning landscape, but like any other tool, they must be used properly. When developed with sound pedagogical design, they create an immersive, engaging experience that can develop skills and new behaviors. And they are particularly attractive to next-generation workers.
Yet, some corporations have been reluctant to take even baby steps into this new world of learning tools. Despite their considerable promise, misperceptions about the cost and complexity of implementation, along with knee-jerk resistance to innovation, have impeded their adoption. Yet, the cost and complexity of video game development has reduced dramatically in just a few years. An immersive 3-D learning application that took years and millions of dollars to develop not long ago can be built today in just 90 to 120 days for a few hundred thousand dollars. Less cutting-edge but still effective 2-D games can be built even more quickly and cheaply.
The pedagogy of video games was first broadly explored by James Paul Gee, professor of literacy studies at Arizona State University. What caught his interest was how effective games seemed to be as a teaching tool, even though they were not created for that purpose. There was no academic body of knowledge about learning guiding their design.
Multiple Genres, Multiple Business Applications
There are many different video game genres, and most have direct application in business. While single genres can be used, the best pedagogical solutions to a particular business issue often involve combining more than one.
Almost every video game falls into one or more of the following categories:
1. Multiplayer games. There are two
major categories of multiplayer games
— both with tremendous potential for corporate learning.
• Massively multiplayer online (MMO): Growing exponentially since 2005, MMOs depend on 3-D immersive graphics and a significant number of other people to collaborate with and compete against online. MMOs fit well in the peer and collaborative aspects of learning. While still in their infancy, business MMO programs’ technology and complexity have advanced considerably, and cost-effective business applications are projected to begin emerging by late 2008. This is on the leading edge of game applications for business.
• Virtual worlds: Generically used to define any computer-generated graphic environment, including all games, virtual worlds are MMOs that are designed with numerous objectives, tasks and behaviors that can be — but don’t have to be — achieved. Second Life is a prime example: It has evolved mainly as a place to explore alternate lifestyles, but it is trying hard to find a relevant business application. Second Life is a good way to get a glimpse of the future of the Internet — Web 3.0, if you will — although its processing and graphics power and bandwidth requirements are still relatively prohibitive for most corporations. Still, pioneering companies such as IBM are exploring virtual-world applications in areas such as recruiting, onboarding, internal and external meeting and mentoring.
2. Role-playing games (RPGs). A very popular genre with all age groups, RPGs let players take on new roles, such as being an OSHA inspector in safety compliance or a store clerk handling a difficult customer. RPGs are a natural extension of role-play workshops, but with global accessibility and an immersive environment that fits the role-play and promotes behavior change.
3. Strategy games. There are two main categories of strategy games:
• Real-time strategy (RTS): This is especially effective for advanced training because the clock is running — data must be collected and analyzed and decisions made within a limited time period, and players are forced to react quickly to changing circumstances. This genre is best suited for developing business skills in areas where workers are required to make quick decisions or judgments. It also can support strategic-decision training where the consequences of multiple scenarios can be understood within a fraction of the time it would take in the real world.
• Turn-based strategy: This format allows learners to set their own time to think about options, observe environmental conditions and conduct analyses — that is, until the Enter key is pressed. Then, the game progresses based on their inputs. This genre is sometimes used early in RTS games to help prepare learners for the more difficult real-time decisions.
4. Simulations. Business simulations are well defined and widely used in corporations today, but typically don’t involve gaming concepts. Many computer-based simulations are in tedious spreadsheet formats or involve on-site workshops, which can take up several days and might include computers to access “company” information.
Due to their expense, these simulations are usually limited to senior managers. To create more engaging, broadly available and cost-effective simulations, a shift from traditional approaches via integration of business simulation and thoughtful pedagogical design using video game technology should be considered.
A contrast to the run-of-the-mill business simulation is the life simulation, which can employ both individual and multiplayer formats to explore personal interactions and differing character behaviors. Popularized by The Sims series, this type of simulation can be used for corporate learning as a sophisticated character interaction tool within another game genre.
5. Puzzles. This genre can be utilized for learning business procedures, from simple logistics and material handling to more complex tasks, such as customer service in restaurants. For example, Diner Dash, while purely an entertainment game, provides a hint of potential decision-making crises in restaurant service.
6. Platforms. In this format, learners control their characters’ movements from one place to another, exploring the geography of the world. This requires accurate character movement — e.g., timely keystrokes and mouse clicks — to jump to and from “platforms” and other spatial locations. Very much focused on eye-hand coordination, it can serve as tool to navigate and learn new information. This genre can be very engaging but requires a certain level of skill in moving avatars accurately and quickly.
How CLOs Can Incorporate Video Games Into Corporate Learning
An ongoing challenge facing CLOs is convincing corporate leaders to view learning strategically and prudently experiment with new technologies and methods. However, waiting for competitors to innovate consigns companies to playing perpetual catch-up.
Because the impact of gaming in business is difficult to measure, many succumb to “ROI inertia,” eschewing experiments and pilots and waiting for bulletproof evidence of ROI before taking action. CLOs should not be afraid to pursue middle-ground strategies that fall between high-risk gambits with bleeding-edge methods and technologies and waiting for silver-bullet solutions before making any change.
Next-generation workers are already in your organization or will soon be arriving. Where will the burning platform come from that prompts the management changes required to integrate them into the workforce? Advances in video game technology and the working and learning styles of these employees make experimentation with new, interactive media an imperative for CLOs. As learning executives consider video games as a development modality, they should keep these points
• Find the right business partners. It is important to work with business partners to find workforce performance gaps in key areas of the business in which new learning solutions can immediately and visibly impact business performance. As you collaborate with business unit leaders, help them define their improvement opportunities and calculate the value of measurable improvements.
Let’s consider a generic example involving stockbrokers. The industry estimates it costs $150,000 and takes two years to train a broker. But their retention rate is only between 10 percent and 20 percent. How much could be saved if training was sped up to one year and the retention rate was increased to between 40 percent and 50 percent?
• Pick a spot in the business where there is a large influx of next-generation workers and look for opportunities. The business areas most suited to the adoption of video game technology are those that require better knowledge retention, such as basic business acumen, critical process knowledge, integrating compliance into day-to-day work, product and competitor information, etc. Another fertile area is developing new skills and enabling behavior change in areas such as communication and conversation style, sales technique, service empathy, problem-solving skills and strategy execution.
• Don’t ignore the benefits of this technology for existing workers. Research has identified the existence of a broad population of media-savvy midcareer and “older” workers comfortable with using interactive media. Many are high potentials and top performers, who also would be receptive to these engaging tools. Video game-based learning tools appeal as much to these workers as younger ones, so investments in game-based learning solutions will likely have a broader organizational impact on learning and performance.