Business leaders look to video games as the future of management training.
Thanks to the 1999 satire Office Space, the image of the idle worker futzing around with Tetris while casually brushing off the boss has become an HR cliché. But strangely enough, a growing number of researchers and technology experts are finding that a new genre of work-related video games can actually increase productivity. Moreover, video game consoles such as the PC,
PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 may be tomorrow’s most effective tools for management training. These platforms are being used to play digital diversions that reimagine real-world scenarios as detailed interactive simulations designed to teach and inform.
These so-called “serious games”—more akin to virtual dollhouses like The Sims than anything you’d expect from dated training videos—are increasingly being used to instruct workers around the globe. From Cisco Systems’ The Cisco Mind Share Game, which facilitates network certification, to the US Department of Justice’s
Incident Commander, in which emergency responders practice coordinating disaster relief efforts, the number of practical examples continue to grow. A 2008 study by the Entertainment Software Association found that 70% of major domestic employers utilized interactive software and games for training purposes, and nearly eight out of 10 planned on doing so by 2013. In a world where best practices and technology standards change daily, this new brand of joystick-waggling distraction looks to be just what forward-thinking businesses need to take continuing education to the next level.
“Education has changed little over hundreds of years, yet thousands of studies have demonstrated the ineffectiveness of passive, lecture-based learning,” says Jeffrey Taekman, MD, director of Duke University’s Human Simulation and Patient Safety Center and assistant dean for educational technology for the university’s School of Medicine. “Virtual environments offer revolutionary opportunities... more so than practically any other learning technology. I truly believe we’re on the cusp of a paradigm shift.”
North Carolina-based software developer Applied Research Associates—which has designed custom-made games and virtual worlds for clients like the US Army, NASA, Warner Bros. and British Petroleum—sees huge potential for what the company calls “advanced learning technologies.”
“Serious games help workers cultivate business skills by role-playing and acting out common and extraordinary situations within a safe context,” says Jerry Heneghan, managing director of the Virtual Heroes Division at Applied Research Associates. “Featured challenges encourage players to think dynamically, experiment with new approaches and adapt as scenarios evolve, precisely as they would when forced to confront similar issues in a professional context. By simulating everything from routine customer interaction to major equipment malfunctions, players gain invaluable firsthand experience.”
Heneghan believes that these programs offer an inherently more compelling way to indoctrinate new hires, facilitate cross-cultural communication and promote greater empathy for consumers and colleagues than traditional training methods do.
Employers can also use serious games to quickly identify adaptive thinkers who boast dynamic decision-making abilities and quick wits under pressure. Every decision an employee makes is tracked and scored, and employers can immediately witness the consequences of these choices. In addition, participants’ performances can easily be archived for later playback and reflection.
It’s hardly what you’d anticipate from titles designed on the Unreal 3 software engine (which powers the trigger-happy Gears of War sci-fi franchise), but insiders argue there’s a natural fit. “Even traditional video games require basic management skills,” says Ian Bogost, associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and founder of Persuasive Games, which has designed custom learning tools for Cold Stone Creamery. “Look at World of Warcraft: You’ve got 11-year-olds who are learning to delegate responsibility, promote teamwork and steer groups of people toward a common goal. Plenty of titles from classics like Sim-City to today’s most massively multiplayer online (MMO) outings require fans to master resource management and practical leadership techniques.”
Early results have been promising for researchers and businesses alike. Following a recent 3D virtual simulation of a US/Canadian border crossing, wherein students assumed the role of guards, Loyalist College in Ontario reported that the number of successful test scores increased from 56% to 95%.
Likewise, after playing a 90-minute hurricane procedural training simulation developed for New York City’s Office of Emergency Management, 89% of users felt more confident about their ability to assist in the case of an actual disaster. Virtual environments are also being used to help train future medical professionals. And serious game-maker Kognito Interactive is plowing away on future titles, including one focused on professional development for teachers.
As companies expand geographically and the workforce becomes more technically proficient, the use of custom-made games will likely continue to grow. Curriculums are easily and the workforce becomes more technically proficient, the use of custom-made games will likely continue to grow. Curriculums are easily standardized, prove infinitely scalable and can be self-directed or -paced, and distance becomes a non-issue.
“As core elements of organizational management and logistics become increasingly more distributed and virtualized in the working world, serious games provide a ready means of getting everyone on the same page,” Bogost says.
The hotel brand Hilton Garden Inn, which has properties across the world, has seen impressive results from its custom-built training game, Ultimate Team Play for the PlayStation Portable. A 3D hospitality simulation in which hotel staffers interact with virtual guests to improve consumer satisfaction, it allows workers to learn without making pricey real-world mistakes.
Adrian Kurre, global head of the hotel brand, says can executives take the results and look at the cost of errors made in their organization, and then decide how much they’re willing to pay to prevent them from happening.
While the benefits of serious games seem endless, Taekman warns that there are downsides to them. One is age disparity; younger, tech-savvier generations respond better to such programs than older employees. Moreover, initial setup costs can be expensive; gaming engines can range from tens of thousands to millions of dollars, depending on the complexity of the project.
There is also the added cost and time of hiring a team of specialists to work with subject-matter experts—a process that can take six months or longer. Finally, simulations can poorly model the nuances of human communication. Yet despite these issues, many counter that trade-offs are relative.
Outdated perceptions among leading executives (many of whom still view games as childish distractions) are the field’s largest barrier to success. However, modern career theorists argue that the shift to interactive learning is inevitable and that it’s only a matter of time until everyone gets in on the action, since these methods usually provide substantial return on investment.
Let the games begin.