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What Video Games Teach About Learning Experiences That Deliver Business Results

Tuesday, April 05, 2011 | Category :
    • Accelerator

by Rommin Adl

The 1980s was the "Me" Decade. But it was also the decade of the arcade game: Top grossers like Asteroids, Donkey Kong, and Pac-Man could each pull in over an estimated $100 million, from quarters plunked into thousands of machines around the globe.

The Principles of Successful Video Games Helped Guide High-Impact Learning and Behavior Change for Corporations

I know. I was there. I was one of those kids who turned dedication, a dozen quarters and some great hand-eye coordination into a full day of fun. My favorite game was Defender, in which you navigate a Starcruiser across the planet to save your citizens from being abducted while fighting off the enemy.

With their fast pace and increasingly sophisticated graphics, these titles pushed video games into the American mainstream and into the home. For the first time, parents played arcade games alongside their children.

Hundreds of designers and millions of hours of game play established basic design and engagement principles that are highly relevant to creating compelling business simulations for corporate applications today.

As described by Daniel Pink in his book A Whole New Mind, “for a generation of people, video games have become a tool for solving problems as well as a vehicle for self-expression and self-exploration. Video games are woven into this generation’s lives as television was into their predecessors’. Some people—including many of the forty-something set—tend to despair over such reports, fearing that each minute spent wielding a joystick represents a step backwards for individual intelligence and social progress….”

However, proponents of gaming like James Paul Gee, a professor at the University of Wisconsin and author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, argue that games, when harnessed correctly, are the ultimate learning machines. Gee says, “video games…encourage good principles of learning, principles that are better than many of our skill-and-drill, back-to-basics, test-until-they-drop schools.” Applying principles of gaming in corporate learning settings can dramatically accelerate alignment and execution of corporate initiatives and effectively build capability at all employee levels. This is evidenced by countless results-measurement studies that demonstrate substantial behavior change and business impact from these initiatives.

The following are nuances of the two worlds: the video arcade versus corporate learning environment.

“I Want” vs. “You Will”

People who play games do so because they want to. This is an important nuance that differentiates gamers from busy and often overworked corporate employees. Nobody forces gamers to keep feeding the machine quarters or spend countless hours in front of the Xbox to get to Level 5. Reaching Level 5 is its own reward. So how do corporations make their learning so appealing that people will want to engage? There are three main factors:

  1. Set clear expectations upfront - An engaged leader is a huge factor in ensuring that participants will want to go through the simulation experience. This leader should be able to articulate and clearly demonstrate how the simulation experience ties back to organizational and individual goals and will hold the learner accountable for behavior change and on-the-job action as well as providing ongoing coaching.
  2. Make it exclusive - Programs for defined target audiences with an invitation-only feel make participants feel like they are getting on the list at a posh night club. This makes the experience feel exclusive—although there may be accompanying drawbacks in reaching broad populations with serious business impact and in rapid deployment.
  3. Create positive word of mouth - Participants who have fun and feel engaged will ensure that the learning and participation goes viral throughout the organization. Simulations and other experiential learning approaches, when well done, are highly effective in creating buzz in an organization.

Competition Boosts Engagement

The competitive dynamic in gaming keeps people coming back again and again. How did I do vs. a leader board or my friends in head-to-head competition? Did I make the Top 10 list? Getting your initials on the high-score board for any arcade game was proof that you were a top performer. Competition in the corporate environment is a good thing too. In a business simulation, competition creates almost immediate engagement. But it is a balancing act: Competition should not be at the cost of learning.

Levels and Story Lines Test New Skills

Leveling makes gaming intriguing. What happens when you go to the next floor or gain new powers? With well-designed simulations, the story develops over time. New themes are introduced. As the game evolves, the story and game play draw you in. You are in what psychologists call “a state of flow".

In the first simulation round of BTS’s Essentials of Business Leadership program, participants meet their team, set goals and get to know each other. In subsequent rounds, your team begins dealing with performance management issues, conflict, managing the boss’s expectations, accelerated product deadlines and more. A story line that evolves and builds at a pace suited to the learner keeps engagement at a high pitch.

Dive into a World Created Especially for You

In gaming, people choose what genre of game they like to play. Some like shoot-’em-ups, while others prefer car racing. With corporate applications, people may not get to defend against an alien invasion—but by using simulations they at least get to learn new insights and skills that they can apply when they get back to the job. With more tailored or fully customized business simulations, learners are often placed in another world that is very close to reality in the way it responds to participant/player actions. With program customization creating a realistic environment, participants can easily bridge the gap between the learning experience and actions back on the job. However, it is important to note that designing and developing highly effective custom business simulations is an art that should not be taken lightly.

Collaborative vs. Solo Play

Games can be highly social or highly unsocial, depending on your preference. When I was growing up, I enjoyed hanging out with my friends in the arcade with each of us watching and learning from the others’ experiences. So while many gravitate toward solo play, with the advent of the iPad, iTouch and the Wii, online or virtual collaboration is increasingly becoming the norm. Corporate applications tend to favor networking, collaboration and learning from others. But there are many self-paced, connected applications for individual learners. These are increasingly connecting learners via blogs, leaderboards, achievements, blogs and other innovations.

The Relative Importance of Aesthetics

Video games are known for their mind-numbing music. It is always a fight to get my kids to turn off the sound on their devices. This type of music would be a big “no” for corporate applications, but often companies get enamored with the technology and glossy look and feel of certain offerings vs. the value conveyed in the program. Focusing on the job application is mission-critical. If the solution meets all the learning objectives but doesn’t look great or have all the bells and whistles, the program will most likely still be a success. PONG, a table tennis game featuring simple two-dimensional graphics (cutting-edge, at the time) and single audio file, captivated millions. If it looks great but doesn’t deliver results, you’re dead in the water.

While there are differences in the two worlds, the use of principles that make for successful video games can effectively be leveraged for corporate applications. There are many elements when properly applied that can dramatically accelerate strategic execution of corporate initiatives and effectively build capability at all employee levels.


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