When Gaming the System Is a Good Thing: Simulation Games at Work

Ann All

A couple of years ago, I read Steven Johnson's book "Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter," mostly to reassure myself that my son's avid interest in his Nintendo DS wasn't going to doom him to a future of flipping burgers.

 

Among the premises in the book is Johnson's contention that video games are an inherently enjoyable and effective way to learn. From one passage:

 

If you create a system where rewards are both clearly defined and achieved by exploring an environment, you'll find human brains drawn to those systems, even if they're made up of virtual characters and simulated sidewalks. It's not the subject matter of these games that attracts-if that were the case, you'd never see twenty-somethings following absurd rescue-the-princess storylines like the best selling Zelda series on the Nintendo platform. It's the reward system that draws those players in, and keeps their famously short attention spans locked on the screen. No other form of entertainment offers that cocktail of reward and exploration.

 

Indeed. Last month when I interviewed Phaedra Boinodiris, IBM's Serious Games product manager, she spoke about IBM's desire to make learning the basics of business process managment "immersive" and "engaging" and IBM's decision to borrow some of the learning methods employed by developers of online simulation games such as the wildly popular The Sims. Said Boinodiris:

 

Players can experiment with models and see how they affect the broader business ecosystem. You click on customers. What will they say to you? You click and see how much budget is left. How does that affect your next move? These kinds of things are what make the game resonate.

 

After about two years of offering the game, called Innov8, to universities through its Academic Initiative, IBM decided to launch a free online version that anyone can play. A full 3D version is also offered to IBM clients. Soon Big Blue plans to integrate Innov8 into BPM Blueworks, a online community packed with BPM content and tools such as process maps.


 

My story also related the experiences of two companies, Assurant Employee Benefits and Hilton Garden Inn, with business training games. Hilton Garden Inn teamed with game developer Virtual Heroes, which produces games for the medical, military and other industries, to create a game called Ultimate Team Play that trainees can play on Sony's PlayStation entertainment system. The hotel chain opted to use the PlayStation platform because PCs used by the hotel's employees lacked the horsepower needed to display 3D graphics.

 

Assurant Employee Benefits, a subsidiary of insurer Assurant Inc., partnered with game maker Propaganda 3 to produce four games customized for its workforce to help get employees in line with corporate strategy during a business transformation. Each of the game modules includes quizzes on content such as industry terminology. The first module, covering corporate strategy, features a challenge in which the company president, in avatar form, hangs from a parachute. With each wrong answer, the parachute loses a string. It was a hit when demonstrated for employees at an all-company meeting. Successive games allow employees to spend a virtual "day in the life" of coworkers and learn all of the myriad and sometimes complicated ways Assurant earns money. The fourth game is due to launch soon.

 

In the interest of keeping my story at a manageable (i.e., not boring) length, I omitted lots of specific details about the games. But you can see more about IBM's Innov8 at silicon.com, in a short piece which includes screen shots, more information on how it's played and a few quotes from users. Said Linda Macaulay, professor of information system design at the UK's Manchester Business School, where about 150 students have played Innov8:

 

It links theory to practice, traditionally if you were teaching BPM you would use boxes and graphs. Now we have a simulation of the real world and it brings the whole process to life. It is like taking a whole class on a work placement. They can see that BPM is not just about process but also handling people and emerging situations.

 

When I interviewed her, Boinodiris told me IBM was considering developing a version of Innov8 that could be customized for specific workplaces. While clients have requested it, it would be a fairly expensive undertaking, she said. I'm curious: What do you think about "serious games" in the workplace?



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