Board and computer games stimulate learning in a risk-free environment.
Nearly 45 years ago the University of Washing-ton business school found a novel way to give students first-hand experience in the world of business. In 1957 it debuted the Top Management Decision Game, a simulation board game meant to offer insights into the nuts and bolts of running a business.
The game helped foster management and team skills while it illustrated the various ramifications of production, marketing, investment and financial decisions. Within the safety of the game, students could see textbook theories brought to life?and enjoy the experience of coming together as teammates and competitors. It was an early example of business training fun, and a welcome change from the students? academic routine.
Over the years, the business world has adopted simulations as a valuable learn-by-doing approach to training. Like flight simulators for pilots, zero-gravity containment rooms for astronauts, even cadavers for medical students, business simulations help acclimate employees to new equipment, specific strategies and hypothetical scenarios?all in a risk-free atmosphere. Simulations are used to anticipate market trends or your competitor's next move, to teach soft skills such as employee management or how to deal with sexual harassment.
Board Games or Bored Games?
With a wave of workers born and raised on the wicked pace of technology?from TV to MTV, from Pong to PlayStation, from word processors to Pentium processors?computer-based simulations are gradually usurping tried-and-true board games in the wired world.
"The only really sophisticated simulation games have to be computer driven," says Joe Wolfe, University of Tulsa professor emeritus and president of Tusla, Okla.-based Experiential Adventures. "Board games don't expand, whereas a computer-based game will expand, react and change to market conditions. The payoff is simultaneous, concrete feedback."
Computer-based simulations also are more easily calibrated for each individual company. And with Internet resources, a single player can train as readily as a scattered network team.
Many companies, however, still relish the teamwork generated with a quality board game simulation. At Seattle-based Boeing, everyone from executives to front-line managers takes one- to two-week courses at the Boeing Leadership Center in St. Louis.
The airplane manufacturer administers vendor-sponsored games like "Confederacy of Stars" that are customized to Boeing's strategic objectives and tied to classroom instruction. Role-playing activities build skills in leadership, information gathering and network development.
Roseanne Stevenson, director of training for Boeing, says that computers continue to be used with the games, but only as a supplemental tool when spreadsheets or complex calculations are required.
The games, says Stevenson, succeed in being competitive as well as collaborative. "Employees have a lot of fun," she says. "The games are often considered the highlight of the sessions because attendees get to apply the principles we are covering and actually see them in action. It takes things full circle, from the application to the testing of theories within a safe environment."
Perhaps it was back in 1969, when "Sesame Street" hit the airwaves with its loveable Muppets, celebrity appearances, and sing-song learning style, that the notion of education as entertainment?or edutainment?took root. Certainly it marked a massive reorientation toward teaching and training, culminating with the ubiquity of computers and the Internet as academic tools.
When learning is presented as an enjoyable game, the thinking follows, the learner drops the veil of drudgery and toil often associated with mandatory training. Says online learning guru, Elliott Masie, "In a game, what we're triggering is the competitive/cooperative spirit; we're triggering a playfulness, and we're triggering the achievement, greed and victory element."
Increasingly, edutainment simulations are being adopted by producers who wish to appeal to the maturing technology-oriented population. Monte Cristo Multimedia, based in Paris, is one such edutainer. Its games feature engrossing video game-style graphics full of cartoon-like characters who react to you within realistic office environments.
In the game Start-up 2000, for example, you become the CEO of a high-tech company trying to market the next hot gadget. You control all aspects of the business, including conception, research and development, production, advertising, distribution, and customer service. You're also expected to keep your staff busy while you analyze sales volume data, diagrams and charts drawn from real-world retail outlets. The game even features a news wire?in the guise of a cheeky anchorman?that tips you off to market evolutions and customer expectations. All of Monte Cristo's games have Internet gaming capacity, which allows you to challenge several other players in real-time.
"This is like training that doesn't feel like training," says Marc Prensky, founder and ceo of Games2Train and author of "Digital Game-Based Learning" (McGraw-Hill, 2000). "Underneath, the Monte Cristo products are well-modeled economic simulations, but on screen they are as graphically exciting as any other commercial game."
Prensky is a strong proponent of video game-based learning, maintaining that the idea of separating fun from learning is an old concept that the games generation doesn't accept. "That's the power of games," says Prensky. "If a simulation is merely made up of learning points, charts, graphs and numbers splattered into an economic model, then you really get a big "who cares? from people."
When Think3 launched a new generation of mechanical computer-aided design software, the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company wanted to avoid didactic tutorials and create an absorbing game that would attract new customers. Games2Train created a full-scale 3D video game-based learning product for Think3 called "The Monkey Wrench Conspiracy." The game puts you in the role of an intergalactic secret agent dispatched to deep space to rescue the Copernicus station from alien hijackers. You must dodge space creatures, endure space walks and, of course, save the universe?all the while learning real-life mechanical concepts.
"What makes this game so successful," says Joe Costello, CEO of Think3, "is that it's like sugar that helps the medicine go down better , Yeah, it's a game, but it also has a good pedagogical underpinning and thought process of what to teach people."
When Nortel Networks introduced new marketing initiatives, it faced the Herculean task of training its more than 80,000 employees scattered around the globe. Games2Train tailored a game called "Get The Message" that embedded all the proof points the company was interested in passing on to its workers.
The game was a great success. "I think you hit the nail on the head," raved a Nortel employee who took the course. "This is a quick and entertaining method of improving our unified message and improving skills," wrote another.
Says Slyvia Kowal, senior manager for corporate communications at Nortel, "The game could be considered a departure from how we normally communicate, but our workers are young and very well-versed in the digital age."
"What If" Training
Say you want to examine how a new advertising concept or product launch will be received by your competitors. Or you want to test your company's capacity to distribute goods via the Web or overseas. A tailored strategy simulation can be the crystal ball your employees need to bring the competitive nature of the marketplace into your business development process.
With virtual competition and role-playing techniques, you can develop contingency plans and anticipate your competitors? moves by getting inside their heads. With the freedom to go back to the drawing board, a strategy simulation cultivates creativity, unconventional thinking, even brinksmanship.
"I have seen managers abandon strategies, sometimes strategies they'd cherished for many years, because they didn't hold up under simulated competition," says Mark Chussil, president of Portland, Ore.-based Advanced Competitive Strategies (ACS). "Those managers found, adopted, and succeeded with strategies quite different from those with which they began."
ACS's ValueWar simulation is a versatile market-driven game that reacts to interrelationships among customers, competitors and the company. It is used as a stand-alone computer model in war games for management development, in war colleges to develop competitive strategies, and as the "strategy calculator" for war rooms.
"The war colleges are rigorous, confrontational, informative, and downright addictive," says Barbara McCloskey, manager of leisure strategy for British Airways. The airline wanted to design an elaborate pricing and distribution model but first needed to anticipate how customers and competitors would react to it. With ACS's ValueWar, British Airways assembled a cross-disciplinary team from its London and U.S. offices and ran two war college sessions. Based on the results, the company revised its strategy. "There's value in being able to test your assumptions and your customer's perceptions of you before putting your strategy into place. You see things you normally don't even recognize because they're so pervasive. Plus, the work you go through in building the model is like a master's level course in your own business," says McCloskey.
On-the-Fly Web Training
Of course, administering a simulation that's relevant to your business is more complex than simply buying a board game or software and setting your employees loose. Not every corporation has the time or resources to run workshops or budget for an organized retreat. And companies are challenged to conduct training simulations as close as possible to the "real" performance time.
Enter Web-based training simulations that train workers right at their desks, in small chunks that focus on individual tasks, whether they involve soft skills or software.
"The message we're getting from our customers is, if you look at financial service, call-centers, customer support, even sales, people are challenged to do more with less time and fewer resources," says Harvey Singh, chief learning technologist and cofounder of MindLever. The Morrisville, N.C.-based company specializes in e-learning programs that integrate component-based platforms and allow trainers to deploy customized e-learning on a targeted, as-needed basis.
During a workshop or retreat, Singh says, participants are trained sequentially to accommodate an audience with diverse knowledge and skills. In contrast, on-the-fly simulations are conducive to self-paced learning.
Choosing a delivery method for a business simulation can be tricky: Should you go with a board game or a Web-based simulation? Are fun, arcade-type games right for your company or should you take a more straight-forward approach? Eminent social critic Neil Postman has long contended that teaching and learning, when offered largely as amusing activities, may not be suitable enhancements to scholarship.
When it comes to training simulations, many companies still find value in the nuts-and-bolts approach. Robert Brodo, formerly general manager of SMGNET, the online learning, development and delivery division of Strategic Management Group in Philadelphia, doesn't deny that a good simulation must engage the user, but he advocates accomplishing this with experience and goal-based scenarios, along with effective feedback.
"I think too much is made of the entertainment value of these games," says Brodo. "The most important thing with a business simulation is that it accomplishes its learning objectives?that people are able to make better decisions in the real world. I think some of those games get kind of hokey. I'd rather have a good ol? business environment with some juicy, detailed feedback. I just don't think there's a place for some games in the corporate environment."
Not surprisingly, Games2Train's Prensky disagrees that business training simulations can't be both educational and entertaining. But he also points out that just because training is delivered as a simulation doesn't automatically mean it's engaging. "Real elements need to be combined in an interesting, entertaining and addictive way to make the player have fun and care. In fact, the content and messages of a "simulation? and a "simulation game? can be exactly the same?the difference comes from the game's engagement and challenges."
So pick your business simulation style?nuts and bolts or fun and games. Just make sure it keeps pace with the expectations of today's techno-savvy workers.
Jeff Barbian is associate editor of Training. email@example.com
War Is Fun
Can you imagine a more daunting task than training the U.S. Armed Forces? We're talking more than 2.4 million "employees," plus another million or so civilian workers, placed in the pressure cooker that is strategic defense and war readiness.
The revolving door of exiting veterans and fresh recruits?more than 300,000 enlist per year, according to the
Department of Defense?filling the more than 150 different enlisted and officer positions, creates a nearly insurmountable challenge. Last year, the training budget for all branches of the armed services was around $18 billion, reports the DOD. This includes institutional training and operational unit training (e.g., tanks, ships, pilots, planes, surveillance, and other highly technical "toys").
Of the military's millions, spending on the higher-educated officers is dwarfed by the cost of training unseasoned recruits. "Typically, they are high school graduates and nongraduates, and most have never worked before," Games2Train founder and ceo Marc Prensky writes in Digital Game-Based Learning (McGraw-Hill, 2000). "Molding these people into a well-trained force is a staggering job, and the military approaches it with the purpose and budget of a major mission."
Working on the premise that everything short of war is simulation, it should come as no surprise that the U.S. military is the world's biggest customer for digital game-based training, says Prensky. And linking entertainment and defense is a growing objective for military trainers.
For example, the Joint Force Employment (JFE) game, administered by the Joint Chiefs of Staff for mid-level officers, is akin to an arcade fantasy game. "For starters it comes in a game-sized shrink-wrapped box printed with fancy graphics and screen shots, looking to the entire world like it should sit on the store shelf next to Quake III, Age of Empires II or EverQuest," says Prensky, who received a preview of JFE from the Training and Readiness Unit of the Assistant Secretary of Defense.
The purpose of JFE is to prepare officers from each branch of service for joint-service operations. The meat of the game, says Prensky, is a "heart-pounding war simulation in which you set your forces rolling and shooting, taking out bridges and enemy planes with air cover flying overhead."
In fact, the entertainment industry has even collaborated with the military on ways the two might discuss research interests in simulation technology. In 1996, the DOD's Modeling and Simulation Office (DMSO) met with the National Research Council for a two-day workshop. Participants from film, video game, theme-park, and defense contracting companies, among others, met to share ideas on electronic storytelling, strategy and war gaming, experiential computing and virtual reality, networked simulation, and low-cost simulation hardware.
"Given the military's experience and predilections," Prensky says, "sharing information between the military and corporate trainers might result in a lot more digital game-based learning in companies."
COPYRIGHT Bill Communications Inc. 2001. All rights reserved.