Firms Mix Work and Play with Surprising Results

By Peter Wolfinger Jan 5, 2009

The stress of the workplace can gray the hair of 30-year-olds and make 40-year-olds feel 50. However, a new book suggests that reverting back to a childhood hobby doesn’t just make adults in corporate America feel young again at work, but also increases businesses’ productivity and helps them manage and train their employees better.

What is this groundbreaking tool?

Video games.

According to Changing the Game: How Video Games are Transforming the Business World, games are being used to recruit, train and manage employees as well as for advertising and product placement purposes by firms seeking new mediums to reach out to their consumer audiences.

Companies such as Microsoft and Google, as well as federal departments such as the United States Army, are using video games for professional reasons.

Microsoft has used games to quadruple voluntary employee participation in important tasks.

Medical schools have used game-like simulators to train surgeons, reducing their error rate in practice by a factor of six. Rehabilitation therapists have used the Nintendo Wii to help patients recover from broken bones, combat injuries, strokes and surgery.

Recruiting games developed by the Army, for just 0.25 percent of its advertising budget, have had more impact on recruits than all other forms of Army marketing combined, according to Changing the Game. On the Army’s main recruiting web site,, there are six downloadable video games.

Google is using video games to turn its visitors into a giant, voluntary labor force—encouraging them to label the millions of images found on the web that Google’s computers cannot identify on its own.

During 2008, insurer Allstate released a game designed to improve the driving of people ages 50 to 75 by reversing age-related cognitive decline and improving the visual-processing skills needed for safe driving.

Snowfly, a Wyoming-based company devoted to the development of workers’ incentive programs, has a web-based incentive application called Capstone, which allows workers time to play online games during work hours with the goal of raising productivity and morale in their day.

And the list goes on.

Play to Win

The authors of Changing the Game are two of the leading authorities in the gaming world, David Edery and Ethan Mollick. Edery is the worldwide games portfolio manager for Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade. Mollick studies innovation and entrepreneurship in the gaming industry at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

“This is an exciting time for the video game market. Games are now seen as much more than just toys for kids; they are highly engaging media products that reach every age and gender demographic,” Edery and Mollick state in a release. “Games are helping people learn new things, lose weight, and have fun. Most interestingly, businesses are using games to better recruit, train and manage employees as well as to advertise and even to innovate.”

The Network, a Georgia-based employee communications technology company, recognizes this corporate interest in the gaming world.

They recently developed “Conflict or No Conflict” (a spin-off of the hit TV game show "Deal or No Deal") and won a 2008 Stevie Award in Interactive Media Professional Education for its creation of “Ethics Idol,” a spin-off of “American Idol” that has employees listen to a song depicting an ethical gray area before voting on what they would do in response.

“We try to provide a change of pace. These games incorporate the same serious methods of learning in a more engaging, interactive manner,” says Jay Thomas, creative director at The Network.

The games serve as a more personal learning experience compared to, say, a seminar.

“Clients have found that traditional training methods are not being received well,” says Thomas. “Either A: Employees can’t relate to the people depicted [in the training method], or B: The training scenarios aren’t close enough to the real-life situations employees experience.”

In their book, Edery and Mollick emphasize the importance of thinking outside of the box (or cubicle).

“In today’s shaky economy, it’s more important than ever for corporations to find cost-effective ways of promoting their products and managing their workforce; video games are one great possibility,” they state.

What’s in the Box?

What is considered in the design of these instructional video games?

According to Debra Sieloff, instructional design expert for SAP, there are four main components necessary for a successful, beneficial, at-work video game.

  • Borrow the motivational psychology from online game theorists and practitioners.

One of the most popular theories of video game design is the idea that, if you give a user a lot of reward in the beginning, it provides them satisfaction and builds their confidence, which makes them want to continue playing as the game gets harder. The same should hold true in corporate training games. Early stages should be easier; later ones should be more difficult.

  • Borrow from the experience of architecting online training systems that encourage the users to explore and learn how to accomplish goals.

Generally, people do not like to learn linearly, where they have to follow a single, straight-line path. They like to be able to explore and tailor what they do to their specific interests. Sieloff believes that corporate training games are most effective when users are left to figure out the content on their own, then come to an end point that tests their knowledge of the material.

  • Incorporate critical design aspects that build online experiences that keep the user engaged toward the goal.

Again, businesses need to vary the methods and processes of their training and learning games. Active learning uses a different part of the brain than passive learning. Every time a different part of the brain is stimulated, users are going to be more engaged.

  • Use game techniques that enable users to rehearse the learning, even simulate the use of skills in some cases, and transfer that knowledge or skill to the workplace.

Users need to rehearse the material that they’ve just seen when learning new material. For example, if they have just read pages and pages on a new company policy, a quiz or a game to test this knowledge and refresh their memory will help them retain the information. This again relates to doing more than learning the material passively by solely reading it (and most likely forgetting it a short-time thereafter).

It is also important that games show flexibility. Everyone responds differently to different training methods.

The success of video games in the workplace “really depends on the employer, the business culture, the employee development initiative and the audience characteristics,” says Sieloff, who is a member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s Technology & HR Management Special Expertise Panel. “What works for one audience will not work for another. Think of it in terms of the movies. Some audiences love the ‘Lion King’ and others the latest 007 movie.”

It takes a mature person to understand businesses’ woes in the current recession. It just might, however, take some inner-child channeling, like video gaming to help them through such tough times.

Pete Wolfinger is an editorial intern for SHRM.


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