Gaming for Engagement

HR embraces gaming as way to inspire, motivate and train employees

By Dave Zielinski Nov 15, 2011
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More companies are choosing “serious” games and simulations over traditional training methods for their ability to mimic real-world work challenges and keep employees engaged in learning.

At the North Shore-LIJ Health System in Lake Success, N.Y., for example, simulations play a central role in safety-related training. A simulation lab called the Patient Safety Institute is modeled after an intensive care unit. It hosts simulations for staff in cardiothoracic, emergency, anesthesia, pediatric and critical care areas, said Kathleen Gallo, senior vice president and chief learning officer.

In one simulation, physicians and nurses work to resuscitate a sick baby. The team uses a baby simulator that can be intubated and defibrillated and “does everything short of stand up in the crib,” Gallo said. Employees and hired actors play the roles of concerned parents and guardians to mirror reality. “As the baby starts to deteriorate in the simulation, the team needs to communicate very well to keep it from dying, deciding on things like who will secure the airway, what meds need to be given [and] when it might be time to defibrillate,” Gallo said.

Each simulation is captured on video; a facilitator leads a post-session debrief to review what went right—or wrong—for learning and future application.

“We believe people don’t learn these skills best by sitting in a classroom listening to someone go through PowerPoint slides; they learn by doing,” Gallo said. “New pilots don’t get to take a plane up for a first time because they scored 100 on a multiple-choice test. They usually crash it first in simulations and learn and make adjustments from that.”

Gallo adds an element of fun and competition to simulations training with an annual Sim Wars contest in which clinical teams go through various simulations and are judged on decision-making, communication, teamwork and more, with the winners receiving trophies. (For a look at the 2010 competition on YouTube, click this link.)

“The Sim Wars keep interest and excitement high in learning and applying new skills,” Gallo said.

Why Learning Games?

As the educational quality of games and simulations has improved and the video game generation has ascended to the management ranks, gaming is increasingly viewed as an engaging—and often cost-effective—way to enhance employees’ knowledge and performance.

Wikipedia describes “gamification” as “the use of game design techniques and mechanics to solve problems and engage audiences.” According to market researcher M2 Research, revenue from gamification software, consulting and marketing might reach $938 million by 2014, up from less than $100 million in 2011.

Bjorn Billhardt, CEO of Enspire Learning, an Austin, Texas-based learning solutions provider, said game use has grown in organizations largely because educational quality has improved. “In the past, games and simulations were either too educational and not engaging enough, or too much fun and not educational enough,” Billhardt said. “Now there’s a better balance between the two, so companies are taking a second look at them as vehicles to deliver meaningful learning experiences.”

The gamification trend is seeing gaming expand beyond the training department for use as a motivational device in the broader organization. The term refers to using game concepts to incent employees or customers to exhibit desired behaviors. Experts say well-conceived games can keep employees interested in a way other learning tactics can’t, particularly for dry topics.

Future of Gaming

According to a report from Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research, serious games often don’t require as big a time commitment as some other training methods, such as classroom-based or instructor-led training. Learning objectives are accomplished faster, and there is often a better mood for learning than with traditional training methods.

For a work team sharply divided over conflicting priorities, for example, a game like Prune The Product Tree “provides a relaxed, nonjudgmental setting for exploring what customers really want,” the Forrester report authors wrote.

At LiveOps, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based company that runs virtual call centers, gaming concepts are used to motivate independent service agents to achieve performance goals, said Sanjay Mathur, vice president of product management. The company’s agents make sales calls, handle insurance claim inquiries and provide roadside assistance to auto customers.

Quizzes are used to help boost agents’ knowledge, and video game-like leader boards allow them to track their sales or service performance relative to peers. Agents receive points and badges for accomplishments.

“We want agents to be motivated to exceed performance targets by letting them see how they perform against peers and against thresholds we’re given by our end clients,” Mathur said. He said gaming concepts have contributed to a 15 percent reduction in client call time and a sales increase of about 10 percent for many agents.

Clark Aldrich, an independent simulation designer and head of Clark Aldrich Designs, said the best serious games include rich real-time interactivity, immediate performance feedback, a coaching element and rigorous challenges tied to real-world work scenarios. They start out easy and get harder gradually, giving users confidence to continue playing.

He said organizations increasingly are using games and simulations to teach conviction, not just competence.

“Cybersecurity, for example, has been a big driver of educational simulations over the last few years, but it’s not about ‘how to do it.’ It’s more about convincing people about the importance of not taking security risks with sensitive information,” Aldrich said.

Short-duration games and learning scenarios are now being designed specifically for mobile devices, said Ray Jimenez, chief learning architect for Vignettes for Training Inc., an e-learning company in Duarte, Calif.

Jimenez has a client, for example, that each week sends a two-minute, game-like training scenario to the smart phones of 1,200 field salespeople. The content is related to handling emerging sales challenges or mastering product information. “Results are tallied in a dashboard that salespeople can check from computers to see how they’ve done relative to colleagues,” Jimenez said.

Because highly customized games are expensive to develop and purchase and off-the-shelf games can be too generic to meet a company’s learning needs, Billhardt says, the future lies in customizable game design templates.

“Companies have common training issues and challenges but unique ways they need to address them. A blended approach, where you can customize templates proven in other environments, is where the game and simulation world is headed.”

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business journalist in Minneapolis.

Related Article:

Firms Mix Work and Play with Surprising Results, SHRM Online Technology Discipline, January 2009

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