Games not Gaining Business Favor

The business use of electronic games, whether it be for recruiting, training, or assessment, may primarily be taking root at the corporate level, but there is little remaining doubt about the educational value of epistemic game technology.

"Gamification," the idea of creating game-like structures around ordinary work flow to encourage activities that are aligned with business or organizational goals, is met with some skepticism by gamers, but the trend has nonetheless taken hold. In the corporate environment, investors appear ready to pony up, but otherwise online games have had to fight for respect.

To give the concept more credibility in the business space, some prefer the terms "simulation" or "immersive simulation" to the word "game," even though the mechanics are indeed borrowed from video games.

 

Playing games

In Wisconsin, game companies like Madison's Raven Software, Filament Games (the first game company spun out of UW-Madison), and Human Head Studios, and Frozen Codebase in Green Bay, have given Wisconsin a foothold in games used mostly for entertainment or education. UW-Madison's Games, Learning, and Society Conference actually started out with more of a corporate pitch, but eventually settled into an educational focus.

While the reality is that most games don't make it big, investors are always interested in the "next big thing." The latest example is the success of Zynga games like Farmville on Facebook and the new iPhone games. Zynga, the San Francisco-based social network game developer, has produced games that are so hot that the firm apparently can make investors wait. The company filed for a $1 billion IPO on July 1, but has yet to offer the company on the public market.

David Williamson Shaffer, a professor at UW-Madison and chief investigator on the university's epistemic games grants, noted that business uses have ranged from the sophisticated to the rote. On the high-end side, IBM has built its own online platform, conducting research and looking at games like World of Warcraft as a potential training ground for business leadership. On the flip side, Cold Stone Creamery built a game to teach employees how to scoop ice cream in the right amounts.

According to Shaffer, the business case for games falls largely in the realm of workforce development.

Among the ways companies should think about using gaming technology are: training the workforce on business processes and procedures or orienting new employees on the same processes, creating virtual internships to attract prospective young employees and train them once they are hired, designing a diagnostic tool to assess the potential of prospective employees relative to the skills and knowledge valued in an organization, or making sure veteran employees remain up to snuff.

For manufacturers, games can be used to help prospective business-to-business customers simulate the use of products. "If I run a packaging manufacturing company, I might design a game that educates my potential customers, as they were thinking about the design of their packaging and packaging needs, and gives them chance to work as designers and see what some of the constraints are, see how our process worked, and see what they expect from us and when," Shaffer explained.

"Recruiting, assessment, and training are the main ones," he added. "There's not a whole lot else you can do in workforce management or development, but the motivational effects of games would not apply in that circumstance. A company wants its workers to be motivated intrinsically by what they do on the job, not by a game."

Jon Aleckson, CEO of Madison Productions and Web Courseworks, which can customize games for corporate use, said thus far professional associations are more likely than actual businesses to seek out game design services, even though most of the delivery platforms – smart phones, tablets, and the Web – are tailor-made for business professionals.

Electronic games are primarily linked to young people, but Aleckson noted that "gamers" have been around for more than two decades. "The primary driver of all the interest in developing games is the video game proliferation, and that's not just young people," Aleckson said. "You have people in the workforce in their 30s, maybe 40s, who are playing massively multi-player online games like World of Warcraft."

Even with game familiarity and multiple platforms, incorporating games for business purposes "always looks simpler than it is to pull off," Aleckson noted. From a technical standpoint, a business that wants to create a game on the smart phone platform will have to create a game for the OSi phone platform and the Android platform. If they are going to launch it for the Web, that adds another layer of technical complication.
Madison businesses have some options if they want to hire a vendor to create games, and researchers at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery are verifying the educational value of games and discovering new niches for them.

"If you look at Madison, we're kind of a hotbed of game developers, and it stretches from corporate people like myself to academic approaches, and then of course you've got video game companies in town."
In these economic conditions, price points could be an issue for businesses – the more layered and complex and immersive the game, the more expensive it is to develop. "A game with six levels in it will run from $60,000 to $100,000 to produce," Aleckson said. "If you look at what companies spend on videos to either train or promote, it's in that range."

While corporate entities are not aggressively using online games, business associations are diving in. The Associated General Contractors of Wisconsin has created an online game, "Budget, Build It, Bust It," which is featured on its BuildWisconsin.com website, to interest young people in the construction industry. In the game, a construction firm lands a new job requiring it to build a new, $25 million high school in 270 days, just in time for the new school year. It will cost $2,000 a day just to pay the firm's own staff, not counting the cost of subcontractors and dealing with the unforeseen. There is deadline pressure because the firm faces a penalty of $100,000 per day for each day the project is late.

Laura Cataldo, director of workforce and industry outreach for Associated General Contractors of Wisconsin, said the game is one of many online strategies AGC is using to reach out to young people and encourage them to think about construction, whether that involves going into the trades or into a two-year program or a four-year university. Knowing kids to be game-centered, the organization is promoting the game in high schools, with email and Facebook links, and is bringing the game to trade shows.

Funded through a construction education foundation that supports AGC's workforce development strategies, one of the key points is that work in construction is varied, not limited to construction crews.

"It's a construction reality game where the students are responsible for building, right up to selecting a contractor and dealing with situations to build the project on time and on budget, and that's a challenge our contractors face on every project they work on," Cataldo said. "The goal of the game, the video we produce, and other online strategies we employ is to show students, educators, and the public that there are many different roles in the construction industry, including project managers and estimators, so a career in the construction industry doesn't necessarily mean you're swinging a hammer. You might be negotiating contracts, selecting sites, or dealing with onsite problems."

End game

UW professor Kurt Squire, senior investigator-creative director in the education research integration area at the Morgridge Institute for Research, said recent research has reinforced what was already known about the educational value of electronic games. "We already knew some things – that games are good for teaching systems thinking, creative problem-solving, raising curiosity, and providing a context for things," he said, "and we've seen a rash of studies showing this is true across a lot of contexts when they are designed well.

"Games can really propel people toward authentic participation in activities – again, when they are designed the right way. We've gotten better at designing games where the end state is pushing people out so they get engaged in new activity."

Asked what he would use games for in the business context, Squire said: "It depends on the kind of business I run. The big thing is to identify the underlying principles that work in game design and why they are so engaging to make sure my salary incentive structures or organizational culture are in line with what makes games compelling. There is a saying that life is like a game. If you take that as a starter, some games are good, some are bad, and you can think about the user experience. Think about your employers, their opportunities for growth, and what would cause you to quit that game versus becoming invested in it."

The term "games" carries a stigma, but the emergence of multiple platforms could yet give online games some momentum.

"I think the word 'game' is holding people back," Aleckson said, "but there is a lot of interest now because of the proliferation of smart phone games, tablet games, and the like. I think we're going to see a growing interest in it."

Sign up for the free IB Update – your weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. Click here.