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Can Video Games Win Points as Teaching Tools

April 18, 2006
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Brent Schlenker is sold on the power of video games to teach, not just entertain. As a learning consultant at computer chip maker Intel, Schlenker says he created a computer game that allowed people with no factory experience to quickly master a 25-step manufacturing process.

But even he sees big hurdles that make corporations wary of using the games as a major training tool. For example, Intel recently took part in a learning experiment in the virtual world "Second Life," but Schlenker couldn’t log on at times thanks to an information technology glitch. "It was hard to get into ‘Second Life’ because of our firewall," he said recently.

Schlenker was speaking at a conference titled the "Serious Games Summit," part of a broader game developer gathering in San Jose, California, in late March. A major theme of the summit was that games hold great promise for corporate learning, yet the nascent field faces challenges as perilous as any faced by Tomb Raider Lara Croft.

A small fraction of organizations—most famously the U.S. military—have adopted computer games as a major part of their training strategy, says Tom Hunter, who heads game consulting at business advisory firm Qittitut Consulting. "That’s going to change a lot sometime in the next five years," he predicts. Hunter is designing a game centered on diagnosing virtual patients to be used for doctors’ continuing education.

Advocates of computer games and simulations for training cite benefits such as people’s willingness to practice and improve a skill because they’re having fun. Backers also tout the ability to safely simulate situations that would be dangerous in the real world, as well as the familiarity of younger workers with games.

What’s more, a three-dimensional computer environment can increase retention, says Philip Rosedale, founder of Linden Lab, which created "Second Life." More a virtual world than a game with clear objectives, "Second Life" allows people to create animated versions of themselves and do such things as own land, sell services and even dance at a nightclub. "If you’re going to have a meeting in ‘Second Life,’ you’re going to remember it better," Rosedale said at the conference.

But businesses also may remember investments in "e-learning" made a few years ago that didn’t pan out. Officials in corporate learning departments are wary of taking a risk on games, participants at the summit suggested. "The fear factor’s big," said Brian Gomez, a consultant for video game technology at defense contractor Northrop Grumman.

Then there are perception issues, including the notion that games are not "serious business." Another myth to combat is that a $100,000 game teaching workplace skills can rival the sophistication of such popular games as "Grand Theft Auto," a multimillion-
dollar production, says Jay Wagman, co-founder of QuestG, a consultancy working to create games for leadership development. "We’ve got to manage expecta- tions," he said.

Despite the challenges, there are hope­ful signs for games winning in the corporate market. "LearnLand," an experiment in corporate learning held in "Second Life," attracted the active participation of 60 Fortune 500 companies, including Intel. Sponsored last year by the Masie Center think tank, the project included trial projects in new-employee orientation and peer-to-peer learning. Mark Oehlert, who helped manage Learn­Land, says that even participants from traditionally conservative firms were intrigued by the virtual world’s possibilities, such as the ability to fly. "Don’t underestimate the elasticity of the users’ imagination," says Oehlert, now an associate with consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton.

Schlenker, meanwhile, may be able to get into "Second Life" after all. After he spoke at the conference, a "Second Life" representative handed him a business card. "Let’s get your IT thing fixed," she said.

Ed Frauenheim

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