What if there were a way to teach best practices to employees in an indelible, risk-free way that resulted in immediate and lasting behavior change? The U.S. Army created a tool that does exactly that. It’s an interactive, public online game, and although companies obviously can’t directly adopt its combat and wartime scenarios, the game’s successes do have direct application for business.
"America’s Army" was launched online in July 2002, and since then nearly 9.5 million people have played the game. Originally a mechanism for soft-selling the Army to potential recruits, it has evolved into a true enterprise solution. It has been adapted and adopted by various organizations within the Army for weapons prototyping, helping wounded soldiers adjust to their injuries, and, above all, for training.
"The conventional way to train was our guys vs. the enemy using an artificial intelligence," says Col. Casey Wardynski, director of the Army’s Office of Economic and Manpower Analysis at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the originator of America’s Army. "But this doesn’t replicate real situations."
Artificial intelligence isn’t adaptive, "and the real enemy is," he says. Further, updating artificial intelligence requires a software cycle of six to 18 months.
America’s Army, on the other hand, is based on the game industry’s highly competitive technology, not proprietary defense contractor products. Therefore, its software cycles take a maximum of six months, and new elements can be added rapidly as desired. Since the game is software, easily ported across networks or individual PCs, it can go anywhere.
"It lets you separate the cognitive experience [of training] from a physical training locale," Wardynski says. "A real training locale … would be very congested." And since the Army owns the game, every element—avatars of soldiers or enemy combatants or civilians, weapons, equipment and landscapes—can be freely repurposed for new scenarios and new requirements from any Army organization. America’s Army isn’t a single simulation or solution; it can be used to create any training scenario, anywhere.
America’s Army is what’s known as a "serious game," and companies are increasingly using such games to train employees by immersing them in interactive, realistic situations. They learn by doing. And that’s almost the best possible way to learn.
Indeed, Jeanne Meister, formerly president of Corporate University Exchange and the author of Corporate Universities, found that retention levels for learning varied drastically by method. Lectures, which include hoary old PowerPoint presentations, yield a 5 percent retention rate. Reading comes in at 10 percent. Small-group discussions generate a 50 percent retention rate. Learning by doing, which includes realistic, interactive simulations like America’s Army, generates a 75 percent retention rate. Only one method beats learning by doing, and that’s when leaders do the teaching, step by step.
Simulations "offer a very cost-effective way for clients to reach large, geographically distributed populations," says Rommin Adl, executive vice president for global sales and marketing for management consulting company BTS. The company, headquartered in Stockholm, Sweden, with offices in 11 other countries, specializes in developing customized simulations and discovery learning experiences for clients. "People can test things in a risk-free environment before they do it in real life," Adl says. "This helps disseminate best practices before people do things."
"The realism is another key piece," he adds. "People are really learning by doing. This helps them bridge learning in the simulation to their real job. Without that element of realism, you’re leaving the learning and application of learning to chance."
The accompanying stories describe how the Army uses various applications of its serious game for training. One application provides "pre-basic training" lessons to future soldiers, a second lets them rehearse cross-cultural scenarios that prepare personnel for civilian encounters in war zones, and the third teaches soldiers how to survive and protect innocent lives in urban warfare.