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Games Make Communications Serious Fun

“In The 2020 Workplace: How Innovative Companies Attract, Develop, and Keep Tomorrow’s Employees Today (HarperCollins, 2010), authors Jeanne Meister and Karie Willyerd note that several trends are combining to create the workplace of tomorrow. Currently, members of five distinct generations are in the workforce. Members of the youngest generations have grown up in a world that is global, digital, and hyperconnected, and they value work that is participative and entertaining.

As a result, one of Meister and Willyerd’s 20 predictions for the 2020 workplace is that the corporate curriculum will use video games, simulations, and alternate reality games as key delivery modes.

“It’s really worthwhile to think about how to incorporate game elements into training,” says Deborah Thomas, principal of Silly Monkey, a boutique training development consultancy in Atlanta. Thomas has developed games for such companies as Coca-Cola and IBM. “After all, playing games taps into people’s passions. That engagement, combined with the social aspect of games, really enhances transfer of learning.”

A great way to get started, says Pat Kirkwold, vice president of business development for KDG InterActive in Minneapolis, is to use game elements to augment a traditional course. This can help you assess your company’s cultural readiness for game-based learning. Use games for pretraining assessments or icebreakers, for example.

Although there are no specific topics that are particularly well-suited for game-based delivery, says Thomas, the quality and nature of the content are key drivers: “Choose courses with complex information that people really need to touch, and where improved behavior would lessen risk or save the company money.”

Many of Kirkwold’s clients are using games for new employee onboarding and for sales training. The latter is especially well-suited, he says, due to salespeople’s innate competitive nature. He also has several clients in the biomedical device field that use games to step players through new products in a virtual three-dimensional (3-D) environment.

The key, says Thomas, is to begin with well-developed content and not to neglect the basic tenets of good instructional design. “It’s key to tie the game objectives to the learning objectives of the course,” she says. “No one likes games that are fluff.”

Games don’t have to be expensive—and they don’t have to be digital. Thomas also develops board and card games. In one recent project, she created a custom card deck to help guide the employees at a major accounting firm through an innovation workshop. The cards were used in a time-based game to develop and present innovative ideas.

Thomas also developed an all-day role play and board game for Allstate Insurance. The “Day in the Life” scenario training game guided new agency owners through a typical business day.

Leaderboards are an easy way to incorporate game elements into instructor-led training. Participants are divided into teams, and can then earn points for answering questions correctly; the leaderboard helps make progress visible. Or, deliver a short lecture and then have team members ask questions of the other team, trying to stump them based on the information in the lecture.

“All games draw on human beings’ innate desire to compete, whether with ourselves or with others. The prize isn’t really relevant; it’s the winning that’s key,” Thomas says.

Admittedly, a full virtual gaming environment can be expensive. “However, authoring tools have matured and we can now be much more efficient. We try to keep our pencils sharp,” says Kirkwold. He notes that alternate reality games are particularly effective for teaching processes or skills that must be practiced in a safe environment.

“Participants’ involvement is real-time; their actions or decisions can change the storyline,” says Thomas. She is currently working on an alternate reality game (ARG) for the Technology Association of Georgia’s Workplace Learning Society, and built an entire 3-D world for South American company TAG Innovacion. In that game, learners used avatars in a simulated manufacturing facility to learn safety training and practice first aid.

“In ARGs, you can watch and observe whether participants are noticing and doing the right things in the desired amount of time. You provide incorrect options to see whether they make the right decisions,” says Thomas.

To measure ROI, focus on desired job performance and link the game elements closely to that desired state,” advises Kirkwold. Pre-assess participants so that the constructs and measurements of the game address skill and knowledge gaps.

“More than 11.5 million users currently subscribe to World of Warcraft and, as these players enter the workforce, they will increasingly expect corporate training to mimic their online experiences,” write Meister and Willyerd. Consider building games into your communications strategy…