So-called serious games are making their mark in training. What use are they?
Long regarded as a hobby for bedroom-bound teenage geeks, electronic video games are increasingly being used for corporate training.
At training games consultancy Digital 2.0, founder Jude Ower says that the rise in popularity of serious games – as electronic games developed for corporate training have come to be known – has been caused by the convergence of several trends.
For example, the widespread use of gaming consoles such as the Nintendo Wii, has introduced the joys of the virtual world to a wider audience, including women and older people.
"This, coupled with the increased use of the internet and widespread adoption of e-learning has opened many doors in terms of the acceptance towards serious games," says Ower. He reckons the global market for serious games is currently around the $2bn (£1bn) mark.
Coventry University's launch of its Serious Games Institute last September is an indication of just how established this market has become. The institute's director, David Wortley, says that it exists to "bring industry and research together" and provides an incubation centre for serious games companies, as well as a space where serious games can be demonstrated.
Wortley says the popularity of the virtual world website Second Life, which now has more than 12 million users worldwide, has been a big driver in showing what can be achieved by role-playing in the virtual world. The Institute even has its own doppelganger in the Second Life world and the staff, including Wortley, have their own avatars, or virtual aliases.
He says serious games have a number of advantages over traditional face-to- face training. "They tend to be more interactive and give people the chance to explore and try things without risk of failure. It's learning by discovery rather than repetition. Serious games can be accessed on the internet by multiple players, so are good for team-building and working together to complete a task."
According to Wortley, companies looking to source serious games for their corporate learning have two options: either to buy commercial off-the-shelf products or work with a company to have a game specifically developed to meet their needs.
At PIXELearning, one of the businesses based at the institute, managing director Kevin Corti says off-the-shelf games are not particularly satisfactory. He says that if companies want a serious game to match their needs, they should consider investing in the development of their own bespoke version. But this development will not come cheap.
With the more intricate games requiring complex algorithms and engines to simulate real life decision making, Corti says the cost of developing a serious game equates to around £25,000 for every hour of the game's duration.
Recent products developed by the company include games to demonstrate health and safety in the catering industry and a role-playing business game aimed at underlining the need for IT security.
But it seems that games of a more traditional kind are also in demand from the corporate training sector. At events company Leapfrog International, creative design manager Sam Gething-Lewis says more and more organisations are asking him to design board games for use in training. So much so that the company is in the process of spinning off a separate business called Double-dare Design aimed specifically at this market.
He says board games are best used for induction training or team-building. Recent creations produced by Gething-Lewis include a game developed for a credit card company to introduce new recruits to the way the banking system works and a giant jigsaw where team members have to earn pieces and assemble a hidden corporate message.
Gething-Lewis says he works hard to ensure his games aren't patronising to participants and that they are "challenging and intelligent". He says they must also be "engaging" and a refreshing break from dull PowerPoint presentations.
"Most companies seem to use them to break up training programmes and offer an opportunity for delegates to learn while allowing them to relax a little bit."
Case study: Garlands
Staff at the Hartlepool site of contact centre company Garlands developed an interactive board game called Garlands Life last November with the aim of educating new employees about the company's operations and the requirements of their job roles.
According to learning and development manager Trevor Harris, Garlands Life consists of a board with images of local landmarks and Garlands' sites, movable pieces, four types of cards (Good News, Bad News, Discussion and Fun), and game money. During the game, the players work through scenarios such as "What happens to my reputation score if I receive a positive e-mail from a customer?" and "What impact does it have on others if I phone in sick?"
"We believe the initiative can accelerate peoples' understanding about the company, its policies and its brand values in an entertaining way as well as get people talking about issues and sharing knowledge," said Harris.
Originally designed by Garlands' managers, the game has now been professionally produced by games manufacturer Leapfrog International, while 30 of Garlands' operational trainers have been trained as facilitators.