With the global credit crisis eating into training budgets it’s little wonder that some in L&D are looking to the virtual world of serious games for relief.
Far from being the preserve of slightly eccentric or specialist companies – which was certainly the case as little as five years ago – computer-based serious games are becoming a mainstream training tool, thanks in no small part to the development of increasingly sophisticated and affordable technology that has attracted IT giants such as Microsoft and IBM.
David Wortley, director a the Coventry-based Serious Games Institute, says the year-old body has witnessed a big increase in the understanding, awareness of and demand for serious games. He says the industry, which was once focused on high-spec simulations such as flight training, is now spreading into areas including marketing, finance and customer service.
The case for serious games has progressed from the introduction of business-based board games, paper-based business simulations, multimedia software and the like, to the immersive 3-D environments that one would only expect to find on a PlayStation3.
Developers argue that the ability of these programs to enable staff to emulate and play out timely and complex business scenarios means they now have a valid place in any blended or e-learning training line-up. “The people who are coming to us have proportionally large classroom-based training and they’re looking to cut costs,” says Kevin Corti, head of serious games producer Pixel Learning.
“Serious games enable companies to offer a more focused, realistic learning experience that actually reflects what they do,” he adds.
According to Richard Berg, boss of development company Business Smart International, the experiential element of serious games also means they can play a crucial role in the current economic climate by mirroring the challenges that people are facing and helping them respond to those. He says employees are free to try out new ideas in a safe environment that does not jeopardise the company or put them in the spotlight, in the way that role-play would.
The versatility that serious games offer means that L&D managers have a range of implementation options, including the use of two or three-minute jolts, to deliver key messages, or longer simulations that can go on for weeks. They may choose to incorporate serious games into an existing e-learning programme or as a classroom-based activity with individuals or groups working with laptops – both on or offline as well as with or without facilitator prompts and post-course analysis.
Corti says most of Pixel Learning’s projects are semi-bespoke and generally range from £30,000 to £50,000 – offering several hours’ training for hundreds, if not thousands, of delegates.
“We’ve also got several dozen business simulation programs, and offer off‑the‑shelf products – such as Treating Customers Fairly – that can cost from £40 to £80 per user,” he adds.
Any company with a large headcount will find their costs massively reduced, adds Berg, who insists that despite the technology, prices are normally extremely competitive.
“Companies can mix and match, and we can be extremely flexible,” he says. “Costs tend to range anywhere from £250 per head, while simulations may cost between £4,000 and £100,000, depending on what a company wants.”
Away from the virtual arena, serious games can act as a framework underpinning a training session, says Karen Sadler, a diversity consultant at Academee, which produces a board game in both off‑the‑shelf and bespoke versions.
“It’s a way of engaging people and helping them to learn,” she explains. “Although the normal reaction is scepticism, what tends to happen is the game almost becomes incidental.”
Sadler adds that companies use this facilitator-led learning tool, which was originally designed for the diversity market, in a variety of ways during an intervention – as an ice-breaker or to gauge the level of knowledge in the room, for example – as well as their own topics, such as customer satisfaction and inductions. The Academee game, which the company recently customised for supermarket chain Asda, is available in three different sizes, with facilitator guides or as part of a training intervention. Prices range from £395 to £8,140.
Case study: Shire
In autumn 2008, global pharmaceutical company Shire ran a one-day serious games session for 35 international employees attending its annual legal conference. The course, which was designed and facilitated by Business Smart International, featured a high-definition business simulation.
“As lawyers charged with the task of counselling Shire’s business leaders, it’s critical that we understand why our executives want to pursue a certain course and what their business goal really is,” explains spokesman Jason Baranski. “We wanted do something that was very intense in terms of the training element while still offering team-building opportunities.
“In between rounds we’d wait for interim results, telling us how each company was doing, plus feedback from the facilitator. We’d hear why one was performing better than another and whether a company’s long-term prospects looked good or bad.
“This isn’t the typical teambuilding exercise that helps you bond with colleagues you don’t see enough. It is an intense exercise that requires you to dive into the content, keep track of decisions and really think about things. I don’t think a single person walked away from the simulation saying: ‘That was a fun little game but it wasn’t very realistic’. Our entire legal department was genuinely challenged.”