As digital technology advances, so does games-based learning. Can it win a place in the hearts and minds of training and L&D managers?
The digital natives are getting restless and we’d better prepare ourselves for a revolution in e-learning. So says Steve Molyneux, a former Microsoft chairman of advanced learning technologies, and now a special adviser on training and education to the Ministry of Defence.
Digital natives is a term coined by Molyneux: it refers to the generation born during the early 1980s when the personal computer first appeared in the UK. Now adults and entering work, they bring with them a love of computer games and new ideas of how they can be applied in the workplace. “They come from a gaming background, and as they get into positions of power within organisations, we are going to see the world of learning transformed,” says Molyneux.
This may take some time but an increasing number of organisations are using games-based learning as part of employee development.
At Pixelearning, founder Kevin Corti says many clients, such as Henley College, are already combining gaming technology with learning.
A game was developed to help Henley students studying for an NVQ in hospitality and catering. As they move around high-quality graphical representations of kitchens and restaurants, users can see the direct consequences of their actions in areas such as food hygiene, customer service and stocktaking. “Games are good at using drama, storyline, humour and characters to create a compelling experience, which develops memory hooks and means learners not only remember what happened but why it happened,” says Corti.
This, he says, is in contrast to traditional e-learning packages, which although often dubbed “interactive”, usually offer little more than text-based information and an electronic way to turn the page.
Jim Piggott, chief executive of games-based learning provider Team Play Learning Dynamics (TPLD), says many older trainees who are cynical about the effectiveness of this type of learning at first, end up being the most reluctant to leave their computers. “Games-based learning tends to be immersive, a factor that drives up outcomes,” he says.
TPLD specialises in team-building games, and companies such as IBM have used its flagship product, Infiniteams, which places a group of players on a desert island where they must overcome a series of challenges to escape. Using a wide-area computer network, players in different countries can still play together, in much the same way that virtual teams work remotely on projects.
Another advantage of games-based learning is that games can be paused while an online facilitator reviews how the team dealt with a scenario.
Piggott says serious gaming is “not far off the cost of e-learning”, and costs are coming down as software developers create platforms from which new games can be built cost-effectively.
Value for money is also emphasised by Roy Middleton, chief executive of Plenoptics, a 3D photo modelling company. Using specialist software, it creates digital environments from photographs as backdrops for location-based games.
BAA has used a game to familiarise fire crews with the interior of planes, and London Underground simulated a train setting for staff training.
“It is expensive to bring together a team of people into a physical environment, but much more cost-effective to bring the environment to them,” says Middleton.
But, with serious gaming becoming increasingly popular, are we in danger of creating a future where we are all taught by machines?
On the contrary, says Molyneux: “Whereas traditional blackboard learning sees the learner as a passive recipient of knowledge, games-based learning allows trainees to teach themselves.
Case study: Seer
Sales training company Seer approached games-based firm Pixelearning last year to develop a game that would take trainees through complex simulated sales negotiations.
“We wanted to develop a Playstation-style game that would enable delegates to learn as they play,” says Steve Roberts, a director at the Marlow-based company. “Many sales guys have grown up with computer games.”
Built from scratch in four months, the game sees the user play a new sales person presented with a sales opportunity. They then face a number of scenarios and are asked to decide what questions to ask and what solutions to come up with. The options they choose will determine their score and whether, at the end, they drive away in an old banger or a top-of-the-range Mercedes.
“There’s a bit of fun in there but it is a sophisticated game that takes up to two hours to complete,” says Roberts. “We use it on the last afternoon of our sales course to see how much delegates have learned and to highlight areas that still require work.”