Hilton Hotels Corp. training executive David Kervella thinks so. But classroom instruction can't effectively teach hotel employees how to interact properly with guests, he says. So Kervella, senior manager, brand education at Hilton, proposed that the giant hotel firm create a 3-D interactive computer game that would develop employee customer service skills within a virtual hotel setting. He felt that doing so would enable Hilton to reach young, game-savvy employees with important messages about personal behaviors that influence customer satisfaction and loyalty - the heartbeat of the hotel business.
But first, he faced an uphill battle for approval of the expensive training method. Not only was Kervella himself not a veteran "gamer," he would have to win over numerous skeptical executives who wouldn't know an avatar from an aardvark.
It's understandable for senior executives to be dubious about the new era of 3-D games and immersive worlds now making their entrance onto the corporate learning stage. Although ubiquitous within Generation Y as an entertainment option, 3-D games and virtual universes like Second Life are being utilized by a relative handful of organizations as learning tools.
There are questions aplenty. Are these technologies worth the hype as learning tools? Are they affordable? What's the return-on-investment? How do you structure and quantify learning within an unstructured universe like Second Life? How can you ensure that proprietary information isn't released into cyberspace by some chatty avatar?
Those were among the issues discussed at the recent Advanced Learning Technologies Summit in Cary, N.C., sponsored by the North Carolina Advanced Learning Technology Association (NCALTA). The state's Research Triangle Park is a hub of activity on the simulation and digital games-based learning development front. A variety of learning and healthcare institutions, game development studios, and new media companies are based in the area.
These new learning technologies "accelerate education, increase proficiency and reduce training costs," explains Jerry Heneghan, the association's president and CEO of serious game developer Virtual Heroes Inc. He told attendees that the new breed of serious games, simulations and virtual worlds stimulate the imagination, spark curiosity, foster discussion, and encourage competition.
The points were echoed by experts including game developers and customers. They said companies that spurn the new technologies risk losing out in the competition to hire, develop, and retain today's demanding young talent.
Indeed, entertainment-based games such as World of Warcraft are drawing fans of all ages and earning millions for their developers. Players are lured by the ability to suspend disbelief and "become" the avatar they selected.
Serious games and virtual worlds seek to create similar experiences for learning purposes such as building leadership and teamwork capabilities, and enabling individuals to fail without implications. By embracing advanced learning technologies, employers are creating a bigger toolbox, says Ben Sawyer, a consultant and game developer. "We are actually asking people to spend more time learning, not less," he says.
Yet many game developers concede that skepticism by customers is justified. Many developers have not yet solved the challenge of producing affordable learning games for corporate clients on modest budgets and granting them ownership of the IP. Games can cost from $100,000 and up, well beyond the reach of many training departments. They also require senior executives to deviate from specific curricula to embrace a looser style of learning.
The challenge for companies is to begin by selecting a single worthy project likely to yield positive results, says Richard Kristoff, president of American Research Institute, a training services company based in Cary. He predicts that one year from now, numerous immersive learning projects of modest scale will be underway at companies throughout the country.
Hilton's Kervella agrees that the best way to win the support of executives is to demonstrate that their money is well spent. That's why he conducted a lengthy research of the gaming industry, including a request for proposal (RFP) to numerous game developers, before selecting Virtual Heroes to create Hilton's Ultimate Team Play game.
The game seeks to show Hilton employees how their actions affect their hotel by influencing the guest's mood, said Kervella. Players interact with virtual guests in numerous scenarios, and their performances are scored. It is currently being tested by 20 Hilton hotels prior to global rollout next year.
Meanwhile, the experience of Linden Lab's highly successful but unstructured immersive online universe, Second Life, has spawned a second generation of 3-D worlds that are tailored to the needs of learning organizations.
Companies such as American Research Institute, Forterra Systems, and Proton Media offer products that give customers access to immersive worlds in a more secure and controlled environment. Linden Lab is also busily re-inventing Second Life to keep clients on board.