Problem: Gaming technologies are capturing the imagination of training managers just as they always have the "Nintendo generation" now entering the workforce. But how does one determine if game-based learning is appropriate for their organization, and whether it’s worth the formidable expense?
Solution: Start with a basic understanding of how games are designed, and at what cost. Then learn to appreciate their limited role in the learning tool box. Here are some tips from game designers at Digitalmill and Cisco Systems.
An all-too-common belief among workforce trainers is that the creation of content for game-based learning is largely a matter of inserting the proper template, just the way e-learning content can be developed. Not so, says Ben Sawyer, co-founder of Digitalmill, a technology project and software development firm in Portland, Maine.
"It’s an erroneous view that comes from the mentality of instructional materials design based on simpler media forms," says Sawyer. He should know. He has helped numerous clients develop game-based learning programs, including Cisco Systems, the Lounsbery Foundation, and the Lemont Foundation. He was the producer of Virtual U, an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation funded project to build a university management simulator, and has authored two books on gaming.
He says a request for a game-based e-learning course by an uninformed executive invariably produces a severe bout of sticker shock. "The traditional SCORM-based framework is not transferable into this activity," says Sawyer. That’s because 85 percent of the budget often goes to the developers, especially the 3-D designers. "They’re not cheap." He calls it a "huge problem in the game-based learning space because we are dealing with highly computational forms of development and programming, not just assembling bits of media."
But he says the use of gaming technology in learning is expanding as companies discover where they’re most suitable—and where they’re not. He says game-based learning works best in task-oriented fields where practice is important, such as pilot and medical training. Games can also be used to help train supervisors to manage responsibilities such as field offices, says Sawyer. "You can’t simulate that activity with games, but you can instill a sense of what it means to manage the facilities, including the literacy of the system. Games can do that well."
One corporate leader in game-based learning is Cisco Systems. The Cisco certifications group’s CCNA Prep Center is an Internet portal that has helped thousands of networking professionals gain CCNA certifications. Two years ago, it introduced three games to address different skills sets: San Rover (storage networking), Network Defenders (security), and Rockin' Retailer (IP communications). All have become popular learning tools, especially with its young audience, explains Jerry Bush, Cisco Systems program manager.
Bush offers sage advice for training managers seeking to create a successful learning game. "You need three components: an expert educator, a subject matter expert, and a game developer. Unless you have all three, you risk developing a game that can teach but won’t be much fun—or vice versa."
Bush says he approaches the games development task as he would any other learning product. "You must know the needs and wants of audience." He says the game doesn’t need to be flashy. For example, the age-old game of Hang Man is the formula for TV’s venerable Wheel of Fortune, and can easily be configured for a computer-based learning experience. "Players will forgive all that—if it’s a good game and they’re learning from it."
Cisco’s most successful learning game is one developed by Bush to teach individuals how to perform binary calculations, and to improve that skill. The simple yet engaging online Binary Game enables students to quickly gain proficiency with a vital skill. "It develops their ability to think in binary, as well as notice patterns and develop strategies," says Bush. Experienced players can work 50 problems in five minutes, far faster than they could in a classic homework situation, and with much greater enjoyment.
Bush says the casual Binary Game complements related classroom training. In addition, he says, expertise in binary numbers carries over to other IT areas, such as networking and IP addressing that is based around binary numbering system. Cisco’s Binary Game has been played by more than 150,000 people in over 200 countries. In a recent player survey, 75 percent responded that the Binary Game helped them prepare for and/or pass the exam.
The Binary Game represents a training success story that began with a simple question: What is the skill we want networking professionals to perfect, and can we make it in a game? The binary number system is a small part of the entire Cisco curriculum, but people respond well and want more, he says. "Our goal is to find efficient ways to conduct training and get people up to speed faster."
So-called "casual" games favored by Intel can be played in less than 15 minutes. Other gaming categories include "advergaming," which include varying degrees of selling and learning, as well as role-playing and serious games for which learning is paramount.
So what are the success stories that Cisco credits to game-based learning? The IT company is bullish on the learning tool, but is generally reluctant to elaborate. "Cisco has found that the question about whether games teach better is a misnomer," says Digitalmill’s Sawyer. "Testing for that is expensive and dubious." He says Cisco has discovered that in some testing, especially with the binary game, it offers a quicker path to autonomy. "That doesn’t mean it taught better than the classroom, but that it’s a good learning tool."
"For game designers, the critical thing is that the games hone the skills that organizations want to improve," he says. "The tests allow us designers to see what kind of game frameworks worked best."
The success of game-based learning in medicine is emphasized by one widely reported study produced by Beth Israel Medical Center in New York of 33 physicians studying laparoscopic surgery. According to researcher James Rosser, those who had played video games in the past for more than three hours a week made 37 percent fewer errors in the course, were 27 percent faster, and scored 42 percent better than surgeons who never played video games. Certainly eye-hand coordination was a factor, but Rosser also talks about the issues of "screen literacy," in which one must learn to work off a screen for surgery and not on the actual open patient.
Other corporate training organizations that provide game-based learning include Alcoa, which has developed a game to promote safety on loading docks. Its partner in the effort is Pittsurgh, Pennsylvania-based Etcetera Entertainment, a company born from the Carnegie Mellon University games development program that designs computer training simulations. Another fledgling Carnegie Mellon spin-off is Schell Games, which designs three-dimensional Internet gaming.