Could video games train IT staff?

Given the right circumstances, video games can be a powerful training tool, but finding the right software and teaching methods will be a lot more complex than just handing controllers to your staff

It likely won’t be a shoot-em-up like newly released Call of Duty: Modern Warfare that is used, but businesses are slowly warming to the idea of adopting games as teaching and training tools.

Jan Plass, professor at New York University and co-director of the Games for Learning Institute, has explored gaming as a medium for education in a field called educational technology and communication. He thinks there are ways in which games, as a medium, can engage students on topics they normally can’t identify with. “Can we build games for topics that students typically don’t want to even get close to and engage those students who are otherwise disengaged?” is the challenge, he said, “to motivate those students that are otherwise unmotivated.”

Plass said that games do this by bringing context to the information. “Games make you care very quickly with various mechanisms like narrative, compelling game mechanics, and characters they are using,” he said. “So you all of a sudden start caring when you get problems that are contextualized where the context provides the motivation for you to care and to engage.”

Barry Clavir, executive producer of the IT Leadership Development Program and The CIO Summit, has a lot of experience utilizing this concept. As leader of The CIO Summit, he said role-playing, and trying to create as realistic a scenario as possible, is integral to his students learning. That leaves the door open for games to fill a similar role. “The trick in all of this is making the experience for students as real as possible. Where learning really takes hold is where you make the experience of learning as real-life as you can, drawing upon real-life experiences.”

Clavir supports the idea of game-based training, as long as the games are architected with this goal in mind. “If you want training to stick, take hold with someone, then you have to make it as realistic and relevant to the person as possible,” he said. “Providing realism and relevancy and making people feel the experience of what they’re learning is all good. It’s a really important thing and something that’s very hard to do.”

In a game world, this is a very realistic goal. Immersive worlds have been a large focus for the games industry in the past two decades. Some of gaming’s best-selling titles have been open world games, games where the scenery is dense and realistic enough to pull the player in and forget they’re playing a game.

Plass also believes games have an advantage as training tools because of their ability to contain embedded assessment. “If the game is designed well and the assessment within the game is designed well —  because that is not something that automatically would be the case, you have to put a lot of thought into that — then the level of feedback you get of what your strengths and weaknesses are is unprecedented in any other educational setting because we don’t typically have access to all this detailed information,” he said.

He was quick to add the caveat that this can lead to concern that the design of the game promotes the right kind of learning. While games are great at leaving a breadcrumb trail to push the player to complete goals, the architecture of a true training tool game should emphasize internalizing knowledge and not just figuring out how the mechanics work to “win.”

“There is something in a learner that motivates them to learn and it’s either the goal to ‘want to know’ — which we call mastery orientation — or there is an achievement focus,” he said. “While that might sound like a subtle distinction, what motivates us in learning is actually very important.”
Plass said that the nature of gaming can sometimes lead to a comparative or achievement focus, in the form of leaderboards, high scores and badges, but this isn’t as beneficial to true learning. True learning that becomes hard-wired in the brain comes more from a mastery focus.
So with the roadmap laid out, why hasn’t anyone conquered the education and training game market? It might be because the technology hasn’t reached the point where it’s cost-effective to produce more niche titles, or because the right model hasn’t been found.
Eric Klopfer, an associate professor in educational technology at MIT, said video games are at a place now where they’re ripe for a company to start designing training games as a service.
“If you can sell, not just a thing in a box, but sell the service around that, there are some good, proven models for how that works,” he said. “The cost of development is going down as tools get better and people think about ways they can reuse certain components of games … as companies either develop those and perhaps share or sell those components themselves, I think that (costs) can go down and help sustain the development process.”
Whether the future of educational and training games lies in Klopfer’s prediction, of a SaaS (software as a service) market or in purpose-built systems, as Plass described, it might not be long before trainees “play” their way through orientation instead of thumbing through a employee handbook.









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