INTOUCH : Playing to learn

“It’s up to you to save and rebuild the island of Sheylan – just click here to undertake your first mission.”
When those running the United Nations’ World Food Programme wanted to attract more young volunteers to its programme, they could have taken out TV ads or distributed pamphlets. Instead, they invented an online game.
Foodforce www.food-force.com has now been downloaded by upwards of six million players who learn more about the complexities of global food distribution in five minutes by playing, than is possible via any other medium. How might this idea help organisations competing for skills that are in short supply? Or to bring new recruits up to speed with company processes?
Foodforce is the tip of new IT iceberg, one that harnesses the power of “entertainment IT” to help attract, retain, train – and build the leadership capabilities of employees. Companies like Cisco Systems already use games to demonstrate to customers and suppliers how products generate business benefits. Research is now highlighting significant parallels between online gaming and the future of work. So – could ‘play’ prove to be the new work frontier?
Yes, says UK-based management consultant Cliff Dennett. With background of delivering strategic innovation programmes to companies around the world, he was in New Zealand last month as keynote speaker at the IBM Forum to explain the growing interest in “serious gaming”. It’s all about bridging the divide between ‘corporate’ IT and ‘entertainment’ IT.
“While corporate IT is good at driving efficiencies, entertainment IT is good at engaging people and driving creativity. If you believe that people are company’s greatest asset and it’s all about attracting and retaining the best minds, then entertainment IT could be used as strategic asset that helps attract the best minds.”
Online gaming is, in itself, big business. More than 73 million people (43 percent women) with an average age of 27 spend up to 22 hours week playing with others from around the world in virtual worlds like Everquest or World of Warcraft. The ‘virtual’ economies of such MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) are growing at around 36.5 percent (Everquest is now the world’s 77th largest economy) and in 2006 game players spent over US$1 billion in real money to acquire virtual assets from other players.
It seems they also offer glimpse into the future of work – where leaders develop and operate in highly distributed, highly competitive, global environments.
“If you say these online worlds are all about slaying dragons or taking castles, most managers would turn off,” says Dennett. “But if you say there are millions of people around the world collaborating in virtual project teams to solve complex, strategic and tactical problems within an IT system, they start to get interested.”
They are environments in which leaders have to recruit, organise, motivate and direct large groups of players towards common goal. The risks might not be real but to gamers, they certainly feel real and there’s now an increasing body of research to show that what is learned in virtual environment translates back to the real world. IBM is one company now investing in the area – it already owns 12 “islands” of real estate in the virtual world of Second Life and its research shows there are plenty of business lessons to learn from online gaming.
Dennett says he’s now been talking about the potential for business in the virtual play world for four years and while it’s always been fun thing to talk about, it’s now being taken much more seriously. “Companies are starting to spend money on it – so it’s moved from entertainment to strategy.”

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