Tech consultant says get serious about games

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Virtual tools aren't just for entertainment anymore as agencies, businesses adopt them for training.

Companies and governments will adopt serious games as important business tools within the next seven years, according to tech consulting giant Forrester Inc.

Comment on this article in The Forum.The company predicts businesses' comfort with games will grow due to three trends:

Technology populism: iPods, iPhones and BlackBerrys are everywhere. It seems like everyone's on Facebook or LinkedIn or at least watching YouTube videos. People expect these tools to be as commonplace at work as in daily life.

The greening of information technology: Every self-respecting organization is trying to cut its carbon footprint, usually by relying more on IT, hence the spread of virtual workplaces and virtualized computing.

The rise of the millennials: The largest most technologically savvy generation, those born after 1980, are digital natives who grew up on games, and they are flooding the workplace.

Forrester defines serious games as those designed "not simply to entertain the player, but rather to inspire a particular action, effect some type of attitudinal/behavioral change, or instill a particular lesson in the service of an organizational goal." Embedded in every game is a problem to be worked out, and players remain engaged and involved as they seek to learn how to solve the problem and beat the game. That desire is what makes games both fun and effective conveyors of messages organizations want to convey.

And those messages can run the gamut from immersive learning, such as "Knowledge Drive," designed by Volvo Car UK to help its sales force understand complex British auto sales laws, to "advergames," such as Chevron's "Energyville," which links the oil giant to environmentalism. Other genres include games of persuasion, such as "Darfur Is Dying," and for disease education, such "Re-Mission," in which players kill cancer.

The U.S. military has led the drive to use games for training, as well as for recruiting, most notably through "America's Army," an online game that garnered 7 million players in 2007. Other games are in use to train sailors, teach soldiers to use new equipment and speak Iraqi Arabic, as well as to prepare them for ambushes and allow them to practice peacekeeping and intelligence gathering.

Games also are in use to teach first responders and emergency management personnel from all branches of government how to handle mass casualties, natural disasters, terrorism and other situations difficult and expensive to replicate in real life. And games intended for entertainment are being modified for serious use. "Full Spectrum Warrior" has been enlisted as a therapeutic tool for treating veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, for example.

Companies already are using games to teach specific skills - customer service, cultural sensitivity and drug development - as well as to do real work. Google's "Image Labeler" challenges players to independently come up with the same word to describe a photo in Google Images. The company then uses the results to better tag images in ways people commonly think of them. And it could be that features inherent to games, such as ranking, rewards and scoring, could reduce attrition in high-turnover jobs such as call center representative.

Games will become common at work once their makers help organizations over a set of conceptual hurdles, Forrester says. The word "game" is off-putting to many managers, so "serious games" is a better term, the consultants advise. And games for work need not be nearly as slick and visually engaging as commercial video games are becoming. Neither should they require complicated and costly special controllers. Games should be embedded in corporate strategy, and game makers should encourage firms to experiment with existing off-the-shelf models to accustom employees to using them at work.

Ultimately, Forrester predicts, games will change the way work is done. "We are entering an era of organization/employee/client relations where what the latter two groups expect from the former is not just a static delivery of information, but dynamic presentations that allow them to interact and immerse themselves in an experience. Serious games, along with virtual worlds and Web3D, provide a means to this end through a competitive, problem-solving-oriented task that requires players to burrow into an activity in order to achieve their goal."