Can the skills learnt while gaming be transferred to the workplace? Innovative companies around the world have already worked out the answer to that


Let’s start with some numbers: 46, 800 and one. The first, 46, is the average amount in millions of monthly users of the Facebook version of the game Candy Crush Saga. That’s just Facebook, mind you, and doesn’t include the 10 million app downloads in December 2012.

$800 million is the total launch-day sales of the video game sequel Grand Theft Auto 5 in September last year.

$1 billion is the record-shattering value of first-day stock of the video game Call of Duty: Ghosts, sold to retailers around the world in November 2013.

There’s no point in understating it: video games are a mega business. Here’s another number: $66 billion, the estimated size of the global video gaming industry.

But you didn’t need numbers to tell you all of that. You’ve seen it for yourself, whether it’s your teenager getting lost for hours in FIFA14, your receptionist killing time between clients by playing Solitaire or your colleague in marketing quietly flicking Angry Birds across his smartphone screen during that death-by-PowerPoint Q3 forecasts presentation.

Given that the first generation of global gamers (the children of the 1980s, who spent hours toiling away at Space Invaders and who were raised on the complexities of the King’s Quest series) are now in their 30s, with time and money on their hands and no parents around to tell them to switch that computer off, and given the rapid improvements in computer technology over the past decade (with over 1.5 billion game-ready smartphones now sitting in idle hands around the world), it’s no wonder that video games are so popular.

But before you try to fight the wave of time-wasting gamers (or, for that matter, belatedly try to join it), consider whether video gaming could in fact help your business. Because, despite years of assumptions to the contrary, video games can be good for you and your staff.

A study by the University of Rochester found that people who play action-based games (like the first-person shooter Call of Duty series) make decisions 25% faster in tasks unrelated to playing video games – without sacrificing accuracy. ‘Action game players make more correct decisions per unit time,’ said study researcher Daphne Bavelier. ‘If you are a surgeon or you are in the middle of a battlefield, that can make all the difference.’

In 2011, IT research firm Gartner predicted that by 2015, more than half of organisations that manage innovation processes will ‘gamify’ those processes. ‘Gamification describes the broad trend of employing game mechanics to non-game environments such as innovation, marketing, training, employee performance, health and social change,’ says analyst at Gartner Brian Burke.

‘Enterprise architects, CIOs and IT planners must be aware of, and lead, the business trend of gamification, educate their business counterparts and collaborate in the evaluation of opportunities within the organisation.

‘Where games traditionally model the real world, organisations must now take the opportunity for their real world to emulate games. Enterprise architects must be ready to contribute to gamification strategy formulation and should try at least one gaming exercise as part of their enterprise context planning efforts this year,’ he says.

‘Enterprise architects, CIOs and IT planners must be aware of, and lead, the business trend of gamification’


The question then is, how can the skills learned playing, say, the Sims or Assassin’s Creed be translated into skills that work for business? And, further to that, how can businesses use the mechanics of gaming to engage with their staff?

Several companies around the world have tried, with encouraging results.

In Russia, the Moscow- and New York-based training games developer Action Learning recently created a gaming product for the Moscow window manufacturing and sales company Proplex. They used actors and real-life scenarios to train the company’s sales managers, and (as you would in a video game) increased the complexity of the situations the players encountered during its progress.

The game, called Missia: Komfort, was based on six months of research conducted among staff, analysts and customers. Although participation was voluntary, an impressive 35% of Proplex’s more than 1 900 sales managers registered and completed the game – and the result was far more than just an increase in skills development.

‘Thanks to its immediate use among sales staff, the programme is helping to create an assignment profile and a single work standard for window sales managers,’ Lev Minullin, development director of PVX production at Proplex, said in a statement.

In the UK, the Department for Work and Pensions created a game called Idea Street, which was designed to decentralise innovation and generate ideas from across the 120 000 people who make up the organisation. Idea Street uses game mechanics that would be familiar to anybody who has dared to gaze over the fence into the Facebook-based Farmville. It took just 18 months for Idea Street to attract 4 500 users and – most importantly – to generate about 1 400 ideas … some 63 of those progressed to the implementation phase.

The successes of Idea Street and Missia: Komfort make for nice stories, but it wasn’t until the University of Colorado Denver Business School released a study that we had any proof that gamification actually worked in a skills development context.

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Its study, published in the journal Personnel Psychology, found that people who train on video games do their jobs better, have higher skills and retain information longer than workers learning in less interactive, more passive environments.

Study author Traci Sitzmann, assistant professor of management at the school, spent over a year examining 65 studies and data from 6 476 trainees, and found that those who used video games had an 11% higher factual knowledge level, a 14% higher skill-based knowledge level and a 9% higher retention rate than trainees in comparison groups.

‘Companies have been designing video games for employees for years, but so far it has all been done on a hunch. They suspected the games helped, but they could never actually prove it. We now know video games work, and we know why they work,’ Sitzmann said.

People who train on video games do their jobs better, have higher skills and retain information longer

She said games like these worked best when they engaged the user, rather than simply instructing them passively. She added that employees should have access to these games whenever they liked.

‘One of the advantages of games is that they are intrinsically motivating, resulting in employees choosing to repeatedly engage in game play and mastering the skills,’ she said.

According to Sitzmann, while video games should be part of the instruction, they shouldn’t be the only instruction. ‘Remember the video game is a tool and not a substitute for training. But if you can engage your employee with the video game, you will likely get a well-trained worker,’ she said.

Still not convinced? Ian Bogost, associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and founder of software maker Persuasive Games, made a compelling case in a recent interview with Fast Company. ‘Look at World of Warcraft (WoW). You’ve got 11-year-olds who are learning to delegate responsibility, promote teamwork and steer groups of people toward a common goal,’ he said.

He has a point. After all, aren’t strategy games like WoW all about leadership, organisation and, well, strategy?

No wonder then, that the Federation of American Scientists has called for children to spend more time playing video games. Its argument, spelled out in a recent report, is that gaming prepares students for an increasingly competitive global market.

‘The success of complex video games demonstrates that games can teach higher-order thinking skills such as strategic thinking, interpretative analysis, problem solving, plan formulation and execution, and adaptation to rapid change. These are the skills … employers increasingly seek in workers and new workforce entrants.’

By Will Sinclair
Image: David MacLennan