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Learning Leaders: Sue Bohle on the Growth of Serious Games in Corporate eLearning

by Pamela Hogle

September 29, 2016

Interview

by Pamela Hogle

September 29, 2016

‘A few years ago, people became excited about games because they felt their students were engaged and they seemed to be learning more, but there was no formal research. … We should continue to look at the potential, because it’s now proven that playful learning is both a way to make training more enjoyable and produces better results.’

One of the first media professionals to recognize the potential of serious games in eLearning, Sue Bohle is a pioneer and industry leader. She is executive director of the Serious Games Association and produces the Serious Play Conference, an annual gathering of thought leaders who share information and mentor eLearning professionals to advance the industry. I recently spoke with Sue about the tremendous growth and potential of serious games in corporate training and eLearning. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Pamela S. Hogle: Where’s the impetus coming from to bring serious games into corporate eLearning?

Sue Bohle: Serious games are moving toward adoption in all industries, and therefore every discipline of learning is looking at whether or not games can be used to make training more productive, more efficient, as well as more engaging.

In the corporate space, I would say that interest is coming from youth and new employees. They might be in almost any position within the company, but sales, marketing, or human resources are the main three entry points. They may have played games as a child, and they see how the challenges and reward system relates to learning anything. They may start talking about a topic within the company, and someone asks, “How did you learn all of that?” and they say, “It was from a game.” Traditional video games, like role-playing games—or World of Warcraft, for that matter—develop certain knowledge bases or skills that may bring a student who was not interested in school back to learning; another, more serious, young person may see that what they learned playing a game is applicable to their business life.

There’s some resistance—the higher-ups don’t yet understand the value, but some business professors think that the CEOs of the future should understand that a lot of future training will be done with games.

A really interesting application of serious games is to differentiate between young managers, trying to figure out which ones are really savvy and should be moved up in the organization, which ones are better strategists, and which ones are willing to take risks.

PH: Within a corporate environment, if there’s resistance to serious games from the senior management, is there also resistance among older employees? Or is incorporating serious games into eLearning a strategy that works across the board?

SB: I think it is a strategy that gets better with age—in a reverse way: Younger employees are less resistant.

The first core gamers started playing games in the ’80s. Anyone who was a teenager then represents someone who might have a good understanding of games. If you were a teenager before that decade, it’s new to you, and you need to be convinced—and you are probably more resistant than employees who are younger. Every one of my speakers from the corporate space talks about the fact that they have trouble getting people to understand the value.

As a matter of fact, the term “gamification” emerged and is more acceptable in the business environment because older employees and officers and professionals kept hearing the term “games” and were resistant. Then, more and more understanding occurred—more clear explanation that the training based on games was not all just “fun,” but that game-based learning addressed the fact that games were addictive in the same way as video games and therefore could engage employees in learning sometimes very dull things.

The first uses for games in the corporate environment were for training situations like compliance training—training that is often boring because it is so repetitive and requires more memorization than anything else.

PH: Is the appeal different among different demographics? We talked about age; what about gender or different cultural backgrounds—do some employees resist more?

SB: The appeal of games has not proved to be age-related. It seems to be more based on exposure.

The less-engaging material of training, such as topics requiring memorization, benefits from using game mechanics by making that training more engaging. It usually embraces the more simple game mechanics to do that, such as achievements and awards, or using ranking to allow those in the class to feel like they have bested other employees; it also could involve the opportunity to work with a team toward a goal.

In other words, a compliance training could be gamified with the kind of activity that engages players, not only in a face-to-face situation but in a digital product. Gamification came out of that simple application; demonstrating that it was successful made people believe that it could be used for other kinds of training.

PH: So you’re saying that adding a layer of game mechanics makes the training interesting enough that people keep doing it.

SB: Not only makes it interesting so they do it, but the degree to which there has been learning can be assessed; it can be measured to show that the level of learning was actually higher.

That leads into discussing the difference between gamification and games. When I first entered the industry, “gamification” was a bad term! It was dismissed as only being rankings and competition and awards or badges, with no serious learning about why players made choices or why they learned or how it could be improved. It just took training that was in place and awarded badges to the winners.

There were some who felt that the term “serious games” had to be used for higher purposes, even something like a game for compliance—that the outcome should not be just simple ranking or badges, but there should be an assessment, for instance, of who emerged as the leader in the team play in some kind of basic training. That gamification wasn’t truly where the power of serious games was.

What has been accepted by the serious games professionals, not necessarily happily, is that the term “gamification” at least gets the attention of a disbeliever, of someone in the corporate environment who doesn’t really understand what amazing information can be derived from every type of training involving game play. When that person will accept our appointment, we can go and talk to them and bring them over to the side of learning that serious games involve a much more complex structure and result.

Serious games require a whole reconstruction of the objective for a type of training or education and then development of a product that not only addresses the material to be learned but provides a much higher-level understanding of the player, his reasons for success or failure, and how to improve the training or provide further development for that employee, so the outcome produces better results and has a longer-term effect.

PH: Where do you see serious games heading? Are there any trends or technologies that you have your eye on?

SB: In 2016, having seen such an emphasis on the problems of ethnic diversity, I would guess that there will be a spate of games developed in this year and next year for corporations to use to make sure that a culture of diversity is understood to be a tenet of that company and to help employees who, for instance, do not even understand where they are acting in a way that is contrary to a culture of acceptance of all people of all types.

Soft skills are very important and a very “hot” area in serious games.

One of the things that learning games have identified is that the classical order of teaching something does not have to be based on the age of a person or previous exposure. It can be adaptive.

Algebra was taught—when I was in high school—at the seventh-grade level. The point is, it was taught at a certain age of a child. Now there are games that are called adaptive learning that allow a person from the age of two to 20 to be introduced to the principles of algebra and allow them to start at the level they are. So a second-grader can get started with the principles of algebra and progress faster than someone else in the class because he understands the relationship between figures.

In a corporate environment, Cisco was one of the earliest companies to embrace serious games. At Cisco, computer programming was taught through games, which just fascinated me. Programming could be taught to a new employee, whether he was 50 or 20, starting him into a learning process. A 50-year-old would not necessarily be any better than a 20-year-old, but let’s say he had an aptitude for math, vs. someone coming in who’s going to be, ultimately, in marketing or sales and might not have much aptitude in math. They would start at the level they were and they would learn programming.

The principle here is that games allow people of different education or background, and different ages and interests, to examine a challenge and to be branched in different ways to the next step in their education.

Therefore, a serious game application allows the company to take employees of different backgrounds and skills and guide each of them on an individual path to the learning goal; each employee is steadily moved toward the ultimate skill level that is required for his job.

PH: What can smaller companies do to bring in serious games to their eLearning—companies that have small training budgets and limited resources?

SB: From the time that I started looking at serious games, about eight or 10 years ago, only the larger companies were making their own games. The biggest movement now is the development of platforms that take someone with a basic understanding of curriculum development, instructional design, or programming through what they need to create games for their work environment. There is a do-it-yourself movement in academia, for example, at the community college level, where there is not the money to invest that the universities have.

We are entering a phase where do-it-yourself platforms and guidance in using available, free resources can be used by companies and educators and others and then shared. I think we are also in an era where the emphasis is still on sharing and not just on “buy my game and make me rich.”

PH: Do you have anything else to share with our readers?

SB: Education and training professionals need to explore and learn; they should look at different conferences and find which ones are more interested in providing learning than in selling product, and go and try it themselves: try games for their own reaction, and try building games. I recently met a young math teacher exploring how to use games in her own classroom, and she is now re-energized about her chosen career. I think the same can apply to an internal corporate person who would like to be more effective at improving the skill level of employees and also the attachment of employees to a company, promoting long-term retention of employees and their connection with the company.

The serious games industry is growing at about 20 percent per year worldwide; it’s growing fastest in the corporate sector, interestingly enough, at about 33 percent per year [according to “The 2016-2021 Global Game-based Learning Market”; see References]. The corporate market was the slowest to adopt games, but it’s starting to rev up.

A few years ago, people became excited about games because they felt their students were engaged and they seemed to be learning more, but there was no formal research. Academics have now started producing pedagogical research that proves that using game play and making learning fun does not only engage people—employees, people who are looking for training—it also produces longer-term retention and culture change.

We should continue to look at the potential, because it’s now proven that playful learning is both a way to make training more enjoyable and produces better results. I’m very hopeful and optimistic.

References

Adkins, Sam S. “The 2016-2021 Global Game-based Learning Market.” Serious Play Conference. 26 July 2016.
http://seriousplayconf.com/downloads/the-2016-2021-global-game-based-learning-market/

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