Crispy Gamer

Print Screen: Turning Games Into Work and Vice Versa

Print Screen: Changing the Game

Though video and computer games have been in the cultural mainstream for a couple of decades now, it's taken a while for the business community to see their potential as an ally in the workspace. We all can recall poorly made advergames or free CD-ROMs on cereal boxes, but only now do we have a generation of adults that have always had games in their lives. The next generation is even more deeply immersed in gaming, and this poses a challenge to traditional approaches to their training and marketing.

David Edery and Ethan Mollick are well aware of how quickly the sand is shifting underneath traditional business models, and have written a field guide to this rapidly changing landscape for latecomers and the clueless. Their book -- "Changing the Game: How Video Games Are Transforming the Future of Business" -- should be a captivating read for both managers and gamers, though I'm not certain the authors are aware of how it will be used.

Edery and Mollick are certainly qualified to speak to the questions they raise in "Changing the Game." Both are affiliated with MIT and have been published in both business and games media. Edery is a manager for Xbox Live Arcade and Mollick works with training and simulation games at DARPA. Drawing on their varied experiences, they make a compelling case that videogames can have a role in a business plan.

Print Screen: Changing the Game
Burger King saw sales explode when it put its creepy mascot in a game.

The chapter on advertising in games makes the same case that gamers have been making for years: Ads should fit the setting. Ads should have the same relationship to the game as other environmental factors; i.e., billboards should be as destructible as the rest of the universe. But using the Burger King games as a cautionary example, the authors point out both how profitable and how difficult designing a game as an ad can be.

The BK games were undoubtedly successful. They drew gamers into the restaurants because some of the content was unavailable anywhere else. Some critics even thought the games worked as games, a difficult thing to do in any genre and almost unheard of in the advergaming world. But the development of the games saw a lot of conflict between the corporation's understanding of the King and the designers' firm ideas about what a good game looked like. (For example, there can only be one king, so you can't have a multiplayer game with everyone being the King.)

Print Screen: Changing the Game
The Beer Game, a simple business sim, shows how to manage a supply chain.

The authors are enthusiastic about the future of alternate reality games (ARGs) as a marketing device, though they can cite very few examples of it working beyond a single Audi campaign and the celebrated I Love Bees campaign for Halo 2. And their respect for Second Life as a marketing platform has been outstripped by reality, as more and more companies debate the value of that alternate world as a cost-effective extension of commercial power.

To some extent, "Changing the Game" really doesn't take off until the chapter about how videogames can be used as training and workplace education tools. The authors acknowledge that games and simulations are not new to the corporate world (paintball days, team-building exercises, etc.), but state that videogames offer an opportunity for training more people faster, often in place, and provide a welcome respite from the usual corporate drudgery. Edery and Mollick move well past the usual stories of America's Army and Department of Defense sims to discuss how a Neverwinter Nights mod was used to teach proper urban combat methods, and how the mountain-climbing game Everest was used to teach teamwork and doing one's duty in corporate America.

Print Screen: Changing the Game
While some make the case that MMOs teach leadership skills, some businesses prefer dedicated management sims.

This part of the book is not only full of compelling evidence that games not specific to the field can be used to teach useful skills, but also contains some very sane discussion of the major limitations of this approach. As games -- both good and bad -- increasingly make inroads into education and training, it is important that people don't simply pick up the idea that games can magically solve problems with collaboration or knowledge retention. Though targeted to business people, Edery and Mollick's warnings about teaching with games should be standard in any educational program. Designers of simulation and serious games must also keep their goals in mind to make a product that is better than traditional options.

To the uninformed, however, "Changing the Game" might come off a little too earnest. A business owner or government official curious about how to use games in their own particular enterprise could easily dismiss the book as a series of anecdotes. In fact, after a while the titles and purposes of each game seem to blend together. The concluding chapters are especially breathless, as Edery and Mollick throw in everything from Flow Theory to Joy's Law to crowdsourcing to Xbox Achievements as a motivator. There is a sense that as the book progressed, the authors realized that their subject may have been even larger than they had anticipated. Story piles on story, example on example, until you are left with the certainty that, yes, games can change the future of business -- even if you're not quite sure how they can change yours.

Print Screen: Changing the Game
In Job of Honor, you eventually answer questions by trick-flying through answers.

Edery and Mollick are clearly aware of their own shortcomings here. Every chapter is footnoted and the reader is thereby encouraged to draw his/her own conclusions from the source material. They give each account enough room for multiple interpretations, and acknowledge that some people might find a job interview game pointless and that others will give up on protein folding after a few minutes.

"Changing the Game" is certainly not the first book to attempt to make games meaningful to a hostile or neutral audience. The authors sometimes indulge in special pleading for alternate worlds like Second Life, even when their example shows that it is a less than ideal space for recruiting potential employees. But it is an accessible book written by authors who know both the gaming and business sides of the equation. They take a long view of the relationship between the two and make no apologies for using the word "game" instead of "simulation" or "interactive training." "Changing the Game" is worth a read by any manager who wants to get more out of his employees, anticipate the coming demographic shift where gamers are the norm, or just simply try something new.