As I was writing the future looking articles here and here, it occurred to me that people with no exposure to the latest generation of 3D multiplayer games might have trouble visualizing how a “game” environment might be applied to genuine business learning objectives for adults. It does require a leap of faith, until you have tried it yourself and understand. A couple of examples, based on an urban fantasy world “Metropolis” described in my prior articles, are listed below.
Gaming simulations offer the most exciting opportunity for educators in a generation. They are immersive, meaning participants use their avatars to act out and execute actions vicariously in the 3D world as if they were there performing the actions themselves. They offer a rich opportunity for participants to learn using effective adult learning techniques such as personal participation, trial and error, just in time learning, overcoming obstacles and feeling satisfaction from succeeding in the objective. They can provide friendly competition and opportunities to develop and practice leadership skills, in a place without real world consequences, as well as a means to make real life distinctions (such as age, gender, disability, race, language skills, reticence) invisible, placing everyone on an equal footing where knowledge and abilities are what win the day.
Yes, artificial environments such as my fantasy Metropolis can create effective (and fun) learning experiences, and they can be measured and valued in traditional ways. One important by-product of the multi-user learning environment that is not measured as readily, however, is that real relationships are formed that transcend the 3D world. As players interact through their avatars, their real personalities, working styles, wit or charm, and annoying behaviors come to the surface where others can see them. This makes it easier for people to interact in their everyday jobs, because even if they have not worked directly with a team member before, they may already have a sense of whether that person collapses under intense pressure or refuses to accept responsibility for their actions, or whether they like to talk too much and cause team progress to suffer, or whether they are a leader to be trusted and followed.
Here are some examples of the types of scenarios that could be developed to enhance organizational objectives and employee development. Imagine you are the participant in the approaches described below, and compare how you would feel about this type of learning with traditional online or classroom instruction. (I’m betting if you are 25, you wish it existed now, and if you are 50, you are cautious. Read on!)
Developing Analytical/Reasoning Skills
There are two aspects of analysis and reasoning that a course designer might want to develop — thinking through a problem carefully and solving a problem under pressure. Both can be developed in one complex exercise, constructed for an individual or for a team. The participant is given a challenging objective, given a minimum number of items to help accomplish the objective, and then expected to figure out how to overcome all the obstacles in their path and achieve the objective. For example, in a Mission Impossible type exercise, a participant is told he must retrieve a golden statue that was stolen from the national archive several years ago. Many people have failed to retrieve it because the robbers placed it in an out of the way place — an ancient monastery high on a rocky island — and devised fiendishly difficult obstacles and traps to overcome in order to retrieve the statue. The participant is given only three items to aid him in the quest — a black bandana, a dry sausage, and a small torn note containing the words “…somalier rouge mort(rip)…” He is warned that the statue sits in a room with a trapped floor and laser beam security. He must find a way into the building, across the floor, remove the statue, and return it successfully to the national archive.
This scenario provides an opportunity for the system to challenge the participant. He will have to figure out how to get to the island undetected (an exercise in logistical planning), how to scale the cliff walls unobserved (trial and error learning, since some attempts will fail or the path will be blocked), how to detect and disarm possible traps and alarm systems, how to avoid guards, how to get through a maze garden into a secret entrance (using logic and observation), and how to cross the trapped floor, covered with arcane symbols and images, successfully to the statue without triggering any traps (using analysis, observation, logic and trial and error). Since this is a learning scenario, the system enables the participant to “save” his progress, and then attempt a risky solution without losing his prior efforts.
While the task is complex and challenging, it is possible to solve it successfully, stretching the participant’s reasoning abilities and providing the satisfaction of solving the problems and achieving the goal. If the scenario is designed to be less challenging, then tension can be added by setting a time limit — a countdown clock in a corner of the screen would remind the participant that time is running out and he needs to think and work quickly. Because the activities take place electronically, the system can capture all sorts of statistics about each participant that can be combined into management reports.
Variations on this type of puzzle-solving scenario could be used to stimulate older workers who may be in a rut with their long time jobs, or to get the mental juices flowing in a team of people who are about to enter a strategic planning activity for the organization, or to provide previously-dull-but-required training content (such as diversity training or company ethics) in a much livelier and more memorable way that actually enhances retention.
Developing Selling Skills
A participant is challenged to generate 10,000 coins of revenue within eight game hours and pay the past-due tax on an historical building before it is destroyed. Metropolis has a thriving economy of virtual goods. Participants may purchase or trade for goods using the system’s currency, often referred to as gold or coins. As participants complete various training modules/quests, they are rewarded with items of value and coins their avatar can spend in Metropolis. Some rewards are items that can be worn for distinction, and some have a practical use, such as enhancing a skill or increasing speed. Coins can be used to purchase more desirable items or bribe other characters or create a team savings bank to help team members who may need assistance with things they canÃ¯Â¿Â½t afford. In some 3D worlds, the participants may even be able to create sellable items from raw materials they find in the world, and then sell them to other participants or a computer generated merchant character.
The more experienced the participants, the more resources they have acquired and the more likely they are to want to purchase even more powerful items than they currently have. This creates a market in which marketing, bartering and selling skills can be honed without real world consequences. The participant must understand his/her available resources, determine how to generate more resources and get the production process started, identify the potential market for the item(s) to be sold and individuals within that market likely to want to buy the item(s). Once the production chain is in place, communication becomes the key variable. He/she must find a way to contact prospective buyers and find a way to convince them to purchase within a specific timeframe in order to raise the coins needed to complete the task. The seller must also negotiate the transfer of the item and the funds.
Here is an example. The instructor bot “James” tells the participant that the 110-year-old Yale Johnson warehouse has been condemned, and a real estate conglomerate plans to tear down the structure to build a new high rise apartment building and office complex on the land. Neighbors have fought the demolition, claiming the warehouse should be an historical monument. They have won support from state legislators, community leaders and the National Historical Registry. All that stands in the way of retaining the warehouse is the payment of back taxes in the amount of 10,000 coins. James then gives the participant the task to raise 10,000 coins and pay the back taxes. He also points out that two boxes of furs have been found in the warehouse, and the tailor’s union is particularly supportive of saving the building, since it was the first headquarters of the union. With this information, the participant must then figure out how to get the furs to the tailor’s union, solicit their help in creating a sellable product (donating their time), and then get out and find buyers for the products. In some systems, the other participants in the scenario could be co-workers in real life, while in others they might be computer-generated characters with scripted actions/dialogue.
The system can provide numerous environmental prompts and learning aids. For example, a catalogue of products that can be crafted from various materials and the materials required for each one, or an auction house where human participants can sell the items their characters make at prices they determine, or computer generated merchants that buy and sell items and materials for a profit. Since the 3D system supports chat between human characters, the sales person can conduct sales through private whispers to individuals who are currently online, through public shouting about what they want to sell and for what price, through an asynchronous message board system, or through creating an auction where other participants can bid on any number of items. Creative participants may also try to solicit donations from customers or the tailor’s union, or identify another product/service customers might be willing to pay for, in order to meet their goal.
In the same way that players in NBC’s The Apprentice program must work within time and monetary limits to accomplish a task and make the most money at it, participants in sales training scenarios in a 3D world have many options to team up with suppliers, identify product advantages and capitalize upon them, and get to a sale in advance of other teams or participants that might have the same objective. It requires ingenuity, teamwork, interpersonal skills, planning, market awareness, and focus on the ultimate objective.
When the participant returns to James to turn in the coins at the completion of the task, the dialogue would recap the participant’s actions, evaluate the way they were executed against specific criteria, provide a self-assessment and score it, then offer suggestions to help the participant improve their understanding of how to sell effectively. The suggestions might be a printable tip sheet for the person to pin up on their office wall.
Developing Leadership Skills
All organizations want to develop their next generation of leaders, and give them opportunities to prove themselves in ways that stretch them and give them good foundations for future decisionmaking. Since young leaders and people moved into new leadership roles are inexperienced, failure with financial impacts is always a possibility. A 3D environment reduces the potential impact of such failures, because it provides a means for a leader to test his/her skills by attempting to accomplish a goal that requires them to think quickly under pressure, make the right choices, manage other people who will be working with them on the goal, and develop confidence in their own leadership abilities — all within a controlled environment that doesn’t have impact on the bottom line or real-world customers. Here’s an example.
A team of ten has a challenge to enter a nearby ghost town and defeat the evil leader, who is known to be unusually powerful and rumored to use magic spells to protect himself and his compound. He is guarding a scroll containing important secrets that was stolen from the town’s archives. The team must collect the scroll and return it to the City Archivist. In order to complete this challenge, the team must identify the unique skills, attributes and abilities that each member brings to the task, and determine who has the most expertise and the greatest probability of leading the team to victory. The leader (or co-leaders) assigns roles, plans the assault with input from team members, overcomes objections, confirms responsibilities, executes the plan, adapts to unexpected situational variables after the assault on the ghost town has begun, gives clear instructions throughout the process, an debriefs the team when the task is finished.
The system can create a variety of challenges and barriers to overcome. For example, there could be technical difficulties with equipment breaking down, or henchmen in different locations in the ghost town that have to be conquered first, in order to gather scattered parts of a special item that can be reassembled and used against the big boss. Each henchman could have different abilities and protections that would require different team members to take the lead in directing the team’s resources against that henchman. For one, stealth and theft might be required. For another, a quick strike. For another a feint that would draw the henchman away while another team member slips in to secure the item. For another disarming or disabling his bodyguards so he can be knocked out for a time. Or the environment can provide obstacles to success. The ghost town could be in a high mountain location in midwinter, for example, making it treacherous for the team to walk or run on the slopes, fatiguing the team so that they must rest more often, wasting valuable time.
The overall leader will learn when to make decisions versus when to rely on others with specific expertise to call the shots, as well as how to get others to act on her direction. The entire team will learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and strategize how they can compensate for them. The team is likely to fail on one or more of the milestones leading up to the final encounter of the task, and have to repeat them. The leader needs to summarize what worked, what didn’t, and keep the team focused on what they need to achieve. In the end, they will defeat the evil leader, secure the scroll, make it safely back to the Metropolis City Archivist, and be rewarded (usually conjointly with an interactive dialogue that summarizes the skills and learnings from the activity). Special scenarios more specific to training leaders for individual business or product lines could be created for next level training for selected individuals.
Improving Team Dynamics
Collaboration and team communications are critical business skills in most organizations. Being an effective team member can be challenging for strong individualists or shy people or competitive people or people who lack self-discipline or high achievers or people who don’t trust others. A course designer can create a realistic 3D scenario that helps bring forward positive qualities in the participants, while minimizing the negative ones that sometimes jump to the fore in the real world. For example, an unexpected situation where an unusual challenge stretches the entire team to assess its resources and pull together quickly to achieve the objectives. You’ve probably heard about or participated in wilderness “team building” activities, where participants have to scale a cliff or find a way for five people to stand on one small rock. The goal is to get the group working together quickly on a common task, so they will become more aware of the strengths and differences of others on the team and interact differently than they do in daily life. Putting people together in a situation they have never been in, with a problem to solve, brings them together through sharing the process of overcoming an obstacle as a team.
In a business scenario, there are several possibilities. One might be for Metropolis Megacorp to defend against a hostile takeover of the company scheduled to occur in 24 hours. The defending team would have all the virtual organizational resources at hand that they would have in the real world–databases, communication tools, lawyers (virtual or live), financial advisors (virtual or live), meeting rooms, virtual meetings, etc. The resources could be actual resources of the real world organization, or virtual resources created for the simulation. The hostile takeover team could be corporate clones (such as Agent Anderson in The Matrix) or drawn as demons or aliens with magical powers that enable them to create disruptions. Start the team with a 24-hour timer, a virtual computer, a coffee mug, and a portrait of the company founder as tools. They would have to produce a strategy and/or reasons why the merger should fail, and file them with the Metropolis SEC before the 24-hour timer runs out, saving the company from a terrible fate.
An alternative might be to take the virtual team and drop them through a hole into a Jules Verne-like universe at the center of the earth, where they are overwhelmed by strangeness and lack clear markers to help orient them. Start them each with a backpack, an ice pick, and a piece of aluminum foil. They would have to overcome impossible obstacles, find food, create shelter, and survive life-threatening dangers (virtual, of course) to complete the task. There could be monsters, tidal waves or rock slides, a barren landscape with no obvious food, incessant rain…all kinds of impediments. There would be a goal, and milestones in the scenario to show progress, but the primary requirement is that the entire team has to survive to the end of the activity against threatening environmental challenges. They would have to be aware of each other and work as a group, using their strengths to help others overcome their weaknesses so the entire group makes it together to the end.
Granted, some of these ideas are too far out for many organizations (today!), but there are advances being made every day in this direction, and within a few years we can expect virtual worlds to take off as a business platform. Advances such as the proposed Neuronet, a project underway by the Vancouver-based International Association of Virtual Reality Technologies, and IBM’s new virtual reality business group show that interest in 3-D interactions is serious, even as it is seriously cutting edge. Domain registrations for Neuronet will begin in 2007, although the first consumer applications based are not likely to show up until 2009. Already existing gaming platforms could be customized for corporate use, too. Some, like There, SecondLife, Active Worlds, Earth and Beyond, and Asheron’s Call, by noted game world designers, are worthy of consideration. If you are interested to learn more about 3D multi-user scenarios for learning, I’d be happy to discuss the topic with you.