Learning Games in Learning Organizations
Remember the “learning organization”? Such organizations facilitate the learning of its members and continuously transform themselves, so they’re resilient companies that can adapt to rapidly changing markets. You may say, oh, that concept is so ‘90’s, but in today’s economy learning organizations are the only survivors and newcomers must also be resilient to survive. Employee productivity is a big part of the learning organization’s competitive edge; that’s a given. Then we have “learning games,” a concept and technology that has had to climb a hill to prove itself, partially because the technology necessary to support the most effective games—those in virtual learning environments—often meets with resistance from the company IT department. To compound the problem of their acceptance, serious games have been seen as just one more emerging tool within the training department – not as a corporate productivity asset.
This year, the London Business School’s Management Lab, Microsoft, and a founder of the Serious Games Initiative all give evidence that gaming as an intrinsic element of corporate culture and procedures can improve employee productivity and product/service quality, and do it more efficiently than the cadres of experts we used to hire to run long, expensive studies that resulted in reports the C-level officers never had time to read.
Games work, and games embedded in work processes make employees work better, faster, smarter … while having more fun and feeling greater job satisfaction and loyalty. Interested? Read on ….
GenY, “Crowdsourcing” and Productivity Games
Can games engage the energy of employees to target problems that a company would ordinarily rely solely on expensive experts to study and resolve? Can the attraction and creativity of game-based challenges motivate employees to think—and work—outside the box of the standard procedures that are, themselves, part of the problem? Einstein said that a problem cannot be solved by the mind that created it, but maybe if you can stimulate those in-the-box minds (and a lot of other minds) in a creative game model … they can! Welcome to the concept of “crowdsourcing.”
Ross Smith, Director of Test, Windows Security for Microsoft, recently shared on MSDN Blogs how he applied game theory to defect prevention. Quite a leap … but let’s let Ross guide us one step at a time. First, a definition from Wikipedia:
Crowdsourcing is “the act of taking a task traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people or community in the form of an open call. For example, the public may be invited to develop a new technology, carry out a design task (also known as community-based design….”
So if Microsoft wants to detect defects more efficiently, with higher productivity from each team member, it has to balance its portfolio of defect discovery techniques. How can they involve the “crowd” to balance their resource portfolio? Ross thinks he has the answer: Productivity Games.
In productivity games, players perform “real work,” tasks at which people outperform computers. (Yes, there still are some of those.) By framing the work tasks in the form of a game, of course, Smith’s team could achieve two important start-up advantages: clearly communicate the objective and achieve a high level of engagement from the employee community. (This was at Microsoft, remember – a gamer-intense population!)
Smith’s team took as a model the ESP Game developed by Luis von Ahn at Carnegie-Mellon University, in which players label images in teams of two, to earn points. The image labels (artifacts of game-play) are searchable although the images themselves are not – the graphics database gains labeled photos, the players win points, and everybody’s happy. But Smith needed convincing, so he looked into the usefulness and appeal of games. He discovered what a lot of educators already know, but it’s worth our time to do a quick scan of which things made a non-educator sit up and take notice.
Games? So what? – They pump up your brain’s learning chemistry!
Brock Dubbels, a researcher at University of Minnesota, found that games “provide the opportunity to do something grand … exaggerate and elevate action beyond normal experience to make them motivating and exciting. … Games raise our level of expectation to the fantastic and our biochemical reward system pays out when we build expectation towards a reward. … A game can also create bonds that hold people together through creating opportunities for relationships that one might not experience every day.”
In the book Primal Management, Paul Herr reports on the importance of game-stimulated emotion in learning: “The neurobiologic revolution has, in turn, sparked a revolution in economics. Economists, working in close cooperation with neurobiologists, have designed brain-imaging experiments based upon game theory to explore the brain’s decision-making apparatus. These experiments indicate that all forms of reward, monetary or otherwise, depend upon feelings. When players in an economic game plan their monetary strategy, the dopamine reward system in the basal striatum [the blue areas in the diagram from Wikipedia]—the same brain area that processes food, sexual, and drug-related rewards—lights up on the brain scans. These experiments indicate that there is only one reward metric for human beings—sensations of pleasure and pain emanating from the basal striatum. Neuroeconomic research is putting feelings and emotions where they belong—at the core of economic decision making.”
Neuroeconomics!? Okay, it’s scary that economists are figuring out ways to manipulate our decision-making. But maybe we can design our own games to take control of our own economic decision-making. In fact, games do teach us successful social behavior, according to advice columnist Ask Evelyn, who has observed that playing games teaches us perseverance to the end, cooperation, honesty, fair play, and both strategic and critical thinking. Those are good skills for teamwork and independent thinking at work and at home. But let’s get back to the scientific studies.
At NYU’s Games for Learning Institute, researchers are studying what makes games effective as well as fun through methods like observation, interviews and experiments that reveal the most effective educational game designs. Institute Director Ken Perlin says, “The key question is how to reliably design fun and measurably effective learning games.” Institute co-Director Jan Plass continues the thought that “in addition to conducting empirical research on design patterns for effective educational games, the mission of G4LI is to create a thriving research community on educational games. For example, we are building a game design architecture, based on XNA, that will be fully instrumented, and will therefore allow other researchers to collect play data for their own studies on games and learning.”
One thing that every analyst of the value of games agrees about is the importance of quickly learning the consequences of our decisions, taking responsibility for them, and (depending on the feedback stucture) performing course-corrections at each step or replaying the game for a better outcome because we’re motivated to get it right. Another thing everyone agrees about is that games teach us these life-skills or workplace-skills by the very nature of game-play itself.
How does all that affect productivity games?
After all his research into the what and how of serious games, Smith applied it to the why he cared about – productivity to improve quality. The Office Labs Skill Tracker adds elements of game play into Office to motivate users to explore more of the applications, learn new features, and boost their productivity. Office Labs Program Manager Jennifer Michelstein, who is coordinating the Skill Tracker project, told Smith that “adding elements of game play to Office can motivate people to learn more features and boost their productivity, while having fun, competing, and feeling good about learning. A key variable is integrating the right level of fun in Office, so that game elements boost instead of reduce overall productivity.”
In his own back yard, Smith implemented three productivity games, using the crowdsourcing approach within the Security Test team. In the Code Review game, players solve the problem of motivating individuals to give code reviews the necessary effort despite the existence of easier techniques; the test team organized games (bug bash, bug smash, self-hosting) and the Code Review Game effort resulted in game-team’s development of eight “win the game” strategies that turned into solid defect-detection techniques that could become part of the standard process. The PageHunt Game targeted improving search relevance, and resulted in the discovery of many search term equivalences that could work behind the scenes to map queries to relevant Web pages more efficiently. There are no hard data yet on the benefits of the PageHunt Game, but Smith hopes it will help Microsoft to develop more metadata for text-poor pages for identification in keyword searches. The third game, Language Quality, got native language-speaking players to find better ways to capture local and cultural language nuances to improve the quality of localized system releases. After the games month-long run, 170 bugs had been identified by players across all 36 languages, according to a report on TechFlash.com.
Microsoft has found that creative and collaborative play is essential, and Smith says that because “Crowd-sourcing, social networks, and instant and real-time communication are all altering the way we work,” one challenge is to motivate effort from the crown and retain their attention. I’m betting on Smith and Microsoft to rise to that challenge because, Smith also asserts, “Productivity Games help individuals work together effectively and help focus our collective energy.”
In an unrelated but entirely confirming statement in the London Business School’s Management Lab publication, “Theory Y meets Generation Y,” Ben Sawyer, co-founder of the Serious Games Initiative, has said, “While everyone in the enterprise is chasing games for training, the real promise for games is in changing how enterprises work, think and administrate, which will have much more dramatic changes on productivity through games than the odd training efficiency. I sincerely believe that, and few people spend more time thinking about serious games than I do.”
What do you think? Please share your comments.