Serious games for smarter skills:
The future of learning

Gamer Take a moment to imagine someone playing a videogame. What did you think of? Adolescent boys shouting at the TV as they play first person shooters on the Xbox? A young woman balancing on the Wii Fit doing yoga? No? How about widespread global virtual teams learning key organizational and leadership skills on a MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game)?

Games and the technologies that support them have fundamentally changed the way we play. The players are older, the genres are broader, the games are much more advanced, immersive, and engaging.

Companies today are integrating game mechanics and game-based learning into more and more everyday applications, also fundamentally changing the way we work today. Video games are widely used in a variety of disciplines such as behavior modification, autism therapy, leadership skill building, and strategic analysis by organizations like IBM, the US Army, Humana Insurance, and Hilton Hotels.

A report titled “Harnessing the Power of Videogames for Learning” from the 2006 Summit on Educational Games by the Federation of American Scientists found that: "Students remember only 10 percent of what they read; 20 percent of what they hear; 30 percent if they see visuals related to what they hear; 50 percent if they watch someone do something while explaining it; but almost 90 percent if they do the job themselves, even if only as a simulation."

game stats

game stats

In this day and age when schools are struggling to stay abreast of current technologies, these companies and organizations are capturing the power of videogames to teach and change the way we work.

Serious games form a critical component of the equation to make education smarter. Although the field is still in its early stages, game-based learning has the potential to deliver sophisticated business, science and math education to millions of users simultaneously. Unlike other historical mass-media experiments in education, for example TV or webcasts, games are a highly interactive medium sharing many key attributes with sophisticated pedagogical approaches.

Serious games differ from other forms of learning by providing rich, rewarding, relevant and multi-faceted environments in which one can actually put theory into practice in a safe, simulated manner and learn at a far deeper level as a result. They offer continuous feedback and cooperative team learning in an inquiry-based, authentic environment where players are motivated by rewards and new levels toward achieving game goals.

K through college — five ways to make education smarter

Today’s schools are faced with many challenges. Our world is moving faster than ever and yet our schools are riddled with failing scores, disenfranchised digital natives, and traditional learning methodologies.

As leaders from education and government aspire to improve their institutions’ outcomes and value to society, IBM sees five ways in which technology can help improve the quality and way in which education is delivered. These five are referred to as “signposts” in "Education for a Smarter Planet: the Future of Learning," a new IBM Redguide™ publication. Serious games are a critical component of these signposts:

Technology immersion sets today’s students apart

For the first time in history we have a generation of digital natives – these students of the Internet generation have grown up immersed in the use of information technologies. Unlike generations past, these students are comfortable with technology and easily adapt and integrate new functionality from smart phones, laptop computers, mp3 players, game stations, and virtual reality worlds. They arrive at school hoping – and expecting – to leverage technology in the learning environment just as they do in their personal lives.

These students are sorely disappointed to find that their schools are still using methods* that are decades if not centuries old. They graduate from these schools entering into work environments that expect them to be better equipped for the global, virtual work environments that await them.

According to the Kauffman Foundation, in the 2000-to-2005 time frame, about 450,000 students graduated annually in the United States with a bachelor’s degree in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM ). These numbers pale in comparison to the reach of a single computer video game. World of Warcraft, a fantasy game, has over 10 million current subscribers, with about 2.5 million in North America. Food Force, the U.N.-produced game on the mechanics of food aid distribution, saw 1 million players in its first 6 weeks and 4 million players in its first year. Additionally, in the realm of K-to-12 science and math education, the virtual world Whyville, with its game-based activities, now sports 4 million subscribers (90 percent North American), with the dominant demographic being 8- to 14-year-old girls.

Students seek personalized learning paths

The Internet generation students are much more likely to embrace online learning as they seek ways to augment and even personalize their learning. Serious games that are available on the cloud mean that students can play the games anytime and anyplace as long as they have a net connection.

More importantly, serious games offer a way to personalize and optimize the learning experience to the user. Unlike lectures, games are naturally adapted to the pace of the user. Games also present information in a way that directly forces engagement from the user by using multiple visual and auditory modes simultaneously, which capitalizes on different learning styles.

Games are also particularly adept at dosing information delivery. A complex task is presented first as a small core experience that is practiced multiple times before being progressively extended into a longer, more complex sequence. The superior efficiency of this approach is referred to as concurrent chaining.

Learner control over navigation through tasks and activities is also an important feature of effective learning games.

Knowledge skills required by a smarter planet

The world has become highly instrumented, interconnected and intelligent: from our food and water, to our energy, homes and transportation, to our cities and governments and, of course, our businesses and places of work.

From this point onward, new graduates and employees must work smarter. They must embrace, even take advantage of, this change by creating a more agile, collaborative and connected business environment, making their businesses more profitable and productive.

game-based learning game-based learning
Using game-based learning to see the impact of business decisions on the ecosystem (from INNOV8 2.0 Online)

The worker of tomorrow will be expected to solve problems that have not been encountered before by assimilating data from disparate sources, deriving insights to make decisions and communicating effectively across language, country and societal boundaries.

As part of President Obama’s stimulus plan, organizations expect to see funding for projects around more efficient power grids, optimizing traffic flow on our roadways, and reducing waste in the United States food supply chain. But who will work on these projects and how will they learn the skills?

Universities are turning to serious games to find new ways to teach students more about business optimization, technology, and how to tackle some of these larger societal issues.

The active, participatory style of game-based tasks often requires the formation of hypotheses, experimentation, and discovering the consequences of actions taken; in other words, they are very similar to the inquiry-based learning lauded by science educators.

Global Integration offers challenges and opportunities

How does an educational institution participate in a globally integrated world? Global integration presents opportunities for innovative institutions to remove barriers and broaden their reach.

The One Laptop per Child Project was one of the seeds for the idea of extending education past traditional boundaries. Now that the stretch of the Internet is spreading farther, multi-player online games give us a glimpse into how educational institutions might be able to identify and utilize talent in geographies that were previously unreachable. This same medium could also be leveraged to train students about operating in different cultures while optimizing global teams.

Economic alignment of learning with workforce demands

Aligning educational outcomes to the demands of today’s and tomorrow’s workforce should dominate the accountability discussion at the local level. On a public policy level, concerns about global competitiveness should compel policymakers to intensify educational accountability across the full spectrum of educational services.

Serious games can help today’s and tomorrow’s organizations work smarter by providing a broad understanding of business and organizational dynamics. Games acclimatize individuals to synthesize information in real time and to collaborate on developing solutions, thus making them a superior learning vehicle.

Corporate serious games @ IBM

Since early 2000, IBM has been making significant investments in research and development regarding the viability, efficacy, benefit and value of serious games strategies, platforms and tools for addressing 21st century challenges for business and learning around the globe.

As a leader in corporate serious games, IBM has made advances in performing key research, prototypes, and/or complete games in these five areas:

The INNOV8 game is an excellent example of how IBM is using game-based learning to help relay a complex IT solution.


Both IT and business professionals understand that processes are critical to success. They just look at them from different perspectives. INNOV8, the IBM Business Process Management (BPM) simulation game, gives both IT and business players a better understanding of how effective BPM impacts an entire business ecosystem. INNOV8 also demonstrates how a more instrumented, interconnected and intelligent world supports process improvements and working smarter to help build a smarter planet.

In the online version of the game, players use a sim-style interface to manipulate their business model making their cities less congested, their supply chains more efficient and their customers happier. In the full 3D version of the game, players learn about the anatomy of a model, the data point components needed to bring the model to life, and how to work with a team to optimize the model.

INNOV8 2.0 is currently freely available to members of IBM’s Academic Initiative, customers, and Business Partners. Farmers Insurance recently announced how they are leveraging the game in Farmers University which trains over 11,000 employees.

The INNOV8 game now comes fully integrated with BPM BlueWorks so that, post-gameplay, players can see, interact with and manipulate the same models from the game in the free BPM tools available online.

INNOV8 was downloaded over 1,000 times by universities and colleges around the world, and many of those schools have created custom curriculum around the game itself. The University of Southern California is now using the game as part of its core curriculum for business majors. The University of Singapore is using the online version of the game as a supplement to their operations classes. ESADE in Spain has built the game into a curriculum that reviews different business case studies showcasing the power of business process management. INNOV8 2.0 is now also being used by businesses like Farmers Insurance.

“(Farmers’) employees now achieve competence more quickly, serve our customers more effectively, and are better prepared for advancement opportunities.“
-- Mike Cuffe, vice president of learning at the University of Farmers Insurance

Corporate serious games @ IBM — future

IBM sees enormous potential in integrating game-based design with interactive and collaborative applications to make them more engaging and even behavior-changing. Games can be a compelling way to train sales teams. Games represent a scalable medium to help people think differently, in the more integrated, holistic way required for complex solutions. We are continuing to perform research into how game-based approaches can develop better business leaders, make teams more productive and make our applications more collaborative.

IBM’s customers are also interested in harnessing the collaborative, engaging power of serious games to more effectively and efficiently train their people, and make their organizations more productive. To that purpose, IBM has invested in research on the influence of online games and the future of business leadership, and recently created a formal Worldwide Learning Innovation Practice that offers cost-effective development and integration of serious games within blended learning solutions provided for IBM’s wide array of Global Business Services and Business Process Outsourcing customers.

With the merging of the Digital Native generation into our workplace who live, breathe, and eat expansive, complex games, we have an opportunity to leverage the same methodologies that make games so engaging to train, assess, and empower people in the workplace and in the classroom.

Are you ready for the infusion of the gamer generation?

By Phaedra Boinodiris, Raleigh, North Carolina. Phaedra is Serious Games Program Manager on the WebSphere team in IBM Software Group.

* Some studies suggest that the lecture format is severely wanting. According to a study by the Kauffman Foundation, E. Seymour and N. Hewitt chronicle near-universal antipathy to the undergraduate lecture experience, showing that 98 percent who leave science and engineering majors cite “poor teaching by faculty” as a major concern and that even 86 percent of those who stay say the same. R. R. Hake’s metastudy of 6,542 students in 62 introductory physics classes demonstrated only a 17 percent standard deviation in learning outcomes across lecture-based classes.

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