April 8, 2011

Games, Virtual Worlds and Real Life Work

How India Inc can benefit by smart use of new-age games?

A couple of months ago, Madana Kumar, the head of learning at IBM for India and South Asia, was trying to gauge ways and means to manage a diverse workforce. If some employees were found struggling with work-life issues, others had strands of gray that couldn't quite handle a young workforce. There could even be issues relating to sexual orientation. Kumar seized the virtual initiative meant for IBM-ers the world over by creating an avatar of his in the online game Second Life.

Simultaneously, a virtual orientation center sprang up to familiarise global participants with the nuances of Second Life.

When participants (like Kumar) are in the 'Gay' Breakout Room in the game, they actually get to experience some of the difficulties faced by an individual who believes the environment inhibits him/her from expressing his/her sexual orientation. Again, in the 'Generational Diversity' Room, participants must choose the best person for a job and they experience the conflict and potential biases that age can place on this decision-making. "We were able to experience this by building a Brick Wall in Second Life and being invited to break the wall. We'd never be able to do that in real life for fear of hurting someone but Second Life avatars don't experience physical pain," says the 52-year-old Kumar.

Across the management spectrum of India Inc , companies are gradually waking up to gaming and simulation techniques to solve real issues. While it's tempting to think there's little more to games than racing, shooting or managing orchards on Farmville , they can be applied to a wide range of situations. These include cracking the art of negotiation in deals, complex HR issues at the workplace, creating an awareness tool, or even making a job easier for clients. "Companies are increasingly briefing us about their objectives based on which we design games as an initiative from the top management that may or may not be linked to returns on investment," says Yashraj Vakil, COO of Dream 11 Gaming , an online game creator. Apart from developing a board game for the financial world called Game Of Life, Dream 11 is now installing a CSR game as a companywide initiative for Apollo Tyres.

As part of their green initiative, Apollo Tyres was looking for employee engagement in their conservation programme and reached out to Dream 11 to make a game wherein a young boy has to climb a hill with multiple obstacles en route. Each hurdle comes in the form of a query on the environment and a wrong answer is duly greeted with foul weather. "We have given an eco-friendly feel to the game as per our client's requirement," says Vakil.

Harshita Pande , Head of CSR at Apollo Tyres, plans to roll out the game in the next couple of months. "It's targeted at increasing awareness (of the environment-related work done at Apollo Tyres) among are employees," he says.

For UTV, another client of Dream 11, it's a more cricket-driven requirement, with the World Cup serving as a backdrop. Some 150 people of the production house now play Balla Bol, a game customised for them, wherein every participant gets to select his/her cricket team which is then updated with actual on-ground performances and real scores to boot. The game deftly intersperses the UTV signage "creating brand recall among our people", says Kunal Mukherjee, Head-Marketing. "We're in the process of building teamwork through gaming. We're looking at more online development of such games."

One of India's premier IT companies commissioned Indusgeeks Solutions to create a leadership training module to train senior managers. According to Siddharth Banerjee, founder and CEO, Indusgeeks Solutions, "They had a few issues since many of their managers were expats and spread around the world. How do you test for soft skills like courage or integrity? Multiple choice questions only go so far." Indusgeeks came up with both single and multi user games. The former are used for self learning while the latter bring in group dynamics and roleplay. The situations the managers encounter are diverse; a far cry from being cooped up in a room staring at other people in suits. Says Banerjee, "They could be wandering through a virtual jungle while testing leadership skills. The results on how people react to situations are surprising. You catch them off guard more than you would in a structured training or even structured web based learning programme."

Ninad Chhaya, COO of Playcaso (short for Play, Casual, Social), a subsidiary of gaming company Nazara Technologies , is upbeat about a fresh burst of demand coming in from companies for internal team building. "Games are being incorporated as a part of the corporate training module, where various levels attempt to gauge how much the trainee has learnt," says Chhaya. In the business for over 15 years, Chhaya recalls conceiving of a game for a pharma company that made beta-blockers for cardiac patients. "The game was created in such a way that a medicine has to remove the blocks in the bloodstream. We made the game without showing blood and simulating a traffic situation since the medical fraternity that would play the game are used to seeing so much blood in daily life. Your score, obviously depends on the number of blocks you remove," he says.

War games simulate real conditions in a competitive scenario that helps a team decide its plan of action before diving in to the actual marketplace. The global pharmaceutical industry faces multiple threats on various fronts like competing companies, technologies, physician bodies and regulatory agencies, so companies here execute war-gaming exercises to devise strategies to respond to competing threats. "Owing to the increased pressure on margins, global pharmaceutical players are now increasingly looking at offshore partners who can support them in developing accurate, usable, and relevant gaming material," says Manish Gupta, CEO of the Bangalore-based Indegene Lifesystems .

Indegene largely helps its clients in two key areas through gaming - competition mapping and technology mapping. "Unlike other sectors, considering the regulatory environment and changing momentum, pharmaceutical gaming scenarios are expected to be steeped in scientific accuracy and reflect real-time data. The insights provided add value to decision-making and intensify the engagement of senior management as they evaluate and compete with their colleagues in the gaming environment," says Gupta.

But not all games are custom-made. Off-the-shelf hits that have quite possibly been part of a young executive's teenage years are quite common too. Capture The Flag a popular mod on shooters like Quake, Unreal Tournament and Counter-Strike, makes teams work out their attack and defence strategies, raiding enemy territory for a flag and attempting to take it back to a safe area on the map. Another popular title is Microsoft's Age Of Empires series where a player builds his 'empire' managing resources, waging wars for expansion and trying to ensure calamity-free progress. Chhaya, though, is quick to add a caveat. "It may take 3-5 years to develop a game like Age Of Empires depending on the rich user interface, but the demand for corporates result in flash games that take anywhere between a week to two months," he says.

Varying complexity of games has given a new edge to at HCL's Top Gun programme, which prepares employees for leadership roles. One facet of the programme simulates a business situation the participant must counter. "We give unique situations everyday and the player has to come up with a strategy to crack it, creating competition among teams. This is a high intensity game and the winners are called Top Guns," says Kunal Purohit, Head of Sales Excellence at HCL Technologies . In essence, the game helps players to gauge their competitive strengths and draw strategies appropriately. "It is an aspirational programme and fast-tracks growth and visibility within the organisation," says Purohit.

There is little doubt that games enhance the learning experience. "People coming out of virtual classrooms tend to understand content better," says Chandrasekhar Sripada, VP and Head HR, India and South Asia, IBM. "We use a handful of games at any given point since enough due diligence should go into game effectiveness." IT-enabled games used as tools of learning, blur the lines between play and work, improving engagement, and hence, the degree of learning, retention and the likelihood of what's learnt being incorporated in everyday work. A step further is gamification, where the principles of game design are applied to websites, intranets & enterprise IT applications, to increase usage and levels of user engagement.

Games, whether full-blown competitive war games or simulations, serve as laboratories where managers can experiment with strategies or large-scale operational changes with no risk. "They are laboratories of the mind where the top manager has the freedom to try, test and fail in the privacy of his office," says Mohit Malik, Partner at Anoova Consulting . Malik has been conducting war games for leading organisations over the last five years.

In Wargaming for Leaders - Strategic Decision making from the Battleship to the Boardroom, Mark Herman , renowned war game developer for Booz Allen Hamilton , along with co-authors Mark Frost and Robert Kurz , come up with examples from the government, corporates and public policy to gauge the effectiveness of gaming. There is the example of a large equipment manufacturer who must determine whether a merger is strategically right for its growth and which technologies to drop in the process. Then there's the instance of a four-star US general testing his war plan for Iraq and uncovering fixes that that might have prevented a prolonged conflict in the desert. Quoting Marcel Proust, Malik says the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes. Games, if done right, help top managers look at the world with new eyes.
Read more at economictimes.indiatimes.com

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