Edu-gaming 2

Edu-gaming 2
Biz Sims

Allen Varney | 29 May 2007 12:01
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The biggest game I ever designed had 100 players and 10 referees, lasted three days and got covered in The Wall Street Journal. It's OK if you've never heard of my game, Executive Challenge. You probably also haven't heard of hundreds of other games like it, produced for decades by a long-established, billion-dollar international game industry dominated by publicly traded game publishers with market caps north of $100 million.

The makers of business simulation games are soooo far off our subculture's radar, they're practically Martians. Yet their target markets - businesses both large and small, and university business schools - are huge and growing. Some of their design techniques would interest jaded computer game designers. What's most interesting, and most worthy of emulation: These biz-sim companies, unlike the blind wizards of videogame development, do research.

But whether you know or care about these simulation publishers, they certainly don't want to know you. The farther they distance themselves from games and gamers, the better they like it.

Should we care? As a matter of fact, yes.

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These games differ from conventional stock-market simulations, such as ASX and others; from prediction markets; and from "serious" games that inform general audiences about some business issue, such as Oil God or Trade Ruler. Instead, business simulations model a real company's business processes and issues so its employees can, through play, discover how to improve them: project management, supply chain management, development assessment, ethics and so on. Some games educate employees in esoterica like compliance with Sarbanes-Oxley reforms or shari'a (Islamic) banking doctrines. Though almost always multiplayer, these sims take many forms, from board and card games to roleplaying to online turn-based strategy.

You can't just buy these games off-the-shelf. They're all proprietary in-house designs, each owned by one publisher - or rather, one consulting firm. These firms typically run the simulations for their clients as part of a larger consulting package, pitched as analysis and optimization of the client company's particular issues. The field's big money is in customization. The consultants tailor their generic game designs for specific clients in many different industries: retail, high-tech, pharmaceuticals and health care, insurance, airlines, and many more. The tailoring process involves extensive interviews, reading, research and - believe me - meetings meetings meetings meetings meetings. (There are sims about how to run meetings.)

Games can be a good way to analyze businesses, because both are complex systems. Game players, like company employees, take a range of actions to navigate what mathematicians call a "decision space" toward a goal - game victory or business success. Simulations can model this by characterizing the inputs and effects players/employees should learn about, and abstracting the rest.

For instance, many simulations teach coordination and communication. Shortfalls in a complex system can cascade and produce drastic, even fatal consequences down the line. You may know this as the "butterfly effect"; in applying the idea to supply chain management, business consultants use the more dramatic name "Bullwhip Effect." In the 1960s, MIT's Sloan School of Management illustrated this idea with an early business simulation that cast players as manufacturers of a commodity dear to a college student's heart: beer. Forio Business Simulations updated the game and now offers a free online version, The Near Beer Game.

Forio is just one firm in the crowded corporate market; others include Celemi, Pantelis, TargetSim, Hall Marketing, Learning Dynamics, PriSim Business War Games and bunches more. A few, like Knowledge Matters, target the educational market. Business Game Factory runs web-based game tournaments.

The market leader is Stockholm-based BTS, the biggest game company in Sweden. Founded in 1985, BTS made $91 million profit last year; its market cap is 842 million Swedish kronor, about $122 million. The BTS client list includes lots of Fortune 500 companies (and a few Fortune 10s!).

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