Would any of these sims interest a hardcore gamer? Wellll, a sports fan might look at XFL SimWorld and Oakland Baseball SimWorld, both by SBS (Sports Business Simulation). These are educational games about sports as a business. SBS founder Zenophon "Zennie" Abraham created them using Forio's Broadcast engine. (Forio's site offers a Broadcast tutorial.) In Oakland Baseball, you evaluate new stadium proposals and their effect on the Oakland Athletics team's bottom line. XFL charges you with rescuing the doomed football league.
Generally, though, it's hard for an ordinary consumer to even get a look at most business sims, let alone play them. Leaving aside the firms who guard their designs as trade secrets, just setting up these games is a costly hassle. My Executive Challenge required hundreds of sheets of cardstock, multiple custom-printed card decks, ungodly numbers of poker chips, a custom database and a three-hour presentation and run-through. The computer version from Enspire Learning also requires elaborate setup. Wanna play it? Sure - $20,000, please.
What's more, these games - though inarguably games - feel different from those we play for fun. These sims are incredibly targeted. They pull you in because they're about your job and your co-workers at your company. When they work right, they engage you at levels you never knew existed, and you hate to stop playing. But they're not meant to be "fun," as such.
In fact, though some of these consultants do let the word "game" sneak into their pitches, "fun" is an F-word. They aim for respectability. And believe it: In this respect, computer game publishers could learn from them.
On their sites, all these consulting companies cite scientific studies of simulations as learning tools. The field has drawn attention from venerable business journals like The McKinsey Quarterly, and has spawned its own nascent academic infrastructure, with refereed journals like Simulations & Gaming and a scholarly association, ABSEL (Association for Business Simulation and Experiential Learning). (Simulations & Gaming provides a list of simulation bibliographies.)
These articles distinguish between effective and poor simulations, describe best practices and summarize case studies with before-and-after metrics. Contrast this approach with the scholarship that gamers endure: either A, wingnut witch-hunts out to validate Jack Thompson, or B, endless publish-or-perish circle-jerks for untenured "game studies" humanities post-docs chewing over the meanings of "narrative," "narrativist" and "narrativism."
The evidence of these studies shows simulations really can work. An October 2004 Science News article, "Reworking Intuition" by Bruce Bowers, describes the experience of three financially troubled and dysfunctional manufacturing companies - makers of medical devices, industrial products and nuclear fuel rods. Psychologist Lia DiBello ran workers from each company through a two-day simulation. On day 1, they followed their established routine and quickly faced disaster; after devising new procedures, they repeated the exercise on day 2 and performed much better. Then they adopted those new processes for real, with good, measurable results.
Why does this work? Many people define themselves, in part, through their job. To learn new work techniques, they build on what they already know. A simulation puts employees in a novel situation where they see the consequences of their actions and can then redefine their behaviors and their own roles. Just as important, they bond and build paths for later communication. This sure beats reading dopey business fables (One-Minute Manager, Who Moved My Cheese?, Fish!) and attending eye-glazing seminars, known generically as AFTRBs ("Another F---ing Three-Ring Binder"). Learning by doing - what a concept!
But as the Science News article makes clear, cultural stigma runs deep. Many companies need heavy re-education before they'll go near anything called a game. The consultants are undertaking this re-education, and good for them. Computer and videogames companies could help. We could sponsor research about our own games, and develop business cases for recreational games in building teamwork and communication.