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Global companies are deploying a new tool to reinforce their brands with students, build links with universities and management schools, find talent and deliver management education.

Corporate games, costing up to €1m ($1.3m, £900,000) each to run, are increasingly seen by faculty as an “experiential learning” device that can improve educational quality and even count towards course credits.

Recently, the aircraft manufacturer, Airbus, and the banking group, BNP Paribas, have joined existing players such as the cosmetics group, L’Oréal, and the consultants, IBM, in launching global games for undergraduates, attracting in the process thousands of players.

Peter Cardwell, a director at the business simulation design company, Learning Dynamics, says these multi-player online team games are a powerful way to teach business skills. Learning Dynamics, he says, defines them as a “multi­media experience that immerses the participant in a realistic business situation or management role which requires decision-making in a risk-free environment – so learning is accelerated”.

Moreover, corporate business games designed for building brand awareness are starting to spawn siblings used for employee education or even targeted at high school students.

Certainly, corporate games seem to be weaving a growing number of participating business schools into their web. A record 240 teams took part in the 2008/9 IBM University Business Challenge in the UK. Finalists included teams from Imperial College Business School in London and Exeter University. There were also teams from University of Liverpool Management School, University of Abertay Dundee Business School, Bournemouth University Business School and Ashcroft International Business School in Cambridge and Cheltenham.

Business schools also dominated the finals of BNP Paribas’s Ace Manager game. The competition was won by a team from WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management in Koblenz, Germany, with a team from Bocconi Business School in Italy and a team from Moscow’s Financial Academy among the finalists.

At BNP Paribas, Antoine Sire, director of brand, communication and quality, says the banking group is spending €1m on its Ace Manager game, launched in October to extend awareness among French graduates and college-leavers worldwide. The bank, which counts more than half its staff outside France, worked with consultants to create a game that builds on international awareness arising from its role as the world’s leading tennis sponsor.

The fact-based Ace Manager game requires teams of four students to assume banking roles in a virtual tennis “industry”, covering the group’s three main business lines. Retail banking teams must help a tennis federation develop a tournament; for asset management, they must manage a tennis champion’s assets and, for corporate and investment banking, they must help a racket maker to expand through acquisition.

The game has attracted 1,000 teams from 106 countries, with strong representation from the bank’s main markets that include India, Turkey, France, China, Ukraine, Italy, Russia, Germany, Hong Kong, the UK and Algeria. The game website has had 90,000 visitors.

BNP Paribas recruitment and marketing staff use the game as a tool in campus campaigns. But Mr Sire says it is, above all, designed to develop awareness of the brand and positive association such as creativity and diversity. “We think the cost is reasonable in relation to the benefits,” he says.

BNP Paribas has launched a staff-only online business game, Starbank, to help recruits understand its businesses.

As companies launch more games, the objectives are becoming more diverse. The Airbus Fly Your Ideas Challenge includes the classic elements of building brand awareness among students, spotting potential recruits and deepening connections with academia. But it is also a search for ideas relevant to its business.

Airbus, based in Toulouse, France, challenges students from all disciplines to come up with ideas that will improve environmental efficiency, both of its aircraft and in the aviation industry.

Rachel Schroeder, head of project, says the involvement of Airbus experts was important in winning the commitment of academics. “Universities say they want students to have real contact with companies,” he says.

Projects under development range from cabin materials and engine technology to taxiing efficiencies and ‘green’ leasing.

The Challenge is likely to cost Airbus at least €100,000 in cash – including €50,000 in prize money and the cost of hosting the five short-listed teams to final presentations before a jury at the Paris Airshow in June. But Ms Schroeder says the company already sees the benefits and regards its Challenge as an ongoing commitment.

IBM, meanwhile, is one of the oldest players in the student game market. Its University Business Challenge has been running in the UK for more than three annual editions, with 1,200 participants from 80 universities. It is designed by Learning Dynamics and is part of a vast global strategy to update perceptions of its business and also plug a perceived skills gap among graduates.

Half of IBM’s revenues now derive from consultancy rather than computer hardware and software, so it needs to attract articulate, technically competent graduates who are able to analyse businesses.

Kevin Farrar, a programme manager at IBM Academic Initiative in the UK and Europe, says its latest online game, Innov8, is designed to “help students acquire the skills we need in services science”. Players enter a 3D virtual call centre as a business consultant and interview game characters about its problems, gather data to understand the business process, then design solutions using modelling tools, dealing with unexpected business events as they go along.

IBM also provides real enterprise tools to professors for use in their seminars.

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