It was not too long ago that corporate training consisted of an instructor lecturing a room full of workers, all struggling to stay awake and ingest the latest management lessons. Then, as computer prices fell and processing power rose in the 1990s, companies turned to e-learning technologies, which allowed workers to learn at their computers - whether they were in the office or at home. Now, online courses are beginning to adopt some of the latest technologies from the world of gaming.
“Through a combination of growth and technology, coupled with the pervasiveness of games throughout culture, games [as a teaching tool] are starting to have a broader audience. Their ability to render realistic worlds is increasing, as is their multi-user capability,” says Ben Sawyer, co-founder of Digital Mill, a company dedicated to making games for teaching and training purposes.
And it is not just the games' realistic environments that are making managers take notice. “Retention rates are higher and test scores are higher after using simulations,” says MrSawyer.
IDC, the research firm, estimates that 8-10 per cent of the US corporate e-learning market uses technology-based simulations and predicts that the number will rise to 40 per cent by 2008. The corporate e-learning market is projected to be worth $10.6bn by 2007. There are two common types of e-learning. One, known as branching, is text-driven: users are presented with information and then engage in a simple game of matching question and answer.
Simulations, on the other hand, offer a 3D experience and resemble a modified video game. The price also differs. A branching game typically costs between $50,000 and $200,000. Simulations start at $300,000, but can cost as much as $1m.
Dean Engel, director of special projects for QBInternational, an e-learning provider, says: “There are two drivers: one is that since the economy has been going through its convolutions, there is less money for training. An advantage of this type of training is that once you pay the initial cost, your costs are over. The second is travel. [E-learning] is deployable around the globeinstantaneously.”
A further attraction of training simulations is that they can be customised for different groups, such as new recruits and salespeople. Roger Schank, chief executive of Socratic Arts, which has provided training simulations for International Business Machines and General Electric, says: “GE decided they had a lot of new hires that needed to be trained. They try to go to where there are the most people.”
The increasing power of personal computers is another factor behind the growth in training simulations. “A lot of this came about because gaming engines became available on PCs,” says Richard Horn, of Horn Interactive, a training simulation company recently acquired by Convergys, the US-based consultancy. While the corporate market is still evolving, experts in the field see the personalisation of training simulations as the next step. “The key thing happening in e-learning is all about individualisation: ‘my learning, my career,' ” says Eren Rosenfeld, who oversees performance simulation at Accenture Learning.
The health market is also an enthusiastic user of simulated training. “There is a lot of appreciation of modelling systems, especially in public health,” says Mr Sawyer. “Modelling how people get sick, or how you run a hospital or medical school.” To that end, Mr Sawyer is one of the organisers of the Games for Health 2004 conference, taking place this month. It is billed as the first meeting of developers, researchers and health professionals in the area of training games.
Discussions will focus on current offerings, such as ACLS Interactive, a simulation that lets paramedics practise cardiac life-saving skills. The simulation presents users with various scenarios, including those in the emergency room and the critical care unit.
Other games will be featured, such as those that help patients deal with phobias. One, for instance, uses simulation to help people deal with a fear of heights. Breakaway Games is working on an emergency health care management simulation for an undisclosed government agency. Deborah Tillett, Breakaway's president, says the market for healthcare games has changed significantly in recent years.
“When we started,people would laugh andsay: ‘You just make games, how can you understand world events?' Today weare being sought for our understanding of policydecisions.”