Getting in on the game

The take-away

  • The market for “serious games” is expected to quadruple by 2023.
  • Augmented reality and virtual reality will make these games even more immersive.

Work vs. play. To bridge the gap between these apparent opposites, companies are now resorting to games that combine a serious purpose – recruitment, training, communication – with an entertaining method. According to Hélène Michel, professor of Innovation and Gamification at Grenoble École de Management, it is only natural that these two worlds would come together. “First, you have the incredibly popular world of gaming,” she says. “Its power to motivate is now recognised in research and it has invaded every realm of society via video games. Then you have the performance-driven business world, which is always looking for ways to increase employee engagement.”

Top-down approach

“Serious games” have been part of the business world since the mid-2000s. French cosmetics giant L’Oréal was an early adopter in 2000 when it came out with e-Strat Challenge. “Serious games first developed top-down,” says Michel. “A head of HR or communication would order a serious game as a way either to help employees acquire knowledge or skills, or to deliver a key message to the general public.”

Another pioneer was Fishing Cactus, a Belgian studio created in 2009. “We created games for smartphones, computers and consoles for a broad portfolio of clients to help them communicate messages or train staff,” recalls head of sales Laurent Grumiaux. In Europe, the company’s clients include French giant Dassault Aviation, UK pharmaceuticals company GSK and the European Commission.

Collaborative games

Now the trend is more bottom-up. “Games in business organisations are now subtler and more pervasive,” explains Michel. “Companies are no longer trying to deliver a message, but encourage behaviour and capture information.” A growing number of serious game orders come from innovation and transformation departments.

Serious games comes in digital, board or role-playing formats. Ole Broberg, head of Studies for the Master’s programme in Design and Innovation at the Technical University of Denmark develops “design games” to enable people with different professional background to collaborate on designing a type of technology or organisational work structure. From 2010 to 2012, he examined the renovation of an outpatient clinic in Greater Copenhagen. “We led three sessions with 10 people involved in medical care – doctors, secretaries and nurses,” he recalls. “We wanted to simulate the future clinic using games, including a Lego set and figures. They each played their own role and the scenarios varied to see how a given reorganisation would impact the patient care pathway.” Despite some initial scepticism, the team really got into it. “Unlike with traditional brainstorming, we can more easily identify ourselves, understand and bring in our experiences and ideas in a collaborative setting.”

Making games easier to create

Developing video games used to be expensive, but now a number of authorware programmes have come out, such as ITycom and Unity. “These systems are used to develop games at a lower cost,” says Raphael Granier De Cassagnac, a physicist with the Leprince-Ringuet Laboratory at École Polytechnique (L’X). “For instance, Unity features libraries of assets – animations, textures and 3D models – developed by a highly active community.”

The development of new types of media could make serious games more immersive. “Augmented reality and virtual reality should help us better understand non-visible scientific environments, for example, by submerging players deep into collisions of elementary particles,” says Granier De Cassagnac, who is currently developing a serious game to make particle physics better known by the general public.

The era of gamification

While the revenues generated by the serious game market are expected to quadruple to $17 billion by 2023, the boundary between the business world and the gaming world is increasingly porous. A recent conference in Paris on the future of learning was co-organised by the Ubisoft agency and Microsoft. “Employees see their physical and virtual workspaces becoming more ‘gamified’,” says Michel, citing Outlook as an example. “Every day, people open their messaging system to see the task list in their calendar. But we could transform that to-do list into a pursuit, integrating a few elements from gaming. They would do 10 to 15 minutes a day of fun activities and after a month they’d be fully trained.”

Life as a trader

Since November 2010, the RiskFactory Trading Room at the Technical University of Munich has allowed students to experience the reality of the financial market. “The room allows them to practice with computer exercises that supplement coursework and to access real financial market information to calibrate and test their models,” says Rudi Zagst, professor and chair of Mathematical Finance.

More important, the project gives students an insight into what it’s like to be a trader. “They have to manage risk and their own trading portfolios,” Zagst explains. “Experiencing the stress hands-on is highly instructive and identifies the gamblers who are not suited for the job.” This large-scale simulation game has been used to train some 200 students who went on to become certified Eurex (European Exchange) traders.