The Name of the Game Is Work

Corporations are increasingly using online games to recruit and train new employees, and just to better keep people in touch

If you're thinking that maybe you should hide the video game controller from your kids because they're spending too much time in front of the TV or computer, don't. What you think is slacking may just be preparing them to become productive members of the workforce when they get older. Their future offices are likely to be heavily digital—especially if they work remotely—and their work may resemble the online games that many now spend hours playing.

Companies around the world, including McKinsey & Co., Royal Philips Electronics (PHG), and Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceutical Research & Development (JNJ) are bringing games with 3D computer graphics into the workplace to appeal to the generation raised on Nintendo (NTDOF.PK), World of Warcraft, and Second Life. They are using games to recruit new talent, improve communication between managers and their far-flung staff, and train employees and new hires at all levels.

To be sure, the fledgling corporate games and virtual worlds are not nearly as sophisticated or visually stunning as some of the most popular consumer games involving millions of players, such as World of Warcraft, but they are precursors of what's in the pipeline. In a recent survey of nearly 1,500 people in large and small companies, the eLearning Guild—a group investigating the design and management of e-learning tools for business, government, and education—found that the number of people using games for work in the financial and banking industries alone had increased from 33% to nearly 40% in the past nine months.

My Virtual Career

Since 2000, McKinsey's German headquarters has run a computer game called CEO of the Future, based loosely on the popular NBC reality show The Apprentice. The goal is to cast a wider net for new talent. In 2007, nearly 5,000 managers and students from all over the world between the ages of 22 and 32 tried their hand at challenges such as starting a European insurance company in Korea or developing an R&D strategy for a new pain reliever made of a genetically modified fruit.

In other versions of the game, players lead a company as it launches a new product, such as a cardiovascular drug. They decide the best time to launch and figure out what size salesforce would be most effective at marketing the drug. Then they had to sell their product—and manage it against competitors—over a product life cycle of 15 years. The contestants also sent McKinsey their résumés and a description of their strategy for the companies they created.

The players who increased the value of their companies by the largest margin were invited to a final round in February, where they presented them to McKinsey partners, as well as the CEOs of Bayer (BAY), Siemens (SI), and a few other companies that had sponsored that year's competition and contributed business problems. From 2000 to 2006, the game was a CD that McKinsey sent to those who expressed interest. This year the game was an online simulation that could be played via the Internet.

Tackling a Problem

Next year, McKinsey has decided to make the game downloadable from a Web site so you can play offline and then upload the results. This way, those who don't have regular Internet access won't be penalized. In next year's version of the game, competitors will tackle renewable energy businesses, says Marco Ferber, a Stuttgart-based engagement manager at McKinsey. McKinsey has hired several past winners of CEO of the Future. In 2007, the winners (there was a tie) also received about $20,000 each.

Philips Electronics used a game to tackle a major problem it faced. North American managers weren't communicating enough with their employees, and workers didn't understand how the company's new branding scheme, "Simplicity," related to the company's heritage and strategy moving forward. So last summer, 4,000 of Philips' 12,000 North American employees played a game called Simplicity Showdown.

First, managers received a postcard from the Bahamas, signed by the CEO, inviting them to play. The postcards were sent to their home addresses so managers' family members might stumble across them too and encourage them to go for the prize—the winning team would be sent to the Bahamas for the annual strategy meeting, which would have usually been held in their home city. Back at work, managers led teams they regularly worked with at the office. They went on the Web for a virtual treasure hunt to famous landmarks that had a Philips connection (including the Pyramids at Giza, the Eiffel Tower, and Sydney Opera House—all of which are illuminated using Philips technology).

Far Cry from Solitaire

With each click, players were confronted with a multiple-choice question about how they could help Philips achieve its strategic objectives. One question: "Philips believes in fast growth through innovation. What percent of Philips products was introduced within the last two years?" (The answer was 49%.) There were about 250 questions in total over the month-long competition.

Naturally, some managers have to get accustomed to the idea of employees playing games for work. "The idea that you were playing a game instead of working didn't initially sit well with some management," says Cameron Batten, the employee communications manager, based in New York, who helped create and oversee the game. But they came around. Ninety-four percent of managers held discussion sessions with their teams over the four-week period and 58% of managers held discussion sessions more times than they were required. Philips will create a sequel game next year.

At Johnson & Johnson, the pharmaceutical research and development operation is using a virtual world to orient its new hires and an online game to train them. During the past three years, nearly 1,500 new employees have gone into their digital 3D world that looks a bit like Second Life except it's only for J&J employees. It's called 3DU (the "U" stands for university) and it's on this digital campus that new employees—at any level—get up to speed about the company's health benefits, diversity networks, and ethics policies.

Adventures in Pharmacology

The newest interface for 3DU that the company is currently prototyping resembles a combination of a MySpace profile page—listing details such as the employees' division—with a 3D browser where employees can move their avatars to meet one another or the president, Garry Neil. Neil's avatar—which has a prerecorded message—is photo-realistic so new employees will be able to recognize him in real life after having seen his avatar. The president also has a video message in which he introduces users to other board members and department heads. 3DU saves the company the cost of flying new hires from all over the world to one central location for orientation. Employees continue to use the space long after orientation to find one another if they need help on a project.

Last April, the Johnson & Johnson unit launched Mission Possible, a game to train nearly 1,500 employees on each other's roles in the drug development process and to get new employees coming from the business world or elsewhere up to speed on the industry. They were challenged to develop a new drug to treat schizophrenia, and throughout the quest they answered questions from characters such as Virgil Vigilance, the drug safety vigilante, and Regina Regulatory, the regulation enforcer.

After answering questions correctly, they got their passport stamped and moved through the game's levels. Many employees appreciated the entertaining format of the game, given the grave diseases they spend so much of their time researching, said Paul Bejgrowicz, an assistant director of e-learning at Johnson & Johnson PRD.

As serious games gain traction, business school professors are already planning courses that tap into the trend. "Online games seem to be a great place to develop and test different prototypes for structuring and managing 'real' organizations," says Robert Sutton, a professor of management and engineering who is looking into creating a course at Stanford University where students can test out alternative management styles in games such as World of Warcraft.

In these games, players can quickly change their management style if it doesn't work. "The lessons learned in these games become increasingly useful as companies become less command-and-control and more a series of distributed networks around the world," says Diego Rodriguez of design consultancy IDEO. He is also a consulting professor at Stanford University working with Sutton on the new course. "The future of work is here; it's just disguised as a game," says Rodriguez.

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