Video Games Aren't a Waste of Time

Brandeis agrees with studies suggesting gamers are social, strategic thinkers, and is using a "serious game" to teach business and tech skills

This holiday season, parents who bought Sony's (SNE) PlayStation 3, Nintendo's (NTDOY) Wii, Microsoft's (MSFT) Xbox 360, or the latest online game need not feel guilty. It turns out young people—and adults—aren't always just wasting time when they're playing video games.

Whether they're tapping away on video game controllers or the keys of their computers in popular online games, today's game players are acquiring skills that companies increasingly value as the gaming generation enters the workforce.

In fact, the skills needed to succeed in gaming can often help young people to be more sociable, develop strategic thinking, and become better leaders in life, according to the book The Kids are Alright: How the Gamer Generation Is Changing the Workplace. The authors, John Beck and Mitchell Wade, say games require use of various mental and social skills, often simultaneously. In a survey to find out whether the experience of gaming, and growing up surrounded by games, changes attitudes, expectations, and abilities related to business, "the answer is a resounding yes," they say.

With that in mind, Brandeis International Business School became the first business school in the world to use Innov8, IBM's new "serious game," now available at no charge to universities around the world. IBM (IBM) created the game to help university students and young professionals develop a combination of business and information technology skills, important attributes needed to compete in a global economy.

Games Bridge Gaps

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that more than 90% of IT workers are employed outside the IT industry, which makes it necessary for graduates to have both IT and complementary training in their respective business sectors. Utilizing serious games is a fun and engaging means of bridging this skills gap.

Over the past two decades, IT professionals have had to break out of their comfort with proprietary systems as the industry moved to client-server computing and then to open computing models. Today's jobs require both IT and business professionals to acquire crossover skills in each other's domains. That's why IBM's game stresses learning activities that combine IT skills with business acumen.

Much like pilots who use flight simulators to learn how to fly airplanes, students of IT management studies can benefit from engaging in personalized learning activities. By interacting with the Innov8 game, students can make decisions about real-life business situations, such as redesigning a call-center process. They can see the results of their decisions right away, and if they make a mistake, it's much more private than "failing" in front of a classroom of their colleagues. Students can make the most of the individual experience by reflecting in real-time about the situation at hand, and can then discuss their learnings in the classroom.

A Changing Business Landscape

The trend is spreading. According to the Apply Group, a marketing consultant, at least 100 of the global Fortune 500 will use gaming to educate their employees by 2012, with the U.S., Britain, and Germany leading the way.

While it's too soon to measure the full implications, there's a new business environment emerging. Today's landscape consists of thousands of multiplayer online game players who have organized themselves to successfully complete specific endeavors during their "play" time. As a result, they might not be content during work hours in organizational structures used since the industrial revolution, with central command and control. Chances are they're more likely to want to work on virtual teams distributed around the world, undertaking multiple endeavors, taking advantage of the thought processes that succeeded for them in online gaming.

Employers cannot ignore the changing group dynamics. In fact, they should tap into the most innovative ideas to redefine the fundamental nature of computing. Just as games present situations that invite players to make choices, companies should consider the advantage of using graphics and the decision-making steps of games in business. For instance, supply chain software and customer relationship software could allow decision-makers to immerse themselves in the real-world simulations, judging cause and effect before making decisions.

The possibilities are huge—and not just for business. The application of serious gaming techniques in science, medicine, and other industries could help us solve some of the world's biggest challenges. As such, the term "serious gaming" is no longer an oxymoron.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.