World of Warcraft In the Workplace

Computer games are good, right? They're stimulating, challenging and fun. Just keep them out of the workplace.

That's what we've always been told, even though "stimulating, challenging and fun" are things the work environment always needs. Most corporations banned games ages ago. Unfortunately, that means they're missing out on an important way to transmit information.

Organizations got rid of games because they were distractions that wasted time, used too much computing power and created security holes. But there are compelling reasons for corporations to reconsider and maybe even create games for their employees to use (yes, at work!).

Games can teach and reinforce specialized skills. Moreover, they allow players to acquire and practice those skills without damaging expensive equipment or putting anyone in danger. According to a study at New York's Beth Israel Medical Center , surgeons who performed laparoscopic surgery were faster and more accurate if they had played video games extensively when they were younger. Today, some surgeons play video games as a warm-up exercise to improve fine motor coordination before performing laparoscopic surgery. The military uses war games to train soldiers for combat and uses simulators to help foot soldiers distinguish between combatants and noncombatants in urban settings. Commercial and military pilots receive much of their initial training in simulators.

Games can be used to anticipate and shape the future. Jane McGonigal created a massively multiplayer forecasting game, Superstruct , for the Institute for the Future (IFTF). The game invited players to propose solutions to possible global challenges, including massive energy shortages, terrorists with biological weapons, global food supply contamination, and large numbers of refugees fleeing economic and natural disasters. Superstruct players rewarded one another with points based on things like creativity, persuasiveness and cooperation. They came up with many creative solutions during the game's six-week life span, and many of the ideas were incorporated into the IFTF's 2009 Ten-Year Forecast.

Games can also help get consumers interested in products without making them feel as if they are getting a sales pitch. Disney released a free iPhone game, RhinoBall, to promote the movie Bolt . And Honda developed an online racing game to promote its cars.

Back in the world of health care, the fifth annual Games for Health Conference focused on games promoting mental agility and wellness. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation sponsors the Health Games Research program , which awards grants for developing interactive games that increase physical activity (such as dance pads) and improve self-care.

Effective games utilize many of the principles that made World of Warcraft so successful. Players participate in quests composed of challenging tasks that are satisfying to accomplish and are linked to a clear mission. Real-time feedback reflects players' progress.

These underlying principles can easily be applied in business. For example, games can help build a sense of community across a department or among a geographically dispersed workforce. Game interfaces can be adopted to provide feedback and promote healthy competition. Imagine gauges similar to those in World of Warcraft appearing on every customer service rep's screen.

Well-designed games can motivate workers and provide useful services to customers. Get ideas from the gamers in your organization . Someday gaming expertise may even become part of employees' annual performance goals. Wanna play?

Bart Perkins is managing partner at Louisville, Ky.-based Leverage Partners Inc., which helps organizations invest well in IT. Contact him at .

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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