This is not a Videogame …….. Its a Serious-game

The Student with the Most Money Gets an A+

The Student with the Most Money Gets an A+

Like it or not, interactive gaming platforms are creeping into classrooms at every level of academia. But this “new kid in town” has to earn his chops before the elbow-patch and courderoy crowd at the graduate level will give it the green light. They are a tough nut to crack, so the spoils of this enormously promising industry will certainly go to a small and sly group of go-getters. But it will take more than just good salesmanship and solid merit to get in. This is niche marketing at its most niche. I recently saw these salesmen at work, and the story goes like this:

As a money job, I have the pleasure of teaching at the well-known business school of a Montreal University. Among the many perks of having this position is access to various lecture series and training workshops. This week a colleague of mine recommended a presentation of a new business role-play simulator called ERPSIM, which was right up my alley.

At the very least these lunch-time seminars offer a welcome catered alternative to cafeteria food. I made myself comfortable in a small auditorium of  Harris-Tweed academics and pink-collared administrators. The presentation was made by a dashing group of young associated professors, each one explaining their particular role in the inner workings of their project.

Without going into too much detail, it amounts to a simulator course that replicates a business based on established models. Competing teams of students are formed to run these virtual businesses in real-time through market conditions based on actual, current conditions. The variables and data in this game are extensive, detailed and most importantly, relevant. The company that makes the most money wins.

Students love it. It is both as compelling and as geeky as a world-class videogaming tournament. The competion is fierce and the stakes are high. Not only is the outcome of the game their “final exam”, but there is  the added glory of  winning in front of a growing audience of head-hunters and recruiters.

The professor in charge of pedagogy on this project spoke last. After all, he was speaking to a room full of teachers. The toughest sell of all was to convince this room that this was academically viable. He was well-prepared with a power-point of flow charts, principals of educational theory, methods of data analysis, and everything else he would need to demonstrate the educational qualities of this program.

As the presentation wound down, my hand shot up. “What is the fundamental difference between this game and commercial video games like “Railroad Tycoon?” I asked. Every member of the team was very eager to answer this question. The same answer came in every form. This game is relevant to real life. It uses real-life business models, real data, real economic conditions and is an accurate preparation for real-life conditions. “Railroad Tycoon” is just a game.

The room liked this response. I did too. Its very exciting to see what amounts to a video-game being sold to old-school academics as the future of education. It was especially exciting since they were actually buying it… to a certain extent.

Railroad Tycoon is a challenge in resource management and capitalism.

Railroad Tycoon is a challenge in resource management and capitalism.

But the team of game designers knew that there was more to this than just selling the academic merits. They are a group of dynamic educational innovators, and they know who they are dealing with. The real concern here was how this program was going to fit into the politics and tradition of intelligencia who control the purse strings. In turn, they respected all the necessary elements of academic court proceedings. A third of the presentation time was dutifly allotted to introducing the credetials of each esteemed participant. Then, instead of an interactive demonstration of the product (which I would have preferred) it was a lengthy lecture with diagrams and statistics. Everyone spoke with a demure tone in keeping with their station. It had to be packaged as a serious product in order to be taken seriously.

But seriously. Its a video game. And a damned good one at that. The difference between Railroad Tycoon and  ERPSIM is the same difference between Microsoft® Flight Simulator X and the NASA Ames Research Center Vertical Motion Simulator. One of them is available to the public, the other is limited to a qualified elite. One of them comes with a operating manual, the other comes with a treatise. One of them is designed for leisure, the other is designed for learning. Both are fun, but only one of them is supposed to be fun.

Most importantly, unlike commercially available video-games, this game is not intended for public consumption. This is an elite game. This is the Glengarry game. Its for Closers. It teaches sacred knowledge that must be jealously restricted to the privileged few who grace the halls of prestigious academic institutions. Nobody knows better than economists the value harnessed through supply and demand. To release this onto the market would be to devalue it. And so, serious games shall for now be kept under lock and key and video-games shall be for the masses.

I hope that eventually this gap will narrow, and schooling will return to being a place where learning is fun. For now we will appease the Mr. Chips generation by sucking all the life out of it for the purpose of academic analysis. But over time these technologies will take their rightful place in a curriculum and learning will hopefully become more natural again. The good news is that so-called “serious games” are making inroads into academia at the highest level. This means better education for this new generation, and best of all: better video games for everone.

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