Is gaming a hot new trend in employee communications?

Your company may soon be using interactive games to teach employees, reach the public and market products.

When the Internet powerhouse Yahoo wanted to teach ethics to its employees, it faced a challenge familiar to multinational companies.

Yahoo employs nearly 14,000 people at 25 sites worldwide. Some work in environments where, say, a local inspector might hint that building permits would come through more quickly if somebody slipped him an envelope of cash.

But let’s face it: Yahoo’s tech-savvy staff would chafe at sitting down in front of a dated video in which actors with 1980s haircuts enact ethical dilemmas. So it hired a Georgia-based company called The Network to animate a game that involves a flying trailer, as well as a click-and-drag Q&A in which you feed wrong answers to a piranha named Ramon.

Yahoo isn’t the only company that is discovering the merit of games in communications, marketing and learning. Last summer Cisco Systems deployed a game by Juxt Interactive and No Mimes Media for its annual sales meeting. Jumping in on a thriller-like plot, the game forced staffers to use company technology as they untangled an international conspiracy.

Insight of the living dead

Tandem Learning has designed games for the eLearning Guild with names like “Zombie Apocalypse” and “Dr. Strangelearn’s Learning Laboratory.” Players competed in teams while gaining insight about how to overcome institutional resistance to new technology.

The Constellation Academy of Wine used Tandem’s game, called “Que Syrah, Syrah,” at a meeting last year, teaching national sales managers interacting through their BlackBerry Curves how to select and order the right wines for tony venues.

“ARGs don’t have to rely on big, expensive technologies,” said Tandem CEO Koreen Olbrish. “They provide opportunities for immersive learning through a unique combination of storytelling and game mechanics.” Many such activities are described as transmedia or alternative-reality games, involving both interactive and real-world elements. Proponents say they draw more enthusiastic participation and teach more effectively than traditional methods.

“Gaming will change the way we learn,” says Carlos Dominguez, a Cisco senior vice president. “I believe in the future much more of our communications, much more of everything we do is going to be based on learning technologies like ARGs or transmedia-type devices.”

At Cisco last summer, staffers worldwide played a game that included actors and was filmed with a Hollywood-type realism. The game dropped clues through video, phone calls, social media—and even a real treasure box hidden in Oslo, Norway. More than 12,000 participants made use of Facebook and Twitter, which enabled them to interact with characters in the game.

Modeling behavior

ARGs are more than just a fun way to learn. They can model how to do the right thing at the right time, says Tim Martin, managing partner with Global Business Entrepreneur Network. In the case of “Que Syrah, Syrah”—the wine game—people learned about the wines and making sales while using their BlackBerries and logging information in to their company, he says.

“Modeling that behavior is a tricky thing for training,” Martin says. “It’s a particularly tricky thing for education as well. And ARGs are the golden key for doing that.

“The game is engineered so that they have more fun and feel more success when they are executing the behaviors correctly.”

Perhaps that’s why companies are becoming so interested in games. In part, they are a natural with a generation that grew up with video games. But games appeal to people besides millennials.

After all, Baby Boomers haven’t exactly spent their spare time poring over the three-ring binders covering company policy. Those often end up in the bottom drawer of a filing cabinet after Day One on the job. But participation in an international hunt for evil conspirators tends to stay in one’s mind longer.

Cherryflava

In South Africa, Dimension Data, a major IT company, wanted to engage staff in new ways as a lead-up to its annual sales conference in Cape Town. So it hired Cherryflava, which has produced games for clients as diverse as the city of Cape Town and Virgin Active gyms, says Cherryflava co-founder Jonathan Cherry.

In the game, Grace, an innovative holographic program, got hijacked by a virus, and Dimension Data’s staff received a series of clues that had to be solved to help free Grace. Such interactive communication tools are “most certainly a growing trend,” Cherry says.

“We prefer to have a multi-layered approach that blurs the lines of our perception of reality,” he says. “The advantage is a much higher return on your investment with respect to the event, and content that is far more memorable.”

The results speak for themselves. Yahoo’s game, “On the Road with the Code,” is an interactive, immersive ethics training program. To create this, Yahoo turned to The Network, a firm that helps companies to comply with regulations and create an ethical culture.

Forcing ethical decisions

A code of conduct may run to hundreds of pages of legalese stuck up on the intranet somewhere, says Network CEO Luis Ramos. But by creating an interactive game, Yahoo forces employees to address ethical situations. (The Network also has off-the-shelf products for companies with a smaller budget.)

In the game, the trailer where Yahoo was founded traveled the world, turning into a boat and a helicopter along the way as it visited some of Yahoo’s foreign offices. Participants play in game show-like scenarios that quiz them about conflicts of interest, doing business fairly and anti-corruption statues. And employees note: Yahoo is tracking how well they do, Ramos says.

In an ethics quiz, Yahoo! employees dragged true answers to a briefcase but fed the false ones to a piranha.

Companies have reason to be vigilant. Good ethics is not just a matter between the individual employee and his Maker. Countries like the U.S. and the United Kingdom have laws that prevent companies from paying bribes, Ramos says. Someone who offers to grease the palm of an official in Nigeria could be prosecuted in the U.K.

Once employees had played the game, internal calls to Yahoo’s ethics and compliance office nearly doubled, Ramos says. This was just what Yahoo was hoping for.

“The biggest thing they saw was they started hearing a lot more from that employee population,” Ramos says. “Employees started contacting them, asking them questions, following up on issues.”

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