Teaching Sustainable Values through Serious Gaming

This is the first of two posts on serious gaming and corporate social responsibility. Part 2: Games that Can Change the World.

Are you a Farmville addict?  Does your son spend hours playing World of Warcraft? While you and millions of others play on-line games to have fun, an increasing number of business leaders, government officials and academicians want to tap the popularity and power of on-line and video games to create serious games that spur players to solve problems, learn and change their behavior.  They believe that serious gaming has the potential to help achieve the systemic change that society needs to reach its sustainability goals.

Speakers from Deloitte, Advanced Micro Devices and E-Line Media shared their vision for the future of serious gaming at the recent Justmeans “Social Media, Technology and Change: The Future of Stakeholder Engagement” conference in New York.

Why Games Can Change Behavior

The session was kicked off by Alan Gershenfeld, founder and president of E-Line Media, a publisher of digital entertainment that “engages, educates and empowers youth with games that are fun, impactful and relevant.” Gershenfeld set the tone for the session with a rapid-fire recitation of the many reasons why on-line games are effective tools for behavior change.  Games are ubiquituous, participatory and involve role-playing.  They present challenges and rewards, allow gamers to experience failure as fun, offer real-time optimization and involve complexity.  Plus, they are social and encourage creativity

Deloitte’s Business Simulation Game

Ralph Thurm, director of sustainability strategies for Deloitte, shares Gershenfeld’s passion for serious games and sees them as critical to achieving behavior change. Thurm began by emphasizing the amazing popularity of recreational games:  500 million gamers globally and 22 million hours spent globally on gaming — each week. According to Thurm, six million years of human life have already been spent playing the wildly popular World of Warcraft multiplayer, on-line role-playing game with 12 million subscribers worldwide.

Still skeptical? Consider this: World of Warcraft developer Actvision Blizzard, posted revenue of over $3 billion for the first three quarters of 2010.  Noting that the world’s second largest wiki is devoted to World of Warcraft, Thurm observed that games create collective intelligence and offer the potential to provide a transformative experience.

“If we want to achieve systemic change, we need to change behavior,” declared Thurm. While most companies focus on the “hard” elements of corporate social responsibility (CSR) such as formal processes and systems, Thurm argues that these steps are necessary but insufficient.  Without the soft elements such as engaging stakeholders and equipping them with the necessary skills, CSR efforts won’t achieve maximum impact.

That’s where serious games such as the Deloitte Business Simulation Game come in.  They strive to help players get involved in sustainability dilemmas and challenges as they solve problems, make choices and have fun.

Launched at the Global Reporting Initiative Conference in Amsterdam last May, the game is offered by Deloitte as a change management tool.  In the game, participants learn how to balance the qualitative and quantitative dimensions of people, planet, and profit in a business context.

Appealing to Millennials

Thurm maintains that games are effective learning and leadership development tools and will soon become standard fare at corporations.  “Companies that don’t offer games (as learning tools), won’t be attractive to Millennials (also known as Generation Y).  These young recruits are already asking Deloitte and other companies what they’re doing with games,” said Thurm.

Thurm hopefully pointed to the recent launch of Gameful, “an online Secret HQ for gamers and game developers who want to help change the world and make our real lives better.”

“Companies that don’t offer gaming will be on the loser’s path,” predicted Thurm.  “All companies will use serious gaming to teach leadership.  It’s the best way to develop learning about the complexities of sustainability.”

Sustainability leader Novo Nordisk is already is using games to help its stakeholders understand the dilemmas its employees face as they strive to operate a responsible corporation.  The Danish pharmaceutical giant  offers three online games: Business Ethics Challenge, The Enviro Man and The Convincer.

Serious games are aimed at all age groups. The game Minimonos, an eco-friendly version of World of Warcraft, creates a web-based world in which children control monkey avatars as they learn sustainable values.  (Sounds to me like a serious, tropical version of Club Penguin.) Formed in 2007 in New Zealand, Minimonos was recently featured in Forbes as one of the “games that can change the world.”

All this enthusiasm seemed a bit over the top to me at first.  Then I recalled the life and death choices I encountered while leading my virtual wagon train westward across Great Plains with minimal loss of life while playing the video game “Oregon Trail” years ago. I still remember having to make hard choices about purchasing supplies with a limited budget (it WAS a good idea to bring along a violin and harmonica to keep up morale) and choosing between difficult options (cross a raging river today or lose time by going to a safer ferry far upstream?)

So, perhaps the serious gaming advocates are on to something.  What do you think?

Cindy Mehallow is principal of CRM Communications, a woman-owned sustainability communications consulting practice specializing in corporate social responsibility reporting and stakeholder communications. GRI-Certified in sustainability reporting, Cindy has produced award-winning sustainability reports for Fortune 500 clients in a variety of industries.