Thursday, March 19, 2009

Games, Gamers and the Workplace

In a few short weeks I will be on a plane heading to you (the ASTD Central Iowa chapter) to discuss fun and exciting ways in which learning can leverage gadgets, games and gizmos to create engaging learning using new methods and techniques.

Before the presentation, I thought it might be fun to look at some definitions that relate to using games and gadgets in the work place.


The term “simulation” has many different meanings. The most well known type is the flight simulator. It is in these simulators where pilots learn to fly aircraft in a highly realistic environment. The concept of a simulator now includes the use of software to emulate actual equipment. It is now possible to create an electronic version of multimillion dollar equipment such as a plastics extruder. These simulators are typically not presented in 3D. They are more likely to be a representation of a control panel or parts other working machine.

Another type of simulator is a “Social Simulator.” These are simulations in which a person is simulating interactions with others. A social simulation takes place in an environment similar to the actual environment and encourages the learner to interact. These are sometimes called “Branching Simulations.” They can be created using photographs, video or, more recently 3D characters. In these simulations, the learner is presented with a question and then given several possible responses. The learner encounters a virtual character like a doctor and the doctor responds to the learner based on a pre-programmed script. The learner, based on his or her answer, is branched to the area of the simulation corresponding with the chosen response.

Branching simulations are effective for learners who are novice or new to a subject matter. The choices provide an appropriate representation of responses and help guide the learner to appropriate behavior. When a learner is more experienced or knowledgeable in the content matter, the branching simulations becomes less effective. This is because an experienced learner typically wants to provide a response that is not listed in the simulation as an option. This frustrates the experienced learner. The experienced person typically ends up selecting what he or she thinks is the right answer and doesn’t learn any new information or behaviors.

Simulations are typically solo activities. While a group may work together to help make decisions while observing a fellow learner navigating a simulation, the learner is only interacting online with the program behind the simulation. In contrast, in a virtual world, multiple learners are “inside the simulation” at the same time interacting and responding to each other.

MMORPG—Massively Multiplayer Online Role Play Game

Massively Multiplayer Online Role Play Games or (MMORPGs) are virtual 3D environments where the player assumes a role and identity not typically related to his or her real world self and attempts to earn points to move to a higher level within the game. Players become magicians, knights, priests, or warriors with special powers and interact within a persistent online world. Once a role is assumed, the player embarks on adventures or quests with a team, guild, or clan. They seek treasure, battle monsters, or accomplish other specific goals and objectives that are an inherent part of the world. A good example of this is World of Warcraft.

These worlds also are distinguished by the fact that they have a large number of players all interacting with each other in a persistent world. A persistent world is one that continues to exist and function even when the player has logged out of the world. Player generated changes to objects or items in the world remain in a manner similar to the physical world. If you move a chair in the physical world and come back three hours later the chair will remain in the same place providing no one else moved it. Moving a chair in a persistent virtual world provides the same result unlike some environments that would “reset” when the player logs out of the game.

These worlds are also inhabited by non-player characters (NPCs), which are also known as a bots (presumably short for robot) or agents (like Agent Smith in The Matrix). These NPCs are not controlled by people; they are actually programs that are designed to look like characters in the virtual world but are designed perform certain tasks or play a limited role, such as providing a clue to the treasure. NPCs operate based on pre-programmed logic.

For example, in many online role-play games there are NPCs who can be defeated to earn points or to gain wealth. Defeating these NPCs helps a player progress to the highest level in the game.

Most MMORPGs require players to work together to achieve certain goals. In World of Warcraft, a variety of players with different skills and roles join forces to achieve success in many of the quests. For example, to defeat Ragnaros, a giant seething fire god (and one of the game’s signature foes), you need a guild of various people to assume such roles as mages, hunters, healers, or priests. Each player involved in the attack of Ragnaros performs a different task. The tasks are related and are interdependent. For instance, a player acting as a warrior may be doing battle and receiving a high level of damage but be kept alive by a spell cast by a fellow player acting as a mage.

MMORPGs can be used to teach concepts related to the real world through examples. It is possible to completely corner a market in an MMORPG and then observe the repercussions were that is not possible in real life. One can also observe interactions between and among players to understand teamwork, group goals, and other social interactions. The Harvard Business Review published an article how leadership skills learned in MMORPGs can translate to some skills within actual virtual teams. However, the fantasy aspects of most MMORPGs make it difficult to apply the use of these games within a work setting.

The term MMORPG is also sometimes shortened to MMO or MMOG to represent massively multiplayer online or massively multiplayer online game because MMORPG said three times fast is a mouthful.


Early we mentioned that some of the virtual world phrases are right out of a science fiction novel. Here you go. The term Metaverse is from a 1992 science fiction novel written by Neal Stephenson called Snow Crash. The term embodies Stephenson's vision of how a 3D virtual reality-based Internet might evolve in the future. The term has come to represent the idea of a free-form online 3D world inhabited by avatars controlled by their real-life counterparts.

An avatar is how a person represents him or herself in the virtual world. The word avatar is said to be a Sanskrit word meaning the incarnation of a form of god on Earth. While this may have been the original meaning, the term now represents the virtual figure a learner decides to create to interact in the 3D world.

In most online environments, the player has the ability to change or alter his or her avatar, which can be 2D or 3D. These alterations typically include body shape, clothes, and hair style. Avatars are controlled through the computer keyboard or mouse. They are able to move independently through the virtual environment controlled by their real life owner. In the simplest terms, the avatar is an online version of the person who inhabits the metaverse. Other terms are synthetic worlds and cyber worlds.

A metaverse is similar to an MMORPG but with some vital differences. First, in a metaverse, players are not playing a defined role such as a hunter or mage, they are playing a character they have created.

A metaverse typically does not have specific goals or objectives created by the metaverse itself. Players can create their own goals or objectives, but they are not an inherent part of the world.

Finally, the environment of a metaverse typically allows the player to create his or her own digital items, such as houses and clothes, using a scripting language or by dragging and dropping items. Because of the ability to create your own things in a metaverse, these environments typically involve the exchange of some type of currency tied to real-world dollars. A person in a metaverse can buy, sell, or trade digital assets that are created by themselves or others, and then exchange the virtual currency for real-world currency.

Perhaps the best known example of a metaverse is Second Life. However, Second Life is not the only metaverse commercially available. Other worlds exist with names like Active Worlds and There. In fact, there is an organization called the Open Source Metaverse Project, which is actively promoting a free, open source version of a metaverse.

A metaverse environment can be used for training purposes. Spaces can be established within metaverses for conducting learning activities and events. It is also possible to create many different learning environments in which people can interact to learn about items in 3D. You can provide instruction on how to repair a laptop through a virtual tour of the laptop within the metaverse.

VLW—Virtual Learning Word

Another term similar to a metaverse is Virtual Learning World. This term represents the concept of creating a virtual world in which learning is the primary focus. These worlds can be expansive virtual spaces in which different type of learning occur in different areas can be confined to a small “scene” such as a city block where first responders review building evacuation techniques.

Immersive Learning Simulation

The eLearning Guild, a community of practice for e-learning professionals, defines an immersive learning simulation as: “A learning system that combines simulation, pedagogy and “hard fun” to create a truly engaging and behavior-changing form of learning.” The umbrella term encompasses many different forms of immersive learning beyond virtual worlds. Included in the terms immersive learning simulation are games, mini-games, virtual labs, serious games, and simulation/scenarios.

MMOLE-Massively Multilearner Online Learning Environment

The MMOLE is yet another term for the genre of a computer generated learning environment in which large numbers of learners interact with each other in a virtual 3D world with the specific goal of learning. The learning can occur formally through a class-like environment or through a scripted scenario (like a role play). In that way it is like a MMORPG since it has specific goals. However, learning also can occur informally through chats and discussions among learners in a fashion similar to a metaverse. So, the MMOLE is a combination of a metaverse and a MMORPG designed for learning.

MMOLEs typically have two modes, one for an instructor and one for the learners. The instructor mode allows someone to facilitate a learning event and manage the interactions within the environment. This prevents everyone from chatting at once, and it provides a formal environment in which to learn. In other words, it allows the learning to be managed.

But managed learning is not the only kind of learning that can or should occur in a MMOLE. The fact that avatars can roam around the virtual space and interact with each other through pre-programmed jesters, Voice over Internet Protocol, or text chat means that the environment can foster and encourage informal learning.

One example of this sort of MMOLE is ProtoSphere, a product created by Philadelphia-based e-learning development firm ProtonMedia. The ProtoSphere environment contains several elements that make it effective for learning, including linkages to LMSs, the ability to link to traditional e-learning courses from within the MMOLE world, and programming for tracking learner outcomes on specific events. Additionally, there is a profiling system that matches learners with each other in terms of interest and knowledge. This networking aspect facilitates informal learning within the learning environment.

Mobile Learning

The delivery of instructional content over the portable devices that employees carry with them as part of their regular job. The same devices used for checking e-mail and making phone calls provide learning opportunities through different types of media such as audio, video, animations, interactive activities, and small learning modules.

Social Networking

This is a collection of web pages for each member in an organization. The members maintain profiles describing themselves and what they are currently doing, interact with each other using network tools, and create links with other members of the social network. One in four American adults visit social networking sites at least monthly. These sites can help organizations share knowledge by helping employees find others with similar interests, view what other employees are working on, and collaboratively work on projects by having a central place for communications. Consumer-oriented social networking sites include,, and LinkedIn which is more professional-focused.

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