The Secret Powers of Immersive Games to Develop People

Learn why some organizations actually make their people play video games at work to improve skills, boost engagement & productivity and improve business outcomes.

Video games may be a big part of your teenager’s life, but have you ever thought you'd play them at work? Certain video games, called immersive games, are revolutionizing the way organizations train and engage their people.

Employee engagement is crucial if organizations, and ultimately the people within them, want to be successful. In this blog, we’ll take a look at how immersive games are used to spark employee engagement that results in measurable, sustained changes in performance and behavior, and ultimately boost your business.

You’ll also learn how renowned learning scientist Sasha Barab thinks about the power of immersive games to change lives. Then you’ll  see examples of games that are used to change lives in areas as diverse as Child Protective Services and even dentistry.

The Real Reasons Behind the Employee Engagement Crisis

If your organization is not performing, you may want to look at how workers feel. Curt W. Coffman, global practice leader at the Gallup Organization, says, “We know that 55 percent of all U.S. employees are not engaged at work. They are basically in a holding pattern.”  According to business psychologist Douglas LaBier, Ph.D. the top three reasons for this disconnect are because workers feel like:

  • They don’t belong

  • They’re invisible or underutilized

  • They lack certain skills and opportunities for learning & development

These feelings lead to low engagement, low productivity and a retention crisis, just to name a few.

The New Workplace Revolution: Games

Video games are a powerful medium. A recent study found that 211.5 million Americans play video games, the industry drawing over $20 billion per year in consumer spending.

More than simple entertainment, the Entertainment Software Association states that the most frequent gamers play for a sense of connection or learning.

The UNC reports that serious games “can develop soft skills like emotional intelligence, communication management, and critical problem solving skills.”

The Young Entrepreneur Council says, “Immersive gaming has the potential to revolutionize the entire process of recruiting, onboarding, corporate leadership training, and HR compliance … the potential for changing workplace engagement and satisfaction is limitless.”

So it’s no surprise that employers are scrambling to bring such a powerful medium into the workplace.

So why do the best immersive games speak to us?

“The potential for immersive gaming to revolutionize workplace engagement and satisfaction is limitless.”

—Young Entrepreneur Council

Immersive games speak to us because they tap into key motivators of human behavior.

  • Achievementemployees feel a sense of achievement when they’ve successfully completed the object of a game

  • Rewards: employees view immersive games as learning experiences when they’re rewarded feedback, something often lacking in employee engagement

  • Connection: employees feel more positive about, and connected to, the organization when they interact with one another, something that’s built into immersive games

As you’ll learn, for a game to make lasting changes, they must encourage conversations that analyze content, decisions and the feelings the game provoked.

Getting Deep with Sasha Barab, Impact Game Scientist

I sat down with Sasha Barab to learn how immersive games are changing the way work gets done. Sasha co-founded the Center for Games and Impact. He is also a professor at the School for the Future of Innovation of Society and the Teachers College at Arizona State University. Sasha has researched, designed and published extensively about using a special type of immersive game to drive change. The games are known as impact games.

Six factors of a well-designed impact game

Sasha’s current work investigates the power of games to help individuals thrive, or level up. Games that have a real impact allow players to level up in the game and in real life.

“A good game lets you adopt goals, gives you feedback about your progress and what you need to do next to succeed. That sounds like a great learning environment,” Sasha says.

The learning environment Sasha refers to is one that invites players to experience six key things:

  • Keep players in a world where they will confront problems they’ll face in real life

  • Step into unfamiliar roles so they can see things from a new point of view

  • Engagement through plot and decision-making that forces them to explore the consequences

  • Room to fail safely

  • Encourage players to participate in conversations about their choices afterward

  • Elicit real emotions

Games that follow this model affect players’ real lives.

“The game is about me leveling up in life, not me leveling up in some fictional space … A fictional space to play safely and get practical feedback is huge. But if we don’t integrate it with you trying those same ideas in the world—we’ve failed.”

—Sasha Barab

Impact games for the real world

To demonstrate, Sasha introduced me to two immersive games that have made a real impact on players.

Imagine these:

  • You’re in the middle of the conflict in Uganda. It’s up to you to decide if international courts should bring in troops to establish peace. As you make your decisions, the game indicates whether your actions will produce peace, hate or freedom. The game is fully effective when it prompts memories of human rights violations closer to home.

  • You work for Child Protective Services. Your job is to identify threats to decide whether or not to remove a child from their home. Later, you’re asked to return and look for potential strengths. This forces you to change perceptions to see things you can use to rebuild a safe environment for the child.

“Games offer immediate feedback, you can see your progress, you can try something and be frustrated but later learn more… that’s why game play is so engaging to us.”

—Barbara Chamberlin, Project Director, New Mexico State University Learning Games Lab

Games that force hard decisions with significant consequences are the most effective. The emotions these games provoke open up conversations in and outside the workplace.  Not everyone will be asked to remove a child from an abusive home, or end a crisis in a war-laden country, but the same technology benefits a wide spectrum of industries.

Even The Montreal Public Transit System reduced training time by 50% and increased overall employee performance by 32% after implementing immersive learning. They’re not the only ones.

Sasha’s latest project took the power of gaming down another path. He addresses a specific industry, with specific problems to solve: the dental industry.


An Unexpected Place for Immersive Games: Dental Offices

There’s a formula for creating an effective immersive game. “The key is to match the mechanics of your game with the impact goals of the community that’s using them,” says Sasha.

These needs are significant and affect the long-term sustainability of dental organizations. Research has shown that:

  • Dentists who have an average of 22 years of experience retain only 31% of new patients, which means there is no guaranteed sustainability for their office

  • Without loyal patients, dentists have to put extra effort and expense into attracting new business

  • Loyal patients bring new patients into the office through referrals, and referred patients generally follow treatment recommendations more often and have improved patient health than patients gained from advertising

  • Patients who don’t accept treatment recommendations are more vulnerable to attrition than those who accept recommendations

Patients say they want dentists to listen and engage them in conversations about their treatment. According to the Journal of Young Investigators, “Patients expect dentists to listen and to understand their needs, as well as to objectively assess their social and cultural characteristics.”  

Sasha saw a place where an immersive game can make a big difference.

Games that address two things that dentists need

To build a game with enough impact to make a  lasting impression, Sasha needed to change the way dentists work with their patients. This would increase trust with patients which results in enduring relationships and positive outcomes for patients, dentists and dental practices or organizations.

Dentists need to practice “The Ask”

Rather than treat multiple issues in a single session, patients tend to wait until problems are so neglected they require advanced treatment. Knowing how to ask alleviates the discomfort on the part of the dentist. It also opens up communication with the patient. This results in improved outcomes for patients and establishes a trusting relationship that is more likely to last.

Learning to create “Patients for Life”

Patient retention is essential for the success of dental clinics. New patients provide growth and revenue, but “Patients for Life” support the long-term sustainability of the dental practice. Learning to communicate in a way that builds those relationships increases security in the practice and can help improve the overall health of the patient.

Immersive games help dentists learn to serve patients better. Dentists get experience before they interact with patients, and set a course of conversations to support each other better.

These uses fit the core reasons Sasha began designing immersive games. He explains that games must be aimed at maximizing every player’s potential in meaningful relationships, personal growth and real world impact. If games are going to serve these purposes, they have to be designed with that in mind.

Like Them or Not, Immersive Games Will Change the Way Work Gets Done

The solution to concerns about immersive games is clear: Games must be designed to achieve intended consequences. Well-designed games are essential if they are to have long term effect. They must improve skills and allow for meaningful conversations to follow that provide a sense of achievement, community and reward for their work. Only then will employees benefit from immersive games by becoming more engaged in the workplace.

“As companies see the benefits of increased engagement through games, the number and variety of learning applications will continue to grow,” Katy Tynan, Harvard Business Review.

Whether you’re excited or luke-warm about games in the workplace, you might get to play one in your organization. According to a study by Frost & Sullivan, in collaboration with GITEX Technology Week 2016, immersive games will be adopted across most industries by 2025.

So get ready to play!