Using games to train people sounds kind of suspicious, like an unseemly corporate bait-and-switch tactic, or something of equal malignance -- but studies have shown that incorporating game mechanics into online training can be more effective than traditional tools and methods. In fact, an October 2010 ScienceDaily article cites a University of Colorado study that noted "those trained on video games do their jobs better, have higher skills and retain information longer than workers learning in less interactive, more passive environments."
Moreover, the games are cheap to make -- much cheaper than games designed for the entertainment industry -- and cheap for companies, in that they don't have to pay for an employee's flight to a central training center and employees can train online at home. The military has used training games since 1980; it stands to reason that businesses are next in line. EVE Online is a popular, massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) wherein players ally with corporations, set up their own businesses, and learn how to dominate markets (CEOs, traders, and other corporate executives even play the game in their quest to develop transferable skills). Likewise, retail and service-oriented industries have begun to utilize the training as well. For example, McDonalds has developed a game where employees must handle increasingly difficult customer service problems in the virtual world, and Coldstone Creamery's training game teaches employees how to give customers the appropriate amount of ice cream.
Learning Management Systems.
According to Adobe's research paper on "Serious Games" (education, learning-based games), what sets them apart from entertainment games "...is the focus on specific and intentional learning outcomes to achieve serious, measurable, sustained changes in performance and behavior." Furthermore, learning management systems are described as "content gatekeepers for learners." These are meant to measure and accurately track the user's progress, and continually update/improve upon its own design depending on the user's input.
Our entrenched "Web 2.0" mindset has pervaded almost every aspect of our online lives -- and training games are no different. New training games incorporate group chats, e-mail capability, blogs, and wikipedia in order to foster a sense of community among game users (essential for building employee camaraderie and trust).
Example of a user gaming interface.
If your training game has an avatar or similar representative body for its user -- or even a cool, changeable interface -- chances are users will take full advantage of it. Aesthetics are important, and having a "home base" for your user activity can streamline the gamer's experience, somewhat.
As Amy Jo Kim from Mixergy.com writes, feedback "keeps you on the road to mastery." Feedback is a coach that prompts you when needed, backs off when necessary, and overall possesses the capability to periodically stop and assess your progress. Feedback loops are addictive, and users will want commentary on their practice -- whether in the form of text, an icon, an animated person (or animal, or robot...)
Computer gaming lab at Angelo State University.
Foursquare learned this lesson well: They "badge" their users. Beginners have "newbie" badges, and as they continue to play and master the game, they move up to "adventurer," "explorer," etc . If users are able to move to another level, or "level up," as it were, they'll have more incentive to play the game well. Online training games can do the same by making a virtual position in the game correspond to a real-life position -- for example, a training simulation for a sales team could have the levels "sales lead," "supervisor," etc.
Engaging workers through video game learning might seem like a novel trend, but it's part of the business training wave of the future -- soon, we might even see business training games with "Halo"-like capabilities and aesthetics, though it may seem far off at the moment. (Of course, having a "Halo"-like gaming environment for your employees might set off a whole other addiction, but at least motivation to finish would be high. We think.)