Clark Aldrich and Phaedra Boinodiris on serious games

Author and serious games authority Clark Aldrich and IBM lead for serious games, Phaedra Boinodiris, talk about the growing business use of serious games for training and education.


Scott Laningham (, developerWorks Podcast Editor, IBM developerWorks

Scott LaninghamScott Laningham, host of developerWorks podcasts, was previously editor of developerWorks newsletters. Prior to IBM, he was an award-winning reporter and director for news programming featured on Public Radio International, a freelance writer for the American Communications Foundation and CBS Radio, and a songwriter/musician.

06 February 2009

developerWorks: This is a developerWorks podcast. I'm Scott Laningham here with Clark Aldrich, author of the upcoming book The Complete Guide to Simulations and Serious Games — How the Most Valuable Content Will Be Created in the Age Beyond Gutenberg to Google. Welcome to you, Clark. Thanks for being here.

Aldrich: Thank you so much for having me.

developerWorks: Also joining is Phaedra Boinodiris, Serious Games Manager for IBM®. I love that title. She has driven the creation of IBM's serious-game strategy, specifically an IBM Software Group game for business process management that's called INNOV8, now in version 2. INNOV8 has been used by more than 100 universities worldwide and integrated into core business, engineering, and computer science curriculum. Welcome to you, Phaedra.

Clark Aldrich and Phaedra Boinodiris on serious games

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Boinodiris: Thank you, Scott. Happy to be here.

developerWorks: Did I get all that right? That was a heck of a long description I gave there. [LAUGHTER]

Boinodiris: It's my name — it's very long. [LAUGHTER]

Guest: Clark Aldrich

Clark Aldrich is a the author of The Complete Guide to Simulations and Serious Games — How the Most Valuable Content Will Be Created In the Age Beyond Guttenberg to Google, which will be available in spring 2009. His work has been featured in hundreds of media outlets, including CBS, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, NPR, CNET, Business 2.0, BusinessWeek, and U.S. News and World Report. Aldrich has created some of the most effective and celebrated soft-skill simulations of the past decade, including SimuLearn’s Virtual Leader, a global product line for which he was awarded a patent and was the winner of the best online training product of the year.

developerWorks: Now Serious Games Day is coming up on Tuesday, Feb. 10, right around the corner. And we should say IBM is putting this on for the first time to highlight the growth of serious games. Serious games really started as flight simulation in the military, but they're now expanding use of them into helping universities support students and corporations support employees with all types of skill building.

Some examples of that, we were talking about earlier, types of scenarios might have to do with skill development in areas around building more power efficient grids, improving traffic flow with what's going on obviously with lots of increased traffic on the roadways, reducing waste in the food supply chain, things like that.

Clark, why don't you kick it off, if you would, talking about the difference between — if there is a difference between — serious games, simulation games, immersive games, virtual worlds, all these different titles and ways of describing things. Are they different?

Guest: Phaedra Boinodiris

Phaedra Boinodiris is currently working on serious games and Web 2.0 initiatives for the IBM Software Group. In her role, she leads the development of IBM's serious games, including Innov8, which mor than 100 universities use as a tool to introduce university students to business and technology in a compelling gaming environment. Prior to joining IBM, Boinodiris was an entrepreneur with Through WomenGamers, she started the first scholarship in the United States for women to get degrees in game design and development. She has spoken at numerous conferences, including WIGI, GDC and the Los Angeles Games Conference. She was recently named one of the top 100 women in the gaming industry by Women in Games International for her contributions to the gaming industry.

Aldrich: Yes, it's a great question. And people are really confused about this, and this is been a major barrier in this entire industry, is the confusion between the various terms. So let me see if I can do a good job here. I like to look at three different things: There are virtual worlds, then there are serious games, and then there are educational simulations.

In virtual worlds, Second Life is a great example of one, you know, a large, persistent infrastructure environment in which people can go. Games on the other hand, or serious games, are more entertaining, structured content of which probably the best example is SimCity. So, something that is fun to play and during the course of playing it one raises some awareness about some critical issues. And then there are educational simulations, which tend to be very rigorous. You mentioned flight simulators, which is sort of the paragon example of an educational simulation. Much more strict, much more rigorous, much ... actually, in a lot of cases, much harder and requiring a coach to facilitate. Then on the other hand, it's much better at actually transferring skills.

One can look at, if one wants to, which is one reason why it's so confusing, all games take place in some type of virtual world, even if it's not a giant one like Second Life. And all educational simulations are ultimately a specialized form of some kind of game. So the concepts are very nested, but the goals of each are very different.

developerWorks: So Phaedra, where does INNOV8 fit into this picture that Clark's describing?

Boinodiris: INNOV8 is a serious game. It has been built on a true-blue 3-D game engine, not built on a virtual world like Second Life. And it has a very structured focus; it is very mission-based. There are a set of puzzles, a set of learning points to guide the player through the learning process. It teaches business process management.

developerWorks: Where are we on the curve of the development of that game?

Boinodiris: Well, we're working now in the next generation version, on INNOV8 V2.0. INNOV8 V1.0 has been adopted and is being used by well over 100 universities worldwide, within their MBA programs typically, to teach MBA students about the value proposition behind business process management and how it can really affect an entire business ecosystem.

developerWorks: That's cool. Now Clark — you know, we're in the early stages, obviously, of adoption of these technologies you all are talking about, and I'm wondering if you might talk about some of the breakthroughs or milestones in recent years that have made all this stuff possible.

Aldrich: Well, I think the easy answer are things like 3-D graphic cards that make first-person dynamic animation possible — the advent of fast computers. But I'm going to be a little more controversial perhaps and say that one of the greatest innovations is that of great designers. I think all the technology is useless unless you have a great designer behind them. And one of the things that we're at now is we now have a lot of great designers who've been building computer games, and Will Wright is such a great example. But we've built up entire library of concepts for how to structure content — everything from training level to end-of-level bosses to the final level to open ending games to very tight games.

And the computer game designers have built up, almost independent of technology, a whole library of syntax around these kinds of experiences. And what's interesting is that we all have a fairly consistent framework around books and magazines. We know what goes into a book; there's chapters, there's headings, there's bullets, there's italics, there's a bibliography at the end.

So we know these concepts around books, and now we're finding that a lot of these very predictable constructs are around games, as well. And now we can start adopting them in more and more places. I think one thing that hasn't happened yet, which is just starting to happen, is researchers, whether they're corporate researchers or academic researchers, are having to look at content a lot more dynamically. Most simulations have a model of actions and results, and then a system that connects them. Actions are what you do in the simulation; results are what you're trying to get, or what you sometimes get by accident. But systems are the invisible thing that connects the actions and the results, and oftentimes trying to understand the invisible system is what separates success or failure in a simulation.

So another thing that is just starting to happen is that researchers at all levels are starting to focus — whether it's looking at traffic patterns as you mentioned before, or interpersonal skills like project management, or relationship management, or leadership, or even stewardship — starting to look at these invisible systems as really important things on [to uncover] that can then get baked into a good simulation.

developerWorks: Let me ask you Phaedra, and Clark chime in on this, too, if you would please, I'm sure you have something to say about it. But I'm wondering about how are you able to show or convince the universities about serious games being an effective tool for learning. What do you have to say?

Boinodiris: You know, honestly, it hasn't been a difficult battle to fight — not in the least. And the main reason is because of demographics. The average age of the gamer, and this is not according to IBM, this is according to the Entertainment Software Association. The average age is 35. Forty-three percent of PC gamers and 38 percent of console gamers are women; 67 percent of heads of households play video games on a regular basis. So the idea that video games are only being played by teenaged boys is incorrect, for one. So these are students, these are project managers, these are employees within companies playing video games on a regular basis.

Additionally, there has been a significant amount of research done on serious games in terms of retention of knowledge, in comparison to more traditional methods of learning. For example, if I were to give a lecture on business-process management and the value proposition for businesses, it's rather a difficult concept to get across in a lecture. But if you think about actually putting a student within an environment where they can directly see, and understand, and play around with a business-process model, then the learning that is retained is significantly more in something that can be offered via serious game.

developerWorks: Yes. Doing has a much greater impact in the long run than just watching, right?

Boinodiris: Exactly, exactly.

Aldrich: And the difference is highly measurable. We have done a lot of 360s, and pre and posts, and found there's a huge difference in the retention rate. We had one professor who was a top-rated professor, got very, very high scores from all his executive education programs. But then he actually decided to ask students six months after they left the university how much of what they learned they actually applied. And he found out through his traditional lecture process, the students not only didn't really apply much of what they learned. They actually didn't even remember it.

And so the professor then decided to put in a few educational simulations to augment his class, did the same study, and found that a huge number of students now actually both remembered and applied the content that they learned through simulation where his other class that did the traditional method of lecture and papers, kept not applying the content, either. So from a pure application perspective, it's a huge, huge difference in terms of the impact on the workforce.

The only other thing, though, is there's probably two great revolutions that are impacting higher education right now: One is distance-learning programs, and the other is educational simulation. There's a huge contrast in most organizations that I've looked at between how academic institutions handle those two programs.

For distance learning, there's a huge amount of support. It tends to be dean-driven, or administer-driven. You know, if you're a teacher who is asked to do virtual learning programs, there's help desks and all kinds of 800 numbers, and huge amounts of support. But each year, a professor who is deploying educational simulation, you're mostly on your own and so there's really, a lot of organizations have not been overly supportive.

They haven't dissuaded them, but it's been a philosophy more of "Sure. If you want to do it, go for it. But you know, we're not going to help you from a department perspective, and we expect you to show really great results at the end of the process." So it's funny to contrast the two different revolutions going on and how differently they are treated. The only thing is they are coming together, and a lot of distance-learning programs are aggressively using simulations for both the reasons we talked about, which is they're engaging and they are effective.

developerWorks: Well, to get more specific about the point of return on investment then, I'm wondering how you make the case for that substantial upfront investment in creating a serious game because I'm assuming that is a factor.

Boinodiris: ROI is critical. I mean, if you're going to make the case within an organization to invest in a serious game, the very first question that is asked is, "OK — what's my return on the investment?" For us, it was very simple and very clear. There is a skills gap currently today in business-process management and Service-Oriented Architecture, period. I mean, there's a skills gap.

These concepts are not being taught or not being taught well enough within universities for students to be able to tackle the jobs that are out there today and the jobs of the future, right. So games like INNOV8 address that very real need. So that's No. 1 in terms of ROI, is that we've shown that it is a vehicle for the retention of ... greater retention of learning around business-process management.

The second advantage to us, and it's a secondary advantage, but certainly an advantage nonetheless, is recruiting. We put this game out there, and there has been all kinds of calls and resumes from people all around the world, saying, "Wow! I had no idea that IBM is doing things in serious games. IBM is a very, very innovative and cool company to work for. They get it. They get the gaming paradigm. They speak to me. I'm really, really interested in working for a place like IBM."

developerWorks: That's cool.

Aldrich: I'll give you one comment on that, as well. And I think the point is a lot of companies that are having very successful serious game strategies are not looking at ROI numbers specifically, but how do simulations meet their strategic goals. I think that's a much powerful, and robust, and a long-term solution as opposed to saying, "Hey — the ROI of the average serious game is 42 percent, let's adopt one because I don't think that argument really works."

So this issue of meeting a very specific strategic need, whether it's time for new hires to get augmented into a culture for example, or learning a critical skill and closing a skill gap, is really huge. The other thing to note is a lot of organizations that I've worked with have less of a problem with the cost of serious games and more a problem with time to development.

And unfortunately, a lot of serious games, if you start from scratch, are still going to take about eight or nine months to create and test. So what a lot of organizations are having to do, and it's actually a good thing, is to go and buy a lot of prepackaged content and maybe do some slight customization of it. And I think that's a really important trend.

It used to be in the old days that training people could build a really mediocre program from scratch, and they could do it fairly quickly, and they can control everything like the colors, and they can control everything like the corporate logo. And I think a lot of training groups are realizing that their own ROI, their own ability to impact [the stated] goals is much, much higher using prepackaged, but maybe customizable content.

developerWorks: I was wondering, Clark, if there's some examples other than INNOV8 that we're are talking about here, that jump to mind that you'd like to mention, you know, particular companies or games that really stand out to you.

Aldrich: Well, I'm going to be a little biased here, but I was a lead designer of a product called Virtual Leader and now VLeader. When I built it, my goal was to test it as rigorously as I possibly could and have outside people test it as rigorously as they could. And what we found through a lot of different studies, including dissertation studies for academic Ph.D.s, is that when people do go through a good serious game or educational simulation, their actual performance as ranked against other people in the organization goes up, and in some cases, goes up considerably.

We've had some rigorous studies showing a 22-percent improvement in productivity of students who have gone through one, just one interpersonal simulation. So I think the numbers are really amazing. And for people who aren't used to being in a training world, when they start doing for 360s, when they start seeing, you know, numbers like subordinates like their bosses 61.9 percent higher ... [LAUGHTER] the superiors like their employees 42 percent higher, then it makes a huge impact.

What is interesting, though, is that again looking at the same 360s, in a lot of cases, the self person sees the least improvement of everyone else around them. So the person who went through the simulation and says, "Well, yes. A lot of the stuff was pretty obvious. I'm just applying it more, but I kind of already knew this."

And everyone around them is saying, "Oh, my goodness. It's a whole different person." So it's interesting when you start impacting people at an implicit level rather than at an explicit level a) how impactful it really is in terms of changing behavior, and b) tends to be the self who is the least aware of the changes of everyone else around them.

developerWorks: There are obviously some new and growing challenges — we mentioned some of those right in the very beginning there — that are going to require either enhanced skills or, in some cases, entirely new set of skills.

And the ones we mentioned upfront, you know, building more efficient power grids, challenges around traffic flow and roadway design, reducing waste in the food supply chain. Is there something about serious games that make them ideal for developing some of these next-gen skills, do you think?

Boinodiris: Absolutely. The really wonderful thing about serious games is that for many of them, they do not re-create the wheel. They take a lessons learned and tricks of the trade from very popular entertainment titles and reuse them for their own purposes.

So for example, the ability to have visualization of a business ecosystem. The ability to have multiplayer team building for the optimal team, an assessment of skills, and mission assignments, and monitoring. I mean, all of these kinds of things available within entertainment titles are being borrowed more and more and more with in the world of serious games, to make them better training tools, better evangelizing tools, and even better marketing tools, in many cases.

Aldrich: I absolutely agree. And one of the biggest tragedies, if you will, is that if you make a list of all the most important skills an individual can have, whether it be stewardship, or leadership, or relationship management, or security, or innovation, or whatever, go through the list of traditional skills. None of those skills have been taught very successfully at a university level, and a lot of organizations have failed to teach them, as well.

And one reason for that, not because we didn't think they were important, but because we couldn't. Traditional linear media is really, really bad at teaching any of the learning-to-do skills. They're really good at learning-tokknow skills, but they're really bad at learning-to-do skills.

And so one of the great, exciting parts about this whole next century is that we can teach some of these things that we previously thought of as being unteachable. And when you look at the last eight or nine years and the state of the economy, one reason why the economy is so bad is because corporations have given up in a lot of cases at actually rigorously developing management skills in most of their organizations.

And so the opportunity here, which is staggering, I mean, just game-changing, is the ability to rigorously teach these skills that simply had to have been picked up at ad hoc previously. So it's an absolutely incredible opportunity to change the dynamics of the entire economy.

Boinodiris: To tag on to Clark's point, one of the great things about corporate serious games is they are, they offer an opportunity to teach business skills for the next generation of jobs. So responding quickly to change, evaluating a current business, maximizing profit — how do you do this? How do you learn the tricks of the trade of maximizing your business to its full potential within a game? So you get that down pat. You get that feeling, you get that understanding before you go and you invest, or make some mistakes that you may make out in the real market.

developerWorks: Right.

Aldrich: The real value there is that you can have 10, or 15, or 20, or 100 students going through the exact same experience and, therefore, having common reference. And just like there is a network effect with e-mail, a network effect with computers, there is a network effect with formal learning. And so if you have a whole lot of people going through one experience, now they're speaking the same language, they're having the same visual metaphors, they're having the same visualizations, having the same reference points.

And they are so much more productive as a team than a bunch of individual people. I used to think that if you really want to punish one employee, send one employee in the business group to a great conference. They're going to come back with all of these great ideas and just not be able to move the ball forward at all. So having a bunch of people being able to engage in the same experience simultaneously and then move forward productively is just huge.

developerWorks: Boy, and isn't it true in this economy now, you know, there's going to be a little bit less of that flying people all over the world and to get together, this is just to be more important.

Boinodiris: Truly, truly.

Aldrich: It's closer to work, and it's less disruptive to the system, and it's more productive, so I think we'll see a lot more of it.

developerWorks: I wonder if as a closing bit here, if you could both give us maybe your crystal-ball predictions and what you think we'll be seeing in this space in the years to come.

Boinodiris: My crystal-ball prediction is that this space is going to explode. Especially with the economy as it is today, there's going to be a greater emphasis on serious games as a primary form of training instead of flying people out to a site where they have to sit in front of a computer and pay for a hotel, etc.

There's going to be more serious games leveraged for all different kinds of training, for on-boarding, leadership skill-building, etc. Additionally, I think more models of serious games that adopt a build-your-own kind of environment. There's a very popular game out there called Never Winter Nights. It's an entertainment title where it enables you to build your own game play so that you can act sort of as a mastermind of your game and have people play your game. There is going to be many more games like that, I think, that are going to be ... game environments that will be built.

Additionally, we had a report out a couple years ago that talked about massively multiplayer role-playing games as a fantastic platform for the building of leadership skills, business leadership skills specifically. I think we are going to see more of that kind of genre being explored both by the military and by corporate to see how these kinds of environments can be leveraged.

More and more and more, you know, building your optimal sales team, giving them missions, determining what the right strategy is and reviewing the best practices, that kind of thing. They were going to see more and more of cool games like that.

Aldrich: Yes, I absolutely agree. One thing that we almost have to see is right now, one of the biggest barriers in serious games adoption in corporations, and military, and academic, are the baby boomers. They've grown up on video, and they still look at this stuff with suspicion and distrust.

Frankly, a tremendous amount of my own clients in all three worlds — in military, corporate and academic — are the baby-boomers who have now just come to power and who are now able to control that destiny of the skill sets of their organization. So I see that as a very, very specific trend, which is that the baby-boomers have been very reluctant to give up power, and very reluctant to adopt some new methodologies. And I think as we're seeing them moving on for the [INAUDIBLE] terrific gains are made by the innovative next generation.

Boinodiris: The game stigma is disappearing. I 100-percent agree.

developerWorks: Author Clark Aldrich and IBM Serious Games manager Phaedra Boinodiris. Thank you both for making time for this. This has been great.

Boinodiris: My pleasure Scott. Thank you.

Aldrich: Yes. This has been great.

developerWorks: Visit for more information. Also find related content at, IBM's premier technical resource for software developers with tools, code and education on IBM's products and open-standards technology. I'm Scott Laningham. Talk to you next time.



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