A few years ago my research at Newcastle University Business School took an unexpected turn towards virtual worlds and online gaming. In retrospect it made sense because I was always interested in computer games and had spent more hours than I'd like to admit in front of my computer fighting endless battles and trying to solve riddles and puzzles.
To external observers (aka my parents) this may have appeared strange and often extreme. Still, back then gaming was an excellent way of getting to know how the computer actually worked, offering ample opportunity to familiarise myself with it. In my experience, I knew I was learning much while engaging with the game, even if it was just me vs. the computer.
Fast forwarding a few years, computer capabilities increased dramatically with gaming moving online.
I became interested in how these new virtual worlds started developing, not just in terms of gaming (e.g. in games like World of Warcraft), but also when it came to hosting social and business activities (e.g. in worlds like Second Life).
Although initially the focus was on what was happening in the virtual world itself, it soon became apparent to me that what was equally, if not more, interesting was the link with the real world and the impact virtual worlds can have on real life, transcending the borders of the gaming environment.
This became even more apparent to me when I joined a virtual airline, flying a regional jet using Microsoft Flight Simulator X. If pilots can be trained in simulations, can gaming simulations make any differences to business skills?
I set to answer this question in collaboration with Dr Despoina Xanthopoulou from the University of Crete.
Following a sample of employees who were also gamers, the research revealed that playing massively multiplayer role playing games (MMORPG), can have beneficial effects on real-life work through the transmission of virtually practiced leadership skills and active learning behaviours (learning by doing). In the achievement-orientated world of MMORPGs, many of the combat-related activities needed to gain points, solve quests or enhance the social capital of an avatar, hold similarities to common work tasks.
From collaboration to meeting targets, team work to resolve complex missions, strategic planning, allocating resources, to recruiting new players to form groups, there is a clear link between the skills needed to enjoy a good game performance, and the real corporate world. For this reason, the players who have had to manifest good leadership skills and gaming behaviours to succeed in MMORPGs, were more likely to see these characteristics spill over from games to their real work-life. This spill over effect was particularly evident when combined with high performance standards in the game.
When players see their avatars acting in a certain way, it is highly probable that they will change their work behaviour in the real world to be consistent with their online self. Our study revealed that it could be viable for organisations to develop staff training methods within specially designed metaverses to help employees harness leadership skills, active learning behaviours and professional development.
As the working world demands international collaboration across continents within online environments like emails, webinars and e-conferences, we are more virtual than ever before. Through this increase in interactive business activity via the evolving information systems available, and our research findings, I believe that virtual worlds could be a viable training method used by corporations to aid staff development, and hone good leadership skills.
Let the games begin!