Online business games – undiscovered, ‘behind the curve’, or of limited value?

I recently wrote a post about Zynga, an online social games developer (here).  Zynga is growing quickly, wth games that they develop having tens of milions of subscribers/players.  In that post I speculated that there could be a huge opportunity for a business to develop (or co-develop) a successful ‘social business game’.

In the meantime, I came across various examples of online business games, including ‘Energyville‘, an online game developed between Chevron (the energy company) and The Economist (the magazine), which was launched in September 2007 (press release). Energyville isn’t in fact a ‘social game’, but rather just an online game, but I thought that this would be a good opportunity to take the thoughts further, given its backing by two well known companies

Energyville

The goals of Energyville appear to be to educate the public about the various energy options, and demands that human population growth will bring on energy providers and our combined energy resource demands. The connection with ‘The Economist’ is interesting in that it provides credibility (otherwise the site might look like Chevron oil ‘propaganda’), and seems to work – I suspect that schools use the site to teach children about the world’s future energy needs (which I would encourage). There are concerns however, as with many ‘facts’ that one can learn from the internet, whether one can be sure that they are valid, either in their accuracy, or their completeness, and whether all parties views and counter arguments are fairly represented. Chevron tries to head this off with a disclaimer on the opening page. Nevertheless, participating in today’s online environment requires that one has a skeptical, but inquisitive mind.

Energyville looks like a small version of the massively popular home computer game, Sim City (which I’m sure is no accident). The graphics are simple but good, and the facts are interesting (and sufficiently brief, but also enabling more detailed investigation). The game does suffer some key failures (by comparison to what has been more recently proven possible elsewhere on the internet, for example, by Zynga) – these are:

  • no ‘social media’ element to gameplay – the game would ideally allow players to interact, or compete with friends or other people online, like Farmville or Mafia Wars (by Zynga)
  • no sound/voice/video/media – the game could learn further from Sid Meier’s Civilization, Sim City and Age of Empires by having short media clips (newspaper, video, sound-bites, etc.) representing the ‘population’ of Energyville, its mayor, shareholders of businesses, etc. (eg, voiving their respective niche concerns, and lobbying against your decisions) – this adds far more reality to the simulation
  • only limited ‘competition’ and ‘reward’– I’m sure Chevron intended to play down the capitalist demands placed on energy companies, in favor of focusing on the scientific and environment issues facing increasing energy demand, but building better, and more transparent competition and reward, which doesn’t need to be financial, into gameplay (eg, score tables) would likely enhance gameplay and draw more visitors (gameplay does not focus on shareholder value, but on a points system which seems to measure social satisfaction of the virtual Energyville population versus environmental damage versus cost of investment)
  • needs ‘time pressure’ and ‘unpredictability’ – business life is often about making important decisions without having full information or plenty of time; reflecting this would also increase the tempo of the game and engage players better (this means also greater risk’ is required if the time pressure and unpredictability is not managed, through negative effects on competition and reward described above)

I’m sure that Chevron and The Economist considered many of these points, and created Energyville specifically to meet their intentions and target market, and they are nevertheless to be congratulated on their courageous investment into online games.  It would be interesting to know the development (programming and research) costs invested in building Energyville, and the cost of marketing (Chevron Energyville advertisements in The Economist, albeit likely subsidized due to The Economist’s own participation in the project), as well as the number of pageviews that Energyville have achieved.

On a website that Chevron also runs, www.willyoujoinus.com, Chevron opened a forum between September 5, 2007 and June 24, 2008 which attracted 733 comments (now closed to new comments), albeit that it seems that many of the comments were made by a few enthusiastic participants (in total 123 people made all of the comments), and sometimes some rather ambitious (and in some cases eccentric) contributions. Chevron took this a step further, and commissioned The Aspen Institute (“an international non-profit organization dedicated to fostering enlightened leadership and open-minded dialogue through seminars, policy programs, conferences and leadership”) to analyze the responses in the forum (see the PDF here). Funnily:

Given the evident care and effort that went into developing this game, it was somewhat surprising that it did not stimulate more discussion among the respondents. Only 14 individuals commented on the game, with 5 respondents who expressed positive comments and 9 who were more critical.

Nevertheless, Chevron might need not be too concerned by this – gamers’ apathy might mean that many people might not comment on the game, despite having a point of view, while the forum itself might not have been so easy to find (even now it’s not trivial to find it …).

Other online business games, and ‘serious games’

Various others online business games exist (all seemingly independent, and not sponsored or connected to a larger corporation, and appearing to have differeing levels of quality/investment behind them): BusinessGamesOnline (various), VirtonomicsInformatistIndustryMastersSoft82 Business Flash GamesTycoon Online, ‘The CEO Game‘ as well as some directed at children, for educational purposes (see the selected examples at ‘Surfing the Net with Kids’, here).

Furthermore, many business schools have already developed computer based games, to teach business theory, some of which are online (but in these cases access is usually limited to people engaged in the program).

The ‘success’ of online business games will likely depend on having all, or at least the right mixture, of:

  • quality of the game (gameplay, graphics, sound, enjoyability, etc.)
  • quality of the experience and learning potential (business theory and experience, and how it is communicated)
  • extent and effectiveness of marketing effort and how ‘big’ the corporate name is behind the game
  • whether it can effectively blend ‘cool/interesting’ with ‘learning’ and other goals (eg, marketing power)
  • whether it goes viral (Malcolm Gladwell’s brilliant book, ‘The Tipping Point’, provides interesting thoughts on this).

It’s probably also a classic case of “you can’t please all of the people all of the time” – choose your target audience carefully, and don’t be upset if others aren’t interested. Some online business games are too trivial for business learning purposes, mostly aimed at being fun. Other online business games seem to come across rather too serious, and aren’t so much fun to play – perhaps their developers want to distinguish them from games like the ones Zynga develop, but shouldn’t business also be fun? That said, it turns out that the definition ‘serious games’ (or ‘SGs’) is one that is used widely to refer to games of this type and which, according to seriousgames.ning.com:

may be a simulation which has the look and feel of a game, but corresponds to non-game events or processes, including business operations and military operations. The games are intended to provide an engaging, self-reinforcing context in which to motivate and educate the players. Other purposes for such games include marketing and advertisement. The largest users of SGs are the US government and medical professionals. Other commercial sectors are actively pursuing development of these types of tools as well. Serious games require you to use your skill and initiative and a strategy, unlike games of chance like playing the lottery or bingo games.

See also the article in Wikipedia, which includes several examples of ‘serious games’, some of which are online, including the brilliant ‘Dafur is Dying‘ (not a business game), which is intended to broaden public awareness of the plight of refugees in the Darfur region of Sudan, and defined as:

a viral video game for change that provides a window into the experience of the 2.5 million refugees in the Darfur region of Sudan. Players must keep their refugee camp functioning in the face of possible attack by Janjaweed militias. Players can also learn more about the genocide in Darfur that has taken the lives of 400,000 people, and find ways to get involved to help stop this human rights and humanitarian crisis.

According to the Serious Games Institute:

Games provide a safe place to experiment, compete, collaborate and develop throughout our whole lives. Electronic games, based on these same principles are proven to be successful across the full spectrum of age groups in engaging, challenging, developing and motivating us in ever more powerful ways.

Conclusion

It is interesting to wonder whether traditional businesses, and new Web 2.0 start-ups like Zynga might ever form an alliance to develop a business game that through viral networks, achieves marketing potential similar to Zynga’s own games. At the very least, it is likely only a matter of time before Zynga sells advertising within its games (in the way that Electronic Arts does in some of its games).

The future holds significant potential opportunity for large corporations who are willing to make a brave foray into this uncertain and rapidly changing world, similar to what Chevron has done.  Large companies might still be questioning the return on investment that online games have, however when one sees however the the sort of numbers that Zynga brings to its games (and the corresponding marketing potential, to gain customers, identify and recruit employees, enhance brand awareness, etc.) then it would suggest that it is simply a matter of time for the breakthrough example to arrive (sadly for most corporations, it might be that the first company to get it right that will generate the greatest publicity). In particular, the identification and recruitment of employees offers exciting future potential – test potential employees’ skills, knowledge, business acumen, etc., as if as part of an interview process, only covering many, many more people (almost like The Last Starfighter (1984)!).

I can imagine that in the future one could engage in online business simulations where one might even struggle to differentiate between game and real-life – a sort of Ender’s Game (1985) or WarGames (1983), in a less scary situation! Might businesses, or other organizations, one day actually have game players somehow solve problems for them, or somehow help generate sales?

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3 Responses

  1. Very informative stuff. Thanks very much.

    Keep it up!

    Regards
    Tom

  2. Really terrific post. Theoretically I could write something like this too, but taking the time and effort to make a good article is a lot of effort…but what can I say….I’m a procrastinater. Good read though.

  3. i like computer games that are first person shooting and strategy games .

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