Teaching Teamwork Skills: Everest

I received such good feedback the last time I revealed part of my upcoming book, For Fun and Profit: How Games are Transforming the Business World, that I figured I’d try again. This time, I’ve selected a very small piece of a much longer chapter on how games can be used to train employees. I hope you like it.

Games and Training: Everest

One game-based approach to teaching teamwork skills is to focus on very specific problems that are usually hard to identify and correct. For example, one such problem is that teams often prove dumber than their individual members. This is caused by a phenomenon known as “process loss” — the opposite of the “wisdom of crowds.” Process loss happens when teams fail to share information, get trapped by various conflicting goals, lose themselves in unproductive argument, and fall into a pattern of groupthink. A game called Everest, which was designed by Harvard Business School and Forio Business Simulations, forces players to grapple with all of these issues and overcome them as a team.

Everest sends MBA students climbing up its namesake. After watching a harrowing video describing the mountain climbing experience, students are divided into teams of four and assigned roles with individual descriptions and goals, ranging from extreme sports enthusiast to the trip doctor. Over the course of the next hour, teams work their way up the mountain, and are faced with a variety of challenges such as oxygen shortages, terrible weather, and sudden illness. In the end, the only way to win Everest is to work together as a team, share information, and adapt to rapidly changing circumstances.

As a game, Everest doesn’t use the flashiest graphics or deepest interaction to help people suspend disbelief. Players interact with a stylized map of the mountain through a selection of check boxes. The experience is rounded out with graphs and graphics that allow the team meteorologist to predict the weather and the team doctor to analyze illnesses. The game’s genius is in its core design — it assigns slightly different goals and provides slightly different information to each player. The doctor knows crucial information about various diseases, but cannot act on that information if the marathon runner fails to report that she is feeling ill — a likely occurrence given that the game encourages her to hide the information. Players are encouraged to chat privately with one another using an instant messaging system.

These simple elements combine to create a very immersive and emotional experience — conspiracies form between the meteorologist and the photographer, while the doctor hides the fact that there is only one dose of aspirin remaining. Halfway through the exercise, any observer will be able to tell the differences between teams that are overcoming process loss and teams that have succumbed to it. The functional teams are productively calculating their remaining oxygen supply, while the dysfunctional teams horde information. Needless to say, only the functional teams make it to the summit. The result is powerful lesson to all players, who learn in no uncertain terms what the cost of poor teamwork can be and the ways in which teamwork problems might be overcome.

In any game, players are rewarded for learning the rules of the game and applying those lessons properly. In Everest, the rules are designed to encourage teamwork and punish failures to communicate. It is a simple and elegant example of how games can be used to teach the principles of good teamwork. However, as carefully constructed and compelling as this games is, it fails to take advantage of one of the most interesting recent discoveries on games and teamwork: massively-multiplayer games naturally develop and train leaders as part of gameplay.

According to research by IBM and start-up firm Seriosity, people who play MMOGs like World of Warcraft naturally learn some of the same leadership techniques taught to MBAs. Indeed, every skill expected of leaders in the well-studied Sloan Leadership Model was found to be echoed in online games.[22] This is because players of MMOGs learn to operate in challenging environments that encourage people to develop their leadership skills. For example, to achieve success in an MMOG, players must jointly tackle specific projects (i.e. “we need to kill that dragon”) that require individuals to persuade and lead groups. MMOGs also help leaders with the difficult task of team selection by giving players clear roles and skills. A leader knows they need a teammate who can heal the injured or is capable of flying, and can easily see whether current team members have that skill. Finally, MMOGs tend to make incentives very clear (“the warrior wants armor, the wizard wants a staff, and everybody wants gold”), which makes it easy for leaders to align the goals of players on a team. Under these conditions, leadership emerges quickly and naturally, as individuals step up to lead a team, and then, just as rapidly, hand off control to other players. This provides lots of leadership practice to everyone involved.

In fact, in IBM’s survey, three quarters of all MMOG gamers surveyed said that the leadership skills they learned in games has helped them lead in the workplace. IBM’s study concludes, “It’s not a stretch to think resumes that include detailed gaming experience will be landing on the desks of Fortune 500 executives in the very near future. Those hiring managers would do well to look closely at that experience, and not disregard it as mere hobby. After all, that gamer may just be your next CEO.” In both virtual environments built for training teamwork, and virtual environments made purely for fun, the social and leadership skills learned are very real.

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