Why six businesses and the Govt invested in a video game

Joy Business Academy team at the launch. Photo: Supplied via NZME.
Joy Business Academy team at the launch. Photo: Supplied via NZME.

Employers generally prefer their workers not to play video games at work, but that could be set to change if a new initiative has its way.

This afternoon, a collection of high-profile businesses and the New Zealand Government gathered at an event in Auckland to unveil a video game they had all invested in.

The group included Microsoft, Xero, Fletcher Construction, BDO, Building Construction Industry Training Organisation (BCITO) and the Ministry of Social Development, which each contributed $150,000 to the development of a game called Construction Tycoon.

It may sound like the latest iteration of The Sims, but this initiative is instead designed to give workers taste of what it takes to work in the real world.

The brainchild of Joy Business Academy, the game was unveiled by Ministers Carmel Sepuloni and Willie Jackson as a tool to help New Zealand businesses improve staff training.

At the launch, Sepuloni explained that the Government became interested in the project for a number of reasons.

"The game has been designed around 10 core employability skills required for jobs in 2020, as identified by the World Economic Forum. The game ticks so many boxes," Sepuloni said.

"Businesses are learning about how the Ministry of Social Development can help them hire staff, clients use it to learn about industries they want to work in, and it's being used as a successful teaching tool in schools.

According to Joy Business Academy founder James Coddington, Construction Tycoon immerses players in the construction business.

"They can create their own company, build a property portfolio and put together a team strong on logistics, work site safety, and money management. All while trying to keep afloat," he said.

The game will obviously not offer the graphics you'd get from a multimillion-dollar PlayStation game, with Coddington conceding that this would simply entail far too much risk for both his business and those involved in the project.

The latest game more elaborate follow-on from the first Tycoon offering launched in July last year, which was designed to introduce workers to the tech and hospitality industries. The first version in the series had over 18,000 downloads and 100,000 players in the first six months, says Coddington.

He says he started his business seven years ago in a bid to challenge the problem of youth unemployment.

"We wanted to know why youth graduating from tertiary studies and school were having a difficult time getting into the workplace," he said.

Coddington started off in a space far-removed from a digital simulation. In the beginning, he set up an ice-cream business that allowed unemployed youth to run and own their own business.

"We chose ice cream because it was very New Zealand, it was relatively simple, there were good margins in and ultimately everyone could win."

Over the course of three years, Coddington and his team ran 256 people through the programme. And while the initiative didn't exactly deliver the desired results of giving thousands of unemployed youth sustainable jobs, it did provide some insights into why younger people were struggling to get into the workforce.

"It was clear to us that there were huge skill gaps. And answers to those gaps were not coming from school or university," Coddington says.

"When you're assessed in a school environment, you're assessed on whether you pass or fail. You're not necessarily assessed on how you work in a team, whether you have critical problem-solving skills and whether you communicate effectively."

Coddington says that at a time when so many potential workers arrive with the same qualification, these enquiries can help to give employers a better sense of who they should employ.

"Gamified learning also reduces risk for SME owners who can test and experience real-life exercises without a cost output," he says.

The problem with the original ice cream experiment was that it couldn't be spread widely enough to impact a sizeable proportion of the population.

It was at this point that he decided to deploy the insights gleaned from watching young workers navigate the complexity of running their businesses into a digital format that could be used by anyone.

At first, Joy Business Academy went down a fairly traditional e-learning route, which involved individuals talking to a viewer through an informational training video.

"The outcomes showed that very few people finish because they're not engaged," he said.

To solve this engagement issue, Coddington went on something of an odyssey visiting the one industry that has had no difficulty engaging the youth: gaming.

"It became very clear to me that they deliver, engagement, entertainment, fun with a helping competition and sprinkle of addiction," he said.

"What really intrigued me was that no one had ever used any of those words to describe learning. That was the lightbulb moment for me. If we could incorporate gaming theory into learning outcomes, surely that would deliver much stronger learning outcomes."

Coddington's first major piece of business came from a tourism provider that wanted to deliver its health and safety training in a much shorter period of time and make it more engaging because the outcomes were very poor.

Coddington says he condensed the five-day training programme into a 25-minute game that staff would be required to play as part of their orientation.

To prove that the service worked, Coddington ran a study in which one group of 200 staff went through the traditional training while another went through the gamified version.

These groups were then sent into the workforce and then called back a month later to be retested on what they had learned during their respective training sessions.

Coddington says recall among those who had been given the gamified version of training was three times as high as that achieved during standard training.

This is, of course, not an academic study, but Coddington's consistent results for clients has seen his business grow to employ 54 staff across five countries.

The move into the construction industry is important for the industry because it comes at a time when the industry is still struggling to secure and retain talent.

However, a common criticism levelled at the industry is that it doesn't do enough to attract female talent. So is a video game really the best way to attract women to the industry?

Coddington challenges the notion that women aren't gamers, saying that studies have shown that the split between women and men is 48 to 52 per cent when it comes to playing games.

"It's not as male-dominated as you think. Females are very active in gaming, and that's seen across both mobile and console."

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