I've spoken here many times about the power of experiential learning. For many activities, learning by doing is an extremely sticky way to become adept at a new skill. The difference between reading about surfing, watching a video about surfing, and actually taking a class where you get up on the board (and get really wet, too!) is profound. The former two provide you with lots of information about surfing, while the latter earns you true know-how about how to carve your wave through the water. Deep know how is the killer app for folks who want to make an impact in the ring, as opposed to being spectators or pundits watching from outside.
But, what about computer simulations? While they cannot model all aspects of an activity which takes place in the physical world, computers provide us with the opportunity for deep experiential learning, albeit with less fine-grained resolution than one would encounter in real life. However, as they are not in fact real life, simulations can liberate us from the fear one encounters when immersed in difficult real life situations, such as being the leader of a group of people for the first time, or engaging in a dangerous physical activity. Computer simulations can also provide us with access to learning scenarios which otherwise would be out of our reach due to limitations of time, physics, and money.
Joi Ito has spoken extensively about the power of the game World of Warcraft as a training environment for people interested in developing the skills needed to lead diverse groups of people in conditions of great uncertainty. John Seely Brown has also written some persuasive essays on this subject, and here is an excerpt from one of them:
When role-playing gamers team up to undertake a quest, they often need to attempt particularly difficult challenges repeatedly until they find a blend of skills, talents, and actions that allows them to succeed. This process brings about a profound shift in how they perceive and react to the world around them. They become more flexible in their thinking and more sensitive to social cues. The fact that they don't think of gameplay as training is crucial. Once the experience is explicitly educational, it becomes about developing compartmentalized skills and loses its power to permeate the player's behavior patterns and worldview.
In this way, the process of becoming an effective World of Warcraft guild master amounts to a total-immersion course in leadership. A guild is a collection of players who come together to share knowledge, resources, and manpower. To run a large one, a guild master must be adept at many skills: attracting, evaluating, and recruiting new members; creating apprenticeship programs; orchestrating group strategy; and adjudicating disputes. Guilds routinely splinter over petty squabbles and other basic failures of management; the master must resolve them without losing valuable members, who can easily quit and join a rival guild. Never mind the virtual surroundings; these conditions provide real-world training a manager can apply directly in the workplace.
I wholeheartedly agree with Ito and Brown, and am of the opinion that many aspiring real-world project leaders would do well to log some hours learning to lead multi-player quests and raids in Warcraft. Polyphony's Gran Turismo is another great computer simulation from a sticky learning perspective, as it allows one to get a sense of what it feels like to drive a variety of cars fast — very fast — around a multitude of road courses. For a few hundred bucks, it allows almost anyone to gain elements of experience which heretofore were only available to person blessed with thousands and thousands of dollars in discretionary income — as well as the willingness to get really hurt if things were to go all pear-shaped.
Enter Lucas Ordoñez, Spanish MBA student and Gran Turiso aficionado. A few years ago, Ordoñez entered the GT Academy competition organized by Polyphone and Sony, which allowed him to pit his virtual driving skills against 25,000 other competitors, each one seeking to win a full scholarship for further real-world training in racing cars, culminating in the acquisition of a license granting entry into the world of professional racing. Ordoñez had gained experience racing go karts as a kid, but picked up his auto racing miles via Gran Turismo. For those of you who aren't familiar with Gran Turismo, here's a quick video of him "racing" around a famous track you'd find in Germany:
Long story short, Ordoñez beat the odds and topped the Academy, beating out 24,499 other aspiring Sennas. Here's a video showing what happened when he entered his first "real" race:
Pretty cool, eh?
But wait, it gets better: after more experiencing more racing success, Ordoñez was offered a ride in the vaunted 24 Hours of Le Mans race — a truly spectacular opportunity for any racer, let alone one that's been doing it for less than three years. And guess what, he did really well. Not only did he and his team finish the entire 24 hours, an incredible achievement on its own, they took second place in class, earning the right to stand on the champion's podum. Really, really amazing, especially considering that Ordoñez brought much less "experience" to the team than any of the other traditionally-trained racers he competed against. This video gives a wonderful sense of the magnitude of this achievement:
My point here isn't to claim that video games change everything. They don't. Far from it. But I do think that we can all stand to learn more about the world we live in by selectively choosing to spend more time with the high-quality games that really do put us in new learning situations. Curiousity can be stoked and satisfied in myriad ways, so can't we all agree to move beyond the snobbery of the book and the university lecture and the formal training class to see the latent potential embedded in our silicon machines and the software that makes them sing? This is the message of the ballad of Lucas Ordoñez… I can't wait to see where life next takes him.