Not just child’s play

University curriculums should include an experience akin to online gaming, which could provide an edge in the jobs market, say Graham Manville and Janice Rippon

November 1, 2009

One’s gut instinct is often to assume that the online role-playing games teenagers spend many hours on are simply cyber versions of Dungeons & Dragons – entertainment for geeks with poor social skills.

But MMORPG (massive multiplayer online role-play games) such as RuneScape, MapleStory, World of Warcraft and Second Life are anything but child’s play. They are serious games in which players interact with each other and set their own goals and objectives.

RuneScape, for example, has about 105 million accounts worldwide – a country with a population that size would be the 12th largest nation in the world.

This new crop of gamers – no older than 14 – have spent their educational years in virtual learning environments.

They are more technologically intuitive than Generation Y (born between 1979 and 1995). More importantly, their employment expectations have been redefined by the global recession and a more reflective learning style.

In this landscape of scarce jobs and large cuts in government spending, the pendulum has swung back decisively to employers. The work-life balance argument will need to be tempered with a business-case reality.

Generation Y’s successors may have a skill set more closely attuned to this new economic reality. So much so that they have attracted the attention of leading business thinkers such as Sir Paul Judge, the founder of the University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School and president of the Chartered Institute of Marketing. He believes online gaming could yield “cognitive and collaborative benefits” that could facilitate superior performance in managing virtual teams.

Here at the University of Southampton, technology-driven simulations such as SimVenture introduce students to a business environment and soft skills such as teamwork and leadership simultaneously.

Some employers are not convinced, however, and recruitment consultants advise their candidates that it is “a big no-no” to admit to an online gaming habit.

Nevertheless, a compelling business case is emerging for virtual working versus the huge cost of world travel and its supplementary expenses.

Mass cultural acceptance generally trails technological innovation by decades. This was true with the Industrial Revolution as well as the computer revolution. This time things may be different. With public- and private-sector organisations tightening their belts in the wake of the financial crisis, and the subsequent massive government debt sustained to prop up the banking industry, the tipping point of mass adoption could be with us sooner than we might think.

Some universities have already been active in embedding Web 2.0 in the curriculum. Early adopters may secure first-mover advantage, but will it be sustainable? Universities that have been slower in embracing this technology may initially be at a disadvantage, but remember that in an environment laden with traps for the unwary, it is always the second mouse that gets the cheese.

Still there are concerns that lecturers “getting down” with the kids may be akin to the spectacle of dad dancing at a wedding, and such an approach may backfire, turning off students. If you have teenage children, you will sympathise with this opinion. Times Higher Education recently reported research by the Gartner Group that Second Life has entered a “trough of disillusionment”, which may support this view, although it is still early days.

Another challenge for universities is equipping students with the softer skills required to compete and thrive in a global economy. Higher education institutions offering sandwich degrees or encouraging summer internships expose students to the world of work and help to temper their expectations and develop their soft skills.

But there are still gaps for students to fall between. Southampton launched its Graduate Passport last month to encourage students to develop a portfolio of skills, attributes and experiences personalised to suit their needs and to fill the gaps. It is thought that this will help them stand out at a time when a quarter of a million new UK graduates vie each year for graduate vacancies, making a good degree essential, but not enough.

Employers are queuing up to endorse the initiative. The aim is to nurture globally aware and connected graduates who can thrive in this challenging economic landscape, whatever their chosen or changing career destinations. We believe that such initiatives are vital to ensure that a rump of students does not become a lost generation in the talent crush.

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