Your company's most valuable player in the future may be a video game designer, according to Indiana professor Edward Castronova, a leading researcher on virtual worlds.
If Castronova is correct game designers may be critical to making corporations more efficient partly by making them more fun for workers. Castronova is on the front lines examining how the nuances of virtual worlds--and the people that design them--can impact public policy and corporate cultures.
At the heart of Castronova's pitch is something he calls the "fun revolution." Under his fun tenet, companies adopt a game design approach. In other words if a project doesn't deliver fun it's not worth doing. Suspending my initial skepticism, Castronova's theory sounds as plausible as any other management theory. "Companies are increasingly asking if fun is a something to model a company around," said Castronova, speaking at the Terra Nova State of Play conference, which covered virtual world governance and taxation.
Castronova's argument has apparently won over a few converts. A few unnamed Silicon Valley companies are looking to the dynamics of virtual worlds to retool their management practices. The companies are unnamed because Castronova had to check with them before naming names. If game design became the norm at companies it could reset how technology projects--and the processes underpinning them--are implemented.
Given most technology implementations rely heavily on good processes, game design could enhance returns. Wouldn't it be nice to botch a technology project in a virtual world, fix the problems and then roll it out without millions of dollars being dropped on pricey consultants?
"Going forward, people in game design will be increasingly important," said Castronova. "Let's imagine a PhD in game design. The good that person could do in an entertainment environment is obvious. In a company, that person could make customer service more efficient by making it more fun. It's a new construction."
These projects go beyond what companies have been launching in Second Life. The next phase of applying virtual world design would be to create a corporate culture inside a role-playing game similar to World of Warcraft and applying it to real-world management practices.
While this approach may sound wacky to some there are solid reasons why executives--including chief information officers--may want to ponder it. After all, better corporate use of virtual worlds could be a form of what Julian Dibbell, a contributing editor for Wired magazine, calls "open source problem solving."
Castronova's potential benefits include:
1. Companies need to keep 20- to 30-year-old employees interested;
2. Dollars may not be the best way to allocate resources internally. Synthetic currencies may be more efficient.
3. Environments within companies could be altered more easily;
4. And processes could be designed and tested in a virtual world before rolling out to the company. For instance, a process change may impact another worker who is not involved with a project.
The so-called fun revolution won't happen overnight, but early interest may be an indication of something bigger.
One experiment that may highlight how virtual world management practices would work is something Castronova calls Ludium II. The project will convene a community to create a political party. The party, through a series of primaries and elections, will create 10 policies and ultimately a presidential nominee. If successful, a virtual world presidential candidate will emerge in 2007.
"The outcome will be 10 recommendations and a person to say this is what we should do. My hypothesis is that that will be influential example of how the synthetic world translates to real world," said Castronova.