I found it interesting recently to come across an article about “Mousetrap 2009″ – an annual global business strategy competition run in India that pits students against each other running their own corporation. Especially when this articles was juxtaposed against an October article in The Australian on the learning potential of business games.
Mousetrap 2009 is an online business simulation tournament, presented by the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIMA) and Microsoft. Worldwide, about 1800 business school students participate in the challenge. Players take the role of running a simulated corporation and encounter fundamental business issues such as lower profit margins due to increased global competition, rising commodity prices and the increasing relevance of sustainable strategies. This year, as it was for the previous three, the business game with its “IndustryMasters” simulation platform was provided by Tycoon Systems, a US-based provider of business simulations.
What appears to differentiate the IndustryMasters platform from its competition is its “real-time” nature, which was a point not lost on Professor Atanu Ghosh, Faculty Coordinator at IIMA who explains “This real time-aspect is what makes IndustryMasters a simulation of choice for use in the fast paced yet acumen based setting of Mousetrap”.
Screenshot of IndustryMasters from Mousetrap 2009.
It seems that there is no real surprise that many business academics are in favor of the use of simulations as a learning environment. In Australia, Curtin University of Technology is the largest academic client worldwide of Capsim, a Chicago-based developer of business simulations. About 4000 Curtin business undergraduates will play a Capsim simulation as part of their learning. And Curtin is not alone. From next January, the prestigious Harvard Business School in the United States will have all commencing students compete against each other using Capsim products. In fact the company has rolled out their products to more than 500 business faculties with claims of an 80% retention rate. And, that appears to be part of a more broader phenomenon amongst business academics.
According to an article in The Australian, its hard to find an academic that has abandoned them, and it seems that academics use them for extended periods of time (10-15 years is not uncommon). Core attraction of these products seems to center around their interactive nature, and their ability to mimic real life. However, others take a more critical view and cite “reality”, or lack thereof, as providing reasons for their ineffectiveness.
Dr. Elyssebeth Leigh from the University of Technology of Sydney (UTS) makes the point that the model on which business simulations like Capsim are constructed doesn’t not reflect the reality of the real world business environment. She explains “It imposes US-centric economic and business terms and concepts on users… [so] there is is a built-in set of assumptions about how finance works, which doesn’t allow for other cultural norms”. In particular Leigh is critical of the assumption that “business cycles are rigid and well defined” which ultimately restricts players (learners) from exploring anything which lies outside the framework of the game.
Having a model that is too restrictive limits both player action and system outcome within a game. And having a closed system, necessarily imposes boundaries over which players can’t cross. Overall, if the model is too restrictive, and or unrepresentative of the real world environment it aims to model, players with learn how to interactive with the model, but encounter a disjuncture when out in the real world. I agree with Leigh’s comments, I regard this as an issue for all simulation designers.
For me it also raises issues regarding the nature of economic theory itself, and in particular its “rationality”. Books such as Dan Ariely’s Predictable Irrational point to the fact that many of our decisions are not decided “consciously”, but involve something more deeper. While we don’t always make rational decisions, there are patterns that emerge. And often, the rationale from our decisions comes from a left-hemisphere attempting to come up with a logical reason for our “irrational” behavior, rather than a well though out strategy. Here the work of Gladwell’s Blink and Lindstrom’s Buyology also come to mind.
Business consultant Denis Hitchens adds that playing a poorly designed game means that players “learn to apply the model, not run a business” and cites that “most [business] games don’t cover random events”. Consequently, on design consideration for a well designed business simulation would be to ensure adequate randomness of events within the game.
Leigh adds that the designer’s (or better put the developer’s) influences remains as part of the game system and manifests itself within the game with language providing an example. Clearly, this is something not specific to business simulations, but is something worthy of consideration across both games and other software alike.
Smart developers, no doubt, will ensure adequate randomness exists within their simulations, and adopt a more fluid, as opposed to rigid, approach to their game systems. And while this type of business simulation might not be as sexy as designing a top-seller for the PS3, it is big business. According to The Australian, Capsim charges each player $60, so that’s nearly a cool quarter of a million dollars, just for the Curtin University students to take part. (The article also states that according to Capsim, already half a million people have played their games).
Tycoon Systems, with its real-time “IndustryMasters” platform also seems to have hit a similar note. According to the developers IndustryMasters “replicates the real world scenario and includes various aspects of management”. Clearly, their continued success at Mousetrap over the past four years, alongside their continued support from the academic community suggests they have a bright future.
Tycoon Systems: http://tycoonsystems.com/
Industry Masters: http://www.industrymasters.com/
The Australian: Are we learning or is it fun and games?